Affirmation is in the news lately. It is standing up and actively using the words Gay and Mormon in public statements that are getting press.
The issue of same-sex marriage and LDS Church involvement with it is a much-ventilated one that I am not going to engage here. Instead I wish to write about some of the social background and public appearance of an organization and a movement positively claiming both the appellatives Gay and Mormon together.
The term Gay has been a matter of some controversy among Latter-day Saints, with its proud and open proclaiming, as a noun, of what many would rather have as a rather embarrassing adjective. And, rather than a three-letter word, they would have preferred the long, pseudo Latinate “homosexual”, or the rather awkward phrase “same sex attracted”. Any word one chooses and the parts of speech one attributes to it are fighting words for many, at the same time they are terms which people use to find self-identity.
For many Latter-day Saints the conjunction of Gay and Mormon seems an oxymoron, since the first term might seem to imply sexual activity that would be unacceptable under the second term. However the word “gay” (whether in caps or lower-case) does not necessarily index sex but rather desire. That desire has proved so difficult to regulate and that Mormonism casts deep taproots in people’s psyches opens the door for this marriage of terms, Gay and Mormon.
In this joining is something sociologically important. It declares a strong public identity that, in the mere sequencing of two words, defies mainstream and official logic. The words increasingly, as the social climate of the nation evolves, seem to fit together smoothly. But this joining is not only uncomfortable for many Latter-day Saints and perhaps General Authorities, it is also uncomfortable for many gay people of LDS background who simply feel that if one is gay one should just let go of the Church and be Gay. For many this letting-go is part of overcoming ones inner homophobia by giving up those things inside that would deny one the possibility of a positive self-identity.
The words, whether Gay or Mormon, are difficult and somewhat dangerous. In them one finds deep and differing emotional attachments that are often un-analyzed in the face of the simplicity of words. Desire and its suppression or realization have deep wellsprings and can leave deeply resonant marks on persons. Similarly people have differing levels of internal attachment to Mormonism.
(Curiously, I wanted to write “religion”, in order to use a more general category and keep the rhetorical parallelism of moving from specific instance to broader issue. But I could not. Mormonism is so much more than a religion that I could not find a more general term and could only restate the specific.)
For some people Mormonism is something one can easily take on and easily leave. But for many others, Mormonism is so deep within them that it may indeed be prior to their own egos and something on which their ego depends for value and worth.
The joining of these two things, desire and Mormonism, does not lead to a single kind of people, despite the universalistic pretensions of both Gay and Mormon. Instead one finds variety. Just using a formal combination of notions of weak and strong homosexual desire and weak and strong attachments to Mormonism (without getting into the very complex issues of identity) one comes up with four types. These are people who have both strong sexual desire and strong Mormonism, people who have weak sexual desire and weak Mormonism, people who have strong sexual desire and weak Mormonism, and finally people who have weak sexual desire and strong Mormonism.
In reality people do not come in classifications such as this formal grid. They are a range. But strength of desire and strength of attachment to Mormonism are two variables that locate them differently on the range, particularly as they are conjoined. The four types simply are descriptors to allow us to see the range and differences along its course.
For me, the interesting question is how many people in the Latter-day Saint community, or who are from that community, might fit into the different categories. I have no empirical information on this, although I wish I did.
Nevertheless it would seem to me that the bulk of the people fall into the middle, where one term is relatively weak and one term relatively strong. The dynamism of which is weak, which strong, and how weak or strong they are, would explain a lot about how people feel about the Church, their sexuality, and their own experience of self.
It would be very difficult to get information about the weak, weak classification. I suspect these people pass well below the radar. The last category, the strong, strong one is also difficult, but for the opposite reason. This category is composed of people who live a lot of tension between their demanding sexuality and their demanding attachment to the Church. Their lives and tensions demand visibility.
Gay and Mormon are becoming so natural, when joined together, as to almost pass without comment. That, of course, is part of what enables Affirmation to stand up and speak out and part of what makes the Church’s position on homosexuality difficult. Nevertheless, underlying both Affirmation and the Church’s official stance is a diversity of Mormon selves with a variety of experience and realities. That diversity and its relationship with, as well as separation from, the rhetoric of labels is all I wanted to make write about today.