Behold, I am a dry tree
There’s something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, regarding LGBTQ issues and the LDS church, but I’ve repeatedly put it off. Until now, I told myself I should wait until I’m more certain about my stance on it before speaking publicly. But I’ve realized that my stance hasn’t changed much in the last little bit, even as I’ve changed. And I figure there’s no harm in talking about it, as long as I make it clear that this is just my current stance, knowing that it will certainly change over time.
So, as many of you know, I’m a Mormon. And, as many of you know, I’m gay. Both of these things mean different things to different people, so before I get too much into the meat of all this, I want to explain what “Mormon” and “gay” mean for me.
To be frank, I’ve hesitated to refer to myself as Mormon for a few years. For a long time, I didn’t really feel like I had much of a testimony at all. I went through phases of trying to believe and phases of not really trying. However, I had some personal experiences that kept me tethered to the church, so I never fully left. And then about a month ago, a confluence of experiences and insights helped me get to a place where I felt like I could actually say that I believed in the theology of Mormonism, even if my level of belief isn’t quite to the same extent as a lot of people I know. (I’m not gonna get into the details of what those experiences and insights were, but if you want to know more about them feel free to ask me and I’d love to talk about it.) So basically, by saying I’m a Mormon, I mean that I generally believe in the theology of Mormonism — in the Mormon understanding of God and in a Mormon soteriology. I wouldn’t say that I know any of it, and I doubt all of it. But I believe it.
When I say I’m gay, all that I mean is that I’m male, and I’m attracted to men. I don’t mean that I’ve had any sexual or romantic experiences with men. I’m simply referring to my sexual orientation. I also mean that I am quite confident this is not going to change, and that there’s nothing I can do to change it. It’s something I’ve accepted and incorporated as part of my identity. I don’t feel guilty about it or bad about it in any way.
Now, to get to what I really wanted to talk about. The gist is this: I believe there is some important stuff missing from the collective conversation about the church and LGBTQ issues.
In my experience, most discussions of this topic fall into one of three camps: 1) “It’s okay to be gay, but the church tells us that it’s wrong to act on those feelings, so you just need to have faith in God and be celibate or enter into a mixed-orientation relationship,” 2) “Why would anyone stay in a religion that fundamentally tells them that who they are is wrong?” and 3) “It doesn’t matter what your stance is on the church or on LGBTQ people, we should just love each other and be respectful of people’s different decisions.”
I would like to address each of these stances and explain what I think is missing from the conversation. (Also, I know that I’m simplifying these stances. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. This is just a complicated issue, and for me to get to what I want to say, I have to summarize a bit.)
1) “It’s okay to be gay, but the church tells us that it’s wrong to act on those feelings, so you just need to have faith in God and be celibate or enter into a mixed-orientation relationship.”
Of course I understand this position — those are the commandments within this religious framework, after all. However, as a gay man, I have to say that I think most people who argue this simply do not understand how difficult it is to actually do. Additionally, over time I have come to feel that there is nothing uniquely negative about my sexual orientation. It does not feel like a temptation, or a trial, or a thorn in my side, or whatever. It just feels like a part of me — both for good and bad, just like sexuality is for heterosexual people. As such, frankly, it is very difficult to consider the prospect of committing to a life of permanently repressing that part of myself. This is especially true for someone with my level of belief — in which I have significant doubts. Ultimately, in other words, when people argue that you should just keep the commandments, it feels like they do not understand what it actually feels like to be gay.
2) “Why would anyone stay in a religion that fundamentally tells them that who they are is wrong?”
Again, I understand this position — being able to accept your sexuality and act on it obviously has extremely positive benefits. It provides a lot of self-acceptance — something that is very easily damaged by a religion that tells you that acting on your feelings is wrong. However, when people make this argument, it seems to me that they fundamentally don’t understand what religion is and why people participate in it. If someone is a member of a religion, usually it is because they believe that that religion is the actual, literal truth. They aren’t there just because it seems like a pleasant way to think about things. It is because they believe it. Just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean that a believer can just suddenly decide, “Hey I don’t believe this anymore,” even if there are aspects of it that may be difficult for them. I think you have a right to respectfully try to convince them that they are wrong, but to just assume that they will agree with you just because of one or two unanswered questions they may have — that seems inappropriate to me.
3) “It doesn’t matter what your stance is on the church or on LGBTQ people, we should just love each other and be respectful of people’s different decisions.”
Like, duh. Obviously. Who wouldn’t agree that we should be respectful? In some communities it might be worth explaining this to some people, but I don’t think it really sheds any new light on the situation. It’s simply a way of saying “Hey, maybe it would be good if we acted like decent human beings.” As such, I just don’t know that it needs to be argued or reiterated further.
What I disagree with about this statement is that, frankly, for me, as an individual, it absolutely does matter what my stance is on the church and LGBTQ people. I have to live. I have to make decisions. It matters. I want to find the truth. And I want other people to find the truth. And so I believe that their stance matters too. Obviously I don’t think it’s right to treat anyone any differently if they do have a different stance on the issue. But I still think their stance matters.
So what’s left? What do I see that’s missing? Well, a lot of it just has to do with the fact that I think it’s just more complex than this when it comes down to real people. Like I said, I understand all of these stances, but I think they are all an attempt at simplifying the whole thing just to make it easier to talk about or digest or whatever. But it’s not that simple when it comes down to it.
I spent some time at the beginning of this explaining what Mormon and gay mean to me, and that’s because I think the complexity becomes present when we try to apply these ideas to real people. So allow me to use myself as an example for a moment.
For me, it is not as simple as just saying that the church fundamentally tells me that who I am is wrong. I don’t think that’s true. The church isn’t that mean. Yes, the way that people go talk about this in the church is often very problematic, and it has real negative consequences. But there are simply a lot of things about the church that matter to me, that I believe in, and that help me feel closer to the truth. So I’m not just going to give it up.
Likewise, it’s not as simple as just keeping the commandments. Why are homosexual relationships against the commandments? Is it because of the need to physically procreate in the eternities? Is it really because there is something so fundamentally different about all men and all women that all heterosexual relationships are healthier than all homosexual ones? I’ve thought about this a lot and while I’ve thought of some potential reasons, nothing has ever felt really solid to me. Additionally, as I said, I feel good about my sexuality. To speak spiritually, it is difficult for me to believe that it is just a struggle that I have that I have to overcome or that will be cleared up in the next life. It feels like I have it for a purpose. No one — not theologists, not psychologists, not biologists — knows why queer people exist. But there seems to be a reason. And to just shut away that part of myself feels harmful and wrong.
I want to make covenants in the church. I believe there is something profound about the liturgy. However, I also want to have relationships with men, and that doesn’t feel wrong to me. I have questions about why this is a conflict. And I think it’s important to ask those questions, to talk about them, to talk about how difficult this is, how we don’t understand it, and how making decisions regarding all of this is so tricky.
Basically, my point is that I just want it to be okay to problematize the whole thing. The reason I felt the need to talk about my personal dealings with this is that I feel like no one is willing to acknowledge how hard it is because they don’t want to talk about themselves. It’s hard to explain how hard something is without talking about how you feel about it personally (and don’t worry about me, I could have gotten much more personal). So I just want to say that, for me, this whole thing is really, really hard. It sucks. And I think that’s okay.
I want us to find the right answer. And I think that it would be a lot easier if we stopped trying to act like it’s simple just so we can stop worrying about it. Or, if it is simple for you, please at least acknowledge that it’s not that simple for everyone.
Anyways I guess that’s all I wanted to say for now. Maybe this is too long for essentially a nonconclusion. It’s just that when I think about this, it’s at least this messy in my head. It wouldn’t feel honest if I were to end this any other way.