Remember when TLC was The Learning Channel?
With Sunday night's debut of My Husband's Not Gay, the channel that once aired programming intended to educate pre-schoolers, teach about outer space, and was originally founded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA solidified itself as a mouthpiece for the religious right to propagate false -- and dangerous -- ideas about LGBTQ people.
My Husband's Not Gay is an hour-long special about four Mormon men in Salt Lake City who are attracted to other men, but refuse to identify as gay or bisexual. Three of the men are in "mixed orientation" marriages -- partnerships where one member, in this case the wife, is straight. The special is far from TLC's first foray into fringe radical religious communities; the reach of shows like 19 Kids and Counting and Sister Wives has already given a platform to movements that are intrinsically homophobic and misogynistic.
The couples include Jeff and Tanya, who've been married for nine years with one child; Pret and Megan, who have been married for eight and have one child and another on the way; and Curtis and Tera, who have been married for 20 years and have been aware of Curtis's same-sex attraction for just four. There's also Tom, a 34-year-old single Mormon who wants to "meet a girl and like her and say, 'by the way, I'm attracted to guys.'" There are wide shots of their quaint and warm homes, scenes of prayer groups, basketball games and get-togethers. The images make the couples appear to be financially stable, the bread and butter of middle America, and by all visible measures, happy.
There are humorous moments in the show, too. The couples joke of a "danger scale," a rating system for men they find attractive (the higher the rating, the more likely they'd act on their attraction); they muse at dinner over a hot waiter, quipping about whether they're going home together or with him; they joke that they've had sex with each other just a few times. Then there's the ample screen time where the couple's assertions go unchecked. During a girls' hiking trip, the wives marvel at how their husbands are "even more interested in our relationship" because of their SSA and how "my husband and I probably have a better sex life than most of our friends."
The women largely tout themselves as accepting of their husband's attraction, and the men paint navigating same-sex desire as simple. In a Nightline interview, one of the husband's compared this desire to craving a doughnut, as if willpower is all it takes to change or at least control one's innate makeup. This is the view of this subculture of religious same-sex attracted people who have decided to "align" their lives with their values, communities, and families, according to Rich Wyler, the Founder and Executive Director of People Can Change, an organization that provides "resources for people seeking to overcome homosexual desires."
"There are those of us that would prefer to call ourselves 'same-sex attracted' and that has a different connotation than if you come out and say to your family, 'I'm gay,' it's kind of Will & Grace," he said. "But, if you come out to your family and say 'I'm same-sex attracted,' it's kind of like: what does that mean? Does it mean I have these sexual attractions, but I don't plan to act on them sexually? ...It has a whole different meaning and connotation."
Wyler said he has diminished his same-sex attraction to 10-20% through various forms of therapies and that he doesn't view this subculture as part of the ex-gay movement, an ideology that promotes the idea that people can change their orientation through conversion and/or reparative therapies that seek to "cure" a person of being LGBTQ. Just about every major medical organization has condemned these therapies because being queer is neither a disorder, nor do such treatments have any efficacy, though they remain legal in 48 states.
There is a very real pipeline between this reality show and the trauma that queer people endure at the hands of the ex-gay movement. In early January, transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn committed suicide because her parents rejected her on account of their Christian beliefs. Alcorn wrote in her suicide note on Tumblr that she underwent reparative therapy that taught that her identity was "wrong." Now, parents need look no further than Tom on My Husband's Not Gay to validate their rejection; when he tells a woman on a blind date that he's attracted to men but has "always wanted the most" to have a wife and children, she calls him "brave."
For those who have experienced conversion therapy, this connection is obvious. Josh Sanders created a Change.org petition calling for TLC to cancel the special because it validates these practices. "I was always told there's something unnatural about it. I was told there's something about the way that you connect with men or you can't connect with men or you had an overbearing relationship with your mother," Sanders said of the messaging. "I did everything possible to not be gay because I was told it was wrong," he added.
TLC presents the couples with this view as though they have made an independent and informed decision to enter into straight marriages. In reality, that choice has been dictated by the threat of being ostracized by their families, community and religion. These factors are exacerbated by beliefs in the Church of Latter Days Saints specific to family structure. For example, a Mormon must enter a heterosexual marriage in order to achieve Exaltation, or godliness, in the church, according to Randall Thacker, the International President of Affirmation, an organization that provides support to LGBTQ Mormons.
When the stakes are this high, the choice is to enter an opposite sex marriage is hardly a choice at all.
Annabel Jensen, a transgender Mormon, experienced these consequences when she came out to her family six years ago. "All growing up you're told that family is the greatest thing, having this eternal family is what you want... I knew that [my family] would not approve and that things would end up going poorly," she said.
Jensen was close with her two younger brothers until she came out as trans. "I don't visit anymore because they require that I dress as a man... If I ever come to visit or we encounter each other everywhere, one of them will leave the room and the other one won't even look at me... I was hoping those relationships would stay intact but as time goes on, they really haven't," she said. TLC fails to acknowledge this could be the alternative for Jeff, Pret, Curtis and Tom.
Jensen left the church while she was transitioning and has since returned. While many in her congregation support her, the church's stance on transgender congregants is tenuous. "Even still, I almost expect to be called in to be excommunicated any day," she added.
Perhaps TLC's greatest misstep in My Husband's Not Gay is that the special neglects to show that there is any alternative -- that there are LGBTQ Mormons like Jensen who have rectified their faith with their identity, that there are congregations that are accepting of queer people, and that there are resources like Affirmation to support them. "My greatest advice to youth would be to not judge the way they feel and to recognize they are beautiful as they are," Thacker said.