I seem to see with increasing frequency an idea posed to the effect that “It’s okay for Mormons to be gay, they just can’t act gay.” Sometimes it’s a question posed by someone who, given the limited cultural vernacular there is to understand issues of same-sex oriented sexual desires, is just trying to understand, but it seems that more often than not it’s a description of LDS belief by antagonists of the Church’s position that is intended to make us sound weird, unfair, or just inhumane enough to deny humans one of the most basic desires we all have: to love and be loved in a relationship that feels “natural.”
I want to offer a little commentary on this that will hopefully help clarify some of the issues associated with the Church’s stated positions. First, it’s important to understand that the idea of “being gay” is not a scientific idea if we’re talking about the nuts and bolts of human experience beyond identity, which is purely subjective. While there has likely been homoerotic attraction and behavior and perhaps even relationships among humans as long as there have been humans, how sexuality is understood and incorporated into one’s sense of self and identity is a very subjective and culturally influenced phenomenon.
For example, researcher/author Hanne Blank, in her book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, explores the idea that while men and women had been having sex, marrying, building families, and “sometimes even falling in love” for millennia (you can listen to a summary discourse on YouTube), the concept of “heterosexuality” wasn’t much thought of until the late 1800s, and when “heterosexual” was first listed in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary in the early 1900s, it was a medical term with pathological implications describing “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that a later edition described it in more normative terms.
A similar idea is true of homosexuality as well. It first made it’s way into print, along with “heterosexual,” in 1886 in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis. While modern conceptions of homosexuality have varied between the pathological and normal variation of the human sexual experience, one idea that David Halperin makes a thorough case for in his book One Hundred Years of Homosexuality is that how we understand and interpret and integrate the experience of homoeroticism in contemporary America (and, increasingly, the rest of the world since we’re exporting our cultural understanding of homosexuality as much as we’re exporting other cultural ideas) is qualitatively different than the conceptualization and cultural integration of homoeroticism was in ancient Greece.
As another example, a recent interesting article in The Atlantic explored the work of Barry and Bonnie Hewlett, a married couple who are both anthropologists and who spent a significant period of time studying the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa. Among both tribes there’s a cultural model of sexuality with such a strong focus on sex as a reproductive tool, and with couples often having sex 3-4 times a night, that masturbation and homosexual practices were virtually unknown–so much so, that the groups “were not aware of these practices, [and] did not have terms for them.” They also noted that in the case of the Aka, their informants had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors. Does that mean that no one in the tribes ever experience homoerotic attractions? Likely not. But there wasn’t a socio-culturally constructed “gay personality” filter through which to interpret and integrate occasional or even persistent homoerotic desires into a personal sense of identity that would simplisticly set apart their personal experience of sexuality.
Contrast that with contemporary American in which individuals are virtually held hostage to attributed social identity constructs of “gay” or “lesbian” whether they desire it or not. All one needs is to report experiencing attraction to others of the same sex and our culture has a nicely developed narrative ready for them to adopt, and which doesn’t easily allow for complexity, flexibility, or fluidity of sexuality.
What seems of critical importance in understanding both the Church’s position statements and their preferred vernacular is that there is a multi-tiered means of distinguishing various facets of the same-sex erotic experience. Psychologists and researchers/authors Mark Yarhouse and Warren Throckmorton have developed a Sexual Identity Therapy Framework that articulates a three-tiered model of sexuality that differentiates 1) same-sex erotic or sexual attraction, which may be occasional/circumstantial or persistent, 2) a more persistent pattern of same-sex erotic thoughts, desires and/or fantasies that might be termed an “orientation”, and 3) identity–a subjective filter that is socially constructed and through which an individual interprets and integrates their experience into some part of their understanding of “self-hood.” And the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” aren’t uniformly understood or experienced in the same way by everyone who may use or adopt those terms, so it’s the way those terms are incorporated into self-hood that accounts for identity, not just the words that are used.
A possible parallel to the identity tier might be said to occur with the term “Christian.” While some may use the term “Christian” to refer to anyone who believes in Jesus as a moral teacher whose life and ministry merits emulation, whether or not they accept His divinity as Messiah/Son of God, others may feel that Christian only applies to those who ascribe to a post-Nicene creedal theology—hence, the insistent exclusion by many/most evangelical Christians of Mormons from the Christian umbrella.
While the Yarhouse/Throckmorton SIT Framework has primarily three tiers, other models would mark out behavior as a necessary fourth tier because someone may engage in homoerotic behavior without experiencing persistent homoerotic attractions or adopting a “gay” identity—“gay for pay” actors, for example, who are male or female actors, pornographic stars, or sex workers who self-identify as heterosexual but who are paid to act or perform as homosexual professionally. Or, someone may experience occasional or even persistent homoerotic desire/attractions/arousal patterns who may not identify as “gay”. As a therapist I’ve worked with several men who were sexually abused as children and who identify as and feel themselves to be “straight” but struggle to understand their sexuality because their bodies responded sexually when they were abused, and they’ve experienced what some call “sexual orientation confusion” in the wake of their abuse—sometimes for years.
When trying to understand homosexuality in general, or the Church’s position specifically, those who apply the cultural idea of “being gay” with a broad brush to anyone who experiences homosexual feelings are being problematically reductionistic and in many ways create their own confusion. The way I’ve understood the Church’s approach is that they’ve opted to prefer a vernacular that speaks to the base denominator—same-sex sexual/erotic attraction/desires—which may or may not be persistent to the point that it would be commonly termed a “sexual orientation,” and which may or may not ever be acted out on sexually, and which may or may not be incorporated into a gay identity. And on some level, to speak to that base denominator would also not necessarily imply a belief in it being pathological or normal variation of human sexual experience. One could speak to the idea of of homosexual attractions, same-sex attraction, homoerotic desires and believe it’s a natural variation but want to dig deeper into understanding it as part of human experience divorced from identity—and many academics do.
In his 1995 Ensign article, “Same-Gender Attraction,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke specifically to the attraction tier, stating,
“Some kinds of feelings seem to be inborn. Others are traceable to mortal experiences. Still other feelings seem to be acquired from a complex interaction of “nature and nurture.” All of us have some feelings we did not choose, but the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that we still have the power to resist and reform our feelings (as needed) and to assure that they do not lead us to entertain inappropriate thoughts or to engage in sinful behavior.
“Different persons have different physical characteristics and different susceptibilities to the various physical and emotional pressures we may encounter in our childhood and adult environments. We did not choose these personal susceptibilities either, but we do choose and will be accountable for the attitudes, priorities, behavior, and ‘lifestyle’ we engraft upon them.”
There are lots of feelings people have that may be “natural” (which really doesn’t mean anything other than that something shows up “naturally” in a given set of circumstances, which may or may not be problematic or pathological) require some level of channeling, controlling, managing, or “educating”—we must “educate our desires,” as Elder Maxwell used to often say.
What Church leaders seem to be saying, in essence, is that we don’t need to feel shame or guilt around feelings we didn’t choose, but we are responsible to exercise our agency to explore, understand and respond to our feelings in healthy ways that are in harmony with the gospel teachings on sexuality and sexual relationship, and that we should embrace the good underlaying those feelings and resist/channel/control any impulses or desires that are contrary to the gospel.
So, while Church leaders have stated that unchosen feelings—regardless of etiology—are not a sin, I don’t think I’m aware of a single instance in which a Church leader has said “It’s okay to be gay.” While an individual may not choose to experience homosexual attractions, with intermittent or persistent, but he or she can control whether or not they entertain inappropriate thoughts or behaviors, just as with those who are heterosexually inclined, and Church leaders have cautioned against using the terms “gay” or “lesbian”, which tend to be attributed (predominantly, though not exclusively, depending on how one uses the terms) as part of identity paradigm that is dissonant with a heterosexually ordered divine sociality in the afterlife. As Elder Oaks also stated,
“We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice in respect to the critically important matter of sexual behavior.”
This could be unpacked and deconstructed and nuanced a bit more, because the words one uses seem to not be nearly as significant as the way one uses and incorporates them into his or her sense of identity, but these comments suffice my purposes here in this post. Someone could use the “approved” words but still experience a sense of identity around them that will inhibit personal and eternal growth and progress.
To bring this full circle, summarizing and paraphrasing what Elder Oaks seems to be saying, and what the Church’s position is on these things, to say that any of the wide range of human feelings, attractions, desires someone may feel that are not consciously chosen are not sin per say—they’re not necessarily bad or good, they just are—is not to say that they’re necessarily “okay” to entertain or “engraft” particular lifestyle choices around.