I am currently reading a book for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about better loving and understanding LGBTQ people. The book is thoughtfully written with a nice combination of the personal experiences of the author (who is the parent of a gay child), Scriptural references, quotes from Church leaders past and present, and speculative theology. I am generally enjoying the read, but there is a recurring theme that deeply bothers me. It especially disturbs me because I have encountered it not only in this book but in various Mormon spaces and conversations nominally dedicated to supporting marginalized people.
The theme goes something like this: “God gave us <insert group of marginalized people> so we can learn to love better/be more understanding/embrace those who are different from us/expand our conception of who can achieve eternal life.” In the case of this book, that group is queer people. But I’ve seen the same line of thinking used with minority races, people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses, and others. This view centers the majority experience and relegates marginalized groups to nothing more than sidekicks in the main plotline of the majority’s exaltation.
This is a well-known phenomenon in writing circles. Black characters are often characterized as “sacrifices, sidekicks, and scapegoats” in white stories, and many have noted the common trope of female characters being used for nothing more than advancing a man’s character development. There is even a term – “fridging” – for the specific use of physical or sexual violence against a woman to move a male story forward. In the case of a woman’s death as motivation for a man’s quest, it’s a trope known as the Disposable Woman.
As one author writes in response to fridging: “Women have just as diverse a range of stories to tell as men, and shouldn’t need to be raped or otherwise traumatized to prove that.” All marginalized people are the stars of their own stories, not sidekicks. Their stories are just as valuable as anyone else’s. And given systemic and historical neglect of marginalized narratives, those of us in the majority or positions of power should be making an extra effort to center them instead of ourselves.
I think it’s a wonderful thing that Church members are learning to love others, especially those who are different from them, more fully. We must make space for a more inclusive attitude towards those who are marginalized historically and today. But we should never assume that our own personal spiritual growth is the reason they are here. To believe such a thing is to deny the divine nature and eternal destiny of those we claim to love. What about their exaltation? What about their experience as the people around them (often too slowly and many times not at all) learn to love them?
One way to test if you’re falling into this trap is to reverse the statement and see if it still makes sense. Would anyone say that straight people exist so queer people can learn how to be more loving? I’ve never heard it. We shouldn’t say something like that about LGBTQ people, either. It’s not only unkind, but it’s also bad theology.
We are instructed to “work out our own salvation” in Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27, but it is human nature to see ourselves and people like us as the audience in those verses. As followers of Christ, we need to see beyond ourselves and recognize that the Gospel message is for everyone and not just us. We must see marginalized people first as equals on their own journeys of spiritual progression, siblings working out their own salvation. Their influence and impact on others is important, but not as important as they themselves are.
Jesus Christ taught that people come first. He left the 99 sheep to look for the one not because the one had anything especially important or useful for the others. In other words, he did not do it for the sake of the 99. The one was worth it all on its own.
The Lord knows each of us by name. He understands what we’re going through, which means he sees us the way we see ourselves: as main characters in our own stories, full of complexities and desires and struggles and hopes and dreams. Nobody is a sidekick to someone else’s exaltation. So let’s stop acting like they are and instead start learning to love more like the Savior did.
Amen amen. Thank you for this reminder and pointing out the obvious hypocrisy in so many of our tropes as we speak about and treat others.
What book is it that you’re reading?
Here is the book: https://www.gayldscrossroads.org/
Performing that thought experiment with the Bible, men were created to be helpmeets for women.
This was brilliant, thank you.
I had never heard of ‘fridging’ and am glad that you thought to include this concept and the links. As a big reader from an early age, I was exposed to a lot of sexual and physical abuse of women in the books I read. Although I have been lucky and privileged to have avoided such experiences in real life, I feel that I’ve experienced a kind of second-hand damage from all my reading. It’s affected my perception of women and my trust in men.
How would it affect me to have grown up in a world where I’d only read one or two accounts of rape or abuse, rather than hundreds? It’s not just modern books, either, and it’s not just books authored by men.
And, to the main point of your post, I appreciated both your concept and the articulation of it.
My least favorite defense of fridging in books is “But it’s historically accurate! It needs to be there to be realistic.” If someone’s historical fiction has perfectly tweezed eyebrows, no pooping, and no menstruation then historical realism isn’t the priority. The author just wanted to include violence against women.
“It’s not only unkind, but it’s also bad theology.” Yes!! Thinking that LGBTQIA people exist to help straight/cis people grow also leads to the harmful (and I believe wrong) idea that after death, everyone will be straight and cisgender. Blaire Ostler calls that “Celestial conversion therapy” and imo it’s also bad theology.
Celestial conversion therapy is the perfect term for this. Thank you for teaching it to me .
Excellent points, Nicole. I wonder if the setup of the Church, and how it prescribes LDS families to be set up, also qualifies along the same lines, in that it makes women the sidekicks to men’s exaltation.
I would like to posit a different approach to the same principle that you object to. We are the legal guardians of an adult disabled son with down syndrome who is also non-verbal. We don’t think that he is here so that we can learn something. Instead, we often remark that he has taught us many things. Perhaps he was sent to us to help keep us “in line.” We think, for a variety of reasons, that he is the most spiritual one in the family, someone who receives communication from our heavenly parents in ways that we do not. Yes, we learn from him–but we do so because he teaches us!
Another thought: We have often wondered if our son and others like him are sent to test us so that we can be judged according to the way we treat others who are less fortunate in some ways.
The difference is nuanced: I agree that it is offensive to say that “[marginalized groups] exist to help mainstream groups learn to love.” It’s offensive not only because it misplaces the focus, but also because it’s not accurate. It would be more accurate — and evenhanded — to say that “each of us is unique, and this uniqueness helps each of us — if we will let it — learn to love others.” That’s the plan.