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.