A CHURCH PROSECUTES MY BROTHER FOR BEING GAY*
(Part Three of Three)
Kelly and Nick, Oil on Canvas, 66” x 47”, Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa. 1977, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
This is the third post of three I intend to publish on my brother’s experience, and that of his parents, going through a Mormon excommunication trial. I have Nick’s express approval for this post.
I previously posted about the Mormon Church’s prosecution of my brother Nick for being gay, but didn’t say all that much about Nick himself. Those posts quoted at length the prepared testimony of two character witnesses who appeared and testified on Nick’s behalf, his parents. I published portions of his parents’ testimony, their expressions of love for their son and what, they opined in respectful defiance, was a cause of deep suffering among a large percent of believers—the church’s top down ignorance and institutional bigotry against LGBTQ members for immutable characteristics. They believed and expressed that people brought up in the LDS faith who fell within the LGBTQ community often resorted to suicide or other self-destructive behavior due to the irreconcilability of the church’s dogma and their nature and personal experience, the unbridgeable gap between what they knew about themselves and what their faith leaders claimed was the word, will and creative disposition of god.
Over time this post-Enlightenment church staked out its position on what god considers unacceptable. When I was growing up, Spencer W. Kimball’s treatise The Miracle of Forgiveness, published in 1969, the year before Nick was born, informed much of what was preached from the Mormon pulpit about sexuality, sexual purity, sexual impropriety and sexual perversion. I read and re-read the passages in which Elder Kimball confirmed my suspicion and personal belief that god hated me, and I wasn’t even gay. Elder Kimball, who was later elevated to church president, wrote:
“Homosexuality is an ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it, as well as to many past offenders who are seeking a way out of its clutches. It is embarrassing and unpleasant as a subject for discussion but because of its prevalence, the need to warn the uninitiated, and the desire to help those who may already be involved in it, it is discussed in this chapter.”
“... it [masturbation] too often leads to grievous sin, even to that sin against nature, homosexuality. For, done in private, it evolves often into mutual masturbation – practiced with another person of the same sex – and thence into total homosexuality.”
“Therefore to those who say that this practice or any other evil is incurable, I respond: ‘How can you say the door cannot be opened until your knuckles are bloody, till your head is bruised, till your muscles are sore? It can be done.’”
By the time Nick was six years old, he’d known for a couple of years he was somehow different from most of his male contemporaries, older brothers and their friends. I guess he’d “made the decision” by then to be gay. That year another church leader, seemingly obsessed with sexuality and sin, expounded:
“There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just ‘that way' and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life. From our premortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men—masculine, manly men—ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.”
Boyd K. Packer, 1976 General Conference Speech, “To Young Men Only.”
Galileo’s Recantation, Watercolor, 42" x 51", Richard J Van Wagoner, 1995, Courtesy of Angela Moore**
We were taught and believed homosexuality was a choice, a perversion that evolved from efforts to satisfy unrequited, insatiable prurient interests. That was the culture, informed by god’s mouthpieces, into which Nick was born. As faithful church members committed to rearing their children under divinely-inspired directives of prophets, seers and revelators—chosen servants who were in exclusive communication with and knew the mind and will of god—Nick’s parents adopted and taught these certain truths which prevailed in our home throughout Nick’s childhood, adolescence and teens. Looking back, I cannot commprehend the confusion and fear.
Nick, the youngest of five children, was born in 1970 when his oldest sibling was approaching her 17th birthday. Mom’s pregnancy with their fifth child was planned after much soul-searching, Mormon temple attendance and prayer. In the pre-existence god had promised them another child-spirit who was waiting for his time on earth. Make no mistake, Nick’s parents held this as divinely inspired assurance through the rest of their lives. Indeed, that spiritual confirmation informed much of their defense of Nick’s orientation as natural, as god intended, and their fundamental disagreement with the church’s position that sexual orientation was a choice. God, according to them, had made Nick gay, exactly as intended.
Nick was the youngest by six years. He was twelve years younger than me so I was not heavily interested or involved in him other than as a target for teasing, which I did with abandon. I left home for a Mormon mission when he was seven. Rob, my brilliant editor, was six years between us. Nick, it seemed at the time, was slow in developing verbal skills. He didn’t even try speaking much until he was nearly three years old. When he finally got around to it, he spoke in complete sentences. That served as metaphor for how Nick conducted himself going forward. If you are going to do something, might as well study and develop expertise in it and then do it right.
Growing up Nick was more interested in the kinds of activities Elder Packer would have characterized as “un-masculine,” tell-tale signs Nick was headed in the wrong direction and in desperate need of a “manly-man” course correction. He was more interested in the arts—music, piano, dance—was less competitive than his brothers and father, didn’t enjoy hunting and killing animals and enjoyed spending time with girls his age over roughhousing with boys. His parents confided in a friend, a psychologist, who “assured” them Nick couldn’t be gay because “you are not the kind of family to create a homosexual child.” They encouraged Nick to pursue sports, and he did. He played soccer during the next seven years, including on all-star teams, at which he excelled. He enjoyed the sport, the competition and the associations.
As Nick became more aware of his sexual orientation, he dedicated his life to the false promise that through strict obedience god would set him straight. Nick was a devoted, faithful member of the LDS church and lived his life according to its dictates. He became an Eagle Scout, an accomplished pianist, valedictorian of his high school class, a talented dancer and actor and a devoted friend to girls his age. He even went on dates with a few. He honorably served a two-year mission in Quebec, French speaking, expecting full transformation to un-gay upon his return.
Things didn’t work out the way Nick expected, even though he fulfilled his part of the bargain. The church that set him up for inevitable failure would later decide it was time to hold court—for that failure. Up to this point Nick chose over-achievement and obedience as a way of life and to address his orientation and the internal conflict it created with his upbringing and belief system. He kept it all inside. Within a year of returning from Quebec, Nick began having self-destructive thoughts which manifest in different ways. He sought a way out. He could teach English in Korea or work on a fishing boat in Alaska. Not existing sounded better than existing.
A great thing about being the youngest of five children by a number of years was that Nick and his parents had the time and opportunity to become very close, involved in all aspects of each other’s lives, attuned to the others’ psyches. I get why Nick kept it to himself. Of course he did. But why didn’t Dick and Renee figure it out earlier? My view is they knew and had known for some time, years, but refused to accept or acknowledge it for many of the same reasons Nick kept it to himself. Only when Nick displayed a level of unhappiness they had never before seen in him did they accept and acknowledge the truth—that he was gay and his unhappiness was the result of his inability to reconcile that fact with everything they and their church had taught him for the past 22 years about being gay and its evils. Dick and Renee took Nick to dinner on his 22nd birthday. After dinner, they presented him with a card in which they explained they knew he was gay, knew this was the source of his conflict. They went on to declare that they loved him as he was, that they would welcome into the family and love his partner or love interest as they had their other sons- and daughters-in-law. As I said in a prior post:
“My brother’s private barter with god didn’t work—he returned from his mission just as gay as he’d left. Recognizing the truth in this truth, my parents engaged in an advanced form of self-directed conversion therapy, not calculated to change their son but to exorcise from themselves the received homophobia fueled by procreation theocracy and sectarian over-againstness. They, not their son, would become the converted. Richard and Renee renounced ex-gay Mormon ministries. They vowed their son mustn’t be encouraged to identify as or be converted to un-gay. . . . Renee compartmentalized sexual orientation from the other Mormon abominations. Indeed, she and my father provided a well-intended but imperfect sanctuary through Family Fellowship for Mormon members of the LGBTQ community. Renee passed away last year having ‘endured to the end’ convinced the Mormon Church got everything right except one. In contrast, Richard was more broadly destabilized by the religious and social hostilities surrounding his son’s gayness. He entered a period defined largely by that disorientation. Don’t misunderstand: when he passed on Christmas 2013, he remained in the faith, albeit somewhat wiser.”
Word has it Nick’s sense of relief was palpable. He began the process of coming out, fully expecting that the church he grew up in—the church to which he had devoted much of his life and many talents, whose doctrines he had followed to the letter and spirit, for which he had volunteered two years testifying to French Canadians was the only true church on the face of the earth, the church that had assured him he could un-choose being gay—would hold court. And it did.
Nick resides in Birmingham, Alabama. He moved there in 1995 for graduate school after receiving a bachelor of arts degree, with honors, in Microbiology with minors in Anthropology, Zoology and Chemistry, from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He received his Ph.D in Cell Biology in 1999. He stayed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he received his Doctor of Medicine in 2004. He is an Associate Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Associate Dean for Students at the UAB School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases. His list of honors and awards, professional societies and memberships, councils and committees, teaching experience and mentoring, curriculum development and post-doctoral fellowships, major lectures and visiting professorships, grant support and publications goes on for pages.
Nick is currently treating patients. His partner of 24 years, Jeff, is on faculty at the UAB School of Dentistry and runs the dental clinic on campus for HIV patients. Nick and Jeff are extraordinarily giving and gifted people. If there is a Christ and he pointed out people who live exemplary, Christ-like lives, you know, people who do the kinds of things that really matter, Nick and Jeff would be at the top of the list.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard’s list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.