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When I moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco, some said I was going from Sodom to Gomorrah. But just as the heart of San Francisco is a Catholic Sacred Heart of Jesus, so here in Las Vegas the sharp spires of the Mormon Church loom over every neighborhood. The city was originally founded as an outpost of the Mormon territory of Deseret and a sparkling white Mormon temple sits in the hills above the city like an atomic version of Cinderella’s castle.
The works of two pioneers of gay literature, Dirk Vanden and Jed A. Bryan, have received inspiration from this American folk religion and the more peculiar their vision—whether it be LSD-stroked hallucinations of a gay Jesus or true tales of young Mormon missionaries stripped down to their Temple garments on a sweaty basketball court—the closer they come to the founding spirit of Mormonism, according to gay Mormon scholar D. Michael Quinn in his magisterial works on Mormonism and folk magic and same-sex affection in 19th century America. The surprising breadth of influence that Mormonism has had on contemporary gay literature is well-captured in the new collection, Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction edited and introduced by Gerald S. Argetsinger, co-edited by Jeff Laver and Johnny Townsend (Lethe Press, 2013) and featuring such well-know gay writers as Vanden, Bernard Cooper, David Leavitt, Rik Isensee and Steven Fales.
Get Booked, Las Vegas’s local LGBT bookstore, recently featured gay Mormon writer Jed A. Bryan reading from his recent novel, Companions (Nich’ooni) (BecHaven Publishing, 2012). I praised this story of gay love between two Mormon missionaries assigned to the Navajo Nation in 1960s in my April “Book Lovers” column.
Bryan began the reading by reminding the mostly senior gay and lesbian audience, “In the gay community we need to remember our roots. There is a whole generation who doesn’t know who they are. They know their sexuality but they don’t know their history.” He pointed out, “Companions takes place before Stonewall. Gay life did not begin at Stonewall.”
He said that while the gay characters, Jeff and Johnny, in Companions are not strictly autobiographical, they are “representative of a group of Mormons who believed what they were taught to believe and would have never guessed that they would be lied to by their leaders, their fathers and mothers.”
Bryan’s own father and grandfather were Mormon elders and pioneers. His grandfather settled Tooele, a valley due west of Salt Lake, what Bryan calls the “center of the Mormon world.” Bryan attended Brigham Young University (BYU) where he received his Masters in English. He says that the school’s academic disciplines were sharply compartmentalized so as to not cause doubts among the young Mormon students. He said if a geology student asked, “How do you explain the age of the earth?” The response was, “That’s for the religion department, ask them. Here we’re going to talk about geology.” Bryan said, “They perpetuated a double standard that no one talks about.”
Once when his parents went out to dinner, he got drunk and passed out. They asked him,“What’s wrong?”He said, “I’m homosexual.” He went to church headquarters and asked to see the highest-ranking official he could see–then church Apostle Spencer Kimball (who later became church president).“It would be like asking for an audience with the Pope,” Bryan explained. “He was a nice old man. I was actually hopeful for just a few minutes. Then he asked, ‘What are the names?’”
Victor Kline, a prominent church psychologist and an expert on the effects of pornography in sexual addiction, encouraged Bryan to embrace heterosexual porn.
Bryan said current church president Thomas S. Monson is “the monster person” behind the Proposition 8 movement. Back in Bryan’s day, when Monson was still a rising church leader, Bryan said ,“All this man wanted was to destroy as many people as possible.” Kimball, Monson, and then BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson instituted the policy in 1962 that no homosexuals would be admitted to BYU as students and Bryan says, “They sent university security to gay bars to write down license numbers in order to confront university students and expel and excommunicate them.”
Curiously, Bryan says, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, was gay-friendly, if not gayish. Bryan said Smith sent out missionaries two by two and said that they should sleep in the same bed. He quoted Smith as saying, “Men should lie together and embrace, in that way only could they become true brothers.” Bryan and his missionary companion would bathe each other. “You slept with your companion. You hugged him. You were taught to tell your companion you loved him.”
Former church president Spencer Kimball set Bryan apart as a missionary and officiated over his marriage. He promised Bryan that if he did his part as a missionary unstintingly, he would come back home a well-adjusted heterosexual.
Life as a missionary was not easy. Bryan says, “The mission I was sent on in the Navajo Nation was a dumping ground.” The missionaries were not allowed to have a recreation day. “Gym clothes were not allowed,” Bryan said, “so we played basketball in our Mormon union suits.” He read the following passage from Companions, to illustrate:
After dinner, we played basketball in the church wearing nothing but our underwear. Gs, we called them, even then. In our mission, although not in others, recreation clothes or civvies on the taboo list included gym clothes… Our underwear, modestly covering the body from upper arms down to the knees, had a structural flaw… The rear of the union suit was a split, a double flap, which extended, for obvious reasons, from the small of the back to the crotch. Under normal circumstances, it was held closed by a single button…but under the unusual stress and strain of missionary activities, the button was missing a high percentage of the time. Most often, elders were too poor to buy new underwear… Once off, no one thought of replacing the button. Waste of time. It would soon be gone again. This meant that I was forced to endure various shots of flexed and gleaming fannies and even an unavoidable glimpse (oh shame!) of scrotums on jump shots. If we played in teams, one group slipped the top down and rolled their Gs to the waist. Those were the skins. Bare torsos. Some used a belt to keep them from slipping down completely, but that was, although unspoken, considered prudish. If an accident occurred, no one made a big deal of it. I adored such accidents.
Despite such temptations, Bryan was sexless for his two years as a missionary and when he returned from the mission field, he married and had two daughters. But he was unhappy living as a heterosexual man.
Jed met his partner Doug at a gay bar on a Monday night in Salt Lake City. Doug was a returning missionary and the two were drowning their sorrows. They have been together for 39 years.
Bryan published two earlier books in the late-80s, A Cry in the Desert, a speculative fiction about the AIDS crises that Stan Leventhal of Torso Magazine called, “The best novel to date about AIDS and the gay community,” and Sacred Cows, a political satire, both from Banned Books and both still available on Amazon.
Bryan is also a talented artist and he created the lovely cover for Companions. I visited him and his long-time partner, Doug, in their beautiful Henderson home, and he shared with me some of his work. Bryan describes his art as, “a new kind of artwork.” Bryan’s work is based on the classical male nude photographs from the 50s and 60s. He says, “I like the classical poses and realism of the old figures.” He creates photomontages of individually photo-shopped elements. He incorporates bits from as many as 100 separate photographs into a single work.
Dirk Vanden has been described as the father of gay fiction for his pioneering work in the gay pulps of the 1960s. Wayne Gunn championed a revival of his work in an interview with Vanden in Lambda in 2011. Vanden’s classic trilogy, I Want It All, All the Way, and All is Well were reissued in one volume under the title, All Together which won the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Erotica. The author has just released a definitive edition from Gay New World, which is available along with many of his other works on Amazon.
I went on pilgrimage in July to meet with the author at the Sacramento home he shares with his dog, Buddy.
Dirk Vanden is the pen name of Richard Fullmer and he was born in 1933 into a Mormon family and grew up in Vernal in the northeast corner of Utah, near the Colorado border. He graduated with a BFA in Theater Arts from the University of Utah. Like Jed A. Bryan, Vanden is also a talented visual artist. His paintings can be seen at www.imagesbydirk.com or purchased as reproductions at www.stufbydirk.com.
With Kurt, his first love–“Not lovers, but just best friends”–Vanden, then in his early 20s, moved to Los Angeles in 1956. The couple lived on West Bundy Drive, which he says was “very gay.” Vanden says, “We went to our first orgy in Hollywood.” Kurt worked in insurance and Richard who was known by “Dick” got a job at Douglass Aircraft. In Long Beach, he became the stage manager for a theater group but got kicked out for being gay. The “best friends” couple moved back to Salt Lake City for Dick to go back to school at the University of Utah and split. Kurt entered into a heterosexual LDS marriage with a widow who had several daughters and is married till this day. Vanden also got married in Las Vegas but he developed a boil on the head of his cock, which he describes as a “psychosomatic” reaction–“which went away when she agreed to the annulment and I moved out,” Vanden says. The marriage had lasted six weeks.
Vanden had been working on a novel about a young Mormon boy in college discovering his homosexuality and questioning his religious faith called To Themselves Unknown. He submitted the work to a writers’ workshop at the University of Utah and Albert Guerrard, the workshop director told him that it was one of the finest first novels he had ever read, but because the work was about homosexuality it had no chance of being published, unless he published it as pornography.
Back in Hollywood in 1966, a bartender gave Vanden a copy of Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon. In Wayne Gunn’s 2011 interview, Vanden said that it was the first book that he had ever read that celebrated homosexuality. Vanden says that other stuff he had read up until then, such as Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, were what he calls, “Poor little me!” books. He said Amory’s novel was the first that said, “I love myself and celebrate being queer.” Song of the Loon inspired him to try again to publish To Themselves Unknown and he sent the book to pulp publisher Greenleaf Classics. Vanden said Greenleaf told him “fag-hots” must have graphic sex to be published and if the author didn’t supply the sex, they would. To Themselves Unknown was reincarnated as Who Killed Queen Tom?
When Vanden saw what they did to his book, he says he decided to add his own “fag hots.” He adopted his pen name from a Dutch exchange student and began the first of what was to become the All Trilogy, I Want It All.
Vanden says his work was different from most of the pulps being published at the time because his message was “Gay is okay.” Vanden said he believed that “Homosexuals were going to save the world from overpopulation.” He allowed his gay protagonists to have happy endings instead of the obligatory suicide or heterosexual conversion.
Vanden moved to Northern California in 1969 which he had long prophesied would be “The Gay Year” and in a West Sacramento bar whose name, Hide ‘n Seek, reflected the closeted times, he met his life-partner, Herb Finger, at a Sweetheart’s Drag Ball. Herb was 33 years old. The two were together 18 years until Herb’s death from AIDS in 1987.
Vanden says he felt isolated after Herb’s death. He says, “Most of our friends died of AIDS.” He calls it the “Homocaust” and he believes the disease outbreak in the gay community was not an accident of nature but was the result of medical malpractice. He says that everyone who gave blood samples for the development of the hepatitis B vaccine in New York and San Francisco ended up with AIDS. He believes the men were infected with the virus through tainted needles. Vanden says he was the only one of his friends who survived because he was the only one who didn’t give blood.
Having survived two seizures, which he says were caused by the prescription medications he was taking, and living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Vanden is nonetheless experiencing a revival of interest in his work, which he terms a “rebirth.” Unfortunately, he wrote to me in an email after my visit, “Just as I was preparing to accept the accolades accorded ‘heroes and pioneers,’ I get a life-threatening disease. Cancer. The big C word. Terrifying word. It’s like seeing the STOP sign, up ahead.”
However, Vanden’s unorthodox medical opinions may here serve to give him new hope. He wrote to me, “I’m going to try an experiment with a friend who is a hypnotherapist, and has offered to help me try to cure my cancer hypnotically.” So far the unorthodox treatment is working and Vanden remains optimistic.
Vanden combines his former Mormon beliefs with a form of 60s psychedelic spirituality. He says “Did you know about the giant toads? The hippies called them licking toads because they secrete a psychedelic poison from glands in their back when threatened. Vanden says the hippies would rub the backs of the toads with their hands and lick their hands to ingest the psychedelic secretions. “I doubt they licked the toads,” he added, wryly.
Vanden said, “When Joseph Smith’s angel Moroni sent him to the Hill Cummorah for the golden plates, Smith found a giant toad guarding the box the plates had been stored in for centuries. It knocked him down three times before he managed to get the golden plates and go home.” Vanden says, “Smith was an epileptic who had grand mal seizures that gave him visions of Jesus and God and Moroni. Mormonism is the result of epilepsy and giant toads!”
Vanden has reentered a gay pulp publishing market that has been transformed by e-books. He says, “When I first started in this business, the publishers were all middle-aged heterosexual men who thought being queer was a dirty joke and made lots of money using gullible writers like me and Richard Amory, writing quality jerk-off porn for them.” Vanden says, “The editor at Greenleaf Classics added ‘fag-hots’ to my early books with phrases like, ‘Pulsating, purple prick-heads shooting volleys of creamy ambrosia.’”
Vanden wryly observes, “As it turns out, the ladies I worked with at loveyoudivine [who reissued some of Vanden’s early works until recently going bankrupt—a recurring motif in Vanden’s publishing history] are selling their own version of ‘fag-hots.’” He observes, “’Sexual fantasy’ publishers, like ManLoveRomance Press, Loose-Id and loveyoudivine are owned and operated by women.” Vanden says, “Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that the majority of ‘gay’ novels, romances and mysteries are written by middle-aged heterosexual housewives and mothers pretending to be queer.”
One of the books reissued by loveyoudivine was Vanden’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which I reviewed in “Book Lovers” in the August 2011 issue Lambda Literary. Vanden disclaimed it as “definitely not one of my masterpieces and I don’t want you to read it, thinking that I think it is.” Nonetheless, as he pointed out, there were “only a few other similar books at the time, and the gay literature revolution has grown from that beginning.” Vanden says, “I would not dream of comparing myself with the best gay writers today. My books represent ‘a voice from the past.’” I disagree and I pointed out in my review:
I quickly discovered that Vanden’s exploration of all aspects of male love is as universal as it is serious. The novel’s hero, Ron Bartlett, is on a journey of self-discovery presented in a series of graphic sexual vignettes that in less talented hands would have merely been pornographic. But Vanden uses the sex to explore such serious issues as the male search for the Father.
Mormon spirituality has influenced Vanden’s queer spirituality. He says, “I consider myself part of a ‘new breed’ of humanity, the next step up after homo sapiens.” In my review of Rabbit Hole, I observed, “The author grew up in the Mormon faith where the sacramental wine is replaced by sacramental water, so the scenes of Ron and Colin drinking each other’s piss should be read as spiritual exchanges of the water of life.” See more here.
Vanden believes that Joseph Smith was a closeted gay man and says that a favorite Mormon portrait of a gayishly handsome Smith is evidence of the deep “folk memory” of Smith’s homoeroticism. Vanden is convinced that Smith’s introduction of “plural marriage” was an early experiential move towards same-sex marriages. Vanden says that former BYU president Dallin H. Oaks who engineered an effort to expel all homosexual male students from BYU in 1975 and who is slated to be the church’s next prophet, seer and revelator, “used to be called ‘Homo Oaks’ by the boys in high school.”
Gerald S. Argetsinger’s new fiction collection, Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction features Vanden’s “Gay Messiah,” a chapter from his gay mystery, All of Me (Can You Take All of Me?) (Gay New World, 2013). The chapter serves as the novel’s appendix and features an acid-induced vision of the gay man as the image of Jesus:
As a child, in Sunday School, I had sung ‘I’ll be a sunbeam for Jesus!’ Unlike all the other kids, I had meant it. I had ‘believed’ it. That made it my operating system. The others went on to make babies, like good Mormons. I went on to be a Sunbeam. If you open a sunbeam, it turns into a rainbow!
For more Vanden, check out: www.dirkvanden.net
To non-Mormons, Vanden’s revelations about Joseph Smith discovering the gold plates high on toadstools or Bryan’s assertion that Smith encouraged same-sex love among the early missionaries must sound blasphemous. But gay Mormon historian and scholar, D. Michael Quinn, documents the importance of folk magic in the emergence of early Mormonism in his acclaimed study, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books 1998). Likewise, in Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example (University of Illinois Press 1996), Quinn documents the surprisingly accepting, if not affirming attitude towards “homoemotionalism” among early Mormons.
Jed Bryan and I were able to catch a lecture by Quinn on same-sex dynamics among early Mormons as part of the OutWest @ The Library Series, curated by Gregory Hinton at the Flamingo Branch (of course!) of the Clark County Library here in Las Vegas in July. Though now ex-communicated, Quinn was once a well-respected BYU professor. Church leader Spencer Kimball once called Quinn, “My Mexican,” and kissed him on the lips–a homoemotional practice that was once common among Mormon men, as Quinn amply documents.
Quinn explained that evidence for same-sex relationships in the early 19th century is ambiguous because the modern terms for sexual orientation did not exist in English until 1892. He pointed out that not having the terms for something doesn’t mean it didn’t exist and that intimacy among same-sex persons was not uncommon in 19th century. However, he said that such behavior shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as homoerotic, but rather as homosocial or homoemotional.
Thanks to the Mormon penchant for record keeping, Quinn said, there is abundant evidence for homoemotionalism in early Mormon culture. In the early Mormon community, Quinn said that church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith acknowledged a male to male covenant of friendship and this covenant was included in Smith’s revelations and commandments published as The Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. As Jed Bryan noted, Quinn quotes Joseph Smith preaching that “two who were vary [sic] friends indeed should lie down upon the same bed at night locked in each other’s embrace talking of their love and should awake in the morning together.” The “sealing” of men to men was an ordinance introduced by Brigham Young in 1846 and, Quinn said, “Some have interpreted it as higher in importance than the sealing of women to men.”
Like John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, Quinn’s study goes on to suggest a general tolerance for homoemotional activity in the early Mormon Church as well as in Mormon culture in Utah. But while Boswell struggles to explain the shift from early tolerance to persecution in Euro-Christian culture in the 12th century, Quinn can almost pinpoint the shift in 19th century American attitudes.
Quinn says that with the medicalization of homoeroticism in 1892 through the introduction of the term “homosexuality,” and the well-publicized Oscar Wilde trial in 1895, the laissez-faire attitude towards homoemotionalism changed in America.
Quinn said Wilde toured the West 1882 and was a popular and well-known speaker and writer. Quinn describes Wilde’s appearance in Salt Lake City in April 1882:
“Dressed in lace and velvet tights, Oscar Wilde walked on the stage of the Salt Lake Theatre to lecture and was greeted by an ‘array of young men on the front row, each adorned with an enormous sunflower.’”
Wilde’s trial for sodomy made front-page news in Salt Lake City and throughout America. With the consciousness of the term, “homosexuality,” there was an awakening from a pre-conscious innocence of sexuality, Quinn said. Since homoeroticism was now identified by a medical term, it become recognized as a “condition,” treatable or punishable, as may be the case. The leniency of early Mormonism gave way to witch hunts, aversion therapy and Proposition 8. Still, Quinn reports, it was not until 1962 that there was a specific rule that missionaries had to sleep in separate beds.