On Saturday, about 75 people gathered at the University of Washington for the first annual Compassionate Cause conference, entitled “Creating a Safe Space for the Homosexual in the Church”. I was in attendance all-day, and this post is the first of my 2-part summary of the event. Unfortunately, I know I didn’t fully capture all the substantive points the various speakers and panelists made, since I focused my notes mainly on the points that most interested me. Also, occasional bathroom breaks and side conversations undoubtedly mean I didn’t catch everything I otherwise would have. If any other attendees want to supplement my remarks with whatever I missed, they should feel free.
Moroni Benally, an LDS graduate student at UW, organized and introduced the conference. I missed the bulk of his intro, alas, but you can read the purpose of the conference here.
I. KEYNOTE SPEAKER
Professor Taylor Petrey, ThD
Department of Religion
Who can create a safe space for homosexuals in the Church? Can regular members do it without the leadership? How does it occur? What tools are available? The evolution of our terminology around homosexuality reflects changing assumptions about what homosexuality is. Petrey discussed everything from the origin of the term “sodomy” in Medieval times to our more recent preoccupation with causes and cures, often couched in the categories of modern psychology. In the 19th Century, George Q. Cannon blamed the “crime against nature” on the “false tradition of monogamous marriage,” – an ironic claim to be sure – but the bulk of Petrey’s remarks were a grand tour of 20th Century Mormonism’s engagement with homosexuality — From J. Reuben’s Clark’s first use of the term “homosexuality” in public discourse in the 1950s, to Mark E. Peterson and Spencer W. Kimball being tasked with finding a scriptural solution to the problem, to Ernest Wilkinson’s view that homosexuality was a dangerous contagion at BYU, to spying and reparative therapy on campus, to the purge of male drama and dance groups in 1975, to the “don’t say gay” admonition of Boyd K. Packer and accompanying use of euphemistic terminology – “same-gender attraction”, “so-called gays and lesbians”, etc. – and the more recent reversion to using “homosexuality” and “lesbian” as kosher terms again.
Much of our 20th Century discourse has been focused on finding a cure for homosexuality. President Kimball wrote books, speeches and pamphlets about on the topic – some still promoted today – which rely on a medical framework from the 1960s. His The Miracle of Forgiveness identifies masturbation as homosexuality’s cause, and ranks homosexuality just below murder in the hierarchy of sins. Petrey: “Heterosexuality is natural and uncaused, while homosexuality is unnatural and caused.” Other causes of homosexuality promoted by LDS leaders have included “selfishness,” “perversion”, strong mothers, seductive fathers, contamination, recruitment, parental abuse, talking too much about homosexuality, etc. BYU used to promote aversion therapy, but we’ve moved away from touting a “cure” for homosexuality (although Evergreen’s website still says it’s an “alterable condition”). Elder Oaks and President Hinckley have more recently declared homosexuality’s cause to be unknown. Marriage is no longer put forth as a solution.
Previous LDS Church leaders deemed homosexuality a threat to national security, adopted the rhetoric of the broader anti-homosexual movement, and praised Anita Bryant. Elder Boyd K. Packer described homosexuality as one of three great dangers to the Church. But LDS leaders now want safe spaces for LDS gays, and they condemn cruelty towards homosexuals. We still hear references to the “homosexual lifestyle”, assumptions that homosexuals only want physical relationships, which must therefore be categorically different from heterosexual relationships. The recent God Loveth His Children pamphlet encourages LDS homosexuals to choose friends who aren’t openly homosexual themselves, which often results in social and emotional isolation.
In more recent years, LDS Public Affairs did an interview with Elders Oaks and Wickman, in which Oaks compared homosexuality to a compulsion to steal, described gay marriage as legalized theft, endorsed guilt and discrimination against homosexuals. Petrey: “Homosexuality shouldn’t be defining of a person, yet is as defining as a handicap”. In sum, our terminological shift reflects a crisis in how to understand the homosexuality phenomenon. The Church has changed its position on causes and cures, with prior claims all being jettisoned from LDS discourse, for the most part. The place of the homosexual in the Church has changed, and gays are welcome now.
What will the future bring? The safest path is the current LDS view – celibacy, or marriage in cases where same-sex attraction is sufficiently managed. Are heterosexual relationships superior to homosexual relationships, theologically? Can homosexual relationships be accommodated in Mormon theology? Here, Petrey gestured toward his recent Dialogue article briefly – Mormonism could retain some understandings of eternal gender, revive earlier notions of sealing, but would have to jettison biological literalism, etc., to make room for homosexual relationships. Let’s think carefully about celibacy. Theologically, it doesn’t seem very Mormon, though Mormonism can of course change. If this is to be the path, we must articulate precisely what this means, and incorporate it into Mormon thought.
II. Personal Story
Whitaker, an ex-Mormon, currently Buddhist, “gender queer” woman briefly shared her own personal story. Outed by her sister to the rest of her family as a teenager, she liked everything about the LDS church except its LGBT stances and had good experiences in it. She often defends the Church to critical non-Mormons. She has a great relationship with her LDS family now, all in her extended family are kind and loving. They’re just trying to be the best people they can be, according to their own beliefs. What hurt her most as a Mormon was being told she couldn’t pass the sacrament because she was a girl. She stressed that gender isn’t binary, but a continuum.
III. “You Can Make the Pathway Bright”
Utah County Chapter of Affirmation for Gay and Lesbian Mormons
Horn was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was studying to become a Catholic priest when he heard an ex-Mormon Stake President-turned-Catholic deacon deliver a talk about evils of Mormonism. He studied LDS church history, read the Book of Mormon, had some long-standing issues with certain Catholic doctrines, then joined the LDS Church, served a mission, went to BYU, was a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for 3 years, moved to the U of U and became a lawyer. A survivor of ex-gay therapy, a survivor of attempted suicide at BYU, he had been told by his therapist that God doesn’t love gay people, that the Atonement doesn’t cover them. Eventually he realized he should’ve been asking God “What do I do now?” rather than saying “Please take the gay away”.
Don’t let gays feel alone or discarded, says Horn. You may not want to accept homosexuality, but that’s no reason to cease loving people. “I don’t understand polygamists, but I have no right to hate them”. Ask local church leaders to talk about this issue with love and compassion. Let gay relatives know that there is a place of refuge, that the Church is a sanctuary. An ex-Mormon friend says the “Visitors Welcome” sign on LDS chapels should read “Certain Visitors Welcome,” and he has a point. Mormons have been hated and persecuted in the past, so we of all people should be sensitive to exclusion. Don’t say Jesus doesn’t love or atone for gays. Ask God to soften your heart, have charity. Let’s welcome EVERYBODY into the Church.
I was taken aback by Horn’s claim that an LDS therapist would tell him “God doesn’t love gay people” and that the Atonement “doesn’t cover them,” so I asked him to clarify his remarks at lunch. He insisted this is how Evergreen creates desperation in their gay clients to better motivate them to change.
IV. “Finding Spaces to be Gay and Mormon in Latin America”
John-Charles Duffy, PhD and Hugo Olaiz
According to Duffy, the center of gravity of Church membership is shifting to Latin America (6 million of our 14 million members live there). There are no anti-sodomy laws in Latin America, but because of social attitudes, not-technically-illegal homosexual behavior is considered immoral, so can be prosecuted on grounds of public indecency. The culture of machismo in Latin culture distinguishes between the active and passive role in homosexuality. The active role is not mainstream, but it doesn’t bear the “homosexual” stigma, because its the masculine role. Only the passive role is considered “homosexuality”. Lesbianism is invisible because there is no interest in female sexual pleasure. As the Gay rights movement becomes more influential in Latin America, it has mimicked its U.S. counterparts – the word “gay” was imported from English to Spanish, for example. Latin American gay rights movements are in the middle stages, not as advanced as in the U.S. (though Argentina has legalized gay marriage). Western media portrayals of gays influence trends in Latin America.
Olaiz told the stories of 3 different LGBT Mormons in Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Unfortunately, because of the Skype connection, Hugo’s presentation was almost impossible to hear. :(
V. PANEL OF CLINICIANS AND THERAPISTS
Brian Warren – therapist and moderator
Sara Ellenwood – non-LDS therapist, member of LGBT community, works with many LDS clients in Portland
Aimee Heffernan – LDS therapist in Seattle area, specializing in illness, addictions, grief and loss
Dr. Aaron Glade – LDS therapist in Bellevue, specializing in sexual addiction
Josh Weed – LDS therapist in Seattle area, self identifies as “gay” but in a mixed-orientation marriage.
The panelists focused on the question: How does LGBT community feel unsafe and why?
Getting to know people is the best way to overcome misconceptions and prejudices about them. People don’t have to be OK with everything right away. Shame never works as a motivator in anything.
The new Bob Rees pamphlet is superb, describes how to talk about homosexuality with kids, how to avoid rejecting behaviors. LDS parents, you don’t necessarily need to say you “support” your gay children, but you do need to tell your child you love them. If we avoid talking about homosexuality (or sexuality generally) in our homes and churches, our kids will still talk about it with friends, at school, etc. Depression, anxiety, suicide, sex and drugs, etc. are the effects of unhealthy messaging to gay youth.
When gay kids self-declare their sexuality, this is a time for listening, not communicating your own expectations.
Dad embraced him when he came out at 13. Dad was used to sexual discussions, given his professional background. He responded not from a place of fear but from a place of unconditional love and acceptance. Josh tries to have conversations with gay clients that they should have had when they were younger but didn’t. He talks with parents, prepping them for the reality that gay kids may make choices that they don’t like. I have a gay LDS client now who hasn’t decided what his life path is. An only child, lots of pressure to fulfill his parents’ dreams. It’s hard to figure out how to deal with parents who want eternal family. Love should be unconditional, it shouldn’t be a a tool for instrumentally changing another’s behavior.
VI. Personal Story
Josh and Lolly Weed
Hearing the Weeds talk about their experience – and being able to ask them questions – was the part of the conference I was most curious about, and I know I’m not the only one. See the original blogpost that everyone is talking about here.
Josh came out to me at 16. He made me guess he was gay, I guessed right, he said “No!’, I said “Good!”, he was crestfallen, then I realized that he really was gay. My maternal grandfather was gay, but didn’t tell my grandmother. He eventually left her after 30 years of marriage, later died of AIDS when I was 14. So I’ve seen a mixed-orientation marriage fail, and my mother was the product of one. This subject needs to be talked about. Some were uncomfortable with Josh and I coming out, but I tell them, “Maybe you don’t need to know about it, but others do.” Our path isn’t the path for everyone. “If marrying a woman makes you cringe, you’re not a good candidate for mixed-orientation marriage.”
At age 18, I contemplated living as a gay man. I made a choice, no one forced it upon me. No one should force this on anyone. We got married after our missions. After 10 years of marriage, I/we came out. We reached out to Carol Lynn Pearson beforehand, who advised us against having kids in our situation. I don’t want my story used as a battering ram by LDS churchmembers against their own gay children. Everyone is different, with a different path and different intentions. We felt spiritually prompted to share our story in the way we did, when we did.
I asked Josh point blank about the timing of his disclosure and the speed with which his blogpost went viral. He denied the existence of any larger religious or political forces at work, claimed that some local leaders actually pushed back against his “coming out” beforehand, and he was shocked by how quickly his post went viral.
I’ll put up my summary of the remainder of the conference tomorrow or Friday.