17 March 2018

Gay teen romance of the palatable variety

Love, Simon (trailer) came out in theaters this weekend. I almost never see movies in the theater, but when I heard about this movie about a week ago, I knew I wanted to see it. Part of me (maybe a generally submerged part) is a sappy romantic. The movie is a comedic teen romance, and as several critics point out, is predictably scripted as per the genre. However it seemed to offer something almost surprisingly unique for a mainstream film – a gay central character.

Simon, 17, lives a relatively affluent suburban life with a happy nuclear American family and a group of close supportive high school friends. He’s carried the secret of his sexual orientation for several years, but one day learns from a friends that there is another, anonymous kid at his school. Boldly he strikes up a conversation on-line with “Blue” and gradually the two anonymous boys confide in each other and grow closer. Neither knows the other’s identity, and Simon spends much of the movie wondering if this guy or that is Blue. Events soon become more complicated when a scheming classmate captures screenshots of Simon’s conversations and threatens to out Simon if Simon doesn’t set the boy up with one of his friends. Eventually Simon is outed against his will, two bullies openly taunt him at school, friends who feel betrayed by his behavior become distant, and Blue retreats, not ready to be out himself.

Each of these setbacks is reversed in time. His friends return. The bullies are thoroughly reprimanded at school. Christmas morning he comes out to his parents who offer warm support. And he finally meets Blue in a sappy Hollywood climax. It’s not a necessarily overly creative movie plot-wise, but the acting is passable to good, and comedy adds balance to the awkward and more serious moments of the film.

Unfortunately there is likely to be some pushback about this movie. Anytime the actually-normal normalcy of gay life is portrayed publicly there are some who take that as an opportunity to decry the downfall of the family and other sordid evils that will befall America because there was a short non-sensual gay kiss in a mainstream movie. Hollywood will get attacked; the “gay agenda” will be denounced; and stern moral warnings may flow from some people who frankly probably make God (should s/he exist or even give a damn) ashamed to be associated with them.

One of the perks of the film is the portrayal of gay life as very average most of the time. It is not all flashy, flamboyant, and queer theory. One sympathetic reviewer called it quite “vanilla”, but noted that that wasn’t necessarily bad, especially since vanilla might be all the general heterosexual masses in polarized America might be ready for. At upwards of 4% of the population, and youth claiming non-heterosexuality at perhaps even higher rates, being LGBT is quite normal. The normalcy on non-heterosexuality will rustle some feathers, but it is not only factually accurate, but is a necessary social perspective for our society to be more equal and inclusive.

The film dealt with some issues that a straight romantic film couldn’t, one being the collateral damage of the closet. We suspect earlier in the movie, and learn definitively later, that one of Simon’s best friends is in love with him. A life-long thoughtful friend, her heart is broken when she learns that Simon doesn’t see her that way and he tries to set her up with another mutual friend. The innocence with which Simon is unaware of her feelings for him could be the experience of any na├»ve teen, but it is practically a hallmark of young gay men oblivious to the interest of their female friends. The movie plays on the stereotypical, though probably at least partly true, theme that the innocence and romantic distance of young gay guys seems to attract the girls’ interest even more. Unfortunately for the straight female friend, like other closeted gay boys, Simon is daydreaming about guys.

Though not particularly well developed in the movie, Love, Simon also deals with the struggle of self acceptance that is one universal ritual that precedes the (voluntary) coming out experience. Really, Simon has the most ideal environment possible for coming out – he lives in upper middle class comfort, has warm open-minded loving parents, good looks, and fits comfortably in his high school social world. Even so, he struggles with coming out for some time, and it is only through meeting another closeted student on-line that he begins the process. In fact, the two help each other break the secrecy and isolation of the closet in a mutually-affirming way.  This mirrors my own coming out experience, and probably that of many others – through connection with other LGBT people, we break the isolation that fuels the fear that suppresses self-acceptance.

For straight audiences, hopefully the film offers a few minutes of reflection about what the struggle for self-acceptance can be like and the transformation that occurs between regarding sexuality as a combustible secret and a personal asset. The movie takes a minute to take a playful jab at the fact that straight people never have to come out to their families or friends. I might add that while straight youth thereby dodge the discomfort of the process, perhaps they lose something in life experience by not having to deeply confront who they really are and how authentically they want their inner reality to match their outer persona.

For Simon to come out, it meant exchanging the safety of his false heterosexual image (or asexual image at best) for the freedom to be himself at all times and in all places. The exchange of safety for liberation almost invariably comes with a cost in the real world, but for Simon it is transient and minimal in the film. In short, he had it way easier than when I went to high school and probably easier than many kids today in certain communities.

This relatively seamless path to acceptance is an unrealistic expectation for every young LGBT people (violence, rejecting families and lack of supportive networks are all too common unfortunately), but Simon’s story is a refreshing exception to what is probably the norm, even in 2018 America. As an LGBT audience anticipating and enjoying a film like this, sometimes we want to just breathe too, and soak in an innocent sweet gay love story. May these stories not be so rare in the future, whether in cinema or in real life. 

15 February 2018


Its Olympic season and the charismatic Adam Rippon has made his way into American households. Adam is a figure skater and the first openly gay athlete to represent the US in a winter Olympics. Of course it is a running joke that all male figure skaters are gay, but in the world of sports (including the apparently conservative field of figure skating), surprisingly no US winter athlete has yet come out while still competing. Athletes who have come out have done so after finishing their sports career. I’m not a follower of figure skating but I thought Adam’s opening Olympic performance in the team competition was very touching. The beautiful music coupled with his elegant skating was alluring.

It didn’t take much time on line to find criticism leveled his way. To paraphrase some comments: “Who cares about his sexuality?” “Yawn….another gay figure skater.” “He is a disgrace to this country.” A conservative blog even published an opinion piece criticizing Rippon and another openly gay American Olympian, Gus Kenworthy, for being politically outspoken.

Some of that criticism seems to be a consequence of the running feud between Rippon and the Vice President. Adam has not been shy in expressing his dislike for Mike Pence over the last week. Some (conservatives) don’t like it when an athlete or celebrity expresses his or her (typically liberal) political views. (Nevermind that our sitting president emerged from the cocoon of reality TV.)

That debate aside, what I’d like to consider is why it is still necessary and important for LGBT people to be out publicly. Even in 2018. Even the flamboyant figure skaters who leave casual observers little doubt that they are not heterosexual.

It is important to remember that homophobia is a wide array of attitudes and societal reactions to LGBT people that range from pernicious hate crimes to subtle phenomena that marginalize sexual minorities. The obvious verbal slurs, violence, or discrimination in employment or government services sometimes targeted against LGBT people are the blatant evidence that some in society have hardened prejudice against gay people. One hopes, though I am not sure this can always be quantified, that the incidence of these more egregious expressions of homophobia is less now than it has been in the past and that it will continue to decline into the future.

The more subtle manifestations of homophobia are perhaps more pervasive, and probably what most of us in the LGBT community struggle with most of the time. These are the ways in which individuals or society collectively puts down, excludes, and minimizes gay people without shoving them against a wall or refusing to sign their marriage license. We may not think about these forms of homophobia often, nor recognize that in order to protect ourselves we have internalized some of them too.

One of the most common expressions of subtle homophobia is invisibility. If LGBT people are quiet about their feelings, if they hide their partners, if they act straight then they don’t make others uncomfortable and they shield themselves from criticism or embarrassment. Invisibility is antithetical to self-empowerment, but it can be a tool of self preservation in situations of danger.

The invisibility of LGBT people preserves the monolithic heteronormative worldview. In an exclusively heterosexual world, only heterosexuality is portrayed in media. Romance in movies is straight. Love stories are straight. Marketing towards men and women reinforce heterosexual desires and relationships. Everything in society defaults to heterosexuality to the point that coming out is necessary because everyone is simply straight until the public is notified otherwise.

Invisibility is not healthy for young LGBT people. It is during the years when these youth first begin to understand that they are different, that observing examples of healthy, happy LGBT individuals is so critical. Young people need positive role models generally and non-heterosexual or non-cis-gender youth in particular need LGBT role models who can help them form a positive understanding of their sexuality. They need to know that there are older people like them in terms of sexuality and gender expression who come from every walk of life. They need to not just see, but hear, other LGBT people integrated in a normal way into broader society. The public visibility reinforces that they are not an aberration, or a mistake, but rather a normal and valuable human being.

Only in the last few years has a young LBGT person been able – through entertainment, sports, or otherwise – to see that other variations on human sexuality and relationships exist in broader society with any degree of regularity. I certainly saw very little to no expression of homosexuality or bisexuality on TV or in movies while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. It has taken many brave people coming out over the years to reach a point where today gay and lesbian role models are gaining much greater visibility in sports, in science, in politics, and in business.

In a future hoped-for world, a gay flambuoyant figure skater like Adam Rippon might not feel much need to publicly state his sexual orientation. It may no longer be a brave step for a high school student to come out to her peers. But reaching that world that will require a shift in society. It is first necessary for the majority heterosexual population to remember that there are minority sexualities in their families, their workplaces, and their communities and that their representation in broader society is important. It is first necessary for media, sports, literature, and politics to create a comfortable space where people of all orientations and forms of gender expression can feel that they may freely be themselves.

When a LGBT person is vocal publicly about his or her sexuality, it is not an invitation for a conservative straight person reading Red State to ridicule them or feel they’re the victim of some inconvenience. That some antagonists of equality become so annoyed by our mere visibility in public spaces only reinforces their own insecurity or pettiness. When LGBT people become visible in the public sphere and not just out in their private lives, it breaks down the false narratives that only make room for heterosexuality in human society. Coming out can be a lifeline for the young gay person who is silent and nervous, wondering if there is anyone out there who is like him. Coming out is ultimately a process of personal liberation but it has benefits for others too, especially those still in the safety of invisibility. The triumph of self-belief is to be visible in a world that would often rather we remain invisible.

28 October 2017


This post is going to be a mashup of several different threads running through my mind lately. I don’t have a very good introduction, nor do I want to spend time on one. Let’s just jump in and see if anything useful coalesces by the end.

The first topic is academia. That’s the employment sector where I work currently and where I’ve spent most of my adult life – my many years of post-secondary schooling bleeding into the indentured servitude of a post-doc, and continuing from there. As many of my colleagues would attest, academics are mainly overachievers, a lot that is seldom satisfied on any measure of performance. We are walking careers, ambly taking research from the field into the office and from there into the bathroom. In only ten minutes, we can come up with research questions that would only take ten years to address, meanwhile scribbling out lists of critically important things to do that frankly (most of the time) may only ever turn out to slightly affect about three other people on the planet.

Many academics are perfectionists. A perfectionist is seldom satisfied; s(he) is always looking ahead to what item next requires perfection. There can be a momentary flash of happiness at the crest of a long-sought accomplishment, but the joy is often short lived, because the vanquished imperfection falls into obscurity as the next goal looms disproportionately large on the horizon. Friend: “Congrats, you just published your first research paper!” Brain: “But my lab mate has already published two!”

This has all been re-circulating in my mind lately as I was promoted to a new academic position this summer. That should be great, right? While there is some level of satisfaction, I’ve noticed an increase in my anxiety over the last few months. I seem to be easily reminded of Dr. Everybody Else has clearly published more than me and in much better journals. I think about the graduate students who finished after me and yet have already leap-frogged my place on the long academic totem pole to more prestigious positions. I realize that I am not that great at grant writing, that I haven’t come up with any groundbreaking discoveries in my field, and that I’m nowhere near the top of any of the myriad metrics academics invent to vault themselves to great positions of scholarly honor.

About seven to eight years ago I came face to face with this perfectionist in me. It was interestingly about the time I came out as gay and finally decided that I had had enough of hiding and ignoring who I am. We didn’t have any sort of major battle, but rather a tousle, and though there was no vanquishment of this foe, I at least took the first significant steps of acknowledging the existence of this formidable character and determining that he wouldn’t be the only voice allowed to cast judgment on my life’s circumstances.

The lifeblood of perfectionism is competition - with onesself and with others. It is both a sustaining fuel and poisonous liquid at the same time. In the complete absence of competition, the drive to accomplish, to push, and to improve is diminished. Achievement usually requires motivation. So it serves a purpose in that regard. Yet, under hypercompetitiveness, the fuel becomes poisonous, because no accomplishment is ultimately satisfactory. In a world of 7 billion people, it is almost impossible to become number one at one thing; it is truly impossible to be number one at everything.

Competition is everywhere is American society. It is manifest in couch potatoes jumping up from the sofa when their team scores a touchdown, it is present in the pressure the high school student feels to get accepted to the best colleges, it is in first class airline seats or platinum credit cards, it is embedded in stock market indices, and mad rushes to buy the cheapest gifts on Black Fridays that have now crept into Thanksgiving Thursdays. Capitalism is competition, and America really worships not God, but capitalism.

The second thread is social media and the on-line persona. For all the good that this decade-old revolution in communication has brought to modern society, there have been generous servings of ill too. In the compression of thought requisite in a Tweet, complex ideas are reduced to imprecise strings of words bereft of context. In tailored social media profiles, digital masks are worn that give incomplete or false impressions of the personality behind the mask. Poor behavior somehow seems more justifiable on-line, as if digital distance was somehow a license to eschew social responsibility. Friendships can be easily and instantly made, but even more rapidly terminated when one party decides to “block” another. Political divisions deepen as people collect around the more flambuoyant digital voices that have mastered the posture of contrived self-importance. Misinformation is given extra buoyancy and inertia as it circles the globe via electrons, freed from the old-fashioned constraints of evidence.

For most of us, our on-line personas are self-crafted caricatures. My profile doesn’t convey all of my personality, let alone those less-than-flattering photos that get quickly deleted from my cell phone. If you carefully read through a digital feed of my life, you are less likely find mention of the many failed job applications than the job that I finally landed.

These caricatures can have a corrosive effect on a number of really important things. For instance, they can erode self esteem, as when I fail to forget that my college friends do also have unflattering photos and failed job applications that I know nothing about in addition to their advertised successes. The digital distance also has the tendency to erode intimacy, a wonderful invention of social species that most of us want in some measure in our lives. Through social media I may gain a window into what a high school aquaintance who lives across the country likes to eat for Sunday brunch, but know nothing about real thoughts, feelings, concerns, and goals that motivate and guide this individual.

Next, anxiety. Lots of us suffer from it. In fact, this recent New York Times article discusses its prevalence as a mental health concern, especially the dramatic increase in anxiety among young people. We live in a time where there is a tremendous amount to be anxious about – health, safety, job, debt, career, terrorism, family members, climate change, rejection, politics, natural disasters, poverty, rapid technological innovation. Sadly, there is even motivation for people in politics or commerce to promote our feelings of anxiety – why not if it will garner votes or lead to more sales?

Looking back it is not difficult to see periods of my life when my anxiety has been more problematic than the annoying background hum that accompanies most of us. Graduate school was a definite one. Coming out was another. These were periods when I grappled with perfectionism. I still have anxiety about such internal matters. But as a token certificate for growing up a little more, there is also now anxiety about my children and family, about where society is headed, about really daunting environmental problems like climate change.

Is it a paradox that we live more comfortable lives than any generation before us, but are so racked with anxiety?

The final thread: self-esteem in the LGBT community. Most of us would describe the process of self-awakening and coming out at cathartic. Having been imprisoned to fear or shame for years or even decades, the act of casting that aside is liberating, an intimately personal act performed on a more public stage. It is a moment of self-determination and self-affirmation. But does the luster wear off?

As a collection of sexual and romantic “misfits”, many of us in the LGBT community have endured difficult and challenging experiences growing up. These could have included harassment, physical or emotional abuse, misunderstanding, violence. We have probably all been scarred, at least a little in the process. Coming into self-awareness notwithstanding, I think many of us carry forward an additional psychological or emotional burden that developed because of those formative experiences.

After coming out, do we carry those burdens into the LGBT community in unhealthy ways? Are we quick to judge or reject others in an unfortunate reversal of the mistreatment we ourselves have received? Can we form friendships and date in healthy ways? Do we avoid the social maladies that hurt others like ghosting (an inexplicable practice of suddenly pretending a date or friend no longer exists) or expecting perfection in a partner (knowing full well of one’s own imperfections)? Will gay men see the harm in endlessly competing with each other for more perfect physical bodies, greater “masculinity” (as if somehow the goal of being a perfect gay man is to nearly emulate a straight man in everything except the gender of your sexual partner), or a meticulously manicured social life designed to induce envy in others and mask an undercurrent of loneliness?

We continue to fight for equality in employment, housing, marriage, and just general treatment by society, especially given the unfortunate political setbacks we currently face in the US. In the midst of those external challenges, are we striving to improve interactions within the LGBT community itself?


Where does all of this lead? Well, I think I’ve painted a picture of competition and comparison that is largely unhealthy. The excessive focus on competition and outcomes certainly can be debilitating for me. One key to any successful recipe is to keep the ingredients in balance. I wouldn’t want to trade in my ambition or motivation for laziness or ambivalence, but to paraphrase Darth Vader’s warning to the technical mastermind behind the Death Star: “Beware you don’t choke on your ambition”.

It takes a conscious effort to keep the tendency to compete to healthy levels. It takes significant mental labor to keep the unhealthy comparison to others at bay, especially when we are surrounded by messages of inadequacy from a hypercompetitive society. But it is necessary for sanity to remember that self worth isn’t measured externally (either by gay or straight people, or by friends, bosses, or peers for that matter).

On the career front, it is prudent to remember why I’m an academic. I love discovery. I love asking questions. I love thinking about how science can lead to answering such questions. I love being outside and in nature. I love seeing something in nature that perhaps no other person has ever observed. Maybe this is why my hobbies also tend towards being outdoors in my hours off work. I can be a student of biology again – hiking, exploring, photographing, and learning – with less pressure to turn academic study into some sort of business.

On the personal front, I need to remember that I am unique and (usually) likeable. I’m headed forward, and upward (whatever that means), having fun and adventures along the way. That’s enough for me.

25 June 2016

Overcoming homophobia

The mass shooting at Orlando two weekends ago hit me pretty hard. For a few days I was frequently on the verge of tears. I don't know any of the victims personally. Moreover, I don't have any friends who know any of the victims, so the sadness was not because of a specific personal connection. Rather it existed largely because a community important to me had been horribly attacked. Other gay people I know were mourning in the days following the attack. It was a tragedy for all of America, but it was also a tragedy specific to the gay community.

For a few days I did a fair amount of reading on-line and listening. Perhaps I engaged too much with the dialogue surrounding the tragedy, because in addition to news about the lives of the victims and expressions of support and sympathy for the LGBT community, there were also vile things said about gay people. For example, a pastor who doesn't live more than a few dozen miles from where I live, wished that evenmore gay people had been killed in the tragedy, citing God’s will for retribution for gays.

Picketing of funerals by extremists, hate speech, internal hatred - these are reminders that homophobia is frequently not very far away. It may be a minority of extremists that publicly vocalize or act on their deep intolerance, but how many in silent America sympathize with their views at least to some extent? How many have decided that the stereotypes they learned long ago about LGBT people are true and won’t bother to challenge those assumptions? How many put more faith in a modern interpretation of a few lines of text in an ancient holy book than in science, sociology, and common sense?

Marriage equality didn't erase the deep antipathy some people hold for sexual minorities. However, we live in an unmistakably different world than I grew up in a few decades ago. Many LGBT people are no longer in the shadows. Coming out, though always difficult, is generally met with more supportive friends and families. Straight allies are willing to publicly show their support for LGBT equality and mourn when gay people suffer injustice. Despite the tragedy at Orlando, and some of the hate speech that ensued, there were some beautiful expressions of love and solidarity too:

Like a powerful speech given by a conservative Utah politician.

Like prayers and acts of solidarity offered by American Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

Like the giant angelic wings built to shield mourners from anti-gay protesters at Orlando funerals.

And like this moving musical tribute to the Pulse victims by two gay singer songwriters.

12 June 2016

This is why pride

When I was in the closet years ago, I may have sympathized with those who voiced criticism of gay pride celebrations. 'Why do they need to flaunt their sexuality?'. 'I don't care what they do in private, but they don't need to be public about it'. Personally, I kept as quiet as possible about gay issues for the many years I tried to suppress being gay, but these were the dominant kinds of voices I heard growing up. It must have been true - gay people are selfish and perverted. Sadly there are many people that still feel that way. There are even a few, drunk in their own deluding hatred, who believe that gay people are worthy of death.

What is the point of gay pride parades, which usually occur around this time of year? They were born of events at the Stonewall Inn decades ago, where police violently cracked down on a gay club, and LGBT people fought back over the course of several nights. The events at a New York bar helped galvanize the modern gay rights movement and led to the first LGBT pride parades in the country which were held on the first anniversary of the riots.

A different gay club was again in the news in a huge way this weekend. In Orlando Florida, early this morning, a gunman terrorized hundreds of people at Pulse, killing and injuring scores. At this early juncture, motives and details aren't fully known, but it is said to be the greatest mass killing by a gunman in American history. The gunman appears to have had links to the terror group ISIS and was reported to have reacted to the sight of two men kissing several weeks earlier. He may have been specifically seeking out LGBT establishments for the attack.

Terror is often no respecter of persons, indiscriminate in its victims. Sometimes it is directed at specific groups of people like the innocent black parishioners worshiping in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Violence is the extreme end of a spectrum of prejudice and injustice that many minority groups, including LGBT people, have faced for decades.

Only one man pulled the trigger early this morning to inflict horrible violence on dozens of people. But there are others in our society responsible for perpetuating prejudice and misinformation about LGBT people, who enable an environment where even more extreme views or acts can take root. There are some who use language to incite discrimination or even violence. There are a few religious leaders that betray their sacred trust to inspire people and, in their bigotry against LGBT people, ignore the most fundamental precepts of their religion.

Pride is our community's response to oppression. Pride exists for the LGBT community to throw off the crippling burden of shame that society has long wanted us to live with. Pride serves as a reminder that LGBT people are a part of every corner of society - they are teachers, law enforcement, artists, scientists and business leaders. And as I read in an on-line comment earlier today, pride exists to let people in the closet know that they are not alone.

This June I imagine that pride celebrations across the country will feel more muted. There will be sadness that so much progress not-withstanding, there is still much hatred of LGBT people in the world. There will be some mourning that America is not one bit closer to solving her problem with gun violence. There may be a little more fear of a possible attack in the places where gay people meet. But pride also reminds us how far gay rights have progressed, especially over the last decade. It reminds us of the resilience of LGBT people and all they've faced as a community. In the tragedy of Orlando there can be a chance for greater compassion and greater understanding if we are open to that invitation. That can be the flower that grows from the ashes of this tragedy.

04 February 2016

Our youth

Every couple months it seems, Mormonism and LBGT issues intersect on the public stage and cause another stir.

Last week a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed remorse for LGBT suicides in the Church, a move in response to information circulating in the media about an apparent increase in LGBT Mormon suicides following the Church's policy revisions in November about gay couples and their children.

The November policy announcement by the Church in essence declared firstly that members of the Church in same-sex marriages were apostates, and secondly that children of parents currently (or formerly) in same-sex committed relationships would be denied participation in Church ordinances until they were 18. There are more details, of course, but the salient point here is that the policy change (slipped into a church handbook meant only for leaders and then leaked to social media and the press) was another watershed moment in the history of friction between the LGBT community and the Church. Consternation about and condemnation of the policy was widespread, even among believing non-gay members of the church. At a minimum, several thousand people resigned from Church membership in response to the policy.

Seldom content to let dying positions extinguish peacefully when it comes to gay issues, Church leadership stirred controversy again several weeks ago when Elder Russell M Nelson, now second in seniority in church leadership, gave a speech at BYU Hawaii in which he described a process of deliberation about the policy among church leaders and claimed that the controversial policy was "revelation". That pronouncement seemed to up the stakes: the Church was now elevating the policy to a revelation (meaning it was God's will), and believing Church members unhappy with the policy could no longer readily dismiss it as just a human error by Church leaders, but had to grapple with the possibility that God really had something to do with this unsettling policy.

Finally, over the past week, discussion began circulating about a possible spike in the number of suicides among teenage LGBT Mormons following the November policy announcement by the Church. Active Mormons Wendy and Thomas Montgomery (parents of a gay teen) claimed that as many as 34 individuals have taken their life since the announcement. Names have not been released (understandably), but were collected through private conversations with family members or other individuals.

Last Thursday, through a spokesperson, the Church acknowledged the issue and expressed regret for this tragedy. That was followed by a lengthy article in the Church-owned Deseret News newspaper describing ways that families and church members can provide a more supporting environment for LGBT people. The article cited helpful information, including the evidence-based research produced by the Family Acceptance Project from San Francisco State University.

This is the background. (If you're reading this blog you more likely than not already know much of this news). Now for a few thoughts:

First, it is fair to give the church due praise for acknowledging this important issue. For a church that has often been tone deaf to the needs of the LGBT community, public acknowledgement of this problem is welcome. However, much more can and should be done by the LDS Church if they genuinely have concern for this demographic. Bishops and other church leaders need better training on how to discuss sexuality in their congregations and minister to the needs and concerns of LGBT members. Top LDS leaders need to use much more care in how they talk about LGBT people and their relationships in public. Condescension, demonization, or half truths are unacceptable. Finally, the Church would do well to sincerely apologize for numerous harmful and factually inaccurate statements made in past decades about homosexuality.

Next I acknowledge that it is probably nearly impossible to verify numbers when it comes to LGBT suicides in the Church. The causal factors of suicide are complex and probably can't be known in most cases, let alone attributed to a single specific cause such as friction between gay identity and religious belief. It also appears that we don't have the relevant data about LGBT suicides that would allow anyone to make conclusive statements about trends over time. Anecdotal evidence abounds, and I don't doubt that the evidence in the aggregate points to a problem, but one can only discern trends accurately with carefully-collected data over a sufficient period of time. Moreover, because of deep stigmas around both homosexuality and suicide (especially in Mormon culture), it would be extremely difficult for even a motivated researcher to gather the data in a systematic way that overcomes the various challenges of sampling this demographic.

But as has been pointed out repeatedly, each and every case of suicide is serious and devastating to the families and friends involved. Each death is the loss of a unique individual. That any person affiliated with the church, especially a young person, would feel such despair should be alarming to Church leadership and to members. It should cause great reflection: is there something about our doctrines or practices that are causing real harm to this community of people? With or without exact numbers, we have enough evidence to raise a serious alarm. I know gay Mormons who have contemplated suicide. A gay Mormon friend of a gay Mormon friend ended his life. I myself at times have felt significant despair about my sexuality, including deep despair about the intractable juxtaposition of being a gay man in a straight marriage. The anguish in our community is widespread, and seldom given voice in the Church. When our community or allies speak out, some defenders of the Church respond with insensitivity, seemingly giving more concern to the reputation of an institution than the tragedy of living human beings.

Third, we may not have reliable data on LGBT Mormon suicides in relation to other LGBT communities or non-gay Mormon youth, but we do have data on the general vulnerability of gay youth relative to non-gay youth. For gay youth generally, we know that they have more than a two-fold greater risk of suicide attempts than their straight friends. LGBT youth also experience much higher risk factors than their straight peers. Nationwide (and in Utah) up to about 40% of homeless youth are from the LGBT community (Durso and Gates 2012; Equality Utah). The top reasons for homelessness in these youth include rejection of their sexual orientation by parents, abusive home environments, and simply being kicked out because they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. LGBT youth also tend to experience more bullying than straight youth (CDC 2014).

Fortunately, we also know some important things about how the risk of suicide and other harmful behaviors can be reduced. The Family Acceptance Project has shown that greater acceptance and love from families helps reduce risk of harmful behaviors in LGBT youth (Ryan et al. 2010). Letting youth explore and self identify as they see fit leads to greater happiness in these kids. Letting youth connect with other gay youth and supportive LGBT organizations helps too. A supportive school environment, free of homophobic teasing, also leads to greater well being of youth of all sexual orientations (CDC 2014).

Finally, I think it is vital to address what I feel is one of the root causes of despair sometimes felt in the Mormon LGBT community. As noted, the causes of suicide are complex and appear to often stem from other mental health issues for individuals who end their lives. But the Church bears some responsibility for creating a doctrinal and social environment in which harmful behaviors by LGBT youth or their families can become more likely. I think one of the roots of despair for many in the LGBT Mormon community is the exclusively heterocentric worldview of the Church, and the failure to theologically provide earthly and heavenly roles for LGBT people that are equally as hopeful and exalting as those promised to faithful married heterosexual couples and their families. How can a gay person feel fully connected with the divine when the very deepest of his or her desires are nothing like the heterosexual God of Mormonism? In LDS theology, same-sex relationships are forbidden here on earth and will have no part of heaven. For LGBT Mormons to feel fully accepted by God or the Church community, they have to deny, suppress or ignore a key part of who they are as a human being. They have to willingly forgo one of the key aspects of being human that brings joy. Even same-sex attractions, as promised by LDS leaders, are supposedly to disappear for gay members in the next life. It is no wonder then, as has been pointed out by many people, that a quick exit to the next life may at times seem like an attractive alternative for a gay person willing to do anything to rid himself or herself of same-sex attraction. But no rigid theology is worth a precious life.

The Church cannot address gay Mormon suffering simply through platitudes. Kind words do help; compassionate responses from parents when gay Mormon kids come out can indeed save lives; but some degree of despair will always be part of the overall gay Mormon experience until a more comfortable place can be made in the church for LGBT people. The divide between the living reality of LGBT individuals and the framework of Mormon theology must be narrowed. Whether or not that requires a change in Mormon theology is up to the church and the members to decide, but the loss of these gay Mormon youth - however many the count truely is - and the flood of LGBT members and their allies from the ranks of the Church demands a serious, innovative, and compassionate response from Mormonism. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health. Link to source.

Durso LE, Gates GJ. 2012. Serving Our Youth: Findings from a national survey of service providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund. Link to study

Russell ST, Joyner K. 2001. Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: evidence from a national study. American Journal of Public Health 91:1276-1281.

Ryan C, Russel ST, Huebner D, Diaz R, Sanchez J. 2010. Family acceptance in adolescence and the health of LGBT young adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 4:205-213. Link to study.

08 November 2015

It would be better that a millstone ...

It has been a busy weekend with back-to-back scientific conferences in two states. It has been a tiring few days, but in my spare moments I have been thinking a lot about the LDS Church’s new policy towards children of same-sex parents. I’ve absorbed what I could on-line: denunciations of the policy by critics of the Church, stories of families affected by these changes, and even a few defenses of the offensive policy. I’ve tried to assemble some thoughts early this morning, on a flight, and now at the PDX airport.

The new policy targets LGB people and their families in a few ways. First, it establishes that same-sex marriage is an offense of apostasy, and therefore requires mandatory Church discipline. (Note that not even actual serious crimes like child abuse mandate automatic church discipline.) It is a clear message to LGBT Mormons that the Church condemns the relationships that are most likely to bring them happiness. It sends a message to bishops that they cannot just let the nice gay couple in their ward sneak under the radar without punishment. Second, the policy sets out administrative rules for the children of parents that are (or have even been) in same-sex relationships. These children now cannot receive the main saving ordinances of the Church, including baptism, until they are 18. At that time, they cannot not reside in a same-sex household, they must attest that they do not accept the legitimacy of same-sex relationships (including mom or dad’s), and they must have permission from the highest authorities of the Church to then be baptized.

One has to seriously question any notion that this policy is needed to clarify church doctrine. If there is one thing anyone in the United States would know about the Mormons these days it could very well be the fact they are opposed to same-sex marriage. If that wasn’t obvious from Proposition 8, consider that it is repeated ad infinitum in general conference talks, press releases, stories by news media and by faithful members as they post their views on social media with family and friends. In fact, the Church’s anti-gay marriage position may be so well known that it could run the risk of drowning out the message that Mormonism should really focus on bringing to humanity – following Jesus’ example of love and service to transform one’s own soul.

As I’ve thought about the possible motivations for issuing the policy, it is impossible to surmise the actual intentions of Church leaders. Perhaps it is a way for church leadership to assert its relevance into questions of gay marriage and gay relationships that the Church has been solidly losing in the courts and in public discourse. One blogger thought the motivation might be a simple act of flexing institutional power, an assertion that wouldn’t seem inconsistent with other moments in Mormon history. Mostly, it seems very controlling to me. But regardless of the motivations, the potential for harm is great. True, for many Mormon or ex-Mormon individuals and families, this will have little relevance. For others it will result in disruption and conflict. In the end, it serves the interest of the Church only and few else. That is a sad indictment of a religion that claims to speak for God.

In my present circumstances, I don’t think the policy directly affects me or my children. I am still married to my wife (and not in a same-sex relationship) and my spouse and children only partly attend church. But we very well could be affected directly under different circumstances, especially as life evolves into the future. Thursday evening as I read the breaking news flooding over social media as I walked the isles of the supermarket, I felt a lot of anger. I felt hurt again, like an old wound was yet again being opened. Not content to leave us in peace, the Church needed to remind us of our “sin” yet again. The Church needed to remind us that God doesn’t approve of gay relationships yet again.

I do know of former gay Mormons who are much more likely to be impacted. These are friends and others who have previously been in mixed orientation marriages. They have divorced and left the Church, but their still-believing spouses wish to raise the children in Mormonism. These are among the families affected by this policy and these families are not necessarily a small minority in the LGBT community. I could write volumes about how difficult mixed orientation marriages are for everyone involved – straight spouse, gay spouse, and children. My own experience, which is no where from nearing its end, has involved years of navigating sorrow, disappointment, and confusion.

If I could articulate the root of my anger, it might be the repeated insensitivity of LDS church leadership towards the broader LGBT family, and especially towards those of us working through the complexity of mixed orientation marriages. Indeed, it was the doctrine and culture of Mormonism that created an environment in which these marriages were more likely to occur in the first place. Now, our complex and trying circumstances are left scattered over the battlefield Mormonism has waged with the LGBT community and we are largely abandoned. There is no official apology: “We are sorry to have once encouraged you to marry; we apologize for teaching false information about homosexuality; we regret that our doctrine on the family has been so narrow; we are sorry that you felt so much pressure to conform to a heterosexual ideal that doesn’t fit who you are.”

If the Church wanted to really help our families, policies that might further divide families should be the absolute last thing it would consider. It would provide resources to help us through family adjustments or through divorce; it would replace its false teachings about homosexuality and gay relationships with sound research on sexuality; it would plead with God to reveal a healthy and sustainable path for LGBT people within the Church. It would not issue a policy that only makes it harder for some of our families to reach a place of peace and reconciliation.

I don’t believe anymore, and for many reasons, not just because I’m gay. In many ways this chapter of life is over. Yet through extended family and close friends, because of a decade and a half of life dedicated to the Church, and through the cultural imprints that will continue to influence me in even small ways going forward, I won’t ever know a time when I’m not touched in some way by the Church. In many respects that legacy has been positive. But on sexuality, the Church is dead wrong. It owns a long legacy of incorrect teachings about homosexuality and it bears much responsibility for the damage that has caused to individuals and families.

The best outcome now for me is to part peaceably from the Church. I have done so all but officially. But, the Church needs to leave us alone too. If church leadership consistently chooses to turn LGBT issues into a cultural war, they will lose. If you look at the emerging science of sexuality and gay relationships, you will know they have lost. If you get to know a gay person, and see their struggle and humanity, you will know the church has lost. And if you consider the un-severable bond between parents and children, even gay parents and their children, you will know they have lost. Only a fool would think to stand between a mama bear and her cub.

To my LDS friends: please speak up about this policy. Please speak with your local Church leaders or write to Church leaders. Please support the LGBT Mormons and ex-Mormons in your lives, and especially the children of these individuals. 

29 October 2015

39 questions for the World Congress of Families

What exactly is it about same-sex marriage that threatens a straight marriage? How specifically does your gay neighbor’s marriage negatively impact your straight neighbor’s marriage? Won’t allowing gay people to marry increase the stability of society overall? Are loving gay relationships really more threatening to the stability of families than war, economic inequality, lack of educational opportunity, and environmental degradation? Is acceptance of gay relationships harming American society more than crime, unemployment, racism, public health crises, growing economic disparity, or worsening political gridlock? Can you cite any data that show a direct link between acceptance of same-sex marriage and heterosexual couples losing interest in marriage or having children? If gay marriage leads to the unraveling of society, why are European nations that have embraced marriage equality still prospering?

What exactly is a “traditional” or “natural” family? Which tradition is it based on? Is it a one male-one female marriage, or a male-female-female-…-female marriage traditionally present in some religious societies? Are traditional societies that accepted homosexuality in their culture wrong? What empirical evidence do you have that gay and lesbian couples are, on average, worse parents than straight parents? Can you cite any major peer-reviewed studies that support your position that haven’t been discredited by the scientific community? Is it more important for children to have two parents that fulfill specific gender roles or to have two loving parents (regardless of gender) that bring important personality differences to a family? Are families led by a single parent or by grandparents less than ideal too?

If marriage is principally for raising children, should older individuals or those who can’t have children be allowed to marry? Should a heterosexual couple that isn’t interested in having children be permitted to marry? Should a marriage just be dissolved once all the children of the family have moved out of the household to live independent lives? Don’t gay and lesbian marriages strengthen communities when they adopt children that heterosexual parents chose not to raise? To reduce foster care and strengthen communities, shouldn’t governments promote adoption of children by all qualified couples, including gay couples? How are the children of gay parents affected when their parents aren’t allowed to marry or their parent’s relationships are attacked?

What data do you have to show that LGBT people are not born exactly as they say they are? If sexual orientation is a conscious choice, why do virtually all gay conversion therapies fail to turn people straight? Would you, as a straight person, choose to be gay for a week just to prove to us that sexuality is chosen? If there is no genetic basis for sexuality at all, why are identical twins of gay men much more likely to be gay themselves? If one or more biological factors ultimately cause homosexuality, is it just or ethical to discriminate against an entire community for something that is innate?

Do you believe that religious freedom means freedom for all, including non-Christians and non-believers? Do you want freedom to practice your religion in your own homes or communities, or the special privilege of having your beliefs encoded in law? If your conferences aim to strengthen families, why do speakers spend so much time demonizing LGBT individuals and their families? Why are LGBT “activists” viewed as the enemy of the family? Why do your conferences and events include speakers that sometimes have very homophobic views? Why do attendees and speakers at your events work to help foreign governments pass harmful anti-LGBT legislation? Why does the WCF oppose hate crime legislation? Shouldn’t a just and free society protect fellow LGBT citizens from harassment or discrimination even if others don’t agree with them?

Are you willing to sit with LGBT people and open your minds to their stories? Will you listen to proponents of gay rights without labeling them “sexual deviants” or pedophiles? Will you accept empirical research about sexual orientation and gay parenting even if it contradicts your belief system? Do you have any LGBT people in your immediate or extended families? Do you treat them and speak to them in a way than lets them know how fabulous and valuable they are?