“Mormons can be gay, they just can’t do gay”?
Deconstructing Sexuality and Identity from an LDS Perspective
Sexuality is a complex and deeply personal aspect of the human experience, and issues related to same-sex sexuality are increasingly at the heart of cultural debates and discussions surrounding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its doctrines and political positions. It is also increasingly stated as a reason for individuals who are leaving the Church. For example, the recent “Strangers in Zion” effort encouraging Latter-day Saints to request church discipline “in solidarity for other wrongfully excommunicated and otherwise disciplined Latter-day Saints”1 was co-initiated by the father of a gay-identified son and was partly in response to the proposed disciplinary action of John Dehlin, which is purportedly related to his LGBT advocacy efforts.2
I’ve been involved in conversations around this issue for well over a decade now in a wide number of domains, including philosophical, social science, therapeutic, and religious, in addition to it being a part of my personal experience. I’ve also spoken with thousands of individuals about personal and private aspects of their journeys and have worked with a signification portion of them in some therapeutic capacity. This capacity has been an opportunity to get to know people at their most raw and real, where identities and agendas are stripped away, and where they wrestle with their own angels and demons, sorting out the sometimes messy landscape of their inner lives.
It is due to both my academic training and personal experiences with myself and others that I say that “gay” is both a social construct and reductionistic. By “reductionistic” I mean it’s an oversimplification; in trying to get at the essence, instead, it strips it away. Sexuality and relationships strike at the heart of questions of identity and life-purpose and so most people have an agenda. These agendas run the gamut from more personal ones like clinging to problematic beliefs and identities out of a drive for significance or self-preservation, a social or political agenda rooted in beliefs about social rights or social goods, or a religious agenda in which there is a battle for souls and salvation. “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions” (JS-History 1:10), much of truth is simply lost. One psychiatrist wrote that nothing on homosexuality “can be [both] honest and easy to write or read. On a personal level, the topics are bound to be harrowing. On the scientific level, they are complicated, and on the political, they are controversial.”3 To which I would add, on the religious level, they are fraught with potentially eternal consequences.
So much of the controversy happens around unexamined premises and conclusions drawn, often simply accepted without any real critical thought at all. Once we can understand how these have harmed our understanding, we can then move to a better place to articulate a reasonable response to those who question or criticize the Church’s teachings.
To begin, I chose as the title of my talk a statement that captures nicely a trifecta of social construction, reductionism, and controversy: “Mormons say you can be gay, you just can’t do gay.” This (pejorative) statement creates a caricature of our doctrine and practice, conflates issues, introduces false dichotomies, and depicts the Church’s stated doctrinal and policy positions as archaic, inhumane and oppressive, and inhibiting of individuals ability to be their authentic “true selves.” Statements like these contain more heat than light. They plague our discourse about the topic today. Once I show how flawed this construction is, I will then suggest a more nuanced and useful way of thinking about the issues of sexuality and relationship. This is important because if we, as Latter-day Saints, adopt what amounts to a pop cultural caricature of sexuality, we become complicit in some measure of the pain and struggle individuals experience as they seek congruence within the context of faith in the gospel because we are inhibiting their ability to live congruently with their faith.
When we categorize people reductively as “gay,” “straight,” or “bisexual,” or as simply a point along the Kinsey Scale, it assumes that sexuality is one-dimensional and that it exists upon a single linear continuum. It is not and does not. These ideas frame and perpetuate false ideas and a false narrative around sexuality, and they have a tendency to reduce and politicize sexuality in ways that suck our culture into a sort of unthinking sentimentality about love, sex, intimate relationships, and societal goods.
“Gayness” is not “Being”
Latter-day Saints need to understand this more deeply. I’ll suggest here a loose, four-tiered framework combining components of two different models proposed by prominent researchers.4 Those tiered distinctions include:
- Attraction & Desire,
- Behavior, and
Attraction & Desire
Let’s peel back the outer layers of identity, behavior, and orientation and take a careful look, first, at attraction and desire. Attraction and desire are complex, multi-dimensional phenomena. We are attracted to, or desire, different things for different reasons—hobbies, life-philosophies, professions, jobs, friendships, romantic partners, etc. In human relationships alone, romantic or platonic, there are multiple feelings, emotions and impulses that it is important to differentiate between, and yet are frequently lumped together: attraction, desire, love, euphoria, emotional attachment, meaning, and so on. As just one example, in his classic book The Art of Loving, German psychologist Erik Fromm states that, often, what many call love is merely desire—and that desire
can be stimulated by the anxiety of aloneness, by the wish to conquer or be conquered, by vanity, by the wish to hurt and even to destroy, as much as it can be stimulated by love. It seems that sexual desire can easily blend with and be stimulated by any strong emotion, of which love is only one. Because sexual desire is in the minds of most people coupled with the idea of love, they are easily misled to conclude that they love each other when they want each other physically…. [But] if [this] desire… is not stimulated by love, …it… leaves strangers as far apart as they were before.5
Humans are capable of a wide range of tastes and affinities and attractions and impulses, and I sense that culture, emotional maturity, capacity for attachment/intimate relationships, and sense of self or identity have as much or more of an influence on how those attractions develop as do genes or biology. John Thorp, professor of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, noted that “different people naturally have a whole array of different sexual tastes and desires; what we have done is to categorize and label these in such a way that the great divide is established upon the gender of the object of desire, rather than upon its shape, size, vigour, colour, or social class. We have drawn the conceptual lines, and now are puzzled [and, I would add, often conflicted] by them.” He also notes that in many ways even “desires themselves have been socially produced” in that desire is often reflective of context-specific social or cultural phenomena.6
The fact that some African cultures see heavy women as more erotic and sexually preferable to thin women because of cultural attribution of meaning around wealth and social status attached to weight cannot be ignored in the discussion of how sexual and erotic response patterns develop according to subjective beliefs and values. Similarly, consider that in some Chinese cultures muscled tanned bodies are seen as much less erotic or desirable than non-muscled pasty-skinned bodies because of social values and attributions around wealth and status—being a farmer as opposed to a white-collar worker. (Of course in our culture, the opposite tends to be true.)
People often talk about having a “type.” I sometimes joke that I am not at all my wife’s natural type. She’s half Samoan and has said she’s always been primarily attracted to huskier Polynesian men—and add to that that they must be: at least 6 feet, intelligent but not intellectual, spiritual, speak Spanish (her major), really funny and jokey, outgoing, and extroverted. Given that what she got is a 5’ 10”, white pretty boy who is serious and intellectual, majored in Chinese Studies, not very funny or outgoing and a solid introvert who would much rather sit down with a good book on religious philosophy or psychological theory than play board games, I guess I can’t blame people who think our marriage is doomed. And yet she insists that she’s attracted to me and is happy in our marriage. She said that when she realized that I, a white boy, was the man for her and that her children would be really watered down, she felt a tinge of sadness. Yet her actual experience of bearing and raising adorable children who in their miraculous individuality are anything but “watered down,” I think I’m safe to say she’s very happy with how things have turned out.
I would add that particular qualities as aspects or objects of desire are entirely distinct from the internal experience in which we experience attraction and desire through emotional and spiritual vulnerability and bond. This can even become confusing or concerning when it occurs between men who have no inclination to homoerotic behavior. Sam Keen, a former editor of Psychology Today, noted in his book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man:
“Normal” American men are homophobic, afraid of close friendships with other men. The moment we begin to feel warmly toward another man, the ‘homosexual’ panic button gets pressed. It makes us nervous to see French or Italian men strolling down the street arm in arm… From a cross-cultural perspective it is we who are odd; close male friendship is the norm in most societies and is usually considered a more important source of intimacy than romantic relationships.7
I’ve even known of men who questioned their sexuality simply because they developed a deep emotional love for another men. It seems our culture often has difficulty distinguishing deep love and intimacy from sexual or erotic desire, and it certainly doesn’t help when in conservative religious cultures we use terms like intimacy—a general human good and need that transcends sexuality—as euphemism for sex.
We don’t fully understand the complexity of what shapes sexual desire and how the nature and objects of sexual desire change over the life span. Where we often get into difficulty in our efforts to identify or understand the “what” and “why” and “how” of sexual desire is when we try to attribute single-factor, linear cause—whether that be a gene or small cluster of genes, prenatal hormones, finger length, hair swirls, the number of older brothers, temperamental sensitivity, gender non-conforming interest, attachment injuries, enmeshed mothers, distant fathers, peer rejection/dis-identification, sexual abuse, behavioral conditioning or any number of other factors. The popular cultural myths that either people are “born gay” or that they chose to be homosexual or that their homosexuality is caused by parental nurturing (or lack thereof) are all reductionistic and cannot explain much, if anything, about the development of sexuality and sexual desire.
It’s interesting to me that our popular and media culture seems to be so sure about something that science and the academy are not. The American Psychological Association’s official pamphlet addressing sexual orientation concedes this point, noting that ultimately, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles.”8 Some researchers have postured that there is no such thing as “homosexuality,” but rather “homosexualities”—that there are multiple sub-populations with different etiologies making for qualitatively different experiences of sexuality that all lay within a broad and diverse umbrella we call “homosexuality” or “same-sex attraction.”9
Lisa Diamond, a University of Utah researcher known for her research on female sexual fluidity, with some more recent work including men, noted that because sexual fluidity is a general feature of human sexuality. She stated that we have to acknowledge that sexual categories or identity constructs are a heuristic—they’re mental shortcuts that may be helpful in making quick judgments, but which can be problematic in that they also reflect or lead to biases. I would add that they too often give people permission not to think about or seriously consider alternative questions or theories. She said, “We’re not in fact cutting nature at its joints; we’re… imposing some joints on a very messy phenomenon…. We have to be careful about presuming that [these sexual categories] are natural phenomenon.”10
For example, in Dr. Diamond’s research, noting that most studies on same-sex sexuality are problematic in terms of sampling because they’re small, non-random, and self-selected, she explored some large population-based studies with large sample sizes to get a better sense for how people report exclusive or non-exclusive same-sex attractions. The following clip of a recent presentation Dr. Diamond gave surveys some of these studies, proving an interesting view of the spectrum of sexual attraction and desire that is different than what most people might be prone to think (see 9:15 to 17:45):
Beyond the qualitatively diverse and subjective experiences of attraction and desire, we then look at the question of persistence in various patterns of attraction and desire, because there’s a lot of fluidity and variability across the lifespan. In addition, as previously noted, the idea that gender is the chief organizing principle of our “sexual orientation” is the current social construct the dominant culture uses. But it is far from the only possible one. We could just as easily label our sexual orientation around shape, size, race, personal values, ethnic traits, emotional bond, religious belief, social class, or economic status. And there may be greater persistence in some of these variables than the variable of gender preference. We are the ones, as a culture, who have drawn the conceptual lines. They are not inherent. Anyone who is “heterosexual” knows they are not attracted to all or even most people of the opposite sex, and those who are “homosexual” know they are not attracted to all or even most people of the same sex. The mere fact that someone is male or female is insufficient to make them erotically desirable. Therefore, some other factor or cluster of factors is more decisive than mere gender when it comes to erotic attraction. So, why are we attracted to the few of either sex we are attracted to, and how might that inform our “orientation”?
Similarly, in an article for Psychological Review, “What does Sexual Orientation Orient?”, Dr. Diamond proposes a biobehavioral model for romantic love and sexual desire that is based on an assumption that “the evolved processes underlying sexual desire and affectional bonding are functionally independent,” given that sexual and affectional components relationship orientation “do not always agree.”11 Meaning that just finding someone sexually desirable does not mean one will always be romantically bonded to them, or vice versa.
The concept of “sexual orientation,” particularly as it’s been narrowly and exclusively defined by gender, is simply limited and not very explanatory.
Sexual Behavior & Relationships
It is vital to understand is that sexual behavior and relationships arise from values, not the other way around. Whenever I hear people say, “homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice,” (and I hear it often) I scratch my head at how ridiculous it sounds even on the face of it. Anything that can be categorized in terms of “lifestyle” involves some significant measure of personal choice. For Latter-day Saints, “lifestyle” is the factor most easily moderated by exercise of agency. Absolutely fundamental to LDS theology is the concept that we are agentic beings who co-create our world, eternal intelligences who act rather than are acted upon. We are not victims of circumstance but choose our response to that circumstance. As noted by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in his 1995 Ensign article addressing same-sex attraction,
Some kinds of feelings seem to be inborn. Others are traceable to mortal experiences. Still other feelings seem to be acquired from a complex interaction of ‘nature and nurture.’ All of us have some feelings we did not choose, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we still have the power to resist and reform our feelings (as needed) and to assure that they do not lead us to entertain inappropriate thoughts or to engage in sinful behavior.
Different persons have different physical characteristics and different susceptibilities to the various physical and emotional pressures we may encounter in our childhood and adult environments. We did not choose these personal susceptibilities either, but we do choose and will be accountable for the attitudes, priorities, behavior, and ‘lifestyle’ we engraft upon them.12
Given the diversity of experience, and the varied persistence of that experience, for whom might homosexual behavior become a sin and for whom is it simply unfair, as some would characterize, to require individuals who experience homosexual attraction to live the standards guiding sexual behavior and relationship as articulated by Church leaders?
Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke often of the need to “educate our desires” because it is the desires of our hearts that will determine our destiny, not proximate human experiences. I’ve found it to be much more useful to think about the “education of desire” and even the “education” of my sexuality than it has been to pursue “sexual reorientation,” which is another overly reductive concept.
There was a time when my attractions to men were so strong that even though I was committed to living the gospel, I didn’t believe I’d ever marry because I simply didn’t feel I ever could. Over the last ten years since that time, however, with growth in self-awareness and even addressing therapeutically factors that I believe, for me, influenced my sexuality, the way I experience my sexuality now is fundamentally, qualitatively different than it was ten years ago. While I still occasionally experience attraction to men, my desires are such that I can’t tell you the last time I desired a same-sex relationship. I desire only to be with my wife and family. In a similar vein, Joshua Johanson, offered in his 2012 FAIR conference address some meaningful insights on this differentiation between attraction and desire.
Concerning the education or sanctification of desire, President John Taylor noted that the natural “feeling[s] of affection” we have as humans “want sanctifying”:
We have a great many principles innate in our natures that are correct, but… like everything else, [they have] to be sanctified. An unlawful gratification of these feelings and sympathies is wrong in the sight of God, and leads down to death, while a proper exercise of our functions leads to life, happiness, and exaltation in this world and the world to come. And so it is in regard to a thousand other things.13
Christian Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has similarly observed:
We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church…where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out—which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction. And one of the central names for that direction is joy: the joy of relationships healed as well as enhanced, the joy of belonging to the new creation, of finding not what we already had but what God was longing to give us. At the heart of the Christian ethic is humility; at the heart of its parodies, pride. Different roads with different destinations, and the destinations color the character of those who travel by them.14
Proverbs reads, “When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he!” (Proverbs 29:18, New English Translation)
In sum, behavior is guided more by the existential vision that informs our values and desires than it is by biology.
“Being gay” is not a scientific idea, but rather a cultural and philosophical one, addressing the subjective and largely existential phenomenon of identity. From a social constructionist/constructivist perspective, our sense of identity is something we negotiate with our environment. Environment can include biological environment, but our biology is still environment. From an LDS perspective, the essential spiritual person within us exists independent of our mortal biology, so our biology, our body is something that we relate to and negotiate our identity with, rather than something that inherently or essentially defines us. Also, while there has likely been homoerotic attraction, desire, behavior, and even relationships, among humans as long as there have been humans, the narratives through which sexuality is understood and incorporated into one’s sense of self and identity is subjective and culturally influenced. The “gay” person or personality didn’t exist prior to the mid-20th century.
In an LDS context, people often express concern about words that are used—whether they be “same-sex attraction,” which some feel denies the realities of the gay experience, or “gay,” “lesbian,” or “LGBT,” which some feels speaks more to specific lifestyle choices. What’s important to understand, however, is that identity isn’t just about the words we use but the paradigms and worldviews and perceptions of or beliefs about the “self” and “self-hood” through which we interpret and integrate our various experiences into a sense of personal identity, sexual or otherwise. And identity is highly fluid and subject to modification with change in personal values or socio-cultural context. The terms “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” aren’t uniformly understood or experienced in the same way by everyone who may use or adopt those terms, so it’s the way those terms or labels are incorporated into self-hood that accounts for identity. One person might identify as “gay” simply as shorthand for the mouthful “son or daughter of God who happens to experience romantic, sexual or other desire for persons of the same sex for causes unknown and for the short duration of mortality,” while another person experiences themselves as “gay” as a sort of eternal identity and state of being.
An important philosophical thread in the overall experience of identity, is the experience of “selfhood”—what it means to have a self, and what it means to “be true to” that self. The question of what it means to be “true to ourselves” is a philosophical rather than a scientific one. In her book Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self, award-winning science and medical writer Rita Carter explores the plurality of “selves” who live in each one of us and how each of those varied and sometimes conflicting senses of self inform various aspects of our identity(ies). This sense seems to be universal. In the movie The Incredibles, there’s a scene in which IncrediBoy says to Mr. Incredible, “You always, always say, ‘Be true to yourself,’ but you never say which part of yourself to be true to!”
As a final note here, however one chooses to self-identify here in a fallen, temporal world limited by human culture and human language, I firmly believe that, like Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which all social and political constructs were swallowed up in the gospel stone that rolled forth to consume the nations, so will the spiritual ideals and identities of the kingdom of God and the Celestial nature swallow up all of our social identity constructs that blur eternal identity (see Daniel 2:31-45).
While I identified as gay for a time, at one point I had a very strong spiritual prompting that if I continued to identify as gay, it would limit my progression. I believe that the more deeply we understand and feel spiritually connected to eternal realities and our eternal identity, the less meaningful any proximate, mortal identities feel to us. If others refer to me as gay, I typically tolerate it for practical purposes, but it’s not how I see myself, and occasionally it can feel particularly oppressive when others seem to insist on projecting and LGBT identity construct on me even after I’ve specified that that is not how I see myself. It’s not a construct that adequately captures who I am, what I believe, or how I feel.
What Mormons Do Do: Chastity and Consecration
Now, with a layered framework for understanding the “nuts and bolts” of sexuality, I would like to offer some thoughts on how we might best approach sexually through the lens of an LDS cosmological narrative. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley made a statement that resonates deeply with me. “[T]he words of the prophets,” Brother Nibley said,
cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity.15
While science, philosophy, and common sense can inform our understanding of sexuality and gender as part of the broad spectrum of our human experience, and may even be means through which we come to greater light and knowledge, the last word does not lie with them. Regardless of what scientific inquiry will reveal over time about the origin and developmental nuances of sexuality—and it’s still far from conclusive—it will never be sufficient to frame the eternal lenses through which we harness and channel our human passions and guide our life’s choices. Our choices as Latter-day Saints are guided by the values and beliefs informed by the “language of eternity,” as Brother Nibley so eloquently stated.
As part of that, I would like to briefly explore a broader view of what we traditionally call the law of chastity. Most Latter-day Saints, I think, are prone to think of chastity as an individual virtue—and even at times, perhaps, as one that is only applicable while single: The law of chastity being a list of dos and don’ts one adheres to until they’re married.
The words chaste and chastity share their root with the terms chasten or chastise. While people are typically not prone to think fondly of the idea of being chastened or chastised, the term chaste simply means to “be pure,” and chastening or chastisement mean “to make pure.” In a favorite quote by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, she states that
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.16
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known the chastening of the Lord. Elder Orson Whitney has similarly stated:
No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.17
What is most interesting to me is that the times the idea of chastening is expressed in Restoration scripture occur in context of the building of Zion, with the Lord stating that the Saints were not ready, were not pure enough, to build Zion—that they must be “chastened for a season” (D&C 103:4) until they could abide “by the law of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:4). At the heart of their lack of preparation was that they were unwilling to fully live the law of consecration, to give everything they had and everything that they were to the building of Zion. And while we often think or hear of Zion as the “pure in heart” (D&C 97:21), that is only where it starts. Zion is a social order, a community, in which the faithful live. Zion cannot and will not ever be built without deep sense of mindfulness of and care for the needs of the people and world around us. The Saints were told that they needed to be chastened because they “d[id] not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them” (D&C 105:3).
Several years ago I had the opportunity to talk with the stake president of a large metropolitan city in the United States. It’s also a city that seems to draw a large number of LDS individuals who are homosexual. In talking about his experience in ministering to many of these individuals—many who were faithful in the Church and many who had left or who were in process of leaving—he shared with me his conviction that violations of laws guiding appropriate expression of sexuality were violations of the law and spirit of consecration as much as they might be violations of the law and spirit of chastity. They were unwilling to fully consecrate their sexuality to the higher vision and purposes of God. This could be as true for heterosexual offenses as homosexual ones. I’ve reflected a lot on that idea in the years since that meeting and the Spirit has confirmed to me the truth of it.
The principles of chastity, consecration and Zion are intimately interwoven. The willingness to surrender all that we have and all that we are to the building of Zion, including our sexuality, is key to the process of purity and holiness of heart that are the defining virtues of Zion. We cannot become truly pure in heart without recognizing that all that we are is intimately interconnected with all life. To think that the process of righteousness or perfection happens solely on an individual level is erroneous. So thought the rich young ruler who came to the Savior saying he’d kept the commandments from birth and wondered what he lacked. The Savior, wanting to teach him that holiness isn’t about behavioral or ritual conformity but rather about caring for and becoming ministers of grace to others, commanded him to sell all and give to the poor (Matthew 19:16-22). But consecration isn’t just about giving up temporal possessions. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “We must be willing to place all that we have—not just our possessions (they may be the easiest things of all to give up), but also our ambition and pride and stubbornness and vanity—we must place it all on the altar’ of God, kneel there in silent submission, and willingly walk away.”18
Again, the processes through which the Lord, through His process of chastening or chastisement, makes us chaste, makes us pure in heart, will call us into consciousness of our interconnectedness with others, mindful of our place in the ecology of life and Divine society. Several years ago I read an article about a group of BYU students who attended a two-week Buddhist retreat and who were so affected by what they learned that they left thinking of themselves as Zen Mormons. They noted that one of the things that most impressed them was the deep feeling and reference they gained as they were guided through meditations instilling a deep sense of interdependence and gratitude. “At each meal, after eating, they meditated over how the meal came about. They thought about the farmer who planted and nurtured the seeds, the manufacturing company that took the food and packaged it, the person who bought it and the person who prepared it. ‘You have a moment of silence after you eat,’ [one of them] said. ‘My salad is the whole world. It’s all connected.’”19
In an essay by Professor Suzanne Lundquist, BYU Associate Professor of English, called “Chastity and the Environment,” she describes how through interactions with Latin and Native American cultures and myths she was able to see more clearly that chastity not just as an individual virtue, or even as a virtue between consenting, loving adults, but a social virtue. “The principles of chastity govern all relationships—relationships with self, with community, with the earth, and with deity.” Chastity affects entire families, communities, nations, and the world as a whole. The connection between reproduction and the cyclic nature of life, death, and creation show that the law of chastity maintains a delicate harmony. When we adopt incorrect and harmful attitudes about sex or family relationships, we disrupt the balance and cause effects that will ripple throughout time and space unless we repent and bring our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors back into harmony with Divine truth. I would suggest that the law of chastity is not even, in principle, how we express sexuality, but relationality. Sexuality is only one subset of relationality.
In his talk “Spiritual Ecology,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated that “The doctrines of Jesus Christ are so powerful that any one of these doctrines, having been broken away from the rest, goes wild and mad… Any doctrine, unless it is woven into the fabric of orthodoxy, goes wild. The doctrines of the kingdom need each other just as the people of the kingdom need each other.” Any truth that is not bound and tempered by every other truth in the divine ecology of gospel laws becomes a sort of spiritual cancer. He continued, “We worry about pollution and rightfully so, but a home in which there is not adequate love pollutes society just as surely as we pollute the air and streams around us, and people further ‘down stream’ pay a price.”20 The law of chastity governs how we treat and express unconditional love toward one another, including those whose current lifestyle choices are not in harmony with gospel law, but it also calls us to social advocacy for harmony and order regarding sex and family relationships. It is the law of chastity that petitions us in the Proclamation on the Family to “promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.” It can be a difficult to sensitively navigate the tensions between expressing unconditional love toward others whose life choices are out of harmony with gospel law and advocating for the social harmony and order that the spirit of Zion invites us into. And in light of the framing of the law of chastity I’ve articulated here, I believe that families or others who advocate for the morality of homosexual relationships are, in principle, also in violation of the law of chastity. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in his most recent General Conference address, “So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be,” he said,
then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others. Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once).21
In sum, the law of chastity intimately interwoven with the law of consecration and a broader view of human sociality, and we can employ our sexuality or promote sexuality for either the good or ill of the world at large. Sexuality and chastity are social virtues, not merely premarital or marital behavioral codes.
Further Changes within the Church?
In conclusion, over the course of the last few years there has been a remarkable shift in the conversation we’re having around homosexuality in LDS culture. While core doctrines of the Church with regard to the appropriate bounds of sexual expression have not changed (and, I’m convicted, will not change), there has been a clarifying and nuancing of Church teachings (i.e., sexual attraction or temptation is not a sin—it’s simply part of the broad range of human experience we’re called to channel and transcend if we’re to become divine—only inappropriate indulgence in thought or behavior is), as well as a notable shift in our cultural and relational attitudes. We’re becoming much more open and compassionate and loving in our relationships with others wherever they may be in their journey of faith (or lack thereof), even as we continue to embrace our own faith in the Savior and the doctrines of the restored gospel.
As we consider the potential of future shift in the Church, I suggest that it may be helpful to have a metaphor for understanding the doctrinal and historical place this issue holds in terms of continuing revelation and change.
It seems to be popular in dissenting Mormon circles to draw on analogies of polygamy secession or the revelation on race and priesthood/temple blessings when predicting further evolution on homosexuality in the Church. I believe both of these analogies are misguided. I believe a better analogy for understanding the Church’s relationship to same-sex sexuality is similar to its position on Darwinian evolution—namely, that the purpose of scripture and of the revelation of God through prophets is to tell us why man was created, not to tell us how man was created. In 1931, the First Presidency of the Church, addressing the question of man’s origin, stated that the mission of the Church “is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology [and I would add psychology or other social sciences], no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church”22 —which is, expressly, to bring souls to Christ and to assist God in His mission to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
People can believe what they want about how sexuality develops and whether it changes, but when it comes to the role sexuality plays in the eternal plan, and how we fulfill the measure of our creation here, our choices must be guided by the why of our doctrine and our covenants, not by any particular biological, psychological, or social theory.
In terms of functional discourse, my understanding of the Church’s approach (which I happen to agree with and favor) is that they’ve opted for a vernacular that speaks to the base denominator, the most inclusive term—same-sex sexual/romantic attraction/desires—which may or may not be persistent to the point that it would be termed a “sexual orientation,” and which may or may not ever be acted out on sexually, and which may or may not be incorporated into a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.
At the end of the day, Latter-day Saints have a unique worldview that provides the lens through which we view and interpret our experiences. Take that framing narrative away, however, and reasonable and sincere people may come to different conclusions about how sexual and gender variation might best be understood and responded to. As for me, I’m a believer. It’s who I am. The divine story of the plan of salvation as taught within Mormonism is in my bones. Like Jeremiah, “the word of the Lord…[is] in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:8-9). My convictions about Mormonism and the gospel of Christ are as much or more a part of me as anything. It’s the narrative that liberates me and gives me life and hope and which gives my life greatest meaning and joy.
1 “About Us,” StrangersinZion.org; Accessed on August 2, 2014 at http://strangersinzion.org/?page_id=98.
2 “Podcaster Risks Excommunication For Defending Gay Mormons,” National Public Radio, June 27, 2014; accessed on August 3, 2014 at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/326200195/podcaster-risks-excommunication-for-defending-gay-mormons.
3 Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996).
4 Ritch Savin-Williams, “Who’s Gay? Does It Matter?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006, 15:40; Warren Throckmorton and Mark Yarhouse , Sexual Identity Therapy (SIT) Framework, which was referenced favorably throughout the APA’s 2009 report on “Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation: http://sitframework.com/resources/sitapa/.
5 Erik Fromm, The Art of Loving, 261.
6 John Thorp, “Review Article / Discussion: The Social Construction of Homosexuality,” Phoenix 46.1 (1992), 54-65; http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/thorp.asp.
7 Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, 174.
8 American Psychological Association, “Answers to Your Questions For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation & Homosexuality”: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
9 Vernon A. Rosario (Ed.), Science and Homosexualities (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997).
10 Lisa Diamond, “Just How Different Are Female and Male Sexual Orientation?” Lecture given on Oct. 17, 2013, as part of the Human Development Outreach and Extension Program. Accessed June 26, 2014, at http://www.cornell.edu/video/lisa-diamond-on-sexual-fluidity-of-men-and-women.
11 Lisa M. Diamond, “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient? A Biobehavioral Model Distinguishing Romantic Love and Sexual Desire,” Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 1, 173–192.
12 Dallin H. Oaks, “Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 1995.
13 Gospel Kingdom, 61.
14 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 219.
15 Hugh Nibley, “The Prophets and the Open Mind,” in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 134.
16 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Death: The Final Stage of Growth (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 96.
17 Cited in Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, 98.
18 Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Will of the Father in All Things,” BYU Devotional, January 17, 1989.
19 Andrew Marshall, “BYU students ‘Zen Mormons’ after retreat,” Mormon Times, Dec 1, 2008; accessed reprint on April 8, 2014 at http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=65,7462,0,0,1,0#.U0S6vPldXAk .
20 Neal A. Maxwell, “Spiritual Ecology,” New Era, February 1975.
21 Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Cost—and Blessings—of Discipleship,” Ensign, May 2014.
22 See Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Evolution,” 47.