I’ve fallen in love with another male twice in my life. Nothing has quite shaken me like those experiences. There is a lot that could be said about my feelings and my growth in connection with falling in love, but the salient point here is that those experiences are the clearest indication to me of what it means to be gay. In the course of falling in love, the full suite of my attractions was engaged. I know that being in love is as much an emotional and spiritual response to another person as it is any sort of physical reaction. In fact, I might use the word visceral to describe it, not in a carnal or debased sense, but in the way that every fiber of a person’s being (to borrow a Mormon cliché) feels something deep and fundamental. The times I fell in love are an invaluable reference point from which I’m able to understand my attractions. To me then, the idea that homosexuality is merely a manifestation of unnatural sexual desire is only an illusion, an over-simplification of experiences that are profound and even sacred.
This is the context in which the orthodox Mormon position on homosexuality must really be examined. The discussion is properly about love, not about lust. It is about personal growth and fulfillment of human potential. It is about dignity and the ability of individuals to define their own identity. It is about giving of oneself and receiving of another in a relationship that is best suited for gay persons. It is not about sin. The conversation cannot merely be a version of ‘it’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t act on it’. Such statements are simply platitudes repeated over and over again in LDS discussions of homosexuality.
This is the general Mormon message on homosexuality today: gays are acceptable before God, even noble, if they “struggle” with “same-gender attractions”, but they’ve crossed the line into sin if they “act” on those persuasions. Gays need to fight homosexuality because it is a temptation, a weakness, and not an integral part of their eternal being. They need to believe fundamentally in the wrongness of homosexuality. Homosexuals need to fight the “natural man”. Gays really – though the leadership wouldn’t phrase it this way – need to fight themselves.
The roots of the tension between homosexuality and Mormon thought are doctrinal (though the conflict is also manifest culturally). In Mormonism the nuclear family, with a heterosexual union of husband and wife at its head, is the theological and social center of the religious experience. This is the ideal family organization designed for all people. Though not elaborated on much by current leadership, God himself is a biological male with a wife (actually, wives) in an exalted heterosexual union. We are his direct spiritual children here on earth with the principal goal of advancing along the same path that He took in the past towards glorification. Glorification (“exaltation” in Mormon terminology) comes through increase (reproduction). Either here or in the next life, everyone is supposed to eventually be married to the opposite sex or they have failed the principal reason for their existence. Families are discussed in Church meetings, families form the basis for much of Mormon advertising and proselytizing, and families are the central focus of LDS temples. In fact, such is the rigor and frequency with which the ideal family is discussed in the Church, that perhaps even Jesus is secondary in importance in Mormon theology. It is through this one specific family structure (man + woman + children) that earthly happiness is obtained and the ultimate objective of this current life – securing eternal life with God – is realized and perpetuated. In fact, in LDS thought the principle reason for Earth’s creation even, with its millions of species, is for one species - for us. If Christianity can be said to be a strongly anthropomorphic religion, Mormonism is a significantly accentuated variation on the theme.
In the LDS cosmology I have attempted to sketch out, there is no place for gay love or gay relationships. For Latter-day Saints, heterosexuality is built into the universe. Same-sex relationships stop with friendships or direct family relationships. Sexual activities are off limits. Non-sexual physical affection, especially between two males, is also limited, though this is a modern cultural norm and it was not prohibited socially a century ago, even among devout Mormons (1). Finally, any emotional bonds between two people of the same sex are ultimately supposed to be subservient to the emotional connection one makes with an opposite-gender spouse. So, all of the ways in which a gay person can be attracted to a person of the same sex – physical, sexual and emotional – have proscribed limits in Mormonism. Sex is the big one, however, and is the area with the most severe consequences officially.
Because heterosexuality appears to be the only type of attraction that exists in the eternities, Latter-day Saint leaders teach that gays will not be tempted with same-sex attraction in the next life if they are faithful (either celibate or heterosexually married) and repentant of any homosexual behavior (2). Therefore, the concept of homosexuality doesn’t really exist in the realm where it matters most (eternally); it is only a mysterious wrinkle in our current imperfect and fallen world. Same-sex attractions will somehow disappear for the faithful once they die. It is unclear how this will happen, or even if that promise is consonant with the general Mormon understanding of how this current life’s experiences relate directly to the next life: “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” (3). For gay people, is this really an appealing doctrine? Personally, I am not sure that I want to be changed in such a fundamental way in the next life (if there truly is one). Sure, the less desirable traits in my personality would be good to dispense with, but my capacity to love? I don’t want to find myself a stranger in my own soul or disconnected from the same-sex bonds I make with people in this life.
For many gay Mormons, the fundamental heterosexuality of all of Mormon reality leaves a nearly intractable tension between the essence of who they are as persons and the belief structure of the Church (4). Dizzying tales of conversion therapy and suppression of homosexual “urges” notwithstanding, virtually all gay people really are gay and cannot change their orientation. By being forced into a universe in which heterosexuality is the only option, currently and forever, gays are left as theological strangers in a worldview that cannot accommodate them. And if there is no place for what are the most fulfilling of relationships for gay people, then there is only a shadow of happiness, a shell of existence.
Mormonism thus damns us homosexuals – in the doctrinal sense of the word – because it prohibits us from the possibility of a life that is most likely for us to achieve relationship fulfillment. Church doctrine on sexuality is damnation for us because it caps our ability to grow spiritually and emotionally. It limits our chance to find sexual and physical fulfillment. It prohibits us from attaining what is supposed to be the pinnacle of Mormon achievement, a deep and abiding union with another person. Why do gays leave the church? If it is not because of un-Christ-like ridicule from insensitive members, intellectual dissonance, or intolerant leaders, then it is likely because of this theological damnation. God just has nothing to do with being, thinking, or acting gay. God is not gay and never has been and never will be. This perhaps is at the heart of gay Mormon despair and sorrow. Many gay Mormons internalize their theological otherness and their emotional separation from the divine. It is this doctrine that pits our loyalty to self against the official position of the Church. Though most gay Mormons will eventually choose either the self or the Church to be supreme in this matter, the conflict is a spiritual fire through which eventually every LGBT Mormon must pass.
There is really nothing that has brought me to a place of sorrow in life quite like being in love and not having the opportunity to form an uninhibited romantic same-sex relationship. I understand that there are many people, regardless of sexual orientation or religious background who go through life never experiencing reciprocated love or who have circumstances that keep them from a relationship that they desire. But heterosexuals always have the chance to form these relationships and experience love in all of its physical, emotional and spiritual manifestations. There are no legal, doctrinal, or cultural barriers to their relationship potential inside or outside the Church.
Does the orthodox Mormon position on homosexuality benefit anyone? Is it even harmonious with other tenets that are essential to the religion? As I understand it, the whole purpose of commandments and restrictions in Mormonism is to keep individuals from doing that which is harmful to their spiritual, emotional or physical health. It is fair then to ask if the LDS position on homosexuality actually achieves that. I think it accomplishes the opposite. It humiliates, confuses, degrades and exiles gay members. It keeps them from developing more fully the valuable personality attributes essential to thriving relationships such as selflessness, sacrifice and compromise because they cannot attain an intimate long-term stable relationship with a person of the same sex. It inspires spiritual self-doubt, facilitates dishonesty, and can generate an emotional distance between a gay person and his or her associates. It leads to a higher incidence of mixed orientation marriages than is likely to be the case if same sex relationships were allowed in the Church. It restricts sexual fulfillment and expression of non-sexual physical affection.
Having extricated myself from the constraints of Mormon possibilities, I have the freedom, at least mentally, to explore the idea of a relationship with another man – one in which I can give fully of myself, as much as my potential permits. A same-sex romantic relationship seems likely to be the kind in which I can give and receive the most that a relationship between two un-related people can offer. Though I do not know what my own future holds, I want all people to have the opportunity to form relationships that work best for them, free from social, legal and theological roadblocks that have little real value. The ability of two consenting adults to express love is a basic human right.
I believe the Church would benefit from seriously examining its position on homosexuality in light of its other doctrinal views about human happiness and human progress. Church leaders need to have the courage to recognize that their prohibition on homosexual relationships is unjust to a significant number of God’s children. Institutionally, Mormonism has shown theological creativity and adaptability in the past. It may take some unprecedented creativity to incorporate same-sex relationships into Mormon theology, but it may be a necessary step if Mormonism is to rightly claim that it is a religion for everyone. On an encouraging note, among Church membership, understanding, dialogue and acceptance are growing. Perhaps an increasing number of Latter-day Saints now diverge from their leadership in full support of their gay friends and family members. Meanwhile, back in the narrow corridors of doctrinally pure Mormon sociology, however, gays continue to be damned.
1. See Quinn, D.M. 1996. “Same-sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans. A Mormon Example”
2. Homosexual behavior is universally interpreted in Mormonism to include same-sex sexual intimacy, but is more ambiguously interpreted for other types of affection such as kissing or holding hands.
3. Alma 34:34
4. There are many possible solutions to the tension between accepting homosexuality and Mormonism. In many cases, however, an imbalance arises in the reconciliation. Either the member (1) renounces homosexual behaviors to be in line with the Church, (2) continues to “commit” homosexual acts while still being a devout believer and cycles through a likely painful process of confession and repentance, or (3) decides that they must abandon some or all of the Church’s teachings to accommodate their conscience. I don’t mean to imply that acceptable resolutions are unattainable, rather that all gay Mormons confront the tension at some point and that a balanced compromise between homosexual desires and Mormonism is probably exceedingly rare.