A couple of weeks ago John Fowles, a former student of mine when I was teaching in the BYU Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, wrote me from China, where he was on business. “I’ve been reading your ‘non-memoir’ Immortal for Quite Some Time,” he said, “and like it very much.” He had just read another book, The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans, whom he had known at Oxford, and thought I might find it interesting.
Andrew Evans grew up in a large Mormon family in Ohio. He was bullied mercilessly in school. He loved geography passionately. He was a foreign-exchange student in France. He served an LDS mission in Ukraine. He was a student at BYU, where the institutional bullying was intense. He studied at Oxford, where he met the man who would eventually become his husband. He was excommunicated by the Mormons, whose community he desired. He approached National Geographic with a proposal to travel from Washington D.C. by a series of busses to Antartica, documenting his journey through social media. They liked the idea and the lively account of the precarious trip forms the narrative backbone of the book.
The Black Penguin was a window for me into the experiences and feelings of a gay Mormon. I had written about my gay brother John, also a Mormon, and had done so as well as I could. But as a straight man, I was an outsider to much of the life he led. Andrew Evans filled some of the gaps.
Evans was remarkably open with his ecclesiastical leaders about his desire for intimacy with men rather than with women. At BYU those leaders were remarkably ready to cure him of those desires: “You can start by lowering your voice. . . . And change the way you walk. Men walk tall and proud, head up, shoulders out. . . . If you start acting like a real man, then you’ll become a real man.” His art major, the Bishop advises, will surround him with homosexuals. Still awkwardly between his desire and his belief in the truth of the Mormon gospel, he becomes a geography major. None of this works, of course, and he has his first sexual experiences with a ballet dancer.
He ends up in a Vice President’s office who threatens to expel him and freeze his transcripts so they won’t transfer. That’s option A. But the kind man has a second option: “First, you will attend reparative therapy. We have a whole team of professionals who have been quite successful in correcting same-sex attraction.” Evans knows students who had agreed to such treatment and who were made to throw up while watching gay porn or who were shocked with electrodes attached to their genitals. Second, he is forbidden to associate with homosexuals. “Finally, you must write down a list of names of each and every homosexual you know on campus.” Evans reflects on the impossibility of this: “One page was not enough—there were hundreds, probably thousands, of gay students at BYU, some closeted and most of them terribly repressed. The vice president had to know that, didn’t he? But no—he didn’t. He thought he could weed us out like cockroaches on the kitchen floor.” It is an impossible choice. Evans agonizes. He is gay. He has friends who are gay. He has almost earned a college degree. He doesn’t want to be a victim or a martyr. “And so I picked up the piece of paper, set it on the desk, and began to write.”
Never, never have I read a sentence like that. It is an absolutely damning admission. Whose names did he write? Whose lives did he put in jeopardy? Whose trust did he betray?
Then my focus changes. Who sits in a seat of power and forces a young man to make a decision like that? An evil man serving an evil system. Goddamn both the man and the system.
There is a scene later in the book when a mostly sympathetic Bishop in England who has called Evans to be the primary chorister is required by Church leaders in Salt Lake to call him in and ask if he is a pedophile and then, again on their command, to release him from the position.
The stories are heartbreaking. The tensions arise because Evans is so intimately connected to the Church, because he loves it and its people, because he is a believer. Other than his relationship with the man he will marry and sweetly call “honey” in the book, he is a Mormon, wants to be a Mormon, practices as a Mormon. And the bastards ask if he is a pedophile and ultimately excommunicate him in a goddamned “court of love.”
Near the end of his harrowing journey, riding a bus across a thousand-mile stretch of the Pampas of Argentina, Evans says
“I saw my own childhood in the landscape—I imagined the awkward school dances, the ticking hours in church pews, and the family expectations to grow up and be as vacant and fertile as the land, framed only by evenly knotted barbed wire fences.”
And I end my account here, grateful for The Black Penguin, with a passage from nineteenth-century barbed wire advertising: “It watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down and lengthwise; it prevents the ‘ins’ from being ‘outs’; and the ‘outs’ from being ‘ins’; watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long.”