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“Big Love” can mean all kinds of love: gays on HBO’s hit show

“Big Love,” which airs Sunday nights on HBO, is the story of a family trying to follow The Principle (i.e fundamentalist Mormon beliefs) in modern-day Utah. Because “Big Love” centers on a polygamist family, that would be enough to render the show as controversial. Determined to push even more buttons, the writers have given one of the supporting characters a gay identity. The show poses a critical question to its audiences: can someone be gay and follow the Mormon faith?

In “God Loveth His Children,” the Church of Latter Day Saints clearly states its position on homosexuality:

“The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi voiced feelings we all have when he acknowledged that he did not “know the meaning of all things.” But he testified, “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). God does indeed love all His children. Many questions, however, including some related to same-gender attractions, must await a future answer, even in the next life. But God has revealed simple, unchanging truths to guide us. He loves all His children, and because He loves you, you can trust Him.”

In this passage, we can see that homosexuality is understood to be a challenge that must be overcome. Ultimately the flesh is constructed to be both the temple and the site of sin; lesbians and gay men present a paradox to this construct. How can one be divine and yet full of sin? The Mormon Church has resolved to love the sinner and hate the sin.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “All of us have some feelings we did not choose, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we still have the power to resist and reform our feelings (as needed) and to assure that they do not lead us to entertain inappropriate thoughts or to engage in sinful behavior” (“Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, Oct. 1995, 9). He also claims, “Improper thoughts diminish if you replace them immediately with uplifting, constructive thoughts.”

The Church advises that that those who experience same-gender attraction (their term for homosexuality) to abstain from all sexual activity. Gay Mormons have been erased from public discourse through the command to abstain, and this is what makes the character of Albie on “Big Love” so very transgressive.

From the very first season, it was clear that Albie entertained ideas and/or fantasies that were not purely heterosexual. As the son of the Prophet Roman, Albie not only sought power at his home, the Juniper Creek Compound, he also desired to live The Principle to gain entrance into the proverbial celestial kingdom.

Each season, we have watched Albie struggle with his homosexuality. At first, there were clandestine encounters with strangers in truck stops and parks for anonymous sex, but this season, it seems that Albie has finally found love. Though Albie has made it clear that he sees his homosexuality as a curse, he clearly can no longer continue to deny himself.

Standing alone in his lover’s home, his father’s ghost taunts him by saying, “You’re a pathetic crybaby who masturbated himself into a sodomite.” Though Albie finds himself irresistibly drawn to Dale, his new love interest, the guilt brought on by his strict Mormon upbringing plagues him.

Dale also has a conflict. He is a married man with children, and repeatedly cites them as a reason to end his interactions with Albie. In the first on-screen kiss between Albie and Dale, the two are standing outside of a meeting center whose sole purpose is to counsel gay Mormons to resist the temptation of the flesh and lead a heterosexual lifestyle.

Each week through their work, the actors and writers of “Big Love” are giving voice to those that the Mormon Church would silence for an eternity. Though Dale claims that “same-gender attraction does not exist in the Celestial Kingdom,” his inability to resist Albie exemplifies the futility of his struggle; he is as God made him to be.

I contacted the Mormon Church in Utah to get commentary regarding their thoughts regarding the burgeoning gay love story in “Big Love,” but my calls were not returned. In 2006 the Church did release the following thoughts on the HBO show,

“Despite its popularity with some, much of today’s television entertainment shows an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, coarse humor and foul language. ‘Big Love,’ like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.”

“Big Love” may not speak to the experience of heterosexual Mormons, but it certainly is an eye-opening look into the struggles that gay and lesbian Mormons face. Mormonism is more than just a religion in the traditional sense, it is also a community. Along with the personal shame of feeling as though one’s sexuality is a sin, there is also a risk that if homosexuality is revealed, the “sinner” will lose family and friends. Albie’s entire life centers around the Juniper Creek Compound. If it were revealed that he was attracted to men, not only would he face the personal shame of sin, he would be cast out from the only home that he knows. This extreme shunning and the fear of isolation is enough to keep many gays and lesbians in the Mormon community closeted throughout their lifetimes.

Katherine Rosman’s article for The Nation, “Mormon Family Values,” is the account of one family struggling to come to terms their son’s homosexuality and their faith. Though they had tried to reconcile themselves to the Church doctrine, the attempted suicide of Judd Hardy, their son, placed them in the position of having to choose between their faith and their child. Suicide, for gay Mormons, is not an uncommon action. There is currently a Reconciliation Petition that tracks and honours those have taken their lives because of an inability to negotiate their faith and their sexuality.

“Big Love” may just be a cable show, but for those that the Mormon Church treats as invisible, the character of Albie illustrates a struggle. People need to see themselves represented in order to understand that they are not alone. Many struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and it need not be the isolating experience that the Mormon Church encourages. It is quite simple: if people feel that that they are alone, they are much more likely to conform, even if that conformity brings them pain, than face complete isolation from their community. GLBT characters are underrepresented in the media, and having a gay male Mormon character in the mainstream is a transgressive act which supports inclusivity.

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Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

3 thoughts on ““Big Love” can mean all kinds of love: gays on HBO’s hit show

  1. The answer as to whether someone can be both gay and follow the Mormon faith is pretty simple. It depends on what is meant by “being gay”. Can someone live with same-sex attraction and still fallow the faith? Of course. Can someone follow the faith while living a homosexual life style? Absolutely not. It’s a complete contradiction.

  2. One comment: “Fundamentalist Mormons” and the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” are different religions. Although, the nickname “Mormon” is often given to both. The same is true for the Community of Christ*. That is why each church, when referred to with a nickname, prefers “Fundamentalists,” “LDS,” or “Community Church” respectively.

    The TV series, Big Love, was originally pitched to HBO as a family under the beliefs of the Fundamentalists, not the more widely-known, LDS, Mormons you quote in your article.

    *The Re-organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints changed it’s name to the “Community of Christ” a few years ago.

  3. @Brendon. The Community of Christ is not Mormon and has not had a connection with the Mormon church in over a hundred and fifty years. Referring to it as another section of the Mormon church is false.

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