If you haven’t already seen or heard, Elder David A. Bednar was recently doing a Q&A session with some members of the Church in Latin America. A Chilean member asked the question, “How can homosexual members of the Church live and remain steadfast in the gospel?”
In response, he started by saying, “First, I want to change the question. There are no homosexual members of the church. We are not defined by sexual attraction. We are not defined by sexual behavior. We are sons and daughters of God.”
You can see the full context of all of his remarks here, but needless to say there as been no shortage of commentary and controversy on the Interweb.
There are lots of different ways one might respond to, and even critique, what Elder Bednar said. It’s been disheartening for me read much of the commentary, but there have also been some legitimate questions asked in response. For example, one of the comments I’ve seen fairly frequently is some iteration of “What if Elder Bednar said ‘There are no heterosexual members of the church’?”
Well, could he have? What if he did? And, is it possible that, in some sense, he would be right?
I’m not one to eschew all labels because it’s impractical to not describe various aspects of our life experience, interests, etc, without using words that have the potential to inform or communicate some aspect of our identity and self. But it’s also true that many of our “labels” or social or identity constructs betray our enlightenment sensibilities and are little more than modern forms of tribalism that that create superficial, artificial or arbitrary divisions—all “manner of -ites,” if you will (4 Nephi 1:17)—that are contrary to the nurturing of a truly Zion society. It seems as though everything from ethnic heritage, skin color, income, level of education, religious belief, political persuasion or recreational interest has potential to create “ites” that divide or hurt us socially and relationally. This is second-hand and could therefore be off, but I recall hearing about some remarks a Church leader made in a conference with same Native American Latter-day Saints to the effect that they should not let their ethnic heritage create divisions between them and other tribes, fostering feelings or behaviors that betray our shared Divine origin and heritage. He reportedly said something like, “You’re a child of God before you’re a [tribal affiliation].”
So does that mean that Navajos shouldn’t describe themselves as Navajo? Or Sioux, Sioux? Or Samoans, Samoan? Or Tongans, Tongan? I would think not, but it is certainly possible that someone’s self-identity around any aspect of their mortal life experience can cloud and undermine Divine vision and self-understanding, causing someone to see themselves as unduly different, better than or less than. This is speculative, but I personally don’t believe there will be “Navajos” or “Samoans” or “Caucasians” or “white” or “brown” or “black” people in heaven. Skin color variation is the simply the result of our bodies’ evolutionary adaptation to varied climates and levels of UV exposure, and in ways that can be deceptive of actual genetic difference. Thandie Newton notes in her TED Talk, “Embracing otherness, embracing myself“: “There’s actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and say a white Norwegian.” Perhaps there will be differences in skin color in the Eternal World that reflect this mortal adaptation, but I’m not inclined to believe that at this point. (On a side note, I read a near-death experience once in which the interviewer asked the woman if, during her NDE, she saw different races in heaven. She said, no, we were all just different shades of light. I realize that isn’t “doctrine” but it’s very interesting and resonates with how I understand what the Lord revealed in D&C 76, 88, and 93).
Concerning what it means to be “straight” or “a heterosexual” person, I read sometime back Hanne Blank’s book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. The back-matter reads:
“Like the typewriter and the light bulb, the heterosexual was invented in the 1860s and swiftly transformed Western culture. The idea of ‘the heterosexual’ was unprecedented. After all, men and women had been having sex, marrying, building families, and sometimes even falling in love for millennia without having any special name for their emotions or acts. Yet, within half a century, ‘heterosexual’ had become a byword for ‘normal,’ enshrined in law, medicine, psychiatry, and the media as a new gold standard for human experience. With an eclectic scope and fascinating detail, Straight tells the eye-opening story of a complex and often contradictory man-made creation that turns out to be anything but straight or narrow.”
Prior to the 1860s, there were, in a sense, no “heterosexual” or “homosexual” members of the Church because the constructs didn’t exist. And “gay” doesn’t come until even later. In a review of her book in Slate, the author wrote,
“You quondam liberal-artists out there…may yet remember that we live our lives according to a system of social constructs. The idea of race did not exist until colonialism required it. The notion of the self was thoroughly obscure until the Enlightenment dawned. The teenager didn’t exist until the Industrial Revolution told him to get off its lawn.
Now from Hanne Blank comes a chewy piece of scholarship—Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (Beacon)—that…explain[s] that there was no hetero until social science and pseudo-science invented a need in the middle of the 19th century. Anyone who’s done time at a British public school or a progressive women’s college can tell you that matters of sexual orientation are not strictly either/or. But this book twirls that ‘/’ with panache, spinning a generous handful of yarns about the stories we tell ourselves about sex, love, and identity.”
So, what if there are ways in which some of our simplistic sexuality constructs, particularly as they inform our identity, including “heterosexuality,” serve to undermine covenants and Divine self-understanding. What if Elder Bednar said something like, “In the divine scheme of things, there is no such thing as, or difference between, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ people. There are only males and females who have transcended all the limits of their mortality and, by divine design and as part of their journey toward ‘receiv[ing] the fulness of the Father’ (D&C 76:71), complement each other, the complementary union of which is essential to the fulfilling of the measure of their eternal creation.”
In a 2002 piece in Christianity Today, “No Easy Victory,” the author, a self-described “Christian husband and father who, day by day, resists his homosexual desires,” said,
“To be honest, I myself sometimes have a hard time loving the sinner while hating the sin. Sometimes this takes the form of self-hate, but more often I struggle with hating promiscuous heterosexual men, because they seem so self-justifying and because some people—even some Christians—seem so accommodating of that sin while so condemning of mine. Just last week I was talking with a Christian friend about concerns I had for members of our youth group. His response was something like, ‘Well, you know, with all those hormones…’ I don’t get it. Do young male heterosexuals benefit from some sort of special dispensation? Why is their giving in to their urges so understandable while my giving in to mine would be such an abomination?”
What if the very idea of “heterosexuality” fosters a mentality with some kind of privilege or special dispensation vulnerable to certain kinds of distortion in understanding sexuality, or that undermines the taking serious our call to holiness? President Spencer W. Kimball, speaking to several stakes of young BYU students and trying to correct for some “heterosexual” distortions, said, “There seems to be a growing feeling that marriage is for legal sex, for sex’s sake. Marriage is basically for the family; that is why we marry—not for the satisfaction of the sex, as the world around us would have us believe.”
A First Things article by Michael Hannon, “Against Heterosexuality,” was originally subtitled, “The Idea of Sexual Orientation is Artificial and Inhibits Christian Witness.” I’m not sure why they removed the subtitle, but is it possible that there’s truth to the idea that our modern construct of how we organize and give meaning to “sexual orientation” does, indeed, reify simplifications or distortions in popular conceptions of sexuality that can inhibit the journey of true discipleship in some way?
When I first started consciously trying to explore and understand and resolve my sexuality, adopting a “gay” identity was very meaningful for me and helpful in overcoming a lot of the shame I felt. But as I continued to grow, I received some very clear spiritual instruction that if I continued to identify as “gay” I would inhibit my progression. The conscious choice I made at that time to reject labeling my sexuality or “sexual orientation,” or thinking about my sexuality through the lens of modern popular conceptions was, particularly in hindsight, very critical for me.
Around the same time I had a mystical experience of sorts that transformed my understanding of Divine Love and how that relates to both “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality,” and has guided my pursuit to develop a greater capacity for Divine Love since then. I was struggling at the time with some confusion around some deep emotional connections I was feeling with another guy. It hurt that I couldn’t have what a piece of me really wanted. I needed some comfort and, since it happened to be General Conference time, I wrote down some of my most heartfelt questions and went into the first session of conference fasting. I timed it so that my fast would end as soon as that first session ended, so I was right at the end of my fast. As soon as the opening prayer was shared, I felt this spiritual feeling completely envelop me; I hardly remember anything that was said during the session, but the feeling I had was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. For nearly the whole two hours, all the hurt, the pain, the confusion, the frustration… was completely gone. In it’s place was a feeling of Divine Love I had only ever experienced something similar to once before. And yet this was also different. As a part of this experience, there was a feeling of what I understood as pure Celestial love and desire to be with a daughter of God in the most holy and connected and uniting of ways—a way that even “heterosexual” love and romance is commonly portrayed or expressed today seems so cheap/primal and “false” in comparison.
And with the feeling came the voice: “Just stay with me. If you do, this is the feeling you will feel someday. And it will be eternal.”
At about the time of the closing prayer of that conference session, the feeling left. There was still some resonance as I pondered on it, but the feeling itself was largely gone. The only way I can describe it is as a “vision” of feeling. Along with the brief and very clear spiritual communication. Then, the “vision” ended.
I believe strongly that I would not be where I am today—I would not be happily married with three (almost four) beautiful children who bring so much joy to my life—if I continued to identify as gay and if I hadn’t been granted some small glimpse into Divine Love that has left me feeling like “heterosexuality”—particularly as it’s most often portrayed in popular media today—is something relatively shallow and not what I ultimately should be pursuing. I want and pray for and pursue and continually seek to develop a capacity for Love that I believe is much more transcendent. These experiences are mine alone, and I own that. Others may feel or believe or have felt guided differently, and that’s totally fine, but that instruction and other instruction since then has been foundational to my own personal faith and life journey. It has helped me to unpack what I see as a lot of bad ideas and assumptions about sexuality and love and identity in our culture.
So, in closing, I ask: what if Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, in which all social and political systems were swallowed up in the gospel stone that rolled forth to consume the nations, included the swallowing up of our time- and culture-specific sexual identity constructs—including the socially conditioned lenses through which we understand and think about “sexual orientation” or “heterosexuality” or “homosexuality”? What if there is no “gay” or “straight” in the Eternal World and the spiritual ideals and identities of the kingdom of God and the celestial nature swallow up all of our social identity constructs that blur eternal identity? What if the more deeply we understand and feel spiritually connected to eternal realities and our eternal identity, the less meaningful any proximate, mortal identities or labels will feel to us?
At the end of the day, many of our proximate, culture-bound narratives or paradigms around sexuality and identity are social constructs that do not necessarily represent “facts” or “truths” about “who we really are.” We may find various words or labels or identity constructs practical or useful or even subjectively meaningful, but that doesn’t make them true or eternal. Elder Bednar or some other prophet/apostle very well could, in order to counter problematic or limiting ideas or false cultural philosophies, say that in the eternities there’s no such thing as “heterosexuality” or any other modern social identity construct that we have crafted and forged our sense of personal meaning and identity around—and it’s very well possible that, in some sense, he may be right.