11 December 2011

The fixed and the fluid

Coming from the Mormon worldview, it is hard to break free from the concepts of permanence and constancy. I don’t necessarily know their doctrinal origins, but I do have a good theory about why they are maintained: they feed a basic human desire to be emotionally secure, to feel that despite the empirical evidence of our individual insignificance, we are in control of at least the little spheres around us. But evidence everywhere tells us that constancy and permanence are illusions. Change is constant, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but ubiquitous. And interestingly, other doctrines of Mormonism (like the seldom spoken-of idea that God was once like man and evolved into His current position of deity, and the concept of continuing revelation), run counter to these strains of constancy. Doctrinally, Mormonism is a mix of change and constancy, but it is certainly the latter that has the upper hand theologically these days.

Think for a minute of the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies – the flux of matter in and out of us with every meal and trip to the restroom. Most of the atoms that make me today will be somewhere else a year from now. Even the atoms in the DNA molecules that instruct cells to synthesize such and such molecules at such and such times are replaced over time. Only the information in the DNA, encoded via its physical structure, is relatively constant during the lifetime of an individual. However, slowly accumulating mutations in individual cells and in the evolutionary lineages of species and higher-order taxa point to its ultimate impermanence as well. As individual organisms we age, we lose functions gradually, and then die.

By doctrine, Mormonism attempts to escape some of the inevitabilities of death. Through the doctrine of a bodily resurrection, we may inherit bodies that become immortal and never again subject to die (1). Through sealings to spouse and children we can bind relationships beyond the separation of death (2). Through covenants we can forge a relationship with God that cannot be touched by other forces in the universe. Many Latter-day Saints become very attached to these concepts, evidenced in part by emotional testimonies born in congregations about the truthfulness of the afterlife, sealings and a literal resurrection.

I have little problem with the motivations behind such hopeful concepts of permanence, because they are born of the human need for emotional security (I doubt I differ much from anyone else in this respect) and, at their core, they are really innocuous systems of belief that of themselves probably have little negative effect on how life carries on. But there is scant empirical evidence that any of these amendments to the constitution of death are close to being true.

Given belief in an afterlife, there are two general alternative paths for how a person engages with life. The first is a proactive existence that uses belief as a motivation to do one’s absolute best in this life. Belief in an afterlife isn’t required to live a purposeful existence by any means, but for some it serves a useful role. The second path is an unfortunate one – belief in the afterlife becomes an excuse to be passive about making the most of experiences in the here and now. I imagine, for example, the mindset of people who want to wait until a future existence to find happiness, or who shy away from asking the really hard questions of modern life or fully accepting themselves.

Hope doesn’t release us from change. It will not keep my atoms from recycling into some other organism somewhere on the planet. My atoms will soon enough find themselves in the soil and in water, and, if in another lifeform, a bacterium (likely – they make up most of the earth’s living organic biomass), a plant perhaps (how wonderful, I’d love to participate in the miracle of photosynthesis!), or, less likely, in some animal. Basically, my atoms no more belong to me than to the other creatures that use them, past and future.

Hope is a beautiful concept applied to the here and now. It is the fire that burns in those pushing for civil rights. It is the extra energy to forge new and exciting relationships. It can encourage individual sacrifice for causes greater than one’s self. But it is less attractive as an escape from the inevitability of change. I have hope; I work hard; I cling in some ways to concepts of permanence. But I also must know deep down that these are games of the mind. Death is the great arbitrator of our existence. If my mortal relationships and experiences, if my own identity even, can survive the inevitability of death, then I will be genuinely pleasantly surprised. But I may also gain much more out of life by living without that “certainty”.

(1) The cycling of physical matter among organisms and inert matter presents some technical challenges for belief in a literal resurrection that is based on the concept that organisms “own” their own physical matter. Life forms other than humans will also be resurrected in LDS theology. Thus, if an atom finds residence in several creatures, which will gain ownership of an atom in the permanent hereafter?  Also, given the short generation times of bacteria, their large cumulative biomass relative to other organisms, and their long evolutionary history, resurrection of all bacteria that ever lived on Earth would materially swamp the elemental requirements other multi-cellular organisms like humans. There is another strangely literal LDS teaching about the resurrection: blood is the Mormon symbol of human mortality, so our immortal bodies will be bloodless in the hereafter but will otherwise resemble our present anatomy.

(2) LDS sealings are only performed between husband and wife and between children and parents. This is nice, but I would vote for a heaven where I am sealed to friends and nice strangers too.

29 November 2011

Conversations about the future

…some thoughts recorded over the last two months or so which will be edited eternally if they are not posted…

It has been several months now since I have told family members and a number of close friends that I am gay; a few have known for a little longer. I think that I am more eager than my friends to bring up questions about the future of my marriage and family in these conversations. Most friends have thus far shied away from directly offering opinions (if they have them at all). But at certain times I feel the need for feedback, for information and perspective that would help me map the emotional and relationship terrain ahead. Of course I don’t expect anyone to have any solid answers for me. How could anyone possibly be able to figure out all of this out, especially when it has not been directly experienced?

A number of close friends have been pretty direct in private conversations with my wife, however. She is an amazing person who has garnered deep respect from people that know her. One close friend of my wife who has read this blog wondered a while ago why I have not expressed remorse about the difficult situation that I have put her in by marrying her in the first place.

It is true that I have said very little even in private conversation, but I am saddened that our situation is so difficult on my wife. I’ve had some deep emotional experiences thinking about the pain that I have put her through and the uncertainty that she now feels. I’ve made life difficult for her despite her generous protestations that I have been a good husband over the years. Over the course of our marriage I’ve given her the best I am able to offer: honesty, hard work, apologies, adventures, some laughter, and years of setting aside my natural romantic and sexual interests. On the other hand, I’ve not given her things that are really hard for me to offer: complete emotional dedication, marital passion, and complete sublimation of my sexual identity. I truly don’t want her to suffer; one of my guiding spiritual values is to avoid harming others. I’m willing to incur difficulties for others; I am often willing to pull more than my fair share in a relationship.

I truly wish that I had had the courage to confront my sexuality in a more serious way before we were married. I think I did my best at the time. At that time the Church path was such an omnipresent structuring force in my life, that I don’t know how I could have realistically accepted that life might have options for me other than heterosexual marriage or life-long celibacy. Today I think a more courageous decision would have been to forgo heterosexual marriage as a future option for myself. But the missing pieces of cognition at that point in my life were a much deeper understanding of my sexuality, an understanding that faith, time or hard work truly wouldn’t be able to change my sexuality, and a belief that I really could be happy in a same-sex relationship. Those critical points, though so much more transparent to me today, run contrary to two fundamental tenets of the Church that are taught ad nauseam: if you have enough faith anything is possible, and if you are obedient to the commandments, you will be blessed. Steeped in these beliefs, to accept homosexuality was to give in to failure. Church leaders put significant pressure on single guys to get married and not delay starting a family. Some gay Mormons emerge from this pressure cooker choosing a life of celibacy, but I don’t think I ever felt that was going to work for me.

There are times when the spiritual ideal of ‘no harm’ comes in direct conflict with other very important facets of life. How does one prioritize these values and needs? Sexuality and the broader issue of attraction are so integral to the expression of individuality that they cannot be ignored or minimized without substantial effects on the development and well being of a person. Sacrifice is an integral component of deep relationships, but should there be limits? Is it healthy for a marriage to be a relationship where sacrifice is the principal pillar on which it stands?

When a satisfactory compromise of conflicting identities and divergent needs can be found in a mixed orientation marriage, a workable relationship may emerge for both spouses. The usual optimal manifestation of sacrifice in a relationship involves both partners giving some and taking some, but both finding that growth in the relationship compensates for anything that was given up. It is difficult to think of such a compromise when matters of identity and love and self-esteem are involved. Can the gay spouse choose to be half gay or to be half married? Does the straight spouse want or deserve half a companion? Those kinds of options don’t really make much sense in the traditional conception of marriage and monogamous relationships.

It cannot be easy to be a straight spouse married to a gay person. Does the straight spouse doubt her attractiveness, her past decisions, her future dreams, her identity? Does she blame herself for the complex circumstances of a mixed-orientation marriage? I can protest that I am the one with the problem, that our troubles with intimacy are solely due to me, but that does not remove the emotional difficulty that my wife experiences. She is not the source of our challenges, but she a full participant in their consequences. We have both been strongly influenced by a Church culture that emphasizes that faith and obedience can solve anything. But, when faith and hard work fail to heal something that is not broken – when faith and hard work are useful tools applied to the wrong problem – disappointment and frustration can set in.

As we come to a place of greater comprehension about my identity and greater honesty in our relationship, we come to a crossroads as well. Like a scientist with new data, the old ideas should be reassessed. We have to ask of our relationship: what are we fighting for or working towards now? Are we fighting for what is best for us? Are we going to choose one valid existence over another? Are we working to honor someone else’s hopes and dreams for us? Are we fighting mainly for a concept?

Where do we walk from here on out? At some point final decisions will be made and we will move forward. It is not realistic to think that we’ll stay on the fence forever; that is not an outcome that will be emotionally healthy for either of us. While some may disagree with the decisions we will eventually make, I have confidence that those who genuinely care for us and who invest the time to understand the complexity of our situation will wisely leave judgments to us. Coming out involves risks with unforeseen consequences. The world may not yet be sympathetic enough to the gay experience to forgive a gay married man for not getting things right the first time around.

20 October 2011

Not so!

“We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the Gospel must be wrong. In the Book of Mormon we learn that ‘wickedness never was happiness’. Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the unpure and the unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember He is our Father.”
-President Boyd K. Packer, October 2010 General Conference (1)

Some suppose that their attraction to the same sex is sinful or shameful. They believe that their deepest capacity to love another person must be suppressed or that God cannot approve of the nature of their love. Some suppose that only in being fractured can they be saved, that only in withdrawing from themselves can they commune with God. Not so! Why would God endow a person with a beautiful capacity to love another and then require him or her to fight this very gift? Remember that truth transcends culture and ignorance and fear.

Some others suppose that it is natural to have disgust for those who acknowledge or express love towards the same sex. They believe that only attractions towards the opposite sex are normal, and that other forms of love are illegitimate or unfulfilling. Some therefore suppose that it is their duty to denigrate homosexuality, to elevate themselves by demeaning others. Not so! Why would a loving, omniscient God ever sanction ignorance or arrogant judgment of others? Remember that we each have the remarkable capacity to reach beyond the limited understanding of our own individual experiences.

(1) This is the un-edited version of President Packer’s talk delivered at the LDS General Conference in October 2010. My transcription is taken from the video posted here. The talk was later edited for the printed version of the General Conference proceedings.

07 October 2011

Bisexual envy?

Perhaps I’ve occasionally entertained the idea that I am bisexual, but I honestly think that such thoughts have derived mostly from wishful thinking. Having a bisexual orientation would fit in more comfortably, I suppose, with the reality that I am married to the opposite sex. However, I am fairly confident I am pretty far to the homosexual side of the Kinsey scale. So I haven’t really thought of myself as bisexual for a while.

Some people view at least some manifestations of bisexuality as a stepping stone to acceptance of homosexuality. As this line of thinking goes, a person begins to come out of the closet and may temporarily hold on to the idea that they are attracted (or can be attracted) to the opposite sex, coincident with beginning to acknowledge and give validity to feelings of attraction to the same sex. While this model is certainly plausible for some people, I’d bet people with a long-term stable bisexual orientation might bristle at the notion that their sexuality is only a transitional phase between a heterosexual and homosexual identity.

My original understanding of bisexuality appeared to be based on the idea that bisexuals could be happy in a relationship with either sex. If so, bisexuality might then present some advantages over homosexuality or even heterosexuality. For instance, a bisexual might be attracted physically to a broader suite of people, and might be able to more profoundly appreciate both male and female bodies and personalities. And given that homophobia is a powerful negative social force, my old understanding would argue that a bisexual has more relationship flexibility than a homosexual: bisexuals, at least have the option of choosing a straight relationship. Maybe this either/or description of bisexuality accurately describes attractions for some people.

However, as I have read of some bisexual experiences, not all appear to have an either/or type of attraction. Some, it seems, really need to have relationships with both men and women to feel more complete fulfillment. For bisexuals who experience attraction in this way, being in a monogamous relationship with either a man or a woman might only be a partially fulfilling experience with another person. When paired with the opposite sex, the same sex needs are neglected and vice versa. I don’t know if sequentially moving between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships helps fulfill needs or just leads to frustration! Are polyamorous relationships appealing to bisexuals who feel this way?

Regardless of their personal patterns of attraction, it seems like all bisexuals probably share a common challenge – how they may be frequently misunderstood from the outside. A bisexual in a same sex relationship would easily be assumed to be gay if he or she showed affection with a partner in a public setting. Likewise, a bisexual coupled with an opposite sex partner would almost surely be perceived as heterosexual by strangers and unknowing acquaintances. Yet in neither case are perceptions accurate since they are based on only half of the story. I don’t know if this matters significantly on a day-to-day basis for bisexuals, but I imagine there can be times when that misunderstanding can be frustrating.

As a gay man married to a straight woman, perhaps I have more in common with bisexuals than I’ve realized until just recently. For instance, being married to a woman presents challenges with respect to feeling that certain of my relationship needs are fulfilled. Paired with either a same or opposite sex partner, a bisexual may also long for the kinds of fulfillment they have the capacity (and maybe experience) to enjoy from the other type of relationship.

Additionally, like bisexuals, I am probably very frequently misunderstood in public settings when I am with my family. In most cases, it will be assumed that I am straight. Usually this is not important, but it becomes more disconcerting when I start to get to know new friends, acquaintances or co-workers better. If I had a same-sex partner, a new acquaintance is likely to learn much faster (instantly, if I am with said same-sex partner at the time) that I am gay. If a close friendship eventually evolved with this new acquaintance, I think in many cases I’d want them to know about all the major parts of my personality, including the gayness. If I comfortably accept this part of myself, there is no reason that it needs to remain hidden from those who are close to me.

So this post stems from some thoughts about the bisexual experience, but not a lot of understanding on my part. If you are bisexual or know well the experiences of bisexual friends or family members, will you educate me? How are bisexual attractions experienced? What is unique about the bisexual experience? What challenges and advantages do bisexuals have?

20 September 2011

Gay films

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a terrible connoisseur of movies.
“Have you seen such-and-such?” “Um, no.”
“How about this movie?” “Ummmm, maybe, but I can’t remember.”
I just don’t get very motivated to watch films I guess, but once I start a movie I usually cannot leave it. In the process of coming out, I wanted to expose myself to gay films. I don’t think I had even seen one before June of this calendar year! I haven’t seen very many yet, but I like most of the ones I’ve viewed so far. Here are a few:

The Bubble. This is a film that takes place in Israel and the Palestinian territories. An Israeli man (who is quite cute) meets a Palestinian man at an army checkpoint. The Palestinian man later comes to find the Israeli man at his apartment in Tel Aviv and they start a relationship. The Palestinian man stays for some time with the Israeli man and his roommates in Israel, but his identity as a Palestinian eventually leaks out to the neighborhood and due to fear he returns to his family in the Palestinian territories. Because the Israeli man is in love, he is depressed for days about separation from his lover, so he sneaks into the hometown of his lover with his female roommate, they meet, and kiss. Unfortunately they are caught kissing by the soon-to-be brother in law, a scary man linked to terrorist activities. The couple has one more happy meeting in Israel, but then there is a tragic end to the movie (which I won’t give away). It is an emotional film because it combines the tension of homosexual love and conservative religion with the broader societal conflict in the Middle East. I was touched by a scene centered on a Nazi-era play that the couple went together to see. The actors in the play – two gay men interred in a concentration camp – act out a very sexual scene without even touching or removing clothes. What?? Well, you’ll just have to see it. Apparently during the oppression of Nazi Germany, gays would touch a finger just above the eye and move it towards the side of the head as a secret sign to say “I love you”. I love that!

Prayers for Bobby and Save Me. I’ve combined these films because they both deal with a theme also touched on to some degree in The Bubble: the heart wrenching conflict between conservative monotheistic religion and homosexual love. Prayers for Bobby is about a teenager who is brought up in a conservative Christian family adamantly opposed to homosexuality. He acknowledges that he is gay to his brother who in turn tells the parents. For some time, Bobby and mom (especially) work on ways to overcome his sexual orientation. Though Bobby is on board with the plan for some time, he gradually comes to accept that he is gay and that he will not change. He becomes more rebellious against his family’s efforts to cure him and about the time he comes of age, he moves for a while to Portland. Bobby meets a somewhat older man and they have a relationship, but the boyfriend betrays him. Bobby ends his life by jumping from a bridge into a highway. The rest of the film deals with the spiritual transformation of Bobby’s mother as she wrestles deeply with the pain of losing her son and her long-held belief of the sinfulness of homosexuality. Like Bobby, her transformation is gradual and she comes to a place of peace about who her son was.

Save Me was actually the first gay film that I watched. It is centered on a Christian retreat run by a husband and wife that attempts to cure young men of their homosexuality.  A young man, deeply involved in drugs and seemingly unhealthy gay sexual relationships, is admitted to the group against his wishes at a very dark time in his life. Over time he becomes a model example of “transformation” and becomes the favorite “pupil” of the wife (who is a more zealous “therapist” than her husband). However, he falls in love with another man at the retreat and they begin a relationship. The couple eventually leaves the group to the great dismay of the wife. Strangely enough perhaps, I think I felt very empathetic towards the wife. Though the suppression of true love (homosexual or otherwise) seems a nearly futile endeavor (and it was great to see the young man turn from his wild life to a healthy loving relationship), I empathized with the heartache she went through as she felt the deep sting of failure in something she believed so deeply in.

Brokeback Mountain. This was difficult film for me. Set in Wyoming several decades ago, two sheep herders (Jack and Ennis) labor temporarily for the summer in the outback and fall in love. At the end of the summer, each returns to his small hometown and each eventually marries and starts a family. After several years, they reunite and thereafter meet periodically to spend short spans of time together in the wilderness. Though they form a deep bond, their relationship is rocky and even violent at times; neither is able to be honest about the extra-marital relationship with their spouses. Ennis eventually divorces, but never is able to develop a relationship with Jack that goes beyond their periodic encounters; he seems increasingly like a broken man as time passes. Jack, who’s devotion to Ennis is perhaps greater than that offered by Ennis, is eventually killed by a mob; Ennis learns of his death by telephone from Jack’s wife who tells him a false story about his death. The ugly and painful oppression of homophobia pervades this movie, even being manifest in Ennis who seems to have a lifelong battle fully accepting his sexuality.

Shelter. Ahhhh….finally a gay movie with a happy ending. Shelter takes place in southern California and centers on two young adult surfers who develop a relationship. It takes some time for the younger man to accept his sexuality and their relationship suffers vicissitudes because of this. Both of the actors are straight in real life; I think they did quite a good job playing gay roles!
So there are a few pretty good gay films. To my straight Mormon friends who might be reading this, I’d encourage you to see a few of these. They are pretty much all rated R, but take the plunge anyway! To my gay friends: since I’ve only seen a few more films than the ones listed here, please share your recommendations.

18 September 2011

"Gender confusion"

LDS leaders and lay members use a lot of code words. A whole set of vocabulary has accrued around the Mormon experience: “ward”; “stake”; “Relief Society”; “temple worthy”; “celestial glory”; “member/non-member”; “active/less-active”; “the brethren”; “conference”; “worthy”; “in the covenant”….

One pair of terms that appears from time to time in Church-centered discussions of sexual morality is “gender confusion” and “gender disorientation”. The exact meaning of “gender confusion” as used by church leaders or members in any given instance can be quite elusive to me; it is unclear if it is given in reference to the transgender experience or in reference to sexual orientation. Or perhaps, it is given in reference to both. Or perhaps it is given in reference to a more general concern that Church leaders have over the blending of gender roles in family life or individual behavior.

Here are a few quotations:
Using terms such as “gender confusion” in discussions of sexuality just creates, well, confusion. It may not be a tacit objective of Church leadership, but exacerbating confusion about sexual orientation keeps it unappealing, mysterious and dark. Perhaps a likely reason why such terms are used on occasion is that Church leaders and members are often too uncomfortable discussing anything having to do with sexuality in general, so using code words simplifies and sanitizes the discussion. Gay Mormons reading this may be reminded that the Church often preferentially uses the sanitized terms “same-gender attraction” and “same-sex attraction” in reference to homosexuality. I suspect, that like other things in Mormon culture (evolution and anthropology, free-masonry, and quirky or disturbing events in Church history) there can also be a tendency to avoid anything more than scratching the surface of controversial or complex topics.

I’m not a sociologist or reproductive biologist, but I’m going to try some clarification:

Biological sex. Sex – as a term of identity or classification, not reproduction – refers to the biological sex into which a person can be categorized. At the genetic level it refers to the type of sex chromosomes that a person has in each cell of the body. There are only two genetic configurations of biological sex, XX and XY, right? Wrong. In a small percentage of the human population, there are a few other chromosomal patterns (e.g., XXY) that can occur because of variation in how chromatids separate during meiosis. Aside from the genetic encoding of biological sex, people have reproductive organ systems and secondary sexual characteristics that usually correspond to the male or female biological sex. Like genetic variation, however, a certain percentage of people do not have distinctly male or female reproductive anatomy. Some people may be born with intermediary sex organs, for instance. So genetically and developmentally, most humans fall into a simple male/female dichotomy, but all do not.

Gender. The word gender is often used interchangeably with sex to refer to the two most common biological sexes in mammals: male and female. Another use of the word gender is in reference to a set of behavioral and identity attributes that are usually associated with a particular biological sex, but not as a synonym of biological sex. In other words, gender describes behaviors and personalities. It is thus in part a social construct; the ideas of what is feminine and what is masculine are more culturally determined than biologically immutable. An individual’s gender is an expression of a set of masculine or feminine traits. In a very general sense, masculinity corresponds with biological males and femininity with biological females. However, a couple of important lines of evidence support the idea that gender is as much social as it is inherently biological:

   (1) Over time the roles of men and women in families in western society have changed. At work and in the home, patterns of women’s and men’s behaviors and responsibilities are different today than they were several decades ago.  
   (2) Definitions of masculine and feminine roles, attributes, and behaviors vary from culture to culture. In the Judeo-Christian west, we often arrogantly think that our sociological patterns reflect fundamental human, even divine, optima (truth) and ignore the diversity of cultural expressions of things like gender.
   (3) Most individuals are a complex mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” traits. Even if there was some cosmic law that decreed that compassion, for example, was a solely “feminine” trait, or that assertiveness was a solely “masculine” trait, gender-wise most human beings would be a complex chimera of attributes.  Thus there would be all kinds of genders.

Sexual orientation.  Sexual orientation refers to the biological sex to which a person is attracted. Heterosexuals are primarily or exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, homosexuals are attracted primarily or exclusively to the same sex and bisexuals are attracted more or less to both sexes. Orientation often does not solely involve sexual attraction, but can include emotional and spiritual attraction as well. Asexuals are not very interested in sex, but may have heterosocial, homosocial or other attractions.

Sexual orientation does not necessarily have anything to do with gender identity or gender attributes. True, a number of gay men for example, are more “feminine” with respect to certain behavioral attributes, but plenty of other homosexually-oriented men exhibit mostly traits that are usually associated with masculinity. I generally count myself as one of these latter types of gays (though my lack of interest in football and NASCAR races are two strikes against my masculinity). Some heterosexual males are more feminine, and some straight women are more masculine than others.  The flamboyant male homosexual may get a lot of media attention and be the nucleus of stereotype formation, but gay males represent a spectrum of personality types. A gay LDS blog writer discussed being both gay and generally masculine here.  Another, humorous, blog entry discusses the gender-sexuality confusion that exists to some degree in LDS culture here.

Sexual identity. Terms such as “straight”, “gay”, “lesbian”, and “bisexual” are identity labels that individuals choose to apply to themselves. Sexual identity is more reflective of sexual behaviors than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and sexual identity are sometimes not the same. For instance, some gays live celibate lives or are married to a person of the opposite sex; these individuals, frequently for religious reasons, may self identify as straight even though their orientation remains homosexual. Closeted gays are likely to identify themselves as heterosexual even though inclinations, fantasies, etc. link their orientation clearly to homosexuality.


Unfortunately the Church seems to be very much in the dark about sexual orientation. I think this arises because the Church views sexuality though a single narrow lens – one informed principally by a modest number of passages about sexuality in an old text from an ancient middle eastern culture. The Church's perspective has also been informed by social developments in sexuality and American family life in the last several hundred years, but like other social issues, it seems to be at least a decade or two behind more mainstream perspectives. The Church adamantly insists that it does not bend to political or social pressures in matters of doctrine, but changes in Church policies like polygamy and extension of the priesthood to males of African ancestry, strongly suggest otherwise historically.

Older Mormon texts that treat homosexuality (e.g., President Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness) are contemptuous and contain misinformation. There is a real dearth of positive and scientifically-informed discussion of homosexuality in local Church classes and in more general settings such as General Conference. Homosexuality has been so marginalized and stigmatized in Church culture for so long that it can be a hostile and intimidating environment for homosexual Church members. These negative conditions are not universal, but they are pervasive enough to create generally unhealthy conditions for many out gay Latter-day Saints. LDS members who deny their sexuality or treat it as an undesirable affliction or temptation generally can manage to stay active members, but they internalize the dissonance between the doctrine and their orientation. There are a few gay members who have found ways to reconcile their non-heterosexual sexual orientation with continued activity in the Church. If such believers are homosexually active however, they are likely to only be able to do so as excommunicated members with limited Church privileges.

Discussions of homosexuality in the Church should incorporate sensitivity to the terminology that is used. This is not because all homosexuals demand political correctness. It is because gross misunderstanding of these terms reveals an underlying ignorance about important dimensions of the human experience such as gender identity and sexual orientation. Definitions of the terms given above can vary from group to group, but if they are seldom discussed in Church settings in the first place, ignorance about the nature of sexuality and the real experiences of gay people will continue.  Visceral disgust towards homosexuality may drive some member's rejection of homosexuality and gay persons, but ignorance is probably a more pervasive problem.

Radical changes in the Church’s position on homosexuality seem unlikely, at least in the near future. The Church’s doctrines about the family and morality are too entrenched in what it means to be Mormon that a radical shift in direction in this area would be an unacceptable earthquake that would rock the Church. But the Church’s emphasis on missionary work, and the fact that ultimately Church leadership is to some degree sensitive to the needs and views of its members (which needs and views are invariably influenced by the broader society in which its members live), suggest that modest changes in position with respect to homosexuality in the future are possible. At a very minimum, the other important doctrines of Mormonism – namely, the love of Christ – demand that members and the leadership take a more tolerant and inclusive approach to gay people. Mormon families casting out gay children is shameful. Mormon parents refusing to meet the gay partners of gay children is petty and damaging. Disparaging comments about homosexuality in the halls of Church buildings are unacceptable.  Thankfully Church culture is making some progress, even if as one friend discussed, the pace of progress seems glacial.

01 September 2011

Experiencing more

There is a place for idealism in my heart. It gets beat up by reality on a regular basis, but it lives on.
As I get a little older, sometimes the sobering thought that life is finite will settle in my mind for a short time. In the course of my life I will only meet a small fraction of the world’s people. But each person holds a lifetime of experience and dreams, failures and successes. What do I learn from each person? What do I contribute in return? In my short life, I will only read and ponder a tiny sampling of all the knowledge accumulated by thinking men and women throughout history. So thus I must choose my education and entertainment wisely. Is every day a lecture, every walk through nature an instructive reminder of silent ageless lessons? In my few decades, I will only visit a handful of fascinating and beautiful places built by human hands or nature’s laws. Therefore to be in more places I must imagine, I must look as carefully at the microscopic as I do at the majestic landscapes visible below a mountaintop. Do I see the beauty of where I am presently? In my transitory life, I will only sample a small percentage of the great wealth of human experience. Therefore, I must savor the good in each experience that I’m a part of. Am I grateful for the past, energetic in the present, optimistic about the future?
The body often limits us, but the mind seems capable of extending us. Antiquated human structures and age old patterns built on superstition also often tie us down, but creativity and knowledge can free us. Body and mind, reality and hope, the finite versus imagination … these are the twin voices of reality and idealism. We need them both I suppose. But in my idealistic musings, I like to think that you…me…all of us together, we visit more, we learn more, we experience more, and we connect more than each of us alone. Thus by our shared journeys we transcend the finite each of us is born into.

30 August 2011

Outside and inside

I often feel like a little bit of an outsider no matter where I am. I usually spend most of my time around straight people though I am gay. I’ve only recently begun spending time with gay people, but I’ve already noticed that I’m definitely going to have more to talk about with gay guys who like things like backpacking and soccer and science more than things like musicals. I’m usually drawn to nerdy things, but I also am bothered by the ‘I’ve got it all figured out’ attitude that some very learned people seem to carry around with them. I like spirituality and contemplation, but I definitely feel like an outsider in the LDS Church these days since I am generally more liberal, more analytical, and more personal in my religious expressions than the Church’s median cultural environment.

This is definitely not all bad. I really like the fact that I can fit in to some degree with people in different social circles. I learn from others. And I gain a broader perspective by observing diverse groups of people. Perhaps all this encourages me to be a moderate in many areas of life: politically, socially, and spiritually. But sometimes I wish I could fit in more, that I could create deeper connections with people that I admire. It is very rare that I have felt I am on exactly the same page as someone else.

Perhaps the fractured nature of my social interactions mirrors the person inside me. My identities are varied and don’t all fit together like one of those cute little puzzles that my daughter is a whiz at. These identities include being a scientist, being an outdoors enthusiast, being a husband and father, being gay and being a Latter-day Saint. These disparate identities involve some conflicts. I presently don’t know how to satisfactorily reconcile one of these conflicts (the gay-husband conflict), though by distancing myself from the Church I have felt more at peace with the friction generated by being gay and LDS and by being  LDS and a scientist.

I’ve lived with the existence of several identity conflicts for some time, but recently I have wanted more resolution. In a way, the conflicts have left me exhausted. I would like to feel that I am a relatively whole and integrated person, that the important pieces of who I am do not significantly abrade each other. I’d also like to be perceived by others with a reasonable degree of constancy – for example, that those who know I am LDS also know that I am gay, and that those who know I am gay also know that I value the ideal of being a good father. Now that I am open about my sexuality, maybe people will have a more uniform view of who I am, and also be able to see all of the major sides of my personality. However, I also need to be prepared to accept that greater resolution of the conflict between my disparate identities may involve some uncomfortable changes or some compromises. These are presently unknowable aspects of the future. Being more open may also put me in some uncomfortable (or possibly unsafe) situations, but my friends and family have been very supportive so far.

Where did all this trouble come from? How did I get to this place, a place where I have been reasonably successful at much of what I’ve attempted to accomplish in life, but a place where I feel very divided and uneasy internally?

Here are a couple of speculations that may characterize a lot of gays (like myself) who have spent a significant amount of time suppressing their sexuality:

Many gays learn to become masters at compartmentalizing different features of their lives, experts at managing multiple realities or multiple versions of their life story. In most individuals this tendency develops fairly early in life, as soon as it is realized that (1) I am different from others of the same gender around me, and (2) who I am attracted to is going to cause me ridicule, harm, or alienation. Many young gay people quickly learn to hide the attractions, mask or avoid any behaviors that might clue someone into the existence of the attractions, and essentially begin the process of living a separate external reality from an internal identity. Individuals might learn to avoid certain mannerisms that are stereotypically associated with being gay. I remember worrying for a long time that people might think I was gay because of the tone of my voice, especially when I heard it on the answering machine and it sounded so different from what it sounds like to me!

Separating the external and internal identities requires vigilance in order to keep hiding the sexual orientation and, in an interesting way, can lead to a very admirable degree of self control. But there are clearly negative effects. To manage the dual identities, some people may resort to deception. I rarely, if ever, had to lie about my sexuality (because I can only recall one time in college when I was ever directly confronted about being gay), but I certainly was not honest in the sense of telling the whole story. One “advantage” of becoming married was that I had a nearly unassailable shield from being perceived as gay; that perspective seems pathetic now, but it was reflective of my desperate attempts to dissociate myself from anything gay years ago. When I was around others who made homophobic comments, I acted the part by laughing along, though anyone who was observant enough probably could have seen that I didn’t laugh as intensely or genuinely as others. These were all manifestations of deception that I regret.

There are more subtle but potentially equally damaging effects of living dual identities to repress homosexuality. One is the inability to draw close to others emotionally. Unless gay persons can feel safe revealing their sexual identity to trusted individuals, there will always be at least some barriers in terms of feeling comfortable and safe around others. A very core part of the self is decidedly off-limits emotionally; for instance, it cannot be a source of shared vulnerability that helps bind two caring souls together. After coming out, it is possible that this deficiency will linger for some time in developing or existing relationships, because a gay person has developed a pattern of keeping a significant part of who they are secret.

Another potentially damaging effect of dual identities is the toll that suppression can take on self esteem. There is the failure to arrive at internal peace and mature towards confidence in oneself. There is little faith in the internal self because the mind is set on confirmation of the constructed external identity. There may be a very cancerous feeling that something about you is wrong or undesirable or debilitating, but without any solution or reprieve.

Many gays eventually break this uncomfortable duality, but ages at which this is accomplished vary tremendously and there are undoubtedly some who go to their grave never letting a single soul know that they were gay. I really admire those who are able to accept their sexuality at a younger age than me! Today I think many gays are breaking this duality at an earlier age than ever before, because society is finally beginning to develop a more mature, thoughtful and respectful view of the homosexual experience.

“Coming out” involves the joining of these fragmented pieces, an affirmative decision to let external appearances flow from internal identity. Coming out can expose the difficult identity conflicts that a gay person may have accumulated over the years. While I am much happier presently because I no longer feel compelled to hide my sexuality from those close to me, trying to incorporate my newly found perspectives into my broader worldview has brought other conflicts to the forefront of my mind. In an almost tangible way I wrestle with these daily. I still have lots to do in order to feel reasonably integrated, whole and complete. My hope is that, for my own happiness, I can reach a place where identities do not significantly clash, and that, for the well being of close to me, I can do so in ways that minimize negative impacts on others. These goals often seem irreconcilable, but I have to try. 

14 August 2011

Intimacy in a mixed orientation marriage

I have a good heterosexual friend who has been married for over 10 years. We have been friends for a very long time.  Although he has known about my sexuality for many years, and has a generous, accepting heart, I’ve felt that it has been difficult to convey to him exactly how I feel as a homosexual man in a heterosexual marriage. The landscape of my emotions about this topic are still changing as time passes, but some feelings include loneliness, restlessness, and guilt or frustration that I cannot better meet what appear to be the expectations of a “typical” marriage.

One day while hiking in a beautiful place, I tried to explain my perspective to my friend along these lines (with some present embellishment):

“Imagine that you are married to me. Clearly you like my personality because we are good friends.  However, because of the nature of the marriage relationship, you are going to need to be intimate with me on all levels, not just in ways that friends express closeness. Not once of course, but throughout our lives, in large and small ways, from sex to cuddling in bed in the morning to giving me occasional looks that say ‘I love you in every way I can’. Can you build a life intimately connected to me, maintain at least a good percentage of this intimacy with me for decades to come, and be internally satisfied?”
Upon hearing this hypothetical scenario, my friend quickly chuckled. It was not a wholly dismissive laugh, but it was a response that impressed on my mind just how foreign it is for a straight person in a heterosexual marriage to imagine the sort of emotional, sexual, and mental challenges that a gay person faces in mixed orientation marriages. The challenges are omni-present, from those early morning same-sex fantasies when thoughts are largely unfiltered … to social interactions with other heterosexual couples where affection and love seem to flow naturally from one spouse to another in that marriage but are often hard to muster in the mixed orientation marriage … to feeling emotionally drawn to other people on a frequent basis … to feeling some loneliness even when physically close to your spouse.

I think that there is an intimacy ceiling inherent in most mixed orientation marriages. By intimacy, I mean all the ways in which two people can be close: sexually, emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually and spiritually. As gay spouses we hit against this ceiling periodically. Work and other responsibilities generally keep us busy, but then there is an occasion for sex, or a certain emotional crisis in which we want extra support from our spouse, or times when we need to tell the straight spouse how beautiful (s)he is but we just can’t say it with more than an academic understanding and stretched conviction – these are the sorts of times when we hit the intimacy ceiling.

The straight spouses bump against the intimacy ceiling too, but sometimes in different ways. For instance, it may be hard for the straight spouse to understand why his or her expressions of love don’t have a major emotional impact on the gay spouse. It may be difficult to understand why the gay spouse withdraws or needs space or feels a level of emptiness in the relationship. Expressions of physical affection from the gay spouse may be infrequent or seem unnatural. Like the gay spouse, the straight spouse may long for deeper affection and passion in the marriage, or more outwards signs of assurance that the gay spouse is really committed emotionally to the relationship.

The exact location of such a ceiling surely varies from couple to couple (as it does I’m sure for straight or gay same-orientation partnerships). But I suspect that the limitations go deeper – the ceiling is quite a bit lower – in mixed orientation marriages. This seems evident because the capacity of the gay spouse to both give and receive expressions of intimacy in the relationship may be limited. When there are limits present in these relationships (above and beyond what the average couple experiences), extra effort, compromise and compassionate empathy are required. Couples in these relationships may feel that they sacrifice some degree of fulfillment by staying in the marriage. From what I gather, heterosexual marriage is hard enough when even some of the fundamental pieces like sexual attraction and fulfilling non-sexual physical affection are already in place!

Can the ceiling on a mixed orientation marriage be raised? I don’t know. It is a major question inherent in these relationships. Perhaps a key part of the answer lies in the ratio between capacity and expectation. If intimate capacity exceeds expectations or basic needs, then perhaps the relationship can survive and even thrive. If expectations or needs are greater than emotional, sexual or romantic capacity, then perhaps the relationship will not be healthy in the long-term. Capacity and expectations need to be evaluated for each spouse. For the gay spouse, does the capacity to give emotionally, sexually, physically, and spiritually meet the expectations and needs of the straight spouse? For the straight spouse, can he or she bring aspects of love and companionship to the marriage that are fulfilling for the gay spouse?

Each couple in these marriages is different. I strongly suspect that the ability to enhance intimacy in these marriages depends on the personalities of each member of the couple, the degree of homo/bisexuality in the one spouse and the degree of flexibility of the individuals. When the intimacy ceiling can be actually raised to enable greater fulfillment by the partners, great! When individual expectations are lowered too much or needs for intimacy are downplayed to meet a ceiling that cannot be raised, this seems like a less desirable outcome. I think lasting intimacy requires that both spouses can be close to each other in authentic ways.

I hope that as others try to understand mixed orientation marriages, they will be careful to not apply a heterosexual framework in their evaluation of what these marriages should be. If you are straight, go ahead and try a mental experiment. Imagine marriage to your same-sex best friend. Can you make it work? How would you go about it? What aspects would be especially difficult for you? What extra effort, compromise or sacrifice might be needed above and beyond your current romantic relationship or marriage?

09 August 2011


Out of all the spiritual principles that many of us try to cultivate, compassion is probably my favorite. For starters, on a good day I am probably a little bit better at compassion than some of the other worthwhile spiritual values. When it comes to patience, for example, I am pretty pathetic. God, karma, whatever, seem to keep supplying me with experiences demanding patience because I just haven’t gotten it yet. But if I set my mind to it, compassion is something that I can do.

Compassion is one of the most universal spiritual values. Just as air or water seep into every available space, compassion permeates every type of human relationship from friendship to romance. Compassion has an important place in all of the major religious traditions. It can be present at virtually all stages of conscious life. It can be narrowly applied to specific individuals and it can be broadly cultivated for all of humanity.

Compassion requires understanding, or at a very minimum, a willingness to understand another person. This is likely the major point at which we can fail to be compassionate: how often do we think that we understand another person, but we really haven’t tried to understand that person on his or her own terms? How often do we come upon a situation already thinking that we know the “right” answer for someone else? So some effort to move beyond our pre-conceptions and be open to new learning will help us better understand others. A non-biased, non-judgmental, fact-finding (scientific!) approach seems like a great exercise for cultivating compassion and understanding.

There is much more than a feel-good component to compassion. Of course kind and loving acts help us feel good individually. But compassion can soften someone’s heart so that they will be receptive to us and what we can offer.  In this way it is a means for truly connecting with another person. Compassion enables us to view someone else through a lens of shared humanity. It focuses on commonalities, not divisions or differences. With compassion, we can look at another (someone perhaps whom we barely know) and understand some very basic things about that person. We can know something of another person’s sorrows, joys and insecurities. Because we have all experienced basic emotions like pain, disappointment, and excitement we can use compassion as a vehicle for understanding (to some degree) how those same emotions are experienced by another person. We can know that in many ways, we are each on the same journey to find happiness and make the most of life.

06 August 2011

Internal remodeling

As a graduate student, I lived in a coastal town in California. I worked right on the coast and would usually park the car in a residential area a few blocks south of my research building. Along this stretch of popular California coastline, there were constantly surfers coming and going – mostly guys. There were invariably lots of really cute ones. Since I was trying to repress homosexual inclinations at this point in life, I tried not to look, or if I was perhaps being a little less hard on myself, I allowed myself just one glance at someone I thought was attractive.  Needless to say, I was not always successful at keeping these self-imposed rules about stealing looks at guys.

When “temptations” were really bad, I would often remind myself of a statement by George Bernard Shaw that served as a motivation for me in denying my homosexual feelings. To paraphrase, I think: “Life is not about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself.” I really liked this quote. It was empowering, I felt, and it suggested to me that there was no pre-determined outcome for my life. In my case, religious expectations to have only heterosexual thoughts and behaviors bound me mentally, so I could not and would not allow myself to “find” my homosexual self.  I had decided then to be a heterosexual and that was that.

I still enjoy Shaw’s statement today very much for the same idea of personal empowerment, but I have sort of eaten some internal crow over how I should apply this statement in my life. Years of prayer, thought control, fasting and marriage to a woman have really not made me any less gay. Sure, I generally have a respectable degree of behavioral self control, but internally I have not lessened the need for emotional intimacy with a guy, appreciably decreased my physical and sexual attraction to men, or significantly altered the deep seated feeling that only in a relationship with a guy do I have the greatest chance of giving and receiving the best that intimate relationships between two people can offer.

I want to tackle here something that I feel might be a common argument made by those are motivated by religious or other reasons to reject homosexuality as a stable and acceptable form of human attraction. That argument is hard work. Consider these potential arguments: “If you simply had more faith and worked harder at controlling your thoughts, you would not be gay.” “You may never be able to completely eliminate your homosexual feelings, but with enough hard work you can manage them and live a heterosexual lifestyle.”
Alright, let’s look at these types of arguments critically with a series of questions.
The first question is why…why should a person strive to change his or her sexual orientation?  Is there scientifically-rigorous evidence showing that homosexuality itself (not societal harm due to homophobia or discrimination against gays) is psychologically harmful? Does homosexuality directly cause crime, dissolve straight relationships or nuclear families, result in poor performance in school, or negatively affect vocational aptitude? Can anyone unequivocally demonstrate that there is a divine preference for heterosexuality and that the narrow interpretation of holy writ used by some conservative churches to claim that homosexuality is immoral is the only interpretation that God him/her/itself approves?  If change advocates cannot demonstrate any sound social, religious or scientific reasons to alter orientation that would not be cured by eliminating homophobia, then the whole change therapy idea needs to be tossed out the window.

The second question is whether change in sexual orientation is possible.  The short answer, is that yes, across the broader gay population, some change is possible.  However, change is not probable. And for specific individuals, changing from gay to straight may be essentially impossible. Kinnish et al. (2005) and Mock and Eibach (2011) for example, found that at least for men, homosexuality is a stable and largely unchanging expression of human sexual orientation. Most gay people cannot become straight, no matter the amount of effort expended. A valid corollary question is whether a straight person, with enough hard work, can make him or herself gay. If change in sexual orientation is possible with enough faith and prayer, why aren’t more straight people signing up for costly weekend programs to become gays and lesbians? After all, if the disadvantages of discrimination, homophobia, and self loathing turn out to be too much for the straight-turned-gay person, he can just change himself one more time to become straight again!   ;)

The third question is whether hard work is actually the factor responsible for change in orientation in the few cases where gay people insist they have become straight. Perhaps many of these individuals are more bi-sexual than others or are naturally more fluid in their sexuality, so it is easier for them to change orientation over time. Or perhaps, those claiming change only maintain the semblance of being straight because they are isolated socially, or they perform exhausting mental gymnastics to suppress the gay inclinations that are still there. Would such people still be straight if they spent a few hours on my beach in California with young half naked surfers milling about? Will they still be able to claim that they are straight 10 or 20 years from now? There is a difference between actually becoming straight versus simply becoming not gay.  Hard work may accomplish the latter, but I am more skeptical that it can effectively lead to the former.

The fourth and final question: Even if change is possible through hard work, is it worth it? Is the requisite internal remodeling and the potential for harm to other parts of the self worth the change in orientation? Some who are deeply invested in specific religious points of view may claim that it is worth it. But all gays should honestly ask themselves if a high degree of internal tension, persistent anxiety, self rejection or other derivatives of destructive emotions are really going to benefit themselves in the long run. Can positive things be built with so much negative energy?

Personally, my heart seems to tell me that I do not need an internal remodeling with respect to my sexual orientation. If hard work was an effective solution, then perhaps I should have seen some appreciable change in my gayness by now. But alas, many guys are still hot, I still want to have an intimate relationship with a guy on a variety of levels, and I still generally lack comparable feelings for the opposite gender. Prayers, mental discipline, fasting and other forms of hard work are much better spent becoming the kind of person that my core attributes will allow me to be, not the kind of person that someone else thinks I should be. Life is short and the limited energy I have would be infinitely better spent learning how to be more compassionate, forgiving, intelligent and spiritually insightful than re-arranging my core self. I still believe George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism, but making myself the best gay person I can be (along with the best father, partner, biologist, citizen, etc. that I can be) is the best use of my time and energy.


(1) Mock and Eibach 2011. Stability and change in sexual orientation identity over a 10-year period in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
(2) Kinnish et al. 2005. Sex differences in the flexibility of sexual orientation: a multi-dimensional retrospective assessment. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

31 July 2011

Positives of the LDS Church

I have been distancing myself from LDS doctrine for several years now.  This originated from concerns that had more to do with such things loss of faith in Mormon cosmology and the conflict between generally accepted scientific data and church teachings than anything to do with homosexuality.  That can of worms came later.

Because I have committed substantial fractions of my time, income and energy to Church activities for many years, my connection with the Church will always have an effect on my life going forward, no matter my future level of belief or activity. In an honest assessment of what the Church means to me currently, it is important for me to remember the many positive aspects of the doctrine and social structure of Mormonism.  Because distancing oneself from the Church can run concurrent with a degree of disillusionment, it is probably a natural reaction for a withdrawing member to focus for some time principally on the problems that one now feels were whitewashed during all of those years of faithfulness.  I am still sort of in that phase.  However, neglect of the good in the Church would be an oversimplification too.  Here are some positives that I find in LDS doctrine and culture:

1. There is a genuine and deep well of love and service in the hearts of many Latter-day Saints.  I have met countless wonderful individuals through my affiliation with the Church. In fact, it was the example of acquaintances in high school that led me to investigate the Church in the first place and move towards the decision to be baptized.  The Church truly attracts wonderful people to its congregations and helps improve the lives of its members.

2. Many core doctrines of the Church represent foundational principles that help individuals and societies solve problems, find meaning in life, and work towards a common good.  These include charity, forgiveness, hard work, sacrifice, cooperation and service.  These principles have been impressed strongly on my mind and they are important components of my spirituality.  They are the essence of the life that Christ lived and they cut across doctrinal and historical differences.

3. With its emphasis on morality, the Church indirectly promotes the more basic idea that human happiness derives in large part from believing that one’s conscience is in harmony with a higher truth.  The specifics of LDS morality may be debatable from scientific, historical or social perspectives, but I think that the general idea that a fulfilling life necessitates a good conscience is a valuable template for making decisions throughout life.

4. The Church promotes self-discipline and self-improvement.  These are keys to finding personal happiness and improving our ability to contribute to society.  Although LDS approaches to these topics may not be the most balanced at times (and some members turn these elevating principles into self-defeating perfectionism), society will truly be better off if we each have a genuine desire to improve and grow each day.

5. Through the Word of Wisdom and other teachings, the Church teaches that the body is sacred and that maximizing health is important for personal happiness and the ability to serve others.

6. LDS teachings emphasis self-worth.  This is very important in today’s world where selfishness, self indulgence, competition and power can be emphasized to destructive degrees.

7. LDS doctrine places great emphasis on the family.  While the LDS conception of family is too narrowly construed, and some Church members appear to place allegiance to the Church above charity for God’s children (instances of LDS parents alienating gay children are an excellent example), I believe that it is true that one of the most rewarding aspects of life is the close relationships that we forge with others.

The Church is successful as an organization because it promotes a cohesive social structure filled with many positive teachings.  As a good friend once explained, it is a paradigm for making sense of the world that works on many levels for its members.  When that paradigm (or model) is stretched to more extreme positions, when the Church fails to support and embrace those perceived as being on the “fringes” of Mormon culture, or when faith and obedience overpower reason and productive inquiry, it will proportionally lose its power over the hearts of its members.

29 July 2011

The multiple dimensions of homosexuality

For me, attraction to the same gender encompasses several important aspects. Attraction occurs on the physical and sexual dimensions, but is also present emotionally and spiritually.  While this has become more obvious since coming out, it is not something that I appreciated when I was actively trying to suppress homosexual feelings.  Back then, I don’t think that I understood the strong emotional component of my homosexual attractions; it was easy to believe that the attractions merely encompassed a natural tendency to find someone else of the same gender good looking. The emotional component was present, I probably just didn't carefully and explicitly link it to my gay attractions.

I think that the suite of attractions I am able to have for a guy match, in kind and degree, the suite of feelings that a heterosexual man and woman have the capacity to feel for each other.  I cannot know this for sure because I am not straight, but I have lived a long time around a lot of straight people and have been pretty thoroughly immersed in what love and attraction means to heterosexual individuals and couples.

For those people who, for whatever reason, have an interest in de-legitimizing homosexual attractions and unions, making the case for the limited dimensions of gay attractions may be an attractive intellectual position.  Some might argue – like I ignorantly believed for many years – that physical and sexual attraction only are the key features of homosexuality.  From that perspective, it is much easier to paint being gay as a social aberration, a spiritual failing, or some sort of mental disorder or challenge.  Conversely, if homosexuality is viewed as one (minority, but legitimate) manifestation of all levels of attraction that one human can have for another, it becomes a much harder proposition to deny or discourage a gay person the chance to form meaningful same sex relationships. To de-legitimize homosexuality through moral arguments or legal avenues would entail an attempt to fundamentally limit a gay person’s ability to reach his or her social/romantic/sexual/emotional potential; to do so would be tacit complicity to limit the expression and development of a very key part of that person’s humanity.

27 July 2011

Marriage, gays and the Mormon Church: a tangled relationship

The Church and my marriage have a tangled relationship. I joined the Church shortly after high school.  I had a number of concerns about the doctrine, but I put those aside mostly during my first year following baptism. I returned from a mission and had a fairly strong testimony for the next several years.  Fundamentally, if I had not accepted Church teachings to the degree that I did in my early 20s, I may not have even seriously considered marriage. During this period, I wanted close relationships with others, but that effort was principally focused on close friendships with guys. There were also some female friendships as well.  I am generally comfortable around women and have formed some close relationships with females, but it has always been difficult to summon a profound interest in what they are doing and who they are. College and graduate school were a big part of life back then too.

The pressure to find an eternal companion during my mid-20s came from two sources: (1) Church doctrine and pressure from Church leaders (e.g., local leaders encouraging marriage during Sunday meetings) and (2) the fact that many of my close friends and members of my single’s congregation were either married or were actively pursuing that end.  Because this was a period of life were I was very much committed to the Church (and because I tend to be accomplishment-driven), much of my thought was channeled into meeting Church expectations and going along with the program of a typical Mormon male’s life: temple, mission, marriage, kids, and career. I knew something about my sexual inclinations in my mid 20s, but living life as a gay man with a gay partner was something I knew nothing about, so it was never an option in my mind at that stage of life.  I also didn’t want to be left behind as all of my friends began to marry.

So, I found a sweet, wonderful woman and got married.  Did I marry just anyone?  Definitely not.  I married a person with whom I had already formed a close friendship and with whom I was very comfortable on a personal level.  I was attracted to my wife spiritually and socially too.  Physical attraction was not strongly present, but neither was it completely lacking.  I sought out spiritual confirmation of my decision and marriage to this person felt right at the time.  It is interesting to think that perhaps my wife is the only woman I could have or could ever marry.

Today I find myself with a conscience much less sensitive to the pressure of the Church’s programmatic expectations. I have learned to let go of the guilt of disbelief and non-performance. That guilt did not serve to bring me happiness, though the things that I did in response to the guilt may still have brought satisfaction to me and others. Replacing guilt with a more beneficial motivation such as love would be a wonderful way to stay an active and productive member of the Church, but I still lack belief in so much of the doctrine, that I don’t think being too involved in the Church program is going to work for me presently.

If I disentangle the Church from my marriage, what happens? 

First, I think that some of the meta-physical motivations to remain married disappear for me.  For example, I don’t believe that marriage to a woman is required for either happiness here on earth or final admission to God’s presence.  I don’t believe in the extreme anthropomorphic conception of God prevalent in Mormon doctrine that posits the eternal nature of gender and a heavenly social organization that parallels the family structure of humankind.  Rather, as a gay man, I believe I have the potential to form a deep and meaningful union with a man should that opportunity be a part of my future.  That union has the potential to be every bit as edifying as the marriage between a straight man and woman.  Contrary to the narrow interpretation of happiness promoted by the Church, I am now open to the idea that a multiplicity of paths exist that can bring fulfillment to human beings.  For most gay individuals, maximum happiness in human relationships will probably involve intimate relationships with a person of the same sex.

Second, as long as we stay married, my wife and I can move beyond the Church’s heavy-handed role in defining the structure and nature of our relationship. As a mixed orientation couple, we do not have a typical marriage anyway.  Trying to stuff our relationship into the mold that works for some heterosexual couples is likely to bring unnecessary hardship.  For as long as our relationship remains a marriage (I worded that deliberately because I think we will always have a close relationship whether we are formally married or not), we need to make it our own. It needs to fit our needs and our limitations.  As I recall the spirit of the sealing ordinance, it appears that a temple marriage is really supposed to be three way relationship between two mortal partners and God.  Unfortunately, the Church inserts itself as a fourth-party, overseeing and micromanaging the three partners in the relationship.  I don’t really like that; I wonder if God is a little suspicious of the arrangement too.

Finally, if my wife and I decide to separate, we can move beyond the paradigm of failure that might be promulgated by some Church members.  In other words, free from the doctrine of a man-woman union as the only path to God, I would not be obligated to view our marriage as a failure because it did not last our entire mortal lives. As I mentioned above, I think that my wife and I will always have a special relationship.  It is possible that we may grow even closer in some ways as we decide to look for romance elsewhere but remain close friends and partners in raising our wonderful children.  We are totally in control of our reactions to future change, so we can define how successful and happy a potential separation might be.

In all of these thoughts about marriage, a key question remains: are my spiritual impressions to marry in my 20s (when I was in near complete ignorance of homosexuality) going to be necessarily the same kind of inspiration for me going forward?  I think that it is completely within the realm of possibilities that my spiritual promptings to marry my wife were valid earlier in life, but that my future may yet involve another path. I am changing and growing, learning and having new experiences.  And because I can only know the mind of God through my own opaque filters of limited experience and personal weakness, I can only obtain spiritual direction to the degree that I am prepared for the answers.

26 July 2011

my flower unfurls

Late last year, something tipped the long-standing balance between who I am inside (a gay man) and who I’m seen as from the outside (a married straight man).  The balance over the years was tenuous at times but it served the expectations of a religious worldview that simply had no place for anything other than heterosexuality.  For years, critical associates knew the secret of my gayness, but in my acquiescence to shame I still almost completely kept my sexual orientation to myself.  The excuses for the suppression were varied: My sexuality was no-one’s business; I didn’t want to expose my wife to the potential for probing questions or unenlightened judgment from others; I didn’t need any persecution that might come my way from the insensitive and uninformed; I believed in the Church paradigm that homosexuality was sinful and un-natural.
Unfortunately what resulted from these excuses was the inability to reconcile my sexuality with the other parts of who I am as a person.  There was internal exploration that needed to occur and I had been putting it off for a long time.  In keeping my sexual orientation hidden, I subtly reinforced the notion that it was inherently shameful and embarrassing.  There was no empirical evidence for this, just societal momentum – momentum that swept me along leaving my critical thinking mind behind.  So late last year, it was time for me to confront the very thing that I was afraid to learn about.  It was time to stop avoiding the literature that dealt with homosexuality.  It was time for me to be comfortable with being gay.  It was time for a few more petals in the flower of my personality to unfurl.

I turned to the internet and for weeks devoured videos, blogs, and other pages for sometimes hours during the evening.  My first surprise was the abundance of blogs by gay Mormons.  There were gay Mormons everywhere (!) (well mostly in the western US of course) and they presented a diversity of viewpoints, from those who still believed in the doctrine but wanted to be open about their sexuality to those who were more distant from the Church.  I wanted to know their stories and all of these new perspectives.  What also struck me was the apparent confidence of many gay Mormons who had accepted their sexuality.  This was a new mental place for me – being open, confident and accepting of my secret reality.

In the months since those first nervous evenings on-line, I believe I have come a long way in understanding who I am.  I feel much more open about my sexuality and have rid myself of much of the shame that I previously attached to being gay.  I know that the journey of understanding will continue in the years to come, but I am so glad to have made these first steps.  I wish that it had happened much earlier in life, but am also glad that I did not wait any longer.