A Room for Shame, by Elle Mae
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
After the first 2 sessions of the April 2020 General Conference, I was stressed and trying to unwind by scrolling through Twitter.
I saw a tweet from Image Journal with the caption: "As a queer woman raised Catholic, I have had a complex relationship to the church—making these photographs was part confession, part reconciliation." -S. Billie Mandle.
I clicked on the photo essay and read the first line, "FOR TEN YEARS, I PHOTOGRAPHED Catholic confessionals throughout the United States." As I scrolled through the photographs of Catholic confessionals, these foreign spaces made me feel vulnerable. These confessionals are strangers to me but the human potency of confession, shame, and reconciliation is familiar to me. To me, the images capture shame as well as reclamation. In an interview, the photographer compared the way the camera captures light to the way confessionals are built to capture voices. This experience left me questioning if there are any physical spaces in Mormonism that embody shame, humanity, and reconciliation the way that Catholic confessionals do. A friend mused that architecture isn't intertwined with Mormonism the way that it is with Catholicism. Mormon architecture is purely "ancillary," she said, before suggesting that temples are the closest parallel. However, their exclusive nature makes them fundamentally different.
"How could you capture the throngs of people who are not allowed in the temple?"
"What is Mormon shame embodied in a space?"
"Do we have such a space, or is the shame in the spaces we don’t have? The very experience of exclusion?"
In a baptistery, as I looked from wall to wall, I couldn't find a single woman in any of the paintings. Except, one picture had a lamb and there was a roughly 50% chance that this lamb was female. Which was not comforting at all.
As I looked around the picture I was in I felt invisible. In this living picture, I saw men witnessing men performing salvific ordinances in the name of male Gods: in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. There was one young woman who handed out towels for a while before disappearing into the women's changing room.
When she left, no one noticed.
Soaking people picked up towels from the table as if nothing had changed. Through sound and sight, my own invisibility was echoed back to me. If I was in this picture at all, perhaps I was painted first and then blurred into a background. As impactful as this experience was, and likely because of that, the details are blurry. There are gaps in my memory.
I cannot remember if I cried, even a little bit. But, I think I did not.
I was too ashamed to cry because I couldn't bear someone asking me why.
As I watched bodies and heads of hair immersed in water, a family with four little girls came to my mind. The youngest would be turning 8 soon. Her father has sacrificed immensely for this church. He is gay and he and this girl's mother both knew this when they married. Now, they are divorcing. They came here, to the temple, to receive a confirmation for this choice. But now, who will baptize that little girl? Her father can't. Her mother can't.
As I watched the baptisms, I noticed how the water made room for the immersed bodies; displaced by their weight. I thought of a transgender woman whose story I had listened to. She never felt comfortable here, in the temple, before she transitioned. Now, that she is finally comfortable, she cannot be here.
In front of the door to the confirmation room, stood a Black man dressed in all white, the only Black person in the entire room. He looked as if he were guarding the door, albeit serenely. Quick mental math. I figured out how many years ago he wouldn't have been able to be here, in the temple, standing as if he were guarding that door. Based on his apparent age, he was alive during that time too.
I felt dizzy in that small room. Convinced that there weren't enough people there. Thinking, over and over again, "they should be here too."
The picture of closeted queer Mormon women taking care of Mormon children and teaching them the gospel captures my attention. Because we worship progress, we cover shame with work.
As we sing in"Put Your Shoulder to Wheel," "We all have work."
Most active Mormon women have callings. Most Mormon women work with children in their callings. Closeted queer Mormon women look exactly like Mormon women who are not queer when serving in those callings. In primary classrooms, nurseries, and young women's rooms, closeted queer Mormon women look exactly like Mormon women who are not queer. They are invisible. At least, difficult to recognize.
The young Mormon children also capture my attention.
There's a silent recognition that most queer Mormons will leave the church eventually. This unspoken agreement is carried by active members and burned queer ex-members alike. Many queer Mormons struggle in the formative years of their life, torture themselves trying to "make it work," and finally leave as a young adult. The solution of "just leaving" will never solve the problem of queer Mormon children. Queer Mormon children, who have no adult representation, continue to be born and burned.
The naivete little children possess about themselves and the world resembles the naivete that many queer Mormons carry much longer than other queer people. The absence of comprehension and vocabulary about one's identity and place in the world is an experience that queer Mormon women, in particular, are intimately familiar with. Mormon women aren't given language to describe their sexuality or bodies. This isolates all Mormon women, but especially queer Mormon women. Without language to describe or identify their experiences, they speak about them much less.
Part of the reason we talk about it less is that we can't.
Children are one of the best and worst parts of my ward for me. I love their restlessness. They are sincere. And they have so much spunk. I love their wiggly little bodies and quick smiles. But, sometimes, a quick smile from a 3-year-old is enough to make me hold back tears. Nurseries, around the world, are filled with queer Mormon babies. Primary programs, around the world, are filled with little queer Mormon children. Your ward, your primary program, your nursery. These places are no exception. It's hard to describe how traumatizing it is to grow up without language to describe your gender and orientation. You only know that it is wrong. It's hard to be raised in a tight-knit community and want to stay, but not know how.
You are given a map of the universe with no space for you.
There's a risk of rejection by leaders, friends, and family when you make this known. You might have to comfort your mother, who can only understand this as eternal separation from her child.
Sometimes, when I see little children at church, this all washes over me.
In nurseries, all over the world, the closeted queer Mormon women who care for these little children and teach them the geography of the gospel look exactly like Mormon women who are not queer.
Where is Mormon shame embodied in space? In bishops' offices? In baptisteries? In nurseries?