“Safe Space for the Homosexual” Conference Recap, Part 1

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

Kalamazoo College

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

Cole Whitaker

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”

Bryan Horn

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”

(Via Skype)

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?

Glade:

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.

Heffernan:

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.

Ellenwood:

When gay kids self-declare their sexuality, this is a time for listening, not communicating your own expectations.

Weed:

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.

Lolly:

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.”

Josh:

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.

Comments

  1. Despite our new stance of welcoming open but non-practicing homosexuals (including allowing them to serve missions, according to a recent regional priesthood leadership session I attended that was presided over by an apostle), there is still at least one place in the Church were avowed gays are explicitly unwelcome, regardless of whether or not they are abiding by the law of chastity. That is, of course, the Boy Scouts. The BSA’s recent announcement reaffirming the expulsion of “open or avowed” homosexual scouts and leaders, regardless of behavior, is in opposition to the Church’s current standards, and it is hard to see how excluding young men like those featured in BYU’s “It Gets Better” video from Wednesday night activities or kicking them out of their scout troops would be of any benefit to them or to their priesthood quorums. (And shouldn’t all LDS scouts be refraining from all sexual activity anyway?) It is also hard to see how the BSA’s position does does anything other than reinforce stereotypes of homosexuals as predators and open the door to gay-monitoring and harassment. Current Church standards on homosexuality make it an admirable, even exemplary decision for gays and lesbians to choose lives of faithfulness and celibacy. Whether or not one agrees with that policy, the notion that such members should be kept away from impressionable youth is in direct opposition to the promise of full participation in callings, temple ordinances, and missionary service that is held out elsewhere in the Church. The contradiction is sharp enough that when Mormons answer the temple recommend question about whether they “support, affiliate, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or opposed to those of the Church,” a conversation about one’s support of the Boy Scouts may be in order.

  2. KerBearRN says:

    Wow. Just wow. I’ll be very interested to find out suggestions for that safe space. Been sayin’ it for years– We just need to find a place for them, a place where they can feel love and acceptance and be a part of the Mormon experience. It’s tragic that we lose so many, and to an incredibly rocky road, because we haven’t yet found a way to embrace them and keep them home. I hope this conference helps. Thanks SO MUCH for posting!

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the excellent report, Aaron.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    The contradiction is sharp enough that when Mormons answer the temple recommend question about whether they “support, affiliate, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or opposed to those of the Church,” a conversation about one’s support of the Boy Scouts may be in order.

    Thanks for the chuckle to start off the day.

  5. I remember when Bryan Horn was the anti-gay super conservative president of the college republicans at UVU, and had a few spouts with him. I was quite surprised to see him running as a democrat for the Utah house or something a few years ago. His story must have been interesting.

  6. Eagle Scout I couldn’t agree more.

    I am going to wait for part 2 for a comprehensive comment. I am still chewing on things. Thanks for linking in the fMh Facebook group, otherwise I never would’ve known this was here.

  7. Thanks for putting this up, Aaron.

  8. FYI, I decided to divide into parts 1 and 2 because (a) this post was already too long; and (b) the Ecclesiastical leader panel (part 2) might have been the most interesting part of the conference for me, so I think it deserves its own thread.

  9. Patricia Lahtinen says:

    It’s my understanding, from a conversation during one of the later breaks at the symposium, that Hugo Olaiz will be coming, in person, to the Affirmation conference in Seattle, October 19-21. I look forward to asking him some questions, particularly about his report of an Evergreen conference in Rosario, Argentina, last year. http://affirmation.org/news_2012/2012_085.shtml

  10. This talk, given by a member of the San Francisco Stake High Council at the recent ‘Circling the Wagons’ conference, dovetails nicely into this conversation:

    http://mitchmayne.blogspot.com/2012/08/circling-wagons-mormon-lgbt-conference_14.html

  11. Oh, and the part where he discusses how they interpret the CHI is especially interesting. Shades of things to come?

  12. #10 – Thanks for the link, Neal. That’s an amazing talk.

  13. Great report. Glad to see the Bob Rees pamphlet. I think we are seeing shades of things to come.

  14. KerBearRN says:

    Neal thanks also for the talk link. It made me shake with emotion and happiness. I pray truly this is shades of things to come!

  15. I missed the first part of the conference … thanks for the recap! Was great to see you again.

  16. Thanks for this. Sounds like an incredible conference and I can’t wait for part 2!
    Homosexuality affects the church as much as it affects society generally. The way we deal with it is just different and, in my opinion, unacceptable. We need to find a way to affirm these people instead of outright excommunication or making them feel so uncomfortable that they leave ‘voluntarily’. I am confident that the church will be richer for their presence and participation.

  17. Thank you. I hope stuff like this gets wide LDS readership.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    Neal, that’s an amazing talk. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Agreed about the ecclesiastical panel. I think that discussion could become a very helpful tool for other ecclesiastical leaders trying to figure out how to minister to gay members of their congregations. Are you planning to just list stuff that was said, or will you also be sharing your own impressions? Because I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the discussion as well.

  20. Jon, my post should go up shortly, but because of the length, I don’t really share many of my own thoughts. Am happy to do this in the comments though.

  21. Eagle Scout, I’ve been struggling with the BSA position well before the “re-affirmation,” which has caused me to think more deeply about the right response. My current calling is that of a Wolf Den leader. The program is great, the boys are great, the anti-gay policy is not. So, what’s the right thing to do? Should I bail out of the Scout program and my calling? Do I stay and try to change it from within? It would be easy to bail on Scouts if it weren’t inextricably entwined with the Church.

    To put it another way: I won’t eat at Chick-fil-a, but I actively support the BSA. That’s an incoherent position to take, since only one of those organizations has an explicit policy banning gays.

  22. My wife, who was the eleven-year-old scout leader in the ward until the re-affirmation, quietly resigned two weeks ago. She went to the bishop and told him that she was no longer comfortable wearing a scout shirt but she was willing to serve in any other calling in the ward. When she explained her dilemma (although she likes the boys, she can’t support what she sees as a cruel and senseless policy toward gays that’s not in harmony with the Church’s position), the bishop told her that he understood, since he himself has a young grandson who seems quite likely to be gay, and that church callings should not require members to compromise their principles. So he released her and a week later called her to be the compassionate service leader in the Relief Society and a primary teacher. She didn’t want to make a big deal of this because we have a great troop in our ward with fine, dedicated leaders, because our son (who loves Scouting) just finished his Eagle Scout project, and because any direct criticism of the Church’s close connection to the BSA seems like a criticism of President Monson. I’m not sure this is the right response for everyone, but it seemed right for us.

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