Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What IS in a Name: Cruelty in the Character of Kindness

The following is a continuation of my previous post entitled "What IS in a Name: Faith of My Fathers." If you have not already read that piece, I suggest you start there and then come back to this one. If you have read it already, enjoy this, the second entry of a three part series.

If we were to stop in the ecstasy of elegy, only honoring the man and the faith of the man that shaped the name, it would be a disservice to the man and the faith. In moments of hopeful though perhaps delusional optimism, we like to think we are defined by our best attributes, our greatest triumphs, our perfect days. Mistakes are the aberrations, the exceptions to the general rule of our being. In darker days of despair, we convince ourselves that we are our failures, our errors, our defects and disorders. Occasional elevated behavior makes for miracles: phenomena which do not reflect our true natures. Often, we compromise, finding the grey between the extremes, understanding ourselves in a space created by these black and white poles.

While helpful, there is another way to think about this interaction: rather than black and white creating the grey that is us, black and white might remain undiluted in us. We are not an amalgamation or soup; we are a quixotic Mobius strip—convoluted and paradoxical, always-already within and without ourselves. Good and evil; light and dark—these are not diametrically opposed in an either/or relationship external to us but rather live within us far more intimately than the colorful black/white/grey metaphor permits us to imagine. The best in us exists within our worst traits, and our worst qualities nourish the strongest parts about ourselves.
Mobius Strip
I could balance the elegy of Allan Davis with stories of emotional explosions, cataloging instances when my grandfather did not live up to the name he himself made; but, that would perpetuate the idea that such actions were either aberrations from or fulfillments of some sort of static “Allan” identity. Instead, Allan Davis can be understood in an instance where cruelty worked under the character of kindness.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I received a letter in the mail from my grandfather. I remember how the envelope had his personalized address hand-stamped onto the upper left hand corner. Allan Davis, M.D. had written to Allan Davis, his grandson. I was not sure what was inside; it wasn’t time for my birthday or an early Christmas card, the two occasions that generally warranted contact via the US Postal Service. When I opened the letter and started reading, the content and tone surprised me. Allan Davis expressed to me that my parents had expressed some concerns to him regarding me. Based on those conversations he felt impressed to write to me personally in order to detail the LDS Church’s definitive stance against homosexuality.

Before ruminating further on the content and the consequences of the letter, I wish to contextualize the Allan Nathan Davis who is now struggling to make sense of this memory and not necessarily the Allan Nathan Davis who received the letter over ten years ago. Over the last few years I have struggled to reconcile my faith, a faith of my fathers and a faith born of my own experiences, with the politics and rhetoric of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is particularly true in regards to the topic of marriage equality or “gay marriage.” This is not a new issue for me; I remember when I was a kid that I debated with my parents about the acceptability of homosexual couples marrying and adopting children. When I was an adolescent, I did not understand why homosexuality was considered a sin and I figured this could be one more reason for me to direct some good old-fashioned teenage angst at the biggest institution playing a role an immediate role in my life, namely the LDS Church. And I did.

But then I went to BYU and served a mission; my political opinions did not change, but they certainly lost their acerbic bite. The gospel I taught changed me as I administered it and that was enough to make me question my pride. I stopped to reevaluate, to wonder if everything I thought was right and wrong was actually how God saw things. I gave more deference to the Church and its leaders. During and after Proposition 8, I did not agree with the Church’s political stance or actions, but it did not make me angry.
No, what made me angry were the three years that followed. Three years of prayer and desire to understand the Church’s opinion. An accumulation of prayers I never felt were sufficiently answered. I had a desire in my heart but never received a confirmation that what the Church did was God’s will. I grew disgruntled that leaders never addressed my questions in satisfying ways. I could not stand that every six months another ten hours of General Conference passed, silent to my sincerity.

The relatively progressive rhetoric that homosexuality is an inclination some people might be born with or “suffer from” slowly lost its soothing power as I spent time with faithful gays and lesbians. In my association with them, I saw LGBTQ individuals (Mormons and otherwise) were not suffering from a condition that needed correcting. I started to feel that not only was such rhetoric itself hurtful, but it also said a lot more about how I apparently needed to think about homosexuality so I could be more comfortable with my faith. With the dissolution of the rhetoric, initially, came confusion and a mournful doubt: I lost the narrative that brought order to my world. It hurt to question the validity of other things, but an honesty with myself and my beliefs compelled me. Holy doubt opened my soul to faith. Rather than requiring others to change to confirm my preconceived belief and stagnant faith, I believed that I needed to exercise my faith to understand how doctrines and principles which I hold dear can be shaped to include people that it currently excludes.

In a quick breath, that is the Allan Nathan Davis that looks back on the day I received a letter from Allan Mervin Davis condemning homosexuality and, possibly, me. I am not sure what prompted the letter or what exactly concerned my parents. They never talked to me about it. I don’t know if they simply did not know how to respond to their precocious child who seemed super adamant about gay rights. I am not sure if they thought I was being deceived by some malevolent spirit or the philosophies of men I picked from television and movies. I also don’t entirely know if they thought I might be gay or if I thought that I was.

To be fair, in addition to my politics, my personality and interests gave my parents plenty of reasons to think that I was. I loved listening to Madonna. Before the insularity and insecurity of adolescence, I liked dancing, and singing, and performing. I could not get enough of shows on Lifetime like Designing Women and The Golden Girls. I hated traditionally masculine activities like sports and camping. I developed an interest in theater. I never indicated that there were girls I was interested in; I did not date until college. And possibly the kicker, when I was a kid, playing make-believe, I felt just as comfortable pretending I was a female character as a male one. Sex and gender did not matter to me. Being Batgirl or Rogue was just as fun as being Donatello or the Blue Ranger.

And there’s a cultural context and history to that. I don’t know how much everyone remembers the cartoons of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but there was a wonderful emergence of rich female characters. It echoed the watered-down feminism affecting other mediums of entertainment of the time which sought to present women as subjects equal with men and not objects of or for men. Think Catwoman in the phenomenal animated Batman series from the early 1990s verses Julie Newmar’s entertaining but problematic Catwoman in the campy Adam West series of the 1960s. For me this girl power moment was best personified not by figures like the Spice Girls, but by Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One aim was to give girls female characters to admire and emulate. But feminism-writ-large rarely seeks to improve the state of affairs solely for women. The philosophy was that boys, who would grow into men, would see women differently as well; that they also would admire and emulate the characteristics of the role models—just as girls and women have done with male protagonists for millennia. And for me, it worked.

But at the time, an obsessive interest with and embrace of what Netflix would one day recommend to me as “films and television series with strong female leads” was quite possibly read by my parents as “gender confusion” or homosexuality. In all honesty, I think there’s even a case for the issue of “gender confusion.” I was absorbing a way of thinking that challenged conventional wisdom regarding traditional gender roles. What was perhaps less apparent to my parents was that the admiration for strong female leads easily transitioned into heterosexual attraction. And the one defining characteristic of a gay man that is actually not a stereotype—namely, the desire to have sex with men—while never violently repugnant to me, also never seemed that interesting to me either. And not to be too off color, but Dr. Allan Mervin Davis was an urologist. The irony that a man whose job it was to look at penises all day would be concerned that his grandson might like them too much is not lost on me.

But like I said, I cannot completely blame my parents or anyone for assuming that I was gay; there was admittedly a lot there that would seem to fit the stereotype. And it would be a lie to say that I never questioned my own sexual orientation for these very reasons. Sex, sexuality, and gender can be very complex and difficult things even for a person who ultimately self-identifies as a heterosexual male. But what troubles me from time to time, is that in my home, a space built on the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel, my parents never shared their concerns with me. They never told me what they were and I never asked. All I knew was that I was different. But I had thought it was okay to be different because Allan Mervin Davis was different too. One letter indicated that this was not necessarily true.

Something about me—what I said or how I was—concerned my parents enough to seek the help of an authoritative Allan who could outline correct morality to me. The letter quoted general authorities and prophets—living and dead. Homosexuality was a sin. We should not embrace it. We should not condone it or tolerate. We should not advocate for it. And we sure as Hell better not fuck around in it.

Obviously, such profanity was never uttered by a good Mormon prophet or by my grandfather, but I hope its use here properly conveys how his words—Allan’s words—pierced my heart. I never mentioned that I received the letter. Neither my grandfather nor my parents talked to me about its contents; nor was the impetus for its commission ever addressed.

I was angry. Allan Davis was an old man who held on to a homophobic way of thinking that was just as wrong as racism was wrong before the Civil Rights movement. I was hurt. Allan Davis handled everything in such a detached impersonal matter; he cowardly doled out words to admonish me towards repentance without ever speaking directly to me. No phone call. No follow up. No explanation. I was alone. In a single letter, Allan Davis indicated that to be different and to think differently was not necessarily what it meant to be “Allan Davis.” My name no longer meant what it once did. I used it, but it didn’t connect me to my past, my faith, or my peculiarity anymore. I thought about going by Nathan for a while, but I never did. I was confused. So much was said without anyone ever speaking word. Trust no longer felt possible.

I cannot fathom what I would have felt about the letter, its contents, and its delivery if I had identified, then or later, as gay. But that is not to say that I was left unscathed. When I try to articulate how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its politics regarding marriage equality have caused me pain, it is at times difficult because I am ostensibly not immediately affected. But I am. We are. It is in moments like this—in a letter between Allans—that far more happens than in all the talks by church leaders combined. Far more hearts are broken. Far more souls are crushed.

It would be easier to characterize the letter as spiteful and indicative of the psychologically harmful consequences meted out by those holding religious convictions. That certainly makes for an easier narrative. People who profess love for God are judgmental hypocrites. Done. But Allan Mervin Davis was not a caricature of hate. How does one reconcile this moment of clinical condemnation with the earlier feat of Christian charity? How do I harmonize the actions of Allan Davis? his faith? . . . my faith . . . me?

This is not a story of cruelty masquerading as kindness. This is cruelty in the character of kindness. I wish I could say that a spirit of goodness inspired my grandfather to adopt wayward children into his family while a spirit of evil stole his heart and convinced him to write things which excluded me. But in moments of honesty, I know that these actions were not diametrically opposed. They are far more related than I would like to think they are. The same impulse of charity which led Allan to adopt Tom compelled Allan to discipline me. The very doctrines and tenants which isolated me for failing to fit the mold were those which divided Tom from his parents. My grandfather facilitated the division both times. I still look up to what he did for Tom and wish he had made different choices in regards to me, but I cannot pretend that there was no kindness in the cruelty nor that the goodness was wholly pure.

Mormons are not fans of the concept that “good intentions lead the road to Hell.” Perhaps it’s because some Mormons don’t like saying “Hell.” For the most part though, I think it is because we cannot imagine disparaging efforts to do good. Humanity so seldom feels inclined to do something right in the first place, so why criticize when someone tries to have their heart and hands in the right place? With a cosmology that asserts that God will correct all things anyway, it becomes easy to assume that if we simply try our best that God will take care of things. I don’t dispute the principle, but I imagine that such thinking often precludes or discourages critical thinking about the “good we have done in the world today.” It prevents us from seeing the immaculate roads we help pave to perdition.

Is it possible for us to think about the benign or even the negative consequences of what we hope will be a good cause? Recognizing the negative impact may not be enough to warrant a different course of action, but assuming that good intentions unfailingly generate good outcomes makes us blind to the harm that we cause as we struggle to do the right thing. Such blindness does much to explain the gap between faithful orthodox members of the Church and those within and without the Church who express criticism of the institution, its culture, its doctrines or its people. It’s worth noting the flip side of this relationship is just as true. Such good-intentioned-zeal can blind those of us willing to offer criticisms of the Church, constructively or venomously. We do not always think of the pain we inflict in our hopes to satisfy justice or mercy. Humanity must do so much more for the betterment of all; but a spirit of reflexivity must vigilantly accompany us in all of our righteous undertakings. I don’t think Allan Davis thought about that with the letter. I know Allan Davis believes his faith can make things better for all of God’s children.

To finish reading this post, continue here to Part 3.