Out of the Downton Abbey Closet

One of the delicious things about the BBC series Downton Abbey is the clever way the creator and writer of the series, Julian Fellows, is able to connect the world of British culture in the early part of the twentieth century with our day while keeping the illusion that they are dramatically separate. We can look back with a certain air of pride that we moderns see the world so much more clearly and progressively than did the British aristocracy and working class a hundred years ago. Things that seem scandalous to Lord Grantham–such as inter-class and inter-religious marriage, Irish independence, women journalists, and wearing the wrong outfit to dinner–cause us to chuckle at how antiquated the upper-class British of a century ago were. And then we get Episode Six of Season Three with its exploration of homosexuality and suddenly we realize that in some ways we haven’t come all that far.

As in our own society, same-sex love is part of the social landscape at Downton Abbey. Thomas Barrows, Lord Grantham’s valet, is gay, something that almost everyone upstairs and downstairs recognizes but no one speaks about until he is manipulated by Mrs. O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid, into believing that a new servant, the vainly handsome Jimmy Kent, is in love with him. When Thomas misreads the signs and surreptitiously kisses the sleeping Jimmy, everything erupts. The scene is witnessed by another servant, Mrs. O’Brian’s nephew Alfred, who has been the latest object of Thomas’s bullying and, as with most things that transpire in the world of Downton Abbey, soon nearly everyone is aware that in this great house, “the love that dare not speak its name” is being named and spoken of, even if only in whispers and innuendo.

While it may be surprising to some viewers that same-sex love a hundred years ago in Britain was considered a criminal offense, we need remember that it was illegal in all of the United States until 1961 when Illinois repealed its anti-sodomy laws and in ten states, including Utah, was still illegal until 2003 when the Supreme Court declared all such laws unconstitutional. We seem far removed from the time when a gay person could be imprisoned for having sex with a same-gender partner, and yet there are places in the world where that is still the case. In Uganda, for example, engaging in same-sex behavior is punishable by up to fourteen years in prison and in a number of Arabic and Islamic countries it is considered a capital crime.


What I found interesting in this episode of Downton Abbey was how many of the negative attitudes toward homosexuality it presents are reflected in both contemporary American and Mormon culture. Now as then, it is hard to fully imagine how dangerous it is to experience love with someone of the same gender. Although Thomas is a most unpleasant person (he reminds me most of Iago), we get a hint that the way he has been treated in the past over his homosexuality has shaped his perceptions and experiences. In a conversation about his grief over the death of Lady Sybil, with whom he served in the hospital during the war, Thomas says, “In my life, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”

The clues to that unkindness can be seen in the language used to address and talk about Thomas. In addition to words like “revolting,” “horrors,” “shock and disgust,” the script contains phrases like:

     “He has broken all the fundamental laws of God and man.”
    “You should be horsewhipped.”
    “You have been twisted by nature into something foul.”
    “I can’t allow a man like that to go to work in innocent people’s houses.

Such language reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a Latter-day Saint friend who has a gay son. She reports that her extended family (all active members) treats her and her son (and her entire family) as if they were lepers or pariahs. For example, her son’s aunts and uncles will not allow her son to kiss or embrace them, nor will they allow their children to sleep in the same room with him. At a recent family gathering, this woman’s father (the boy’s grandfather) said, “The only cure for homosexuality is a bullet to the head,” which is more shocking than anything heard on Downton Abbey.

This same mother reports that her bishop counseled her son to read The Miracle of Forgiveness and apply the atonement and he would be healed.  Her stake president recommended that she not let her gay son sleep in the same room with his brother, adding, “Heaven forbid if he did something to his little brother.” This kind of misinformed prejudice (I don’t know how else to characterize it!) suggests that it will take a concerted effort on behalf of Church leaders to integrate the more compassionate language and tone on its new website into the hearts and minds of leaders and members.

What is reassuring about the Downton Abbey episode is that a number of people respond to Thomas with unusual kindness and uncommon compassion. For example, Mrs. Hughes the head housekeeper is appalled that James has threatened to report Thomas to the police. She says, “I won’t sit back and let that young whippersnapper ruin a man for the rest of his life—not a man who was wounded in the service of king and country.” Bates, the valet to whom Thomas has been unusually hateful, also responds with compassion, as does Lord Grantham, who says, “It’s not as if we didn’t know [that Thomas was gay]. If I’d shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eaton, I’d gone hoarse in a month.”

My hope is that Latter-day Saints who watched this episode of Downton Abbey came away with that message rather than the more hateful ones which are still too prevalent in Mormon Culture. I kept worrying that Thomas, as is true of many Latter-day Saint gays and lesbians, would take his life in his despair. I was pleased that he responded to the butler, Carson’s accusation that he was “foul” with, “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson. I’m not the same as you, but I’m not foul.” Let’s hope that Latter-day Saint gays who have been and currently are being treated as if they were foul, will experience enough kindness and compassion from others that they will have the confidence to say the same. And that they can love and care for themselves as we should love and care for them. Let’s also hope that it won’t take another hundred years for such gospel-centered treatment of gays to be reflected in the attitudes of local members and leaders. We’ve come a long way in a hundred years, but not nearly as far as we need to.tdy-130208-PBS-downton-3-11a.photoblog500

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