Reaching Out and Embracing Ambiguity

Confession: Nothing has been more painful to my spiritual life as a practicing Latter-day Saint than the disclosure last November of a Church policy that labeled individuals in a gay relationship as apostates and that excluded their children from baptism until they reach the age of eighteen (and then only if they do not live with their gay parent(s) and only after they “disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage”). I have gay friends and family members, several of whom are married and some of whom have children, and I know them to be wonderful, kind, nurturing couples who share the same kinds of relationship and parenting problems that my wife and I have had and who have modeled behaviors and attitudes that I have tried to emulate. This policy rocked my world in a major way.

That being said, I am thrilled with the new update to the https://mormonandgay.lds.org/  website. While I know there are things to criticize, I believe it represents a big step in the right direction for my church. Here are my top takeaways:

1. The website recognizes the fundamental truth that God loves gay people. Under the heading “Church Teachings,” the first teaching listed is “God loves all his children.” There’s no conditional clause attached. God loves all his children PERIOD. Amen to that!

2. The website owns that the proper way to treat gay people is to love them. We all know the two great commandments: love God; love each other. But the website elaborates on what love looks like. “What does it mean to love one another? Love cares. Love listens. Love includes. Love inspires.” And the website’s first piece of advice for parents of gay children “You will never regret saying ‘I love you.’” It goes on to admonish Church members that “we all have a responsibility to create a supportive and loving environment for all our brothers and sisters.”

3. It tells parents of gay children to not ask “why” but “how.” “How can I help? How can I be the mom or dad my child needs? How can we learn from this?” It lets parents know that it’s not their “fault” that their child is gay, and that it’s normal to have feelings of grief about realizing that their “perfect” LDS family is just as normal as everyone else’s.

4. It announces that it’s now ok to identify as gay, even if you’re LDS. “If one experiences same-sex attraction, he or she can choose whether to use a sexual identity label. Identifying oneself as gay or lesbian is not against Church policy or doctrine.” While I wish the website didn’t go on to stipulate that self-identifying “may have undesired consequences in the way one is treated,” it does state unequivocally that “No true follower of Christ is justified in withholding love because you decide to identify in this way.” It may not seem all that significant that it’s ok to self-identify as gay; however, making space for gay and lesbian Mormons is an important step in reducing the prejudice and isolation that many gay people feel in Mormon communities and can also lead to healthier lives.

5. It suggests that Church leaders are also now leaving it up to individuals to decide how they want to self-identify, instead of instructing everyone to use the awkward phrase “same-sex attraction.” “People can make their own choices about how to identify. There are active, temple recommend–holding Church members who comply with the law of chastity and identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. There are active Church members who experience same-sex attraction and never choose to identify themselves using a label. Our primary identity will always be as a child of God.”

6. Not only are Church leaders trusting individuals to make their own decisions about how to self-identify, the website indicates that they are trusting individuals to negotiate how they live their spiritual lives, suggesting that there are different ways to be Mormon and gay (although maintaining that one of those ways is not to marry a person of the same sex).

7. The website acknowledges that sexual desire varies and sexual identity is not binary. “Sexual desire can be fluid and changeable.” This recognizes a reality that Church lessons and teachings have too long ignored and for years actively resisted. It acknowledges that we experience sexual feelings in different ways and that those ways may change over time. And that’s ok.

8. It stresses that one’s sexual orientation is not going to magically change. The website quotes from Elder Holland’s moving October 2015 conference address “Behold Thy Mother” where he recounts a story of reconciliation between a mother and her gay son that does not tie everything up with a tidy bow: “I must say, this son’s sexual orientation did not somehow miraculously change—no one assumed it would.” The website also disavows the use of controversial and refuted conversion therapies: “it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur.” We’ve got history with this one, so it’s time we renounce those practices. It would be nice if we could admit we were wrong too, but baby steps.

9. The website recognizes the tragic correlation between gay Mormons and suicide. “People who experience same-sex attraction or identify themselves as gay may be at higher risk for depression or suicide.” While this is understating the correlation, it is a move in the right direction. (The summer issue of Dialogue published two studies that demonstrate that this correlation has a high degree of significance, pointing toward causation.) The Church is admitting that the clash between Mormon identity and sexual orientation can result in suicidal thoughts and is recommending that “people who are depressed or who may be contemplating suicide need to know they are loved and should be referred to a competent mental health professional.”

10. While the Church continues to use the term same-sex attraction (which some find simply euphemistic and others find down-right derogatory), the website offers a reasonable explanation for doing so: “This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.” Respecting people’s desires is a much better reason to use this term than insisting that there’s no such thing as gay Mormons.

Overall, the thing that really sets this website apart from the previous website is the way it highlights honest stories from gay and lesbian members of the Church, as well as their families, friends, and Church leaders. Of course, the videos represent only gay people who are trying to remain in the Church (and I must emphasize that I completely respect the choices many of my gay friends and relatives have made to live their spiritual lives outside of Mormonism), these stories do not shy away from the difficulties gay Mormons face as they negotiate difficult, soul-wrenching questions about their identity.

I could offer many criticisms of the website, but I’ll save that for another time. But one major concern I must express is that several of the personal narratives involve gay people entering into heterosexual relationships. I have seen too many instances where that has gone extremely poorly, so I think this is something all couples should do with eyes wide open to the potential risks inherent in a mixed-orientation marriage. I recognize that it may work for some couples, but I think the Church should have more space devoted to cautioning both partners about the potential perils of entering such marriages and advice for how to make it work if they do. Certainly, a gay person should never enter into a heterosexual marriage without self-disclosing to their spouse.

I would love to say that this is a new day for Mormons and the LGBTQ community—that even if we don’t have all the answers to our biological and theological questions, we Mormons are committed to fully accepting our gay brothers and sisters into our community—but we are not there. Last November’s policy still stands and many of us are still feeling the pain. With the release of this new website, however, I see a significant attempt by Church leaders to reach out and to continue a conversation.

In one of new website’s most poignant narratives, Tonya Miller eloquently describes coming to terms with the fact that her son is gay: “One of the greatest gifts I received during that season of my life was the ability to live with, for lack of a better term, spiritual ambiguity . . . . Reaching that point, where my faith was not troubled by ambiguity, was essential to finding the peace I needed.” Embracing ambiguity. We Mormons—with all of our “I knows”—don’t have much experience with that. But I think this is the very definition of faith: not knowing, but hoping; loving on and finding peace.

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