A friend recently reminded me that the television network TLC stands for “The Learning Channel.” I had forgotten the “learning” part, though with their new docu-special My Husband’s Not Gay, there is most certainly an insidious lesson at hand.
My Husband’s Not Gay follows the story of four Mormon men who identify as having “same sex attractions” (“SSA”) but who, as a result of their religious beliefs, do not want to live “the gay lifestyle.” It should be noted that on the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, SSA is not considered to be “inherently sinful” while acting on SSA goes against church doctrine.
On December 29th, Josh Sanders began a petition on Change.org urging TLC to cancel the show. Writing as a devout, gay Christian, Sanders spoke about the dangers of “reparative therapies” and of spreading a “message [that] is harmful to both LGBT people and communities of faith.” While the show was never canceled, Sanders’ petition gathered 128,446 signatures (and counting). Although TLC did air the docu-special and while they have not commented about whether or not this special will be turned into a series, there is much to consider here.
The first is the toxicity of the “overcoming” narrative. In the trailer one of the men states the following: “with our faith in God we believe we can overcome anything.” The “anything” in this case is homosexuality. What is problematic here is the assumption firstly that one can “overcome” their homosexuality and secondly that homosexuality is something so abject that one must distance themselves from it and overcome it. To me, this reinforces the belief that one must perform and align oneself with the institution of heterosexuality. The opening of the trailer visually depicts this alliance: the images of a smiling man and woman holding hands as they ice-skate, a couple talking to the camera with a fireplace behind them, the collective image of a man, woman and child in a kitchen. The trailer depicts a “healthy,” “normative,” “wholesome” couple as being a heterosexual one. In the landscape of this docu-special, in the framework of Mormonism, SSA can only be discussed/shown under this structure of institutionalized heterosexuality.
This version of “normal” scares me. As a woman who came out at the age of 28, I find the show’s erasure of a homosexual identity to be violent. It scares me to see a show that promotes 1) the misguided argument that someone can “pray the gay away,” and further promotes 2) the belief that word in and of itself—gay—is damaging and sinful. Does the title not suggest that? My Husband’s Not Gay, my husband’s not this three letter, derogatory word that is accented with sin. I myself did this dance (I wonder how many others have). When I wrote about my sexuality in my journal, I wrote “g” as short hand. I could not even fathom writing the whole word. To see the totality of the word “gay” felt too confrontational, too truth telling. It is not natural to equate the words “gay” and “sin,” yet it is something that is taught to us and reinforced by different ideological institutions. This conflation is something I learned to do.
Rather than view the men on the show with compassion, I fear that My Husband’s Not Gay, like many of the other TLC shows, creates a climate of mockery. It becomes a freak show, something for us to gawk at and reaffirm our own version of normal. The Learning Channel is teaching us to view homosexuality, to view queerness, as a toxic thing that we can stave off if only it is something we are strong and eager enough to overcome.