Donate to RNS

Gay Mormon, gay Catholic, gay activist: ‘Book of Mormon’ star Rory O’Malley on faith, rights, and religious freedom

“The Book of Mormon” star discusses how members of the LDS Church reacted to his on-stage portrayal of a gay Mormon character and shares his thoughts on bridging the divide between gay rights and religious freedom in a post-DOMA world.

'Book of Mormon' star Rory O'Malley

Rory O’Malley was nominated for a Tony Award for “turning off” his homosexuality as Elder McKinley in “The Book of Mormon.” In the satirical song “Turn it Off,” O’Malley’s closeted character tells fellow Mormons:

“Boys should be with girls,
That’s Heavenly Father’s plan.
So if you ever feel you’d rather be with a man,
Turn it off!”
O’Malley was raised Catholic in Ohio and says he “turned off” his gay identity until the age of 19. “I could have written that song,” he said of “Turn it Off”in an interview. O’Malley didn’t write it, but the character Elder McKinley was very much written with him in mind.

O’Malley is now a leading activist for marriage equality and co-founder of Broadway Impact. The grassroots organization helped stage the play “8” based on actual court transcripts surrounding California’s controversial Proposition 8, which rolled back the rights of same-sex couples to marry in the state in 2008. “8” has been staged more than 400 times around the U.S. and will be performed in Tokyo—in Japanese—for the first time in November.

I spoke with O’Malley about how his personal faith and upbringing influenced his “Book of Mormon” portrayal and about the state of gay rights and religious freedom in the U.S. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

BP: Your Twitter profile says, “I’m not a Mormon but I played one on stage.” How would you describe your faith?

Rory O'Malley

‘Book of Mormon’ star Rory O’Malley

RO: I’m from an Irish Catholic background. I went to church every Sunday and went to Catholic schools. I would say I have strong faith in a higher power now, but I’m not Catholic.

BP: What does your character Elder McKinley in “The Book of Mormon” represent?

RO: The character represents any religion really. Elder McKinley is a closeted Mormon who sings about “turning off” his homosexuality “like a light switch.” I identify with that character 100 percent. I didn’t know what Mormonism was in detail before this process, but I certainly knew this character.

Catholicism has the same view pretty much. In Mormonism, it seems you can be gay, but you can’t act on it. It’s basically the same principle Catholicism applies to gay people. You’re not sinful because you’re gay, but acting on it is a sin. You’re trapped and cornered. You’re left with no way to connect with anyone, or forced to falsely connect with a woman. In essence, you’re told to “turn it off.”

BP: When did you stop turning it off?

RO: I didn’t come out until I left home and went to college in Pittsburgh. It was the first time I’d been around people who didn’t go to church on a regular basis. My eyes were opened. There were a lot of people not much older than me who were open and out with their sexuality and didn’t instantly go to Hell. They were living happy lives. That was the point I realized that I needed stop praying for God to change me and to instead pray for God to accept me for who I was, and to help me accept that.

As time went on, I started accepting and loving myself. I realized that this is definitely how God made me, and this is a gift. That realization made me empathize with the world in a new way. I feel like it’s made me open my eyes to injustice all over the world and to try to do something to help in my own way.

BP: I understand you met with Mormons and read some of the real Book of Mormon to prepare for your role as Elder McKinley. What are your thoughts on the Church?

RO: Obviously as a gay man I have some reservations and disappointments about how the church has dealt with the gay marriage issue. It’s difficult not to hold some resentment.

When I volunteered with my church in Cleveland where I grew up, no one was talking about homosexuality, just helping the less fortunate. I’m so in awe of Mormons who go on these missions and help communities. I just wish they weren’t also trying to get people to sign up to a certain way of thinking that can be destructive, especially to some people in the gay community.

BP: How did Mormons you met react to the show?

RO: I’ve had a lot of ex-Mormons come to the show and be very open about how they loved it. A lot of Mormons said they enjoyed the show too, that it brought back memories. These missionaries are going to places of dire poverty, and they have stories even worse than what we show.

There are some very conservative Mormons who came, and I could tell they were a little shocked. I don’t think you have to be Mormon to be shocked or offended by the show. I don’t think its necessarily offensive to Mormons, I think it’s equally offensive to all human beings.

BP: In 2009 you co-founded Broadway Impact to advance marriage equality. Has your mission changed with DOMA being overturned?

RO: We kind of have this motto now of “no gay left behind.” A lot of people, especially in New York and California, say, “Great! We did it!” I’m from Ohio and my fiancé is from Indiana. We can’t get married in our home states. We can’t rest until all 50 states have marriage equality. I think the theatre community has the unique ability to reach out to those places.

BP: What role do you see faith playing in the marriage equality debate?

RO: It’s all up to the individual. I have a strong faith, but I’m not going to get married in a church. I’m always surprised when people defend marriage inequality because they think churches will be forced to perform gay marriages. I haven’t met any gays who want to barge through the doors of a Baptist church for their wedding.

BP: What role do you think religion plays in perpetuating or combating homophobia?

RO: Seeing religious leaders who embrace the gay community is one of the most powerful messages right now. It’s not the final frontier, but it’s certainly getting there. We have a president who supports marriage equality and has been re-elected on that stance. We’re happy we have a pope who seems not to hate gay people, who uses less intolerant language about gay people. That seems like progress for us, which shows that the bar is pretty low for religious leaders in our world right now. I think they have a wonderful ability to speak to people about what Jesus, faith and religion should be about — accepting everyone as God’s creatures. I  think this issue also provides a chance for religious communities to grow by accepting everyone.

BP: A lot of groups frame LGBT rights and religious freedom as two rights fundamentally at odds. What do you think?

RO: I do not see them as being at odds, whatsoever. I think it seems redundant when legislators put in special provisions, like they did in New Hampshire, to protect churches from having to perform same-sex marriages. Freedom of religion is very strong in this country, and I don’t think that giving rights to the gay community will infringe on that at all.

BP: How did the play “8” come about?

RO: Back when the trial that eventually overturned Proposition 8 was happening, we wanted it to be seen on tape. The Supreme Court wasn’t going to release the tapes, which was upsetting to many in the gay community. So we decided to stage the transcripts from the trial and to have a big night to fundraise for the trial and to bring the play to communities everywhere.

Putting the cast together in New York and L.A. was a no-brainer. Hundreds of people then signed up to stage it in their communities. The goal is to bring it to communities in all 50 states and to have people start this conversation in places where it’s not happening. I’ve always said that theaters in small towns are oases for gay communities. It’s important that they feel empowered to reach out to their neighbors.

O’Malley is currently rehearsing for the musical adaptation of “Little Miss Sunshine,” which opens next month in New York.