Brian Andersen joined the Mormon Church because he was gay. No, really.
Following a disastrous teenage attempt at heterosexual intercourse in a Motel 6, he followed what he calls an “almost stalker-level crazy” crush on a male Mormon friend straight into the heart of the religion. At age 18, he converted to avoid the pressure he felt to have sex with women. In LGBT lexicon, Mormonism was his “beard.” “I could fall back on that old chestnut, ‘I’m waiting for marriage,’” he told The Daily Beast.
Now a happily married gay Mormon husband and father, Andersen has translated his lifetime of experience with the faith into a comic book series about gay and lesbian Mormon superheroes called Stripling Warrior—a reference to a Book of Mormon story about 2,000 young men who fought in an ancient American civil war—with gorgeous art by James Neish.
With two issues released so far and another forthcoming in February, Stripling Warrior tells the story of Samuel Shepard aka the Hand of God, a gay Mormon husband blessed by an angel with the strength of 2,000 stripling warriors who fights sinners by night in crotch-hugging spandex. (“It took me days to sew this boss outfit,” Shepard says of his shiny getup.)
In Issue Two, Shepard joins forces with Fe Fernandez, a Latina lesbian who left the church due to her “love of vagina” but has since been granted holy superpowers and a new name: Luz de Santos, Holy Light.
Together, these heroes face enemies on both sides: There’s Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, apparently still alive and still just as evil as he was in Genesis. And there’s a rogue Mormon leader who unleashes an army of homophobic missionaries to stop the two “apostates.”
But Stripling Warrior is not just a playful and unabashedly gay superhero story; it’s a parable about a church that is deeply divided over the question of same-sex marriage.
Last November, in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Mormon Church instituted a controversial policy change prohibiting any child who primarily resides with same-sex parents from being baptized until they’re 18—8 is the typical age of baptism—and only then if the child “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.” It also defined members who “are in a same-gender marriage”—members like Andersen and his husband—as “apostates,” threatening them with excommunication.
When asked if he feared Church discipline for creating Stripling Warrior, Andersen told The Daily Beast, “Not at all, I’m ready for it. For my husband and I, this [policy] was the proverbial ‘last straw.’ I’m just so exhausted by the Church’s efforts to harm me and my family.”
Approximately 1,500 Mormons protested the new policy by resigning in the immediate aftermath of its implementation. That number has only grown. The Mormon Church has long been opposed to same-sex marriage but, before November 2015, internal policy was less harsh.
The policy change also came at a time when acceptance of homosexuality was actually rising within the faith. According to 2014 Pew data, 36 percent of Mormons now believe that homosexuality should be socially accepted—up 12 percent from 2007.
In Stripling Warrior, Andersen represents this division within Mormonism in the form a missionary character who rescues the two heroes from his homophobic peers.
“Not all of us believe that homosexuals are evil,” he tells Shepard and Fernandez, after incapacitating the attacking missionaries. “I love my Church, I believe in the Gospel, I sustain my First Presidency but I don’t agree that a gay person is less than I am.”
Andersen said that the character was modeled after his own experiences with Mormon allies: “I have a lot of very good straight Mormon friends who are deeply conflicted by the Church’s actions toward gays. I wanted to give them a voice as well.”
But the most important story Andersen tells in Stripling Warrior is his own. As a young man, he served a two-year Mormon mission in Guatemala before trying his hand at dating women again, making excuses—like garlic breath or mono—for his reluctance to kiss them.“All the while I was agonizing over my lack of heterosexuality,” he told The Daily Beast. “Those wannabe straight relationships were doing more damage to my mental state than I could handle.”Then, at age 26 while attending the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, Andersen stopped running.
“Once I came out and embraced my homosexuality and had sex for the first time it was both liberating and terrifying,” he said. “It felt so right and so so so wrong. It was both beautiful and scary.”
In the opening pages of Stripling Warrior, Shepard recalls being visited by an angel after he had “just finished humping [his] new husband to sleep” and feeling “sure [he] was about to be punished for turning [his] back on [his] Latter-day faith.” As it turns out, the angel was there to give him some awesome superpowers and a sword for smiting sinners.
“That comes directly from my own perspective as a newly out homosexual Mormon,” Andersen told The Daily Beast. “I thought I would be punished for turning my back on a church I had loved with every fiber of my being.” Now in his forties, Andersen and his husband, a lifelong Mormon, have a 2-year-old daughter who was born via surrogate. The new Mormon policy will forbid her from being baptized unless she disavows her dads as an adult.
“I’ve since realized that homosexuality is a wonderful gift,” Andersen told The Daily Beast. “It’s so freeing being who I am and loving who I love and living my life free of the weight of being told that I am bad, or wrong.”
That sense of freedom shows in Stripling Warrior as Shepard leaps through town, punishing a man who posted revenge porn before going back home to cuddle and kiss his hunky husband.
Andersen says that he doesn’t want the pro-gay tone of the comic to come across as “anti-Mormon” but, at the same time, he doubts that the Church will ever accept a family like his.
Shepard, on the other hand, seems to be more optimistic. Lying on his husband’s chest at night, reflecting on why an “imperfect” Mormon like him was chosen to fight for God, the superhero imagines a scenario in which things change. “If only the General Authorities of the Church knew a full-fledged homo is a modern-day Stripling Warrior,” he thinks, “their cataracts would burst from their narrow-minded eyes.”
Stripling Warrior is published by So Super Duper Comics and available for purchase in print and digital editions.