Out in the World with Writer J SETH ANDERSON
J Seth Anderson is an inspirational force of nature in Phoenix, Arizona (now Salt Lake City). From his beginnings in a strict Mormon community, to his work with LGBTQ rights and into Arizona politics, Anderson has propelled himself to places most would never dare to go. I got to chat with him about his recent book and his past and future travel experiences.
BMN: Seth, you’ve been a avid traveler most of your life and not to the popular travel destinations either. Why Russia? Why China?
JSA: When I was 19, Russia was chosen for me. I was a Mormon missionary and was sent to Russia. You don't have a say in where you are sent but being from the southwest United States I thought I'd go to Mexico or South America. You can imagine my surprise when I learned I had been sent to Russia. I was there for 2 years where I learned the language and fell in love with the country and the history and culture. I went back for a semester of school when I was at ASU. Russia has a special place in my heart because I spent 2.5 years there.
China is just because the opportunity came up. My boyfriend is in grad school and as part of his program he gets to attend a lot of conferences and sometimes they are overseas. This year the conference is in Beijing, and I just had to buy airfare. So I said yes to that! After his conference, we are going to hop on a plane and go visit my sister who currently lives in Tokyo. Traveling isn't so expensive when you have someone to stay with for free.
BMN: In the film Disciples, you detail that your trip to Russia was a Mormon mission, but it led to your coming out. Do you think going to Russia was the driving force behind you opening up that side of yourself at that particular time? Is there something about traveling that encourages people to embrace their lives in a different way?
JSA: To go from being a young, suburban middle-class teenager into rural and poor parts of Russia was eye opening. You learn quickly that you don't have all the answers and that the world is a much bigger place than your suburban Mormon backyard. I wouldn't say being in Russia was a driving force but being abroad at that age does challenge you and your beliefs and if you're paying attention you realize that everyone has much more in common than not. I suppose being in Russia at a young age has helped make me more courageous. Whenever something seems too difficult or frightening I say to myself, "Self, you lived in Russia for 2.5 years. What are you afraid of?"
BMN: I think many people may have some stereotypes about Mormons being fairly closed off from other cultures, however missions are such a large part of the Mormon experience that you would have to be exposed to diverse cultures. To what extent do you feel that these outside cultures influence Mormons/Mormonism?
JSA: Outside cultures influence each individual missionary, but I wouldn't say those cultures influence the church as an organization. For a lot of young men and women, being abroad does seem to give them a new perspective and a lot of liberal Mormons will talk about how being on a mission in (fill in the blank) exposed them to new ideas that eventually led to their unorthodox views. The other side of the coin is that for many people being abroad and seeing the "evil" world only reinforces their belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong so they hold tighter to their narrow views.
BMN: You are about to embark on a new adventure by relocating to Salt Lake City to pursue your Masters in History and taking a trip to China. That’s a coming home and a brand new adventure at the same time. What are you anticipating about going back to Salt Lake City? Do you think there will be parallels between going somewhere entirely new and going home again (if you can "go home again")?
JSA: I've been thinking about this a lot. I moved away from Utah as a kid, but it has always been the one constant in my life. I have been to Utah every single year of my life (except for those 2 years when I was a missionary in Russia) for family reunions, funerals, holidays, etc. In a lot of ways Utah is home, even though I've spent more time in Arizona, so I guess I'm lucky that I have two homes. This will be my first time living in Utah as a non-Mormon. I had my name removed from the records of the Church after Prop 8 so technically I'm not a Mormon anymore. Except that being a Mormon is just as much a culture and identity as it is a religion, so I am still Mormon and always will be. I haven't lived in Utah since being an out, LGBT activist. My involvement in that won't end in Salt Lake, in fact, it will get intense. In a lot of ways moving back to Utah seems like a big paradox. Even though, it is old and familiar, I see the world through totally different eyes now, so it still feels new and exciting.
BMN: You’ve expressed in the past, that you’ve had a love affair with Phoenix, dry heat and everything! What is it about Phoenix that you love so much?
JSA: You have to be tough to live in Phoenix. You have to be able to deal with extremes. You have to appreciate subtly and subtle beauty, or just be able to see things that aren't there but unlike a mirage, could be. Phoenix is a place for self-motivated, self-starters. If there is something that doesn't exist in town, you can be the one to make it exist, so don't just sit around and wait for someone else to do it. I'm also more prone to root for the underdog and in a lot of ways Phoenix is the underdog. Because of our toxic legislature who represent a tiny but very vocal segment of the population, Arizona is perceived as a backwater hick state. And it's not. So someone has to be on the front lines advocating for our image, helping to change the world and our community one small victory at a time. I can have a bigger impact on my community in Phoenix than I could have in a bigger city.
BMN: How did Downtown Phoenix (Images of America) come to be? How did you get involved?
JSA: I had been blogging on various websites about demolished historical buildings that had been downtown. One of the stories caught the eye of Jim McPherson who is one of the co-authors on the book. When Arcadia Publishing approached him about working on the book he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it and, of course, I did. Over the course of about 9 months, we wrote the outline of the book and the initial drafts plus began doing a lot of research. We reached out to the community and cast a wide net looking for historic, never before seen photos. Basically, we were looking for anyone who had a box of photos they had found in their grandma's basement. We got a lot of pictures that way plus from the state archives, the Jewish Historical Society, The Junior League of Phoenix, and other historical societies. We were diligent in our work and turned in the manuscript a month early.
BMN: Be More Naked is about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and you’ve certainly proven that you’re a believer in that mentality in all kinds of arenas, but more recently you actually did get fairly naked on stage. Was that a new experience for you? Has the burlesque bug bitten?
JSA: Last October I was thinking, "I want to be in Rocky Horror someday" then the very next day our friend, Scott, came up to me, and he said, "you're gonna be Rocky in my Rocky Horror Show." It wasn't a question, it was a statement, and I thought about it, and what I'd have to wear, you know, the little gold shorts, and I started feeling exhilaration and fear. But I did it. When it came down to it, I was fairly naked in front of a room full of people, and I felt great. I would consider burlesque, I'm not really a dancer, but I could learn. I'd do it. In July, I'm supposed to be doing a burlesque photo with Pyrrah Sutra from Phoenix. It's top secret for now, but I'm sure it will be awesome when that happens. I can give you a hint, I'll be fairly naked in it with Pyrrah, so I've been watching my diet and working on my abs.
BMN: I'll be on the look out for that photo shoot! In the meantime, I pulled up the one above as a teaser.
J Seth Anderson certainly knows how to Be More Naked. To keep up with J Seth Anderson's adventures, find him on his blog, Boy Meets Blog.