The latest Dialogue, 40/2 (Summer 2007), hit my mailbox on Friday. You can see a summary of contents here, and subscription information is available here. I thought I would try to summarize briefly one of the pieces, by John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, under the caption Personal Voices, entitled “Trial of Faith.”
John is gay and has lived for 15 years in a committed relationship with his partner. He previously left the Church, but he has since recommitted to his LDS faith. He begins by talking about visiting his parents’ ward with them, and of how the topic of homosexuality came up in GD class, accompanied by substantial ignorant, painful commentary, and of how glad he was that his partner had not come with him that day. This article is an exploration of his attempts to find a middle path that works for him, between the extremes of rejecting the Church and rejecting his partner (initiated by a spiritual experience he had at the 2005 Sunstone Symposium).
A 2006 survey of 165 gay men and women with an LDS background reports that 62% classified themselves as “inactive,” 16% as excommunicated, 8% as having joined other religions, and 24% considered themselves non-religious.
The author briefly surveys four possible approaches to the issue. One would be to allow gay members to have relationships without excommunicating them. This was advocated in 1978 in a pamphlet by Clay Jenkins, one year after the founding of Affirmation. This possibility has been rejected by both the Church leadership and the majority of the LDS rank and file. A second possible approach is the search for effective reparative therapies, represented by the founding of Evergreen International in 1989 and the publication five years later by Deseret Book of Born That Way.
An unfortunate byproduct of this approach was the one-time counsel for gay men to get married as a way for them to “get over it.” The experience of time suggests that these approaches simply don’t work, unless one had at least some attraction to the opposite sex (being bisexual or in the middle of the Kinsey scale) to begin with. In the face of overwhelming evidence that reparative therapy doesn’t work, the Church has turned most recently to the third approach, that of encouraging celibacy. A fourth approach is a “mixed orientation marriage,” where the marriage is entered into with full disclosure of one spouse’s orientation, and with little expectation that that will change. (The one example of this that he discusses still ended in divorce.)
Most LDS gay people are bifurcated between those who have reconciled themselves with their sexuality (who would argue for the first position) and those who view it as evil (and typically embrace one of the last three positions). John is in the process of working out a middle way, which he characterizes as a “waiting” or “growth” position. He spends several pages describing how renewing his faith has actually resulted in a much deeper connection with his life partner, which at first seemed counterintuitive to him.
He then discusses the Oaks/Wickman interview articulating the Church’s recent swing away from reliance on reparative therapy and towards celibacy. They acknowledged that the situation is not qute the same as that of a single heterosexual person, for whom marriage is a possible future option, but nevertheless defended the Church’s current position. John questions the aptness of a comparison with someone who cannot marry due to severe mential or physical disability (such as total paralysis). Very few would opt for what seems to be the only option available, which amounts to a life of “great loneliness.” Shortly after leaving the Church, John actually explored the realities of living a life of celibacy, spending a summer with a group of Catholic monks in France, one of whom he had met on his mission. Each of the monks in private conversations told him that it would be very unwise to commit oneself to a life of celibacy because one was running away from his sexuality. Such a motivation would not suffice over the very long haul. Rather, one had to feel called to celibacy. The monks were also of the view that it was a calling for a relatively small number of people. After much study and prayer with the monks, it became clear to him that celibacy was not his calling in life.
John acknowledges that he is not sure how his life choices might have been different had the Church’s contemporary policy of supporting gay individuals in celibacy had been the policy 20 years ago, when being gay was still considered a choice and the orientation itself was perceived as evil. But he feels that it was necessary for him to leave the Church for a long period of time in order to experience divine love after the spiritual damage he experienced in his youth.
Gay people seek intimate relationships not just because they live in a sex-saturated society, but because they seek and crave the same emotional intimacy that heterosexual couples seek. “We seek and enter into intimate relationships, not because we are gay but because we are human.” Gay people too have to resist temptations, and learn such qualities as honesty, fidelity, selflessness and compassion. He perceives his relationship with his partner as fitting what he learned growing up and attending church, and he sees this relationship as a gift from God.
He finds that his love for the Church and for his partner increasingly have become significantly intertwined. He could not reject either and maintain his integrity. While he agrees that celibacy has the potential to be a possible path for some, he suggests we should seek for ways to encourage and commit to fellowship with those who are not able to commit to celibacy.
John says that a friend gave him an old battered copy of the BoM that he found at a garage sale, partly as a joke. He read it, and prayed. He used to argue against the notion that homosexual conduct was sinful, in a spirit of self-justification, but he realized that he certainly was a sinner, no matter the details of what was and wasn’t a sin. So he simply prayed for forgiveness and opened himself to doing whatever God asked of him. Although this was a scary prayer–for perhaps God would require him to leave his partner–he felt an assurance that God would not ask him for more than he had the capacity to give, that God would prepare him for it, and that whatever it was would be based in love. He simply had to let go of his expectations and learn to place his trust in God. The important thing, he realized, was to trust God and to listen, without rationalizing, justification or defense. We must listen to the Spirit and follow what we hear. The point of discipleship is to become what God would have us become. And just as self-justification drives a wedge between us and God, so does condemnation of others.
To assume that we must ostracize gay people or they will not repent shows a lack of faith. How will gay people be able to seek a relationship with the Spirit and repentance if they are driven from the Church where the Spirit resides? And if our negative views of homosexuality derive simply from cultural conditioning, will not our driving away our gay brothers and sisters be judged the more grievously at the last day? Debate is pointless; we all need to repent of our own sins and invite and encourage others to enter into the same path. He is not suggesting that the authorities abandon the rules or the difficult decisions they must make. What is important is how we deal with and treat one another. For John, a growth-oriented approach focuses more on loyalty–to each other and the cause of the Church–than on perfect conformity. In the early Church, Joseph had tolerance for shockiingly different points of view, but very little for disloyalty.
As long as our straight brothers and sisters have no interest in lifelong celibacy, rather than condemning gay Saints for their unwllingness to commit to it, we need to celebrate and support decisions to embrace and live as many of the principles of the gospel as possible. We especially need to embrace those who make the very difficult decision to attend meetings regularly and participate in worship in places where previously they have experienced alienation, rejection, and denigration. Even with the limits of excommunication, a rich spiritual life is still available in attendance and participation with the Saints.
[Please note that this is my attempt at summarizing a 30-page essay in a single blog post so as to pique your interest in the actual essay itself. Obviously I was not able to recreate all of the nuance of his experience and argument as he recounts it.]