Going through some papers this morning (I’m an intellectual packrat and collect information on everything from microorganisms to politics to geologic maps), I came across an article from 2009 published in the LDS Church’s main periodical, the Ensign. Written by the sister of a lesbian who was in a same-sex relationship, this re-activated member of the Church wrote of struggling to support her sister while maintaining her orthodox beliefs. The devout sister in no way masks the overall self righteous tone of her writing: “I … agonized over my sister’s eternal welfare”, but concludes the article by stating that love is her principle obligation. In the text of the article, the actual name of the lesbian woman was changed and the article was signed “Name Withheld”.
I think I first began to notice short articles written from the Church perspective about gay and lesbian people in the Ensign some 5-8 years ago. I was deeply in the closet at the time. Never appearing very often, I would find one of these articles and my heart would race. I would sneak off to the bathroom or something to digest this new article. Someone was addressing in official Church media, a topic that for so long I was fearful of confronting. Now such articles seem remarkably sanitized and rote, but years ago it was about as far as I would go with homosexuality.
Name Withheld’s article exemplifies a few of the damaging ways in which homosexuality and gay persons are typically addressed in Mormonism. The first issue is sanitization. Many devout Mormons prefer to use the terms “same-gender attracted” or “same-sex attracted” (or worse the acronyms SGA or SSA), in place of gay or lesbian, because they associate the latter label of identity with the homosexual “lifestyle”. These are clinical-like terms, suggestive more of a pathological diagnosis than recognition that sexuality is as much about love, commitment and vulnerability as it is about mere physical and sexual attraction.
The second issue is that orthodox Mormonism prefers abstraction over personification on this issue. In the article I encountered this morning, neither the faithful sister nor her lesbian sister are named. Moreover, the lesbian sister’s partner, is not named either and is described at one point as a “friend”. Without names or faces, these individuals become more distant actors in the homosexual dilemma, Mormon untouchables in a way.
The last issue is the most general and it is simply that of silence. Homosexuality has been almost invisible in Mormonism for so long that I think it has fueled much of the shame that gay Mormons struggle with. I think this tendency was inherited from broader American society, where homosexuality has also been placed on the margins. For decades, more timid gays were relegated to secretive lives (often heterosexual marriages) and more proud gays were sequestered in their own neighborhoods and clubs. Homosexuality has long been the “love that dares not speak its name”.
The disappointing thing is that still, in the 21st century, Mormon culture has been painfully slow to openly talk about homosexuality and the lives and experiences of gay people. Yes, the conversation has recently accelerated pretty remarkably, but like other prominent social issues of the past, the Church has been late to the game. She has long left her LGBT members in dark places of shame. Even if silence has been replaced recently by greater discourse, there is still abstraction, sanitization and even misinformation.
The way that silence perpetuates shame deeply frustrates me. I feel that my own hesitancy about confronting my sexuality for so long was heavily influenced by Mormon silence. Homosexuality was rarely talked about, and if it was, it could never escape the cloud of negativity that comes from linking it to sin. Even to the present day, there are no happy gay couples that are spoken of or held up as role models in Church literature. That gay + in a same-sex relationship can = happy just doesn’t seem to be an option in orthodox Mormon discourse. As for myself, I have to take responsibility for my choice to stay in the closet for as long as I did, but the silence, shame, and sinfulness that surrounded being gay in Mormondom was no easy swamp from which to emerge.
Dear Mormons everywhere: please, no more articles with “Name Withheld”. We are real people with names, faces, families, accomplishments, mistakes and love. We don’t want to live in a world of shame. Most of us don’t want to be in your face, but we want to be confident and happy with who we are.