Celestial Undies: An Interview with Katie Jung – Momoko Allard

Katie Jung, my good friend and tie-dye compatriot, has been working on various interconnected art projects that involve, among other things, collaborations with family and friends, and underwear. I recently sat down with her to ask more about them.

Momoko Allard: You and I have been talking a lot about the challenges and contradictions of belonging to certain communities, and the experience of moving between different communities that let us do different things. Can you share a bit about the spaces you found yourself in as a kid growing up, and then getting older, being able to choose your own affiliations?

Katie Jung: In the past year I have “out-ed” myself as a (“former”) Mormon to a lot of my friends and colleagues, some of whom have known me for ten years. Some jaws dropped to the ground and others laughed and sensationalized my upbringing. Paralleling this, I also came out as queer to an aunt and uncle of mine in Utah who have a gay son who’s struggling to come out. My aunt reaffirmed that I am special and that god still loves me, which made me chuckle, because it’s something I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager.

My Mormon childhood was a busy one: three hours of church on Sunday, adult-supervised dances, charity projects, and game nights (no face cards allowed), coupled with unsupervised hanging out with church friends, birthdays, and sleepovers. I attended daily early morning Bible study, choir, youth activities, temple trips, firesides, personal progress, scripture bowls, arts and crafts, theatre roadshows, basketball in the cultural centre, testimony meeting and proselytizing. The straight and narrow Mormon path is a jam-packed one.

In high school in Victoria, BC, I’d get a ride everyday from my early morning Bible study class and arrive at school forty-five minutes early. I had to skirt questions about why I was so early and learned to draw attention to myself in ways that I could control, as a way to protect differences that I couldn’t control. I would sooner wear exaggerated vintage dresses everyday than be asked why I was wearing a dress on a Sunday. I also became an outspoken vegetarian, which was a gateway to my involvement with groups like Women in Woods and BearWatch, and protests to raise the minimum wage and lower the voting age. Suddenly I found the skills I had learned in fundraising, doing service projects, and speaking in church were immediately transferable to this new activist community I was entering, and I started to move between these two worlds. When my Mormon friends were less than supportive of my revolutionary pastimes, it drove a wedge between us as I became more connected with people in the greater community. And while radical politics were not accepted within my Mormon circles, religiosity was not an option within my activist circles and therefore I kept it a secret from my new friends as I drifted away from the church.

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MA: Since then, how have you maintained ties with your family and upbringing?

KJ: During my childhood, traveling the 18-hour drive back and forth to Salt Lake City was a common constant, once or twice a year. The last time I took one of those trips was over a decade ago when I was sixteen. I moved away from my family to Montreal a year later, and have lived here since then. In 2010, my sister Hannah also moved to Montreal to study at Concordia University. During this year, the boundaries I had tried to set up between my queer life and my Mormon family became much harder to maintain, especially when my sister wound up being in classes with some of my friends.

Hannah is in her early twenties and is still a member of the Mormon Church. Doing her Religious Studies degree in Montreal allowed her to develop a critical approach to her own religiosity that she was unable to find within the church. Her professors and peers welcomed her feminist analysis of Mormon theology. But since Mormon religion wasn’t something we talked about, this was never part of conversations between the two of us.

After graduating in 2012, my sister moved to Salt Lake City to begin her first big job at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, working in the women’s history archive. She showed up on her first day only to find out that she wasn’t allowed to wear pants to work. It was in that moment that she reached out to me—who better to call than your queer sister back in Montreal when you get shamed for wearing pants to work? She explained that she had been excited to have a new “professional look” and couldn’t believe that her work place actually wished to emulate not a “business atmosphere” but a “church” one. It was at this point that I realized that we’d had a lot of parallel experiences navigating gender norms, mine when I left the church, and hers sticking it out – “holding to the rod” as Mormons say. And because her situation at work was so ridiculous, it was easy to laugh and brainstorm ways to rustle her coworkers’ feathers. She started writing rants about it on her blog, ohhheck.wordpress.com, and had ten minutes of fame in the Mormon blog world.

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Out of this experience, we began talking on the phone regularly about navigating our conservative family as well as the Mormon landscape she was suddenly in the midst of in SLC. From these conversations, we decided to collaborate on some art projects. I went to visit her in Salt Lake last summer and we made a dress together out of fabric printed with the word “pants” all over it. Among other things, we also made a pair of matching hoodies with drawings of hands printed on the hood representing a text that Hannah had discovered in the archive about controversial blessings, or “laying on of hands,” given by women, but also representing for me queer hands, in various senses. We presented the projects at the annual Sunstone conference, which is sort of a hotbed for Mormons and non-Mormons to speak “progressively” about taboo topics within the church. The conference theme was “Mormon Bodies” and the title of our presentation was “Using the Body as a Site for Discourse.”

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MA: What has your experience been like being queer and going back to Utah?

KJ: Anti-gay rhetoric in Mormon culture operates within a heteronormative framework. The church uses “same-gender attraction” as its key phrase to talk about anything gay, lesbian or trans. I can’t even think of how to locate my own queerness within this binary that doesn’t recognize the notion of ‘queering.’

At the conference, Hannah and I realized early on that we wanted to talk about subversion in a nuanced way. We constantly had to justify to people that we weren’t interested in mocking Mormons or being confrontational. We didn’t present certain parts of our project that we thought could be offensive and shut down dialogue. It was maybe the line between the cultural – Mormon kitsch – and the sacred that we decided not to cross. For example, I had made a Mormon undergarment out of emergency blankets. Since Mormons are fixated on being prepared for the apocalypse, there’s always lots of survival paraphernalia around, and adult Mormons wear special underwear that is supposed to act as a reminder of promises made to god, so I combined the two. But after making the metallic undies, I realized from my sister’s and mom’s reactions to them that the underwear were too touchy, so to speak, to include in the presentation.

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MA: The metallic underwear connect back to what you’re working on here in Montreal.

KJ: For the past year, I’ve been working on a queer undergarments project titled “The revolution is my bf.” I’ve been making and tie-dyeing various types of “queer” underwear for people around me. The project came out of so many private conversations with friends who didn’t want to go swimming because they couldn’t find a bathing suit, couldn’t find underwear that fit, they had binders that ripped and made them feel shitty… The separation between private and public, and these intimate but common things we don’t often talk about openly, was reminiscent for me of Mormon taboos. This project has provided an exciting space within which to have these conversations more openly.

We’ve been talking about things like synthetic materials, why certain garments are so uncomfortable or expensive, about not having a space to try things on, having to buy online, and limitations around customization. A big benefit in being able to make things instead has been not having to go into a store and have your gender or sexuality policed, and creating a space that was more empowering and safe. Dyeing something like a binder could give new life to white elastic that was stained and yellow and gross, which was exciting especially because they cost so much to replace.

Using craft as a way to bring people together, mobilizing people via making things as a way to forge relationships and friendship, using collaborative space as a catalyst for conversation and exchange – all of this connects back in many ways to my Mormon upbringing.

But even though DIY is such a valued queer practice, there have been some hiccups. At certain moments, there has been tension between my goal of creating space to make things collaboratively, and people just wanting me to make things for them. A few people who don’t usually take the time to talk to me approached me saying things like “Can you make me ___? I can pay you to make me something.”

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MA: I’m really interested in the possible parallels between Mormon and queer underwear. Both are things that people outside of these subcultures don’t get to see. Both communicate intimacy, self-identity and vulnerability, and carry forms and symbols that in certain ways shape or map our bodies.

KJ: There are tons of parallels. It’s a coming of age when Mormons first receive their underwear, their “temple garments.” It typically happens when they first go on a mission, or when they get married, and being endowed with the garments is a critical step after baptism that signifies celestial membership in the church. I’ve never experienced it, so my reference points come more in talking around the topic with family members and seeing my parents’ garments in the laundry. Before throwing out old garments, these sacred marks need to be cut out or the whole thing burned. It’s common practice for young single Mormons to cruise each other by looking for temple underwear lines. You could say it operates a bit like gay hankies or gaydar. I think queer underwear also serves to fulfill queer identity or membership, and functions as insider knowledge within communal bounds. My sister saw me sewing o-rings into underwear on Christmas Day, and said really loudly, “But what’s the hole for?” And both are of course so much about sexuality, but operate in different directions. Mormons use underwear to protect themselves from temptation and evil, and preserve their purity. For us queers, special underwear often enables sex, which can become its own powerful, sacred practice.

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MA: Back to the larger question of community: going forward, how do you want to build on your relationship with these two different spaces? What are your challenges, and what are the biggest things you hope to gain?

KJ: Coming from a dogmatic religion, I feel like queerness is also dogmatic in certain ways. We still operate within a set of assumptions that erases people all the time. It’s more obvious to me now why I was so nervous about being open in the past about my Mormon background, because I didn’t at the time feel like I had access to the language to protect myself against people’s critiques and to call out my fellow queers on their oversight of subtle or less visible types of difference.

In sort of the same way, in the Mormon context, family is so fetishized but the projection of what the family is more important than how it’s actually functioning. For example, what kind of care we provide, and how we care. I see this watching my 16-year-old gay cousin coming out in Salt Lake City, and how he is simultaneously loved and silenced by his community.

After coming back from Utah, I realized that I didn’t want to just present myself as having queer politics but instead find overlaps and ways to communicate across and blur borders, to truly engage with people across values. I want my community to be less of just a network or scene, and instead, to actively create spaces that expand queer possibilities.

Momoko Allard is a Montreal-based artist working in drawing, photography and other pictorial mediums. Her art and research interests all relate to understanding how visual representation is used in its many social and cultural contexts. She recently completed work on a visual book titled Parthenogenesis about symmetrical intercourse, and she is the manager of the new Feminist Media Studio at Concordia University. momokoallard.com

Katie Jung‘s work as an artist, professional and community organizer draws from her interest in plural methods and mediums. Driven by multi-disciplinary spaces and the surprising discourses they yield, she supports and initiates collaborative forums. In addition to Katie’s Mormon upbringing and queer undie endeavors, she is involved in a handful of other creative organizing activities including her recent work on a startup anthology for non-normative learning and disability.  She also has worked extensively at Concordia University as a research lab coordinator and facilitator.