As a devout Mormon who is also an out gay man, I occasionally get letters from people looking for insight, validation, or a simple sounding board. So I wasn’t surprised when, a few days ago — in the wake of some unfortunate remarks made at my faith’s semi-annual conference — I received a letter from a friend of a friend. She was distraught and wanted someone to listen to her as she wrestled with feelings that had no other outlet.
It’s truly a blessing to receive letters like this. I take them seriously and do my best to respond with both care and haste; it’s a fine line.
It was a long letter, as these sorts of things go, so I decided to reply inline.
I share the letter with you, with permission, in hopes that it might prove useful for others …
JS: Christian, you probably don’t remember me — we’ve met a few times at events and symposia — but I’ve had these thoughts rattling around my head, lately, and I finally pounded them out on my computer.
DCH: Of course I remember you!
JS: You seem more willing to discuss these things than most people I know, so I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts… on this hot button topic!
DCH: I love that you thought of me. I’ve tried very hard to be someone that was easy to approach when folks had questions. It’s hard work! So I’ll reply as best I can — and be as up-front as possible. And you, in turn, are welcome to follow up with more questions!
JS: I just need to sort out my thoughts on this issue. My religious leaders continuously remind me that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
DCH: They’re my leaders too. I’m an active and faithful Latter-day Saint … I served a full time mission in Québec, Canada … and I currently have 4.5 callings in my ward (including Elders Quorum instructor).
JS: Yet there are some of Heavenly Father’s children who have same-gender attraction. I can’t put judgment on these people!
DCH: As a gay man, I appreciate this.
JS: NO-ONE would CHOOSE to put themselves through the heart-wrenching trials that are faced by those with same gender attraction. I can’t come to the conclusion that being gay is a choice. They are children of our Heavenly Father, who were born with certain attributes and tendencies exactly the way everyone else is.
DCH: I think you’re close, here, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the first sentence.
Let’s face it: the difficulty of a trial is not a good gage as to whether folks would choose it. My mother, for example, chose to start smoking at 16 — she’s now dying of emphysema. She probably did not choose the consequences, but she certainly made choices that locked her into certain outcomes.
Regardless, being gay is most certainly not a choice. There is significant research in this area and scientists agree that homosexuality is most certainly biologic in origin. Just like being straight. Or being left-handed. Or blue-eyed.
JS: Here is where the dilemma lies; should these people have to live a life alone without the closest of relationships? Telling them that they cannot marry is saying that they should only have shallow, brief relationships. Not stable lifelong ones. OUCH!!! If you take religion out of the picture all together, then it is obvious what is better for society in general. Everyone knows this. Solid households, stable relationships, this is what our society NEEDS, yet we tell people that they are not allowed, because they desire to have this relationship with someone of the same gender. So we would prefer them to go from partner to partner? How is this better?
I guess there is the school of thought that same-gender attraction is sin and should not be acted upon. OUCH again! Heavenly Father gave us ALL sexual urges, yet for some it is sin?
DCH: This is mostly rhetorical, so I’ll just nod my head in agreement.
JS: One thing that I can agree with whole-heartedly is that sexual relationships should be reserved for marriage. The end. It is better spiritually and socially. But that just brings us back to the beginning. You told gay people that they can’t get married!
JS: No-one wants to know what is going on in the bedroom of married couples, no-one mandates what is right and wrong there. Unless you’re gay. Why is no-one all riled up that there are heterosexual couples who have intercourse outside the bounds of marriage? Isn’t this more disturbing than gay people wishing to have sex with-in the bounds of marriage? Isn’t it more disturbing that less and less people don’t want to get married at all? That children are being born without families intact; families that are needed for emotional and financial support?
DCH: Again, this is mostly rhetorical, so I’ll just nod my head in agreement.
JS: I think if we put more energy into making families happen instead of making sure they don’t, that our society would be headed in a better direction.
DCH: My thoughts, exactly.
JS: Once upon a time my very same religion told us not to marry outside our race, yet I am sealed for eternity to someone of a different race. What changed?
DCH: We changed.
JS: So now what?
DCH: So, first and foremost: this is obviously something you’ve thought about and have strong feelings about … if you want to put a little effort into the mix, I’d encourage you to “like” the Facebook page for Mormons Building Bridges. They’re a group of faithful Latter-day Saints, just like you. They’ll share ideas and give encouragement, and a couple times a year they’ll have opportunities for members to roll up their sleeves:
Second, I’d like to put forward a couple ideas that answer some questions that are implied in what you’ve written above. I’m making some assumptions, of course … but I hope it helps:
1) Our Leaders are Imperfect.
Our leaders are imperfect — not just in the day-to-day stuff, where they sometimes lose their temper — but in the big stuff, too. We’ve been reminded of this time and again throughout the 200 years the Church has been around. But we often forget it because pretending that out leaders are perfect or some other silliness is comforting — it means we have to think and do less. But my testimony doesn’t rely on our leaders being perfect. It resides in the quiet whisperings of the Spirit that we’re doing the Lord’s work.
2) “Sustain” & “Obey” are not Synonyms
So what do we do when they’re wrong? Doesn’t sustaining our leaders mean agreeing with them? No. A lot of people think that “sustain” and “obey” are synonyms. They aren’t. “Sustain” actually, literally, means to “hold up from beneath”. It hasmore meanings than that, of course. But that’s its literal meaning. One of my favorite associations for the term is “sustenance” — it’s about feeding and keeping something alive! Sustaining is much less about obeying and much more about hoping the person we’re sustaining succeeds in their calling — and helping them to do so! It’s about helping our bishops, our choir directors, and our apostles magnify their calling. Even when — especially when — they’re wrong. You have to figure out how to do that, of course, and that’s okay: we’re meant to work out our own salvation — “with fear and trembling before the Lord”.
3) This isn’t Happening in a Vacuum
Where does all of this come from and why do our leaders not see that they’re wrong? Well we’re all a little afraid of things that are different. That bumper sticker that says “no one’s born a bigot” is wrong. We’re all born a little bigoted. We don’t like things that are different. It’s part of our genetic make-up that served us well for 100s of millions of years. The great thing is that we’re not just genetic creatures — we’re also cultural creatures — and children of heavenly parents who want more from us than what our genes dictate.
Our leaders are all by-products of an era that specifically targeted homosexuals. You see, for much of the world, homo-sociality is the norm. Homo-sociality is what you have in countries where mixing of the sexes doesn’t happen all that often outside of marriage. And just 100 years ago, the US was no exception. So when America went to war in in 1917, it drafted young men who were used to holding hands and being physically close — intimate, even — with other men. In the trenches, this homo-sociality became sexual and sexually transmitted diseases flourished — to the horror of military command. It’s been said that they vowed never to let that happen. And they didn’t. Whether it was official or not might be debated, but the evidence is clear: by the outbreak of WWII — just 20 years later — the military was home to a savage anti-homosexual furor.*
Our leaders grew up in that era — some served and others were the children of men who served. The vitriole spread, and America became downright homophobic.
So if you grew up thinking that gays were monsters — barely human; given over to the most perverse behaviors — how much effort would it take for you to ask God if everything you thought on the subject was wrong? Especially when the gays you saw on TV and in the media looked just like the boogeymen your parents and drill sergeants told you about?
It might take decades. It might never happen.
And since change in the Church requires unanimity among the Brethren, one or two hold-outs make a huge difference.
4) So What Do We Do?
We live out loud … we become the best we can be. We love our gay children and neighbors. We earnestly fight for normalization outside of the Church. And then … well, then, by their fruits you shall know them: gays will be great parents and earnest spouses, great politicians and leaders of industry. They’ll also be muggers and used car salesmen. And the Brethren won’t be able to testify to anything but that gays are just humans who happen to love differently.
I closed the letter and encouraged her to keep in touch.
We live in an amazing age — one of profound and pervasive change. Scary? Yes, a little. But so are most journeys. And I’m excited to bear witness of these changes to my children and grandchildren — both in society at large and in my little corner of the global faith community.
* The theory I sketched about the role of the US military in promulgating homophobia in response to their experience in WWI was something I’d read many years ago. I wish I could remember the source … but this was a letter and not an article , so I felt no compunction in sharing it as I did. Leads in locating the source would be appreciated.
This post part of Queer Pioneer Week at Approaching Justice.