Author's note 29 October: in this post, I called out Eric Samuelsen for some inappropriate remarks he made in a public forum. Eric has since apologized to Mel Larson personally (and in the comments below) and is, I am told, trying to find a way to correct or remove the audio archive of his remarks. When I grow up, I want to be as willing to admit and address mistakes as Eric has been in this case.
I am leaving this post up in the hopes that we can recognize ourselves at times in Eric's position. When we say things which are well-intentioned but inappropriate and counter-productive, I hope that we too are able to recognize them as such and are as quick as Eric to admit and address our mistakes.
Recent polls indicate that roughly 20% of Americans incorrectly identify Barack Obama as Muslim. That's a pretty large number considering the number of times the President has written or spoken publicly about his faith in Jesus Christ. How do a few rumor-mongers fool that many people?
The pattern I see in websites and chain emails that spread the theory is an argument that Obama is secretly Muslim. They explain away his Christian references as deceptive PR and then go on to list various circumstantial evidence as if the only clear conclusion were a hidden religious identity.
All of this creates a dilemma for the President. Because of the strong anti-Muslim feelings of a large segment of the American public, he's probably nervous about the high numbers of people who associate him with the religion. On the other hand, he can't strongly denounce these rumors as the vicious lies they are without promoting the ugly idea that Muslim-Americans should be ashamed of their own faith and heritage.
Fortunately for our country, the majority of Americans aren't buying the idea that the President is secretly Muslim and that they should vote against his party for that express reason. Most analysts agree that the widespread influence of the rumors is a sad reflection of continuing American intolerance, and that promoting such rumors is a shameful and pathetic political trick. If, say, a university professor were to instigate or promote such a rumor, he or she would probably be severely criticized.
Mel Leilani Larson
Hold the thought on President Obama and Islam for a moment while I tell a story about a friend of mine, her play, and a recent rumor.
At the August 2010 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake, playwright and professor Eric Samuelsen spoke on a panel entitled "Gay and Mormon on the Stage and Screen." I did not attend the symposium, but recently listened to a copy of the audio file of Samuelsen's presentation because he discussed a play called Little Happy Secrets which was written by my close friend Mel Leilani Larson. I directed an audio production of the play in 2008 (now available free online) and served as dramaturg for the original stage production in 2009.
Little Happy Secrets is a beautiful and important play. Its central character, Claire, is a returned LDS missionary who gradually realizes that she's fallen in love with her roommate and best friend Brennan, also a female returned LDS missionary. The play doesn't jump from Claire's difficult situation into the heated debates surrounding homosexuality and the Mormon community, though: Larson focuses on how Claire navigates her own experience. And so we see a woman who is grounded in her faith and her relationship with God and comes to terms with her own struggles and questions in light of that relationship. Audience members who had expected the play to be controversial told us again and again how human they felt it was; how much it resonated with their own struggles or the struggles of their loved ones with a variety of things, how it spoke to them about the way life's difficulties can be navigated--if not always neatly resolved in any storybook sense.
Because of the online audio play, Mel is still regularly in contact with people who were particularly moved by her work. Many of them are gay and active in the LDS church. The fact that Mel is heterosexual does not prevent her from helping these people feel that their private struggles and negotiations of life are important and valued, and that although they may encounter ignorance and sometimes blatantly homophobic attitudes among some church members, there are also plenty of Mormons who appreciate in some sense what faithful gay Mormons go through.
Mel is aware, of course, that because she's single, in her thirties, and has written a well-known play with a gay protagonist, some people will assume that she herself is attracted to women. When she's been asked about autobiographical elements in the play, however, she's been quite clear that while Claire shares things like her love for Jane Austen and some of her sense of humor, she and her character are hardly the same person. At a few audience Q&A sessions, Mel has explained that some of Claire's struggles bear some distant resemblance to Mel's experience being single in a family-oriented church. In both situations, there can be moments of intense loneliness. In both situations, there can be moments of self-doubt: am I good enough? does my inability to live the cultural ideal mean that I'm doing something wrong? But Mel has never suggested in my presence (and I was present for almost every public discussion of the piece from Mel's arrival in Utah in 2007 through the end of its initial theatrical run in 2009) that being gay and single in the church are the same experience, or that Mel's ability to write such a compelling protagonist is anything more than very good writing.
This is I why I was shocked by Eric Samuelsen's Sunstone presentation. Eric knows Mel from her undergraduate and has crossed paths with her numerous times since her return to Utah after she completed her MFA at the University of Iowa in 2007. I know for a fact he has her email address--it's possible he also her cell phone number. And yet he didn't take the obvious step of contacting her to ask before strongly implying in his discussion of her work that Mel is bisexual, questioning, or perhaps somewhat-in-denial but gay.
Like many who suggest that President Barack Obama is Muslim, Samuelsen's rumor-launching centered on circumstantial rather than direct evidence. For instance, Samuelsen compares the character of Claire to Heath Ledger's character in the film Brokeback Mountain by emphasizing that neither character publicly self-identifies as gay, though both are strongly attracted to an individual of the same sex--then extends the parallel into Mel's life by saying that "Larson does not herself self-identify as gay, but asked about her sexuality, she uses that most useful of Facebook phrases: 'it's complicated.'" Although he admits (also erroneously--more on that later) that she was recently in a straight relationship, he immediately follows up by saying that she "ducks the question" whenever asked about the autobiographical elements of Little Happy Secrets and then goes on to mention her only other play in which same-sex romantic tensions are an element (ignoring her numerous other works without any such elements), concluding that she's clearly deeply invested in questions about female-female attraction.
The case that Barack Obama is secretly Muslim is probably stronger than Samuelsen's case that Mel is bisexual or gay. Obama actually did have a nominally (though irreligious) Muslim father and later stepfather, and briefly lived in a Muslim-majority country, although he attended a public school and a Catholic school there, not a fundamentalist madrassa as chain emails often claim. Mel's Facebook page uses the phrase "it's complicated" to describe her relationship with a boy named Nolan--the three-year-old son of close friends who loves when Mel, a sort of unofficial aunt, comes over to play with him. The joke of Mel's "relationship" with Nolan appears to be the inspiration both for Samuelsen's "it's complicated" line about Mel's sexuality and his statement that she's recently been in a straight relationship. Apparently, misreading someone's Facebook page is now sound scholarship. As I've already described, Mel doesn't "duck" questions about the autobiographical dimensions of the play at all. And the fact that she's written two women attracted to other women doesn't mean she must be gay any more than the fact that she's written at least three martyred saints means that she must be secretly dead.
To the informed observer, Eric Samuelsen is a little less reliable than an email forward. Unfortunately, he has a PhD and invokes his personal acquaintance with Mel, so people are far more likely to believe him.
Another difference between Samuelsen's creative distortions of the truth and those of people who claim Barack Obama is Muslim is worth noting: the email forwarders play to readers' negative views of Muslims; Samuelsen plays to his audience's positive views of people who are gay. Is it somehow better to project an inaccurate identity on someone if the identity you place on them is positive in your eyes?
Forced Celebration is Another Kind of Prejudice
I once worked on an original play by Aaron Carter, who is half black and half white. Before he became a playwright, he was an actor, and was once accused of "betraying his people" when a director expected him to speak Spanish and he had to explain he couldn't. The director wasn't a racist in the sense of hating Hispanic people or any other racial group: on the contrary, he felt strongly that these cultures should be celebrated. But his assumption that anyone who could pass for Puerto Rican and would audition for a play with Hispanic characters must be Hispanic puts an awkward burden on Aaron and whoever else decides to audition, because it suggests that certain forms of personal ethnic experience matter more in theater than good acting does.
Eric Samuelsen wants to celebrate gay Mormons. But his inaccurate discussion of Mel's sexuality puts an awkward burden on Mel. Like Pres. Obama, she doesn't want to deny that she's attracted to women as if she'd somehow be a bad person if she were. On the other hand, she doesn't want people to have false expectations of her, like the director did of Aaron Carter, based on false assumptions about a part of her identity she doesn't want to spend all her time publicly discussing.
Samuelsen's suggestion that Mel is bisexual or gay also carries a sad implicit assumption: if only a gay writer could write so effectively about same-sex attraction, that would also mean that same-sex attraction doesn't have much to do with the general human condition but is an experience accessible only by gays. In trying to celebrate gay Mormons, Samuelsen actually isolates them.
His surprising ability to isolate the very people he is attempting to celebrate goes beyond his inaccurate statements about Mel's sexuality. He also makes inaccurate statements about audience reactions to her play, claiming that audience members "nearly came to blows" over their desires to have the play more directly challenge or affirm the LDS church's positions relative to same-sex attraction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike Samuelsen, I was actually at the performances of Little Happy Secrets. As I've mentioned, people responded to the core human issues in it: our audience talk backs never turned politically contentious at all. People did often tell us they'd been worried before seeing the play that it would lean one way or another politically, that it would stereotype this group or that. Then they'd tell us, though, how glad they were that they had come, and how they appreciated the play's depiction of a real-feeling and admirable person who dealt with hard things.
So why did Eric Samuelsen exaggerate or misremember audience reactions? Part of his problem may be that many other, more politically-oriented, plays have gotten more polarized reactions (though I'm not aware of any near-riots). I think another part is the allure of persecution: at least since the days of the early Christian martyrs (which, in case you've forgotten, do not include Mel Larson), persecution has been a sign of blessedness in Christian culture. Samuelsen probably subconsciously adds the motif of persecution to his telling because on some level he believes that persecuted people are God's favorites.
The trouble with the approach is that actually getting persecuted still sucks. By misrepresenting audience reactions to the play, Samuelsen suggests that Mormon audience members are less willing to encounter and understand their gay brothers and sisters on an individual human level than our actual experience with the play suggests. He tries to play up the element of controversy and persecution to glorify gay Mormons, but actually further isolates them in the process over the very piece of theater that helped ease the sense of isolation many of its gay Mormon audience members felt.
It isn't a good idea to lie to make someone or something sound cooler any more than it's a good idea to lie to make someone sound worse. Lies about identity raise all sorts of unpleasant assumptions and force people into all kinds of awkward baggage.
My old-fashioned advice: don't talk about someone else's sexuality unless you're considering getting married to that person or they bring it up first. There's no reason, in most circumstances, why you actually need to know, and far less reason to publicly speculate. As for religion: there are more times when it's appropriate to ask about religion than sexuality, but it's still better to ask rather than to assume, and if you're going to ask you should probably believe the answer a person gives to you rather than digging for circumstantial evidence to "prove" that they might be lying. And while we're at it, let's talk about ethnicity: it's probably not necessary to assume you know someone's ethnic background, and not productive to lecture them on their identity based on what you've assumed. You can ask people about their ethnic background, but you should probably get to know their name and interests and maybe actually have some sort of friendship with them first.
P.S. Reading quickly over someone's Facebook page doesn't count as asking, and doesn't make it OK to publicly announce your interpretation of what you've read.
P.P.S. Just because you're not a racist, a homophobe, or a religious bigot doesn't mean that it's OK for you to gossip or that you'll never say anything harmful to anyone or about any group. Generalized tolerance only goes so far: at some point you also have to learn individual consideration and respect.
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