When Kerry Spencer Pray came out as gay, married Mormon into her thirties, she sought out testimonies from others who had been through what she was going through. And what she found was… nothing.
“When I was looking for other stories,” Pray says, “there were no essays, no blogs, nothing. I only knew one lesbian in the whole world. disorder.”
In a sense, this realization was the start of the process by which Pray – a creative writing faculty member at Stevenson University in Maryland – and filmmaker Jenn Lee Smith would eventually collaborate on the recently released book. . I Spoke to You in Silence: Essays by Queer Mormons of Marginalized Genders. The essays represent the experiences of lesbian, transgender, non-binary, and intersex cisgender people raised in the LDS Church – many of whom are anonymous or under pseudonyms, and all of which explore the struggle to express an authentic self when that self is unacknowledged. as acceptable in the teachings of the church.
Pray says it was important to focus on marginalized genders, rather than the experience of gay cisgender men in the church, since that experience had already been documented to a much greater extent. “It’s the gay people coming out, they’re at least part of the group that still has a voice and is respected within the church,” Pray says. “Whoever’s in charge sets the agenda, with rules he understands and assumptions he understands, and everyone is forgotten. All spiritual authority is very white and very masculine, and those two things together become these implicit feeders of everything else – they shape the way everything is approached.”
With few other avenues to explore a queer Mormon experience that was not cisgender man when she herself was dating, Pray began investigating the first Facebook groups where queer Mormon women congregated. This is where Pray first met Jenn Lee Smith, and where the idea was born to collect queer Mormon stories outside of this cisgender male paradigm. While Smith’s initial ideas were either for a documentary film or an academic book, her meeting with Pray moved things forward towards the creation of the Queer Mormon Women Project, a blog that would allow people to submit essays about their experiences.
“Once we had a big enough collection, we contacted a publisher,” recalls Pray. “But it’s been a six-year process.”
Part of the reason this process took so long was intrinsic to why it was created in the first place: those who exist as gay and non-cisgender men within the LDS church have learned to keep their voice for themselves, both through the patriarchal church structure and through the risk of ostracism, for themselves or their family members, because of their sexual or gender identity.
“The challenge with this whole project has been that all of these people come from groups that don’t necessarily mean anything,” says Pray. “Sometimes it’s better not to talk. We had to put out a broader call for submissions to specifically ask for more perspectives, and some we couldn’t get. … There’s no benefit [to the writers] by telling these stories; there are only risks. But I think we were able to get a very balanced collection in the end.”
Pray acknowledges that making such a concerted effort to bring together a wide variety of voices has also been a learning experience for herself, helping to shake up the paradigms instilled in her by her Mormon experience. “What surprised me the most was how I was trained to think so completely in binary, and I didn’t know it,” she says. “I didn’t realize there was this wide variety of experiences that didn’t fit easily into boxes. It went beyond masculine/feminine, in church/out of church, good/ bad, very categorically. Life isn’t like that, and queerness isn’t like that.”
If it would have been possible to approach the creation of I spoke to you in silence from a more academic perspective, it was ultimately more important for the writers whose essays they were collecting to have a voice in a way they had never had before. “Jen tried for years to set it up as a sort of social science approach, and the problem was that there was just no material,” Pray says. “We had to get the silent people to not be silent. The conclusion we came to was that before we could draw any conclusions, the stories had to exist. So we just wanted to make them exist.
“The more you tell these kinds of stories, the easier it is to tell them. We put them out there so it’s less scary to tell your own stories.”