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Ordinary Magnificent, by Kerry Spencer

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

Sometimes, when I look at Heather, I remember another life.


They are fleeting memories, strange in their specificity.


She will be standing in front of the stove, baseball cap on backwards as she swings a kitchen rag over her shoulder and stirs. She’ll turn her hips just slightly as she rocks her weight from one foot to the other, lifting up the wooden spoon to taste the sauce. And then, without warning, it’s like I see her, superimposed, on another Heather, from another time. I’ll see a different style of clothing, a different sweep of hair. Sometimes I see her as a woman. Sometimes I don’t.


Mormons don’t really believe in reincarnation—not this kind. They don’t believe that we come back to earth again and again, in one life after another. And even though I adore all of the many aspects of what my friend Mette calls “woo-woo spirituality,” I have never been one to necessarily believe (or not believe) in any of them. Who can say what to make of a fleeting vision. Our minds are strange caverns of will, memory, and biochemistry.



Some people think the first general primary president, Louise Felt, was in a same-sex relationship with her counselor, May Anderson. They lived together, worked together, were called the most “ardent lovers,” [1] and sometimes they stayed up late at night, in their bathrobes, working and talking next to each other in bed. [2] Louise did not live with her polygamous husband, as far as we know. She built her life with May.


Skeptics say their love was platonic, that there was no reason to assume it was sexual.


Skeptics are always quick to fall back to the idea of sex, of body parts, as if their presence or absence is the sum total of what it means to be queer.


I spoke this week with my friend Rachel about my experience with queerness. She was working on a book of poetry about Heavenly Mother and wanted to include some poems that spoke to the queer Mormon experience.


We spoke at length; we did not speak of either sex or body parts.



The other night, Heather was watching a particularly terrible TV show. Celebrities wore various costumes—monsters, ravens, aliens, pineapples. Their faces were obscured and a panel tried to guess who they were based on their voices alone.

I lay next to her, playing Candy Crush until I ran out of lives, then I’d reset the clock on my phone to get more lives.

Her foot was underneath the covers, the sole of it resting against my leg. My skin was cold and her skin was warm.


All day long the Utah State legislature had been debating a bill on conversion therapy. The public comment period was filled with stories of people who’d been “cured,” their wicked inclinations purged, their heterosexual-passing marriages now pure, due to a practice that has more in common with torture than therapy—a practice that has been shown to increase suicides, and be utterly unsuccessful in changing orientation. [3]


This,” I said to her, leaning my head against her arm. “This is the thing they want to change. The thing they find so unnatural. The fact that I want to lie next to you in bed, our skin touching. I want to cheat at Candy Crush while you watch terrible television and that is so horrible it is worth torturing children, sometimes literally to death.”


She looked at me and she didn’t say anything.



It took me a long time to admit that I wasn’t straight. That there was something different about the way I tended to form bonds, about the people I tended to form them with. The skeptics had so thoroughly convinced me that there was something dirty and shameful about being queer. Nothing I’d experienced could remotely be called dirty or shameful, and so I must not be queer.


I would listen to queer people say, “this is about love, this is about identity,” and I would be confused. Because it was about sex, about body parts. It was about right and wrong and choices.


Wasn’t it?



I have a sense memory, from one of those strange maybe-other lives. We stand in a doorway, looking out. The air is dusty and cold. I can hear horses. We are watching someone go. I don’t know who. But I remember the feel of her hip, warm against mine. I remember the too-tight apron ties, pinching my middle. I feel the rustle of fabric, as she reaches out and takes my hand. I don’t know the context. Maybe the context doesn’t matter. Because she is the sense. She is the memory.



Everyone’s experience with queerness is different. But mine… mine is about love. No matter that I used to hear people say the same thing and say, “yes, but…” and not understand. There is not another way to say it.


It is the experience of sitting next to a person I love, in front of a bonfire, a bent coat hanger dangling a hot dog, perilously close to the ashes. It is laughing, in the passenger seat of a car, weaving in and out of trees and hills, the dark road glistening with salt. It is the heavy relief of my head, resting on her shoulder as I read a book. It is dancing in the kitchen, one hand holding a chicken salad sandwich, the other hand holding hers as I spin around. It is walking next to her at the grocery store. She holds two packages of meat, examining them as if they are remarkably different.

“I’m going to get both,” she says, not looking at me.

“We don’t need both.” I stand behind the cart, because pushing the cart is what I do, and putting things in the cart is what she does.

“We can freeze what we don’t need,” she says. “Food is important, Kerry.”


It is ordinary.


Magnificent.


But ordinary.



One of the strange aspects of being a queer Mormon comes in reconciling the disconnect between the church’s utter rejection of your non-traditional relationships and identities and the fact that Mormon ontology is fundamentally inseparable from non-traditional relationships and identities. These “peculiar people” who travelled across the plains with oxen and handcarts to practice polygamy, who thought nothing of sister wives who formed pair bonds in the sacred absence of husbands, these are the same ones who tell us that a queer marriage is somehow worse than attempted murder. [4] That our love is apostasy.


Sometimes I forget I’m an apostate.


I have a family I love. My relationships bring me joy.


How is that apostasy?


I have only one maybe-other-life memory that involves sex, and it wasn’t queer sex. Like all of my other strange memories that my brain may or may not be inventing, it is more sense than memory. I remember the light, coming through slats of wood. I remember the feel of holding something like a shovel, bending over it to scoop feed into a trough. She was my husband then, skinny, not particularly tall. He (she) came up behind me and kissed me on the back of my neck. I remember recognizing his (her) smell. I remember the sound of my own laugh as I reached behind me, and pulled him (her) to me.


In the now, my 21st century life, I used to be married to a man. Sex was not a big part of my marriage to him (both of us were gay), and yet no one questioned the legitimacy of that marriage. He was a man, and I was a woman, so no one really cared what we did or did not do behind doors they did not have to walk through.


In the maybe-life, where I laughed in the barn, no one questioned the legitimacy of my marriage either.



Woo-woo spirituality aside.


What does it mean to be queer?


Gender, identity, homosexuality… they may seem strange, as I said when struggled to explain them to Rachel—to explain what it means to have a non-binary, female-identifying, partner, what it means to have a relationship that is outside of traditional. But our identities and relationships, as different as they seem, aren’t aberrant. We are as we were created and this is meaningful. Our inability to convey the strange, mythic beauty of our human variety doesn’t diminish it.


“You’re wearing my rainbow socks,” Heather said to me last night, as she was tangling her feet with mine, underneath the covers.


“Honey,” I said. “Think of them as our rainbow socks.”


She shook her head at me.


She laughed.


Her being a man or being a woman didn’t matter in that moment.


She pulled me against her and I fell asleep with her arm draped over my hip.


That is what it means.


In this life, in other lives, throughout history.


That is all it has ever meant.




[1] "Mary and May," Children's Friend, 18:420–421 (Oct. 1919).

[2] D. Michael Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth Century Americans: A Mormon Example. University of Illinois Press: Urbana (2001).

[3] C. Ryan, R.B. Toomey, S.T. Russell. "Parent-Initiated Sexual Orientation Change Efforts With LGBT Adolescents: Implications for Young Adult Mental Health and Adjustment.” The Journal of Homosexuality 7: 1-15 (Nov. 2018).

[4] Billy Hallowell, "Mormon Church Just Codified Two Major Policies Involving People 'In Same-Gender Marriage' and Their Children” The Blaze. https://www.theblaze.com/news/2015/11/06/mormon-church-just-codified-two-major-policies-involving-people-in-same-gender-marriage-and-their-children (November 6, 2015) accessed March 8, 2019.




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