14 September 2014

Modern-day Saints

I am fortunate. No one has abandoned me because I have come out. I have supportive friends and a loving family. This isn’t necessarily the case, however, for other gay individuals who come from strong religious communities. The ugly thistles of intolerance sometimes sprout most vigorously from deeply religious soils. It is disturbing to hear of instances of mistreatment of gay youth by Mormon parents, and yet strongly encouraging to hear that many other LDS parents are forging the opposite course by loving and supporting their gay children. There are true “Saints” working in LDS communities to help young LGBT people feel supported and loved, even if support from the institutional Mormon Church seems sluggish, qualified, or insincere.

Last Sunday I attended a presentation in Berkeley, California with two of those saints – a former LDS Bishop, Bob Rees, and a Catholic professor at San Francisco State University, Caitlin Ryan. The two have collaborated on the Family Acceptance Project, a research and education initiative to help LGBT youth and families in conservative religious communities. The initiative is evidence-based, meaning that is rests on a solid foundation of research about what will truly help young gay people growing up in conservative religious homes.

Dr. Ryan has worked with the LGBT community and their families for decades, as outlined in this recent New York Times article that discusses her work and the Berkeley “fireside” I attended. Together with Dr. Rees, she works to improve the health of LGBT youth within the framework of Mormon teachings, highlighting for instance, that love and support are not anathema to Mormon doctrine. (That message seems obvious with the Mormon theological emphasis on love and family, but it is clearly a message some Mormons have not embraced with respect to LGBT individuals). More specifically, the Family Acceptance Project demonstrates that specific behaviors by parents (listening to their gay children, letting their LGBT children apply their own labels to themselves), go a long way in helping young people who are sexual orientation or gender identity minorities. With more positive support, risky and harmful behaviors by gay youth such as attempted suicide decline.

One highlight of the two hour meeting was a film about a Mormon family in southern California that went through a personal and family transformation as one of the sons in the family came out as a young teenager. Initially distressed because they couldn’t see how her newly-out son could fit in with Mormon ideals of family and fatherhood, the Mormon parents recount how they chose to love, accept and embrace their son. A preview of the film can be seen here.

Dr. Ryan leads the Family Acceptance Project, but Dr. Rees helped to bring an LDS perspective to the work. Interestingly, I have known Bob for a long time, though we did not reconnect until the Berkeley fireside. He was a faculty member and active Latter-day Saint at the university in central California where I was an undergraduate student. At the time I was a relatively new member of the Church – and gay, of course – but I was deeply in the closet about my sexual orientation. My university was very liberal and there was only a small community of active Latter-day Saints who were students on campus. I interacted with Bob somewhat in his (informal) capacity as a mentor of us LDS students and in his interfaith work in the broader community. Bob was a humanities professor (while I was an undergraduate mostly interested in the sciences), but he kindly reviewed some poems I had written at the time. Somewhere I believe I still have copies of those poems – with his encouraging remarks and suggestions handwritten next to my terrible poetry.

For me it was a missed opportunity to talk with Bob about my concerns and fears as a young gay person while I was in college. I probably didn’t know at the time that he had worked with many gay students as a bishop at UCLA prior to coming north to my university. I may not have known much about his personal transformation from holding significant homophobic views about LGBT people to being a compassionate advocate for gay individuals in the Mormon Church. To the extent that I knew of his work with gay Mormons, I was really in no position back then to try to accept my sexuality as a healthy and valued piece of the whole me.

Young LGBT Mormons today have the blessing of modern-day Saints who advocate – through word and action – on their behalf. As more and more Mormons decide to be enlightened by the research and personal journeys of these Saints like Caitlin and Bob, the LDS Church will become a better and healthier community for all. 

17 August 2014

First love

Falling in love is sweet and innocent, awkward and unnerving, invigorating and the most natural feeling in the world. When it happens for the first time, I’m sure that all the emotions that come flooding into a young person are similar whether that person is gay or straight, but I think often the context is very different for sexual minorities. Imagine a young gay teen falling in love 5, 10 or 15 years ago, or even today. Will this young person, still unsure of why he or she feels differently from their peers, have had a chance to really understand and accept their sexuality by the time the first experience of same sex love occurs?

My first time falling in love was a rollercoaster of friendship and confusion and disaster. Here is that story.

I was a very shy kid growing up, a definite introvert. Academics interested me more than social activities, athletics, or friendships. But at least as early as junior high school my attraction to males started to be tangible. I took notice of other guys, and began to feel elements of sexual and emotional attraction. Because I could usually pass as “straight” at school, I managed to mostly escape the teasing and bullying that so often befalls gay and transgender youth. I don’t recall ever being the target of overt homophobia, but at the same time I definitely absorbed the ever-present message that being gay was equivalent to social suicide. Growing up it was more or less my highest priority to keep my same-sex attractions secret.

Until high school I generally had few close friends. My sophomore year however, I started to develop some of my first close friendships. A half dozen guys and girls, we met in a history class where we had an unconventional and inspiring teacher. I began to hang out with my new group of intellectually-inclined friends and do things becoming of our newly-discovered teenage omniscience: talk about forming rock bands and probe the bottomless well of sarcasm.

With the growth of these new friendships, I started to feel strongly at that point in my life that I really wanted a best friend. Two guys in this small circle of friends, it seemed, were already becoming best friends. Except for a close friend from early elementary school, this was something I lacked. With time I became close with PJ, a guy who was not part of that original circle that began in my sophomore year. PJ was one year younger than me, but he was really my superior in many ways, especially academically. I looked up to him. He was intelligent, independent, and wildly ambitious.

Over the course of a few months we became really close friends. We shared interests in biology, music and school. The summer between my junior and senior years PJ and I spent time together almost every day. We went swimming, hiking, and exploring at the beach. We bonded to a degree that I had not experienced in life before. Whereas I was (and often remain) reflexively shy in larger groups, I loved the one-on-one interactions. In fact, having a best friend was the most incredible thing to me up to that point in life.

An interesting experience with PJ involved an early connection to Mormonism, a worldview that would later shape many of my decisions over the next decade and a half and have a significant effect on how I interacted with my sexuality.

Both PJ and I were interested in two LDS girls at our high school who were in my graduating class. They came from very devout and conservative Mormon homes. These young women were athletic, intelligent, and pretty. In fact, MM, the girl that PJ liked, would go on to become the homecoming queen of my high school during my senior year. PS, the girl that I liked, was attractive and sweet. PJ’s love for his Mormon crush, as far as I knew, was genuine and deep. But if there is any objective way to quantify romantic intensity, I’m sure that my level of interest in my Mormon “crush” was much more benign. I “liked” PS on and off for perhaps 6 years growing up, but I doubt there was a whole lot of intensity to those feelings.

True to his ambition and intensity, PJ concocted a plan for the ultimate double date towards the beginning of my senior year: the two non-Mormon boys and the two Mormon girls would have the perfect dinner together and then see the band U2 in concert.

PJ took the lead on preparations for the whole night and I was more than thrilled to be participating in such a once-in-a-lifetime event with my best friend. PJ selected the restaurant and went out of his way to let the staff know that it was a special night. The concert part of our date was pretty incredible. For starters, somehow PJ had secured floor seats in a massive stadium that was hosting the world’s most popular band at the time. Of course I loved the music, and during one of the band’s best songs, I recall looking behind me to see some of the upper tiers of the stadium visibly moving (earthquake shocks it must have been) as the crowd jumped to the song in unison.

The most amazing part of the evening, technically, was that we somehow managed to obtain the good graces of two sets of conservative Mormon parents enough to let their daughters attend this concert, 45 minutes away from home, with two non-Mormon teenage boys. The night went without hitch of course, because despite being non-Mormon heathens, we were still in reality two good boys. I’m sure also that the threat of the wrath of God hung over us that night. But, unbeknownst to everyone, that wasn’t really needed for me. I was gay, the safest date a young Mormon girl could ask for. I was in love with PJ.

One of the things I have learned over the last few years since coming out is how my emotional attractions are an integral component of my sexuality. I have had many healthy platonic friendships with men, but a few times in life I have developed very strong emotional connections to other guys. This friend, PJ, was an early and profound example to me that the feelings of love we are capable of having for another person really constitute a broad spectrum of attractions. At the age of 17, I believed (or at least told myself) that I just wanted a best friend; now I know that I naturally wanted emotional intimacy with another human being. Without self or societal acceptance, how can the closeted young person properly interpret those blossoming romantic feelings?

When I try to think back on what endeared me to PJ, it was not really his physical looks. He wasn’t unattractive, but his looks were secondary to other feelings I had for him. He was incredibly intelligent and ambitious. He expanded my horizons intellectually and challenged me to come out of my introverted shell. Though we lost contact after high school, I learned that he went to college at one of most prestigious universities in the US. I ran into his name from time to time (or looked him up) and found out that he later earned a PhD and was on track for a very successful career. The teenage PJ also had a streak of arrogance - which today I would likely find unattractive - but at that time this quality probably drew him to me also, because it meant I was part of his team, allowing a special connection to him shared with practically no one else.

I don’t know exactly why PJ was interested in my friendship. I think it started, in part, because he himself had few close friends. To him, I may have been the kind of malleable friend who is perfect for ambitious people in need of an audience. His interests were easily my interests and I was willing to go along on any adventure if it involved his company. If he gained a disciple of sorts and rides in my car from time to time, I in turn, benefited from the emotional comfort of a strong new friendship.

Sunset at one of our beach spots.
Like most first loves, this one ended, but it ended pretty badly for me. Because my attractions for PJ clearly ran deeper than a close friendship, over time I found myself wanting more from the relationship. I wanted to be around him more often, even when we already spent hours together, and I wanted to have a deeper emotional connection. I was jealous, for example, of his interest in his Mormon crush, even though she didn’t seem to reciprocate his feelings. Soon I began to smother the friendship we had formed. PJ, confused and frustrated, began to withdraw from me. In turn, I struggled immensely with feelings of insecurity, sadness and loss. I simply couldn’t tell PJ what was going on. I just wasn’t ready to be honest with anyone, even myself, about my sexuality. There was nothing in my limited universe to indicate that my feelings for a guy were normal and healthy, and I had no one I was comfortable turning to.

After a few months struggling through a friendship, PJ determined that we could no longer be friends. He suspected I was gay, I found out, when I secretly read some of his journal. He had confided with a counselor at school who suggested as much. I was crushed and terrified when I learned this. Understandably, the invasion of his privacy only exacerbated the difficulties between us. Whether homophobia had any role in driving him away, I do not know, but it was clear that we wanted different things out of the relationship and I was an emotional mess.

It has been two decades since PJ and I last had a conversation. For years after high school he would appear in my dreams. Most of those dreams revolved around the same theme – we would to one degree or another become reconciled. We would be friends again. He would accept and forgive me. Though our new friendship in those dreams was always more constrained than what we experienced in high school, I took comfort in them because of the reconciliation. These dreams pretty much ended a few years ago, but it amazes me that I had them for such a long period of time.

In large measure this really difficult emotional experience during high school probably pushed me into the next chapter in my life, an affiliation with Mormonism. In the wake of a disaster mostly of my own creation, I needed something to guide me and support my struggling self. This came from well-intentioned Mormon high school friends who invited me to their activities and befriended me. They were attractive, kind, intelligent and successful. Ever interested in the “truth”, I was intrigued by an ideology that talked so much about truth and striving for excellence. After several months learning about the religion, I joined the Church after high school. Mormonism would turn out to have a profound negative effect on my journey as a gay person, but it also brought many positive things into my life during the years I was an active member.

What have I learned from falling in love years ago to my straight best friend and from experiences since? First, I gained an important reference point for understanding the depth and scope of my attractions. Homosexuality is not just about sex, but like any manifestation of sexuality, it is about the range of connections that two individuals can share. Though the nature and magnitude of feelings were unreciprocated, I felt for a time that PJ was my partner. And I think that consciously or subconsciously, I have desired to have that depth of connection with another person for many years.

Second, I’ve learned a little that falling in love can bring out some of the best and worst tendencies we possess as individuals. In our better moments, love serves as a motivation to put off our own interests in order to meet the needs and expectations of others. We sacrifice and adapt working together. We learn and we teach each other in relationships. We grow the small single-occupancy universes we inhabit a little more to encompass two souls.

Yet, in rendering us vulnerable to another person, love can also summon our insecurities like few other events. In the process of becoming vulnerable, we hand someone else our heart and expect that they will know what to do in order to treat it right. Sometimes, our feelings of self worth can get a little too tied up in how our romantic partner views and treats us. We might struggle with feelings of rejection when the intensity of feelings is not reciprocated. In the case of my high school love, I wanted the approval of an old friend for many years during dreams I had while deep in the closet. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the dreams more or less ended – the real reconciliation occurred - when that approval eventually came from within after coming out and accepting myself as gay. Perhaps not.

26 January 2014

Is there a secular case against gay marriage?

In my experience, much of the active opposition to gay marriage seems to be tied to religion. While we can mutually agree that all voices have a place in the gay marriage debate, opinions derived solely from a particular religious conviction cannot be the sole motivation for enacting public policy that affects people who may have a wide range of religious beliefs. For a healthy democratic republic, we must strive to balance the common good and individual freedom. Our laws and policies must be based on more than belief. They cannot unduly infringe on the right to individual belief, but they cannot unjustly impose specific tenets on the conscience of others.

So putting religion aside, are there sound non-religious arguments against gay marriage?

Earlier this month, the Witherspoon Institute (a conservative thinktank) published a short anti-marriage equality essay authored by Ryan Anderson, a graduate student in political science. Anderson’s essay was adapted from testimony he gave to members of the Indiana State Legislature which is considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In the article, Anderson makes the following points:

(1) Marriage exists for, and therefore must be defined in relation to, childbearing;
(2) Marriage matters to the state because it ensures that children are less likely to be victim to a host of social ills such as poverty and incarceration, ultimately benefiting society collectively; and
(3) If governments change the definition of marriage, it will become more of an institution for adults to the detriment of children.

In addition to proscribing what marriage is, and should be, Anderson argues that same-sex relationships undermine marriage because:

(1) Gays can’t have children;
(2) Children need both a mother and father to optimally raise them; and
(3) Redefining marriage to accommodate homosexuals means that society would have to redefine marriage for every conceivable type of romantic union including “temporary” marriage, etc.

Remembering that we are putting religion aside for the time being, are Anderson’s arguments sound rationally, sociologically or politically? If the facts had a chance to speak, are gays really inferior at a social institution at which heterosexuals only have about a 50% success rate? Do we have enough sociological data to soundly support all of these arguments against gay families? What do the lived experiences of gay couples tell us about these arguments?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, energy or academic background to really tackle some of these questions in depth, but here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The author argues that the state’s interest in the institution of marriage is for provision of a stable environment in which to raise children. While I won’t argue that this isn’t in the state’s interest, why should we accept that children are the only reason government has an interest in the definition of marriage? For example, if children are the sole reason for legal recognition of marriage, then it is inconsistent for government to issue marriage licenses to infertile couples or couples that remarry after they no longer wish to have additional children. They don’t need the state’s investment in their relationship because they wouldn’t be doing anything functional for the state. In fact, if marriage is solely designed to support parent’s efforts to raise children, then government could create laws that nullify all marriages once the youngest child in a family finally leaves the nest.

This argument can lead us to silly conclusions because it is pretty obvious that marriage exists for the couple as well as for any children they may or may not have. Loving relationships between two consenting adults are among the greatest joys of life. They are compelling initially because of the love that blooms between a couple, and they are sustained – especially during the trying times of parenthood – by that love.  Since I think it is fairly reasonable to assume a strong connection between individual happiness and broader social well-being, then it is to a society’s advantage to promote happy marriages, whether or not they involve children. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are capable to achieving their maximum relationship satisfaction with a member of the same sex, is it in the state’s interest to exclude them from this opportunity?

The desire to form stable relationships is independent of sex and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian couples can form loving stable homes in which to raise kids. With a preoccupation on the sex of each individual in a couple, those who argue against same-sex marriage run the risk of elevating relationship structure above relationship quality. Clearly an unhappy male-female couple cannot provide a more stable home life than a happy same-sex couple.

2. Gay people can’t have children? This is obviously not so. Many gay and bisexual people have their own biological children, perhaps from a previous heterosexual relationship before coming out (ahem, quietly raises hand). Other gay couples very much want to raise children and choose to adopt. If governments decide to deny gay couples who are raising children equal protection under the law, how is the state helping those particular children? In fact, the state would be discriminating against them. When we have too many orphaned children already, is it not in the state’s interest to facilitate the adoption of these children into loving homes?

3. The secular case against same-sex marriage seems to rest heavily on the notion that only a two parent, opposite sex married couple is an optimal parenting team for children. The challenge here from an empirical point of view is that this argument rolls quite a few phenomena into one succinct conclusion. Sociologically, we are asking several questions: (i) is a one versus two parent home better?, (ii) do the sexes in a two parent home need to differ or can they be the same?, (iii) does the sexual orientation of the parent(s) matter?, and (iv) does legal recognition of a couple’s relationship have an effect on children?

For instance, if research finds that the parenting abilities of single gay parents aren’t as good as married heterosexual couples, is the disparity due to the sexual orientation of the parent, the one versus two parent home question, or the effect of legal recognition on parenting success? This apples-to-papaya example doesn’t say much about whether gay marriage has a net positive, negative or neutral effect on children. The only scientifically sound way to evaluate whether gender “complementarity” has a non-trivial effect on children is to compare straight and gay two parent homes that both have legal recognition and that have raised children continuously from very young ages. Because gay marriage has been prohibited for so long in the US, is that sort of study even fully possible yet?

One of my concerns with insistence that children need to have opposite sex parents is that it makes little distinction between gender (a social construct that defines what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’) and biological sex. The two are not synonymous. If gender duality in the home is really what is important in raising children, then a “feminine” female paired with a very “masculine” female might do a better job raising children than a man and woman who both act very “feminine”. However, I will back up here and suggest that arguing about what is “feminine” and what is “masculine” and how much of each a child needs is rather pedantic. Don’t children really need parents who model love, strength, honesty, trust, compassion, integrity, and hard work -- qualities that are genderless??

4. The issue of harm. I think most of us would agree that governments put in place laws and restrictions in order to protect other people from harm. Speed limits, drug and alcohol laws, laws against theft and aggression, etc. are generally instituted to ensure that the behaviors of some people do not impinge on the liberties of other individuals and cause them harm. Whether gay marriage actually causes harm to anyone is central to the debate about marriage equality, because if material harm cannot be demonstrated, gay marriage opponents have a very poor case indeed.

So, let’s go through several major classes of people:

Does gay marriage harm gay adults? No: lots of them can’t wait to get married! 
Does gay marriage harm the children of gay parents? No: it lends needed support for their families. 
Does gay marriage harm straight couples? No: it's irrelevant to them. 
Does gay marriage harm the straight children of straight couples? No: if anything, it sets an example of tolerance and love.
Does gay marriage harm the gay children of straight couples? No, it may give them something wonderful to hope for in their futures! 
Does gay marriage infringe on any particular church’s theology or opinion about homosexuality? No: they can still believe whatever they want.


Human beings form such a variety of relationships that I am skeptical of any claim that only a narrow subset of family arrangements can provide an optimal environment for children. I am open to critical scrutiny of all of these ideas by sound sociological research. If it can be determined that loving gay couples substantially and repeatedly harm children or society generally, then sure, let’s ban same-sex marriage. But I think that presently, there is no more than a weak non-religious case against gay marriage. Societal sanction of gay marriage is pretty common sense and more and more people are coming around.


The Witherspoon organization was a major funder of the controversial Regnerus study that claimed to show that gay parenting was substandard.