LGB Saints at Church: Some Challenges

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Michael is from a multigenerational Latter-day Saint family but has spent the majority of his life outside of the Mormon corridor. He’s not employed by academia but looks for opportunities to scratch his academic itch.

PREFACE

When the Church retracted the November 2015 set of LGB-related Church policies I felt relief, like taking a breath of air after too much time underwater.  As the news sunk in, one common reaction I saw was would-be allies asking what everyday Latter-day Saints could do to make their LGBT brothers and sisters feel more welcome.

Most of the proffered answers to that question focused on changing doctrine, policy, and teachings.  That is not my answer — or at least, not my starting point.  I intend to adapt the question Neylan McBaine poses in Women at Church: “accepting the doctrines and policies we have in place in the Church today, how can we help improve [LGB]-cooperative practices on the local level so as to relieve unnecessary tensions caused by cultural or historically normative practices?”

My attempt at an answer will proceed in two parts.  First, I will spell out some of the issues that LGB people in the Church face from non-policy, non-doctrine “cultural or historically normative practices.”  This will include highlighting many unsatisfactory approaches to sexuality and life narratives that both the LDS Church and broader modern culture share.  Then second, I will offer suggestions for welcoming and embracing LGB saints in our wards and culture.

I am intentionally using “LGB” throughout this discussion.   I use “LGB” to include all non-straight orientations, from asexuality to pansexuality.  I leave off “T” not to invalidate the experiences of transgender Saints, but because sexual orientation and gender identity require different sets of theological and institutional approaches.  Theological matters of gender identity typically explore individual correspondence between spirit, mortal, and resurrected bodies (i.e., eternal gender).  Meanwhile, issues of sexual orientation are primarily concerned with divinely-sanctioned relationships between people.  For insight into the experience of transgender saints, I recommend BCC’s recent guest post by Lona Gynt.

CULTURAL CHALLENGES FOR LGB SAINTS

Church-prescribed singlehood. 

Although it used to, the Church no longer advises LGB saints to marry members of the opposite sex.  Instead, the Church advises them to remain celibate and single in perpetuity.  To my knowledge, nowhere else in LDS history has the LDS Church expected an entire class of people to remain single.  

Church leaders have not articulated any models of how single adults fit into the broader Zion community, including Church teachings on families.  There are occasional attempted compassionate nods to straight single women (“no blessing will be denied“), but I have not heard that consolation extended to single men or the LGB community.

Prescribed singlehood categorically bars active LDS, LGB saints from receiving the highest saving ordinance: sealing.  When combined with the common LDS cultural (mis)conception that single adults are somehow flawed, lazy, or selfish, the sting worsens.  After all, in the Church’s eyes single LGB people should remain unmarried.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” only acknowledges non-nuclear families once:  “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.” Single people are seen as individuals responsible to adapt on their own, or as extended family to be recruited as support staff when nuclear families become unstable. However, such “individual adaptations” run the risk of being judged transgressive.

An environment where marriage and family serve as the sole measures of maturation encourages people to think that single people are in a perpetual state of arrested development. LDS evaluation of singles, moreover, draws from gendered courtship traditions.  Single women are passive objects of courtship required to work to make themselves attractive. If unselected, they deserve pity.  Single men, by contract, are the active party and thus are self-evidently shirking their responsibility to marry. 

Loneliness and isolation.   

In LDS circles, we hear that the (nuclear) family is the “fundamental unit of society.”  However, this has only been the case since economic and urbanization pressures pulled apart local, multigenerational communities which included single people.  (Those types of communities still exist in many places around the world.) Today’s American culture, though, reifies marriage and the nuclear family in law and social relations.

Lacking family structures, single people can spend much of their time alone. They can go for weeks without emotionally intimate in-person moment and years without affectionate, non-fleeting, non-sexual touch. Celibate lesbian Catholic Eve Tushnet points out that this loneliness, more than lust, is often a breeding ground for despair, stress, and temptation. 

In this world, singlehood can be logistically difficult. Single people have less division of household labor and costs. Single people often have no one who can take time off from work to help with emergencies and corporeal needs.  Single people have no children to provide companionship and support, especially as they approach old age.

When I confessed to one LDS woman the pain the thought of having no progeny caused me, her response was to ask why — since I could supposedly keep fathering children into old age. It took me awhile to figure out that her only model of “feeling pain at the prospect of childlessness” was the female “biological clock.”  She didn’t seem to consider that “old man contributing sperm” wasn’t a sort of fatherhood I would ever desire or even approve of.

What’s more, adult single people who live with family are often judged. A friend recently conversed with a divorced LDS woman about how rising housing prices might affect a local LDS singles community.  Spurning his concern, she said that it would be good for single LDS men to be priced out of shared apartments and housing, so that they would no longer be able to live in immature, dorm-like arrangements with friends. She didn’t allow for any virtues of such living arrangements: frugality, community, homosociality, etc.

Purposelessness. 

No success can compensate for failure in the home” seems to suggest that single people, with no traditional “home,” can have no success. Nearly every LDS model of lifetime achievement is predicated on being heterosexually married and having multiple children. How, then, are single people to measure success? 

Singles have two metrics.  First, magnifying church callings, which are temporary and unchosen assignments that only provide an unstable, external foundation for self-appraisal and identity.  Second, professional achievement, preferably through an occupation that they find meaningful. But for people whose callings and jobs are not edifying, life becomes a long run on a hamster wheel.

No positive, constructive discourse about single sexuality. 

The Church is well aware that singles have sexuality. But we do not talk about how the sexuality of single people is God-given and how single people, while obeying the Law of Chastity, can direct their sexuality to the glory of God and the building up of Zion.

There is no positive reinforcement for or institutional support of celibacy in or out of LDS culture, save for indirectly among the “sad secular monks” who are married to their work.

I’m happy that Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon (in the chapter entitled “Hunger”) starts doing this work, but its applicability is limited.  It’s mainly about not abusing sexual “hunger” by sating it in improper ways.  It does not explore positive, chaste ways to harness and appreciate and even share sexuality in the moment. Further, he does not venture to talk about non-heterosexuality outside of (paraphrased) “that’s rough, but we love and need you” — the now-standard approach.

Leap of faith. 

Save transgender Saints, there are no demographics of whom the Church requires a leap of faith similar to that of LGB Saints: to believe that desires for companionship and family otherwise praised should be ignored, and that they should hope that a major part of their bodily experience will entirely reoriented upon death. Facing a unique challenge isn’t necessarily inherently bad; the Anti-Nephi-Lehies made a covenant to radical pacifism because of moral dangers they uniquely faced. But they had the support of the Nephites, who were willing to fight to the death to prevent them from violating their covenants.

Few role models. 

Only some never-married women have been high in Church leadership at every level, and there are no never-married men in LDS Church leadership, save rarely at the local level. What’s more, the most visible LGB Saints haven’t always been single; they are either currently married heterosexually and/or previously partnered with a member of the same sex. When widely visible LGB Saints are single, they are typically young, uncertain what sexual orientation means for their faith. None of these people have institutional approval. The only life stories single LGB Saints we see are short and end in question marks.

Potential homelessness.

 Parental threats to disown and expel young LGB Saints are still all too real, causing a sense of precariousness even into adulthood: if the LGB Saint trangresses their parents’ norms, they might lose whatever housing, financial, or emotional safety net they had. This mutual distrust causes family division and stress, and leads LGB Saints to focus on support networks outside of family and Church. Such support networks can be indispensable, but families should be aware that LGB children they reject might not wish to return.

Potential “homelessness.” 

For many LGB Saints, the LDS Church is a home: a place where people help out, speak your language, share your loves and concerns and references, and maybe where you connect to your heritage. LGB Saints’ attachment to a community which has no apparent place for them is heart-wrenching.

Leaving for other (even Christian) faith communities will entail adopting new and different beliefs and practices amidst significant loss: no temples, no doctrine of eternal family unity, no latter-day scripture (or, in the case of Community of Christ, significantly different approaches thereto), no premortal life, little use for their LDS heritage and upbringing.

Limited social imagination. 

Even the most well-meaning leaders and friends can be unaware of the impressions left by what they say to and about LGB Saints and their experiences. I’ll offer a couple examples here.

Common Pastoral Counsel 1.  “Maybe you’ll find the right person to [heterosexually] marry [for whom your attractions won’t matter].”

Besides potentially contradicting the Church’s official advice, this counsel puts the LGB Saint in limbo.  It assumes that there is a perfect person out there if the LGB Saint just works harder at looking — it blames LGB saints for their own orientation and loneliness.  What would ever justify giving up the hope that there’s a perfect opposite-sex partner out there waiting to be found?

This can be especially difficult when many have received blessings — patriarchal or merely counseling — that seem to promise or foresee marriage. There’s a tendency to view unfulfilled “blessings” as evidence of transgression or unworthiness. 

And how can an LGB Saint square this counsel with data that mixed-orientation marriages very often end in divorce? How long can LGB Saints delay life plans if marriage isn’t in the cards? Do we plan our lives around divine intervention?

Common Pastoral Counsel 2.  “Your struggle is hard, but Jesus understands all pain, so rely on the Atonement.”

In a perfect world, perhaps this would suffice, but it places the burden of imagination on every individual LGB Saint. There are only so many times you can read Hebrews 4:15 and Alma 7:11-12 before you ask yourself: What are the tangible, earthly fruits of Jesus’s sharing our suffering?

This approach seems to posit “feeling pain” is the essential shared human experience, a borderline utilitarian model we should be wary to adopt.

Scripture.  Singlehood in LDS scriptures is rendered invisible by readings that overstate their focus on marriage. Saints assume that “righteous” figures in scripture will exhibit most of the present-day markers of LDS righteousness, including marriage. Meanwhile, marriage exists in the Book of Mormon, but we see almost no internal marital dynamics. The scriptural foundation of our present-day doctrines of eternal marriage is entangled with polygamy and sex hierarchies that are now nearly moot. And we wholly ignore Christ’s apparent singlehood, marriage as metaphor, and passages that praise single celibacy.

Afterlife.  One common LDS response to the problem of non-heterosexuality is that LGB people will be made “whole” and therefore heterosexual in the resurrection.  (This erases not only the lived LGB experience but also those of the disabled.)  This raises a fraught question: do we become entirely different people in the resurrection?  To word it bluntly: would a man attracted to men awaken in the morning of the first resurrection and find himself aroused by the sight of a neighbor’s “perfected” breasts? What would that even mean?

And how would this discontinuity of personality play out in non-LGB lives — for instance, will heterosexuals be changed to have the “perfect” amount of sexual drive?

Celestial sexuality is pure speculation.  Using assumptions about the future to dictate actions now is nothing but guesswork. For all we know, whatever reproduction exists in exaltation might have nothing to do with sexuality.

Unassisted creative labor.

Who bears the burden of figuring out and mediating almost all of LGB Saints’ life experiences? Each LBG Saint by themself. While everyone will have to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, to build a meaningful life as an LGB Saint is to act out a constant, one-person counterculture both in Church and outside it. By no means is this intellectually, emotionally, and socially exhausting job “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints” (D&C 89:3).

Sometimes LGB Saints can find social support, but LGB Saints must do the work to seek out and vet this support. What’s more, organizations that serve LGB Saints are neither ecclesiastical nor Church-approved; can have goals that are not aligned with the Church’s; and they are concentrated in LDS-heavy, English-speaking communities. 

At the same time, professional mental health care has as its primary goal “facilitat[ing] individual self-determination” and “do[ing] no harm.” Thus, mental health care individualizes the tensions between religion and orientation: in such treatment, each LGB Saint approaches their problems as an individual. And when individual LGB Saints must face the LDS Church — a large, slow-moving, bureaucratic, hierarchical organization, with potentially unfriendly local interactions — it’s sadly no surprise that many individuals turn away. The aforementioned trends can form an unintended bias against continuing Church activity even in neutral or Church-friendly mental health care situations.

None of this is to say that LGB Saints should not seek out mental health professionals or social support organizations. Indeed, these institutions make the difference between life and death, or living and flourishing. I merely mean that, in a more ideal world, LGB Saints would find substantive support and resources at Church before turning to outside sources.

Expectations of personal openness.  

Improper self-disclosure.  Some feel that any talk of LGB personal experience, even the mere description of attraction, is improper. But silence hides LGB Saints and increases their loneliness, as well as impedes the possibility of developing better discourses around sexual orientation. Listening to these voices is indispensable if we are to model how LGB Saints fit into the broader LDS community. 

Radical self-disclosure.  Extravert-oriented LDS Church and American cultures often share the expectation that people will be forthcoming about themselves — including about personal matters. For instance, in the absence of a clear and acceptable explanation for prolonged singlehood, the default response is judgment. Despite the many reasons why an LGB Saint might not want to talk about their orientation, tight lips are seen as improper, rude, or deceptive.

Reduction to sexual attractions. 

It’s a common experience among minorities to be expected to represent the whole of the minority to whom they belong, to answer for other members of that minority, and to be asked to comment when issues related to their minority arise. For LGB Saints, this means that if they do open up, much of their interaction at Church could focus on their sexual attractions — a quite uncomfortable position. 

This all-too-common approach ignores that we see heterosexual sexual desire as one element of a fuller picture — something that points people toward lifelong companionship, tenderness, emotional intimacy, sharing of resources and responsibilities, childrearing, social and civic engagement, etc. — while non-heterosexual sexual desire is understood almost always as mere transitory lust.  Baseline assumptions about “immorality” in homosexual and heterosexual marriages/relationships are wildly different.

In that vein, I once heard someone offer that one reason gay marriage should remain illegal was that sex between men was unnatural: the anus is unsuited to penile penetration. This view ignores every aspect of same-sex attraction besides the not-universal desire for a particular, exclusively male sexual act. Similarly, late President Spencer W. Kimball’s book The Miracle of Forgiveness blames (male) homosexuality on mutual masturbation born of overly curious lust. On the contrary, there are many LGB Saints who find they’re not straight without even so much as a glance at pornography.

One common response to a family member or friend opening up about their non-heterosexuality is to attempt to trace an origin for it. Eve Tushnet points out a couple problems with this: the etiology of sexual orientation is poorly understood, most explanations are more like astrology than science (they’re broad, fit everyone, and have no predictive value), and the search for an explanation often does harm and almost never good. Equally damaging is the potential for an origin-search to collapse the LGB Saint’s entire life history into an attempted explanation for only one of their traits.

When it comes to family and cross-generational relationships, reduction to sexual attraction has caused Saints to distrust LGB Saints. Such a reduction primes others to view all LGB Saints’ actions through the lens of sexual attraction and pursuit of sexual release. LGB Saints can experience starvation of affectionate adult touch and emotional intimacy as a result, but this perceptual problem is particularly acute when it comes to children, around whom LGB people are distrusted, even though LGB people are no more likely than straight people to sexually abuse children. This contributes to cutting off LGB Saints from developing meaningful relationships with children and adolescents and vice versa, further isolating them from the Church’s family norms and the sense that they are part of a tradition that they can pass on.

No middle ground. 

Many LGB Saints have grown up in LDS and secular cultures that both depict romantic companionship as the pinnacle of one’s life, and many of them desire to have children whom they can raise in their faith and with whom they can share the things they love.

Therefore, LGB Saints are faced with a dilemma few other Saints face: family or Church? If they choose marriage and children, as they have learned at Church to value above nearly all else, the Church could very well expel them; if they choose Church, they will sit on the margins, hearing forever about the virtues of marital and family life while forbidden to partake.

WHITHER NOW?

With these issues hanging over their heads and hearts, it is little wonder that many LGB Saints, despite what they love about the Church, find remaining untenable. In a better world, the LDS Church would be a place where LGB Saints feel like they receive meaningful ecclesiastical support, congregational love, and a place that feels like family. Without those, they can have friends, gospel learning, and responsibilities, but will still feel like outsiders from the body of Christ.

How, then, can local Latter-day Saints and their leaders help to mitigate these problems and make our wards and stakes places of refuge, love, and sanctification for LGB Saints at Church?

To slightly adapt McBaine’s words again: “Let us not, then, dismiss our accountability for our [LGB siblings] as Cain dismissed his accountability for his brother. When their potential is not explored, we are all responsible. When their impact is not magnified, we are all responsible. When they feel marginalized or underutilized or unappreciated, we are all responsible. When they are not brought to Christ, we are all responsible.”

Michael’s personal suggestions for improvement continue at Part II of this post.

Comments

  1. Invaluable information. Thank you Michael. Wish everyone in the church could read these two posts.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Invaluable perspective. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Michael for your very kind reference to my post and your perceptive description of the challenges for LGB Saints. I am especially touched by the difficulties involved in living the promise made by the Savior that he has come that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. I have found both Hebrews 4:15 and Alma Chapter 7 to be deep sources of comfort for me in my own experience on the margin. When you are faced with a world where more is expected of you and less given to you than literally nearly everyone else, and that there seems to be little to no true empathy for your experience, it can be deeply sustaining to know the true empathy Christ embodies uniquely for each one of us. In fact, I would say that for me this reliance on the Atonement for comfort for has been critical. But I feel that it is not the Christian thing to say that those who suffer as a result of an individual’s/collective’s own actions (prejudices, cruelty, structures, or neglect), must rely only on Christ for relief when it is within our power to effect positive changes, yet we do nothing. True empathy, true love… means that at some point we should be willing act, to change to develop. As Latter-day Saints we say we are not proponents of sola scriptura and warn against the dangers of narrow exegetical applications, but we resort precisely to those pitfalls when faced with something of which we do not approve or do not understand because it is at best marginalized or at worse labeled as abominable. Love and empathy and the imperative to bring ALL into the home of the body of Christ, should be the central principle, and I am hopeful that it will be. I have not read part two yet, but am doing so now with anticipation.

  4. Thank you for this, Michael.
    I second the “intellectually, emotionally, and socially exhausting job” of wrestling with such life experiences.
    In general “singlehood” within the church is made especially difficult when we continue to preach that “the power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it IS the plan of happiness; it is the KEY to happiness.” (Pres. Packer, April, 2015, emphasis mine)

  5. MIchael says:

    Thank you for the kind comments, everyone!

    Lona — thank you for your post as well as your comment! It was helpful to read about your experience, and I hope that through these efforts — talking about our own marginal experiences — we can help people understand the binds in which LGBTQ+ Saints find themselves and learn ways in which we can smooth the pathways for each other.

    JD — absolutely. That sort of language *does* make it very tough!

  6. I appreciate your handling of the issue of singleness. When we’re talking about LGB matters, too often the potential pain of straight singles is dismissed with “Well, they could get married tomorrow. *We’re* the real sufferers here …” Although you don’t say it in so many words, it sounds as though you recognize the “thou shalt NOT marry” admonition to be an added burden for LGB singles, while recognizing that in so many other ways, singles-for-whatever-reason have much in common. Thanks for that.

  7. richellejolene says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Michael! I second what Ardis said; I think it’s a problem when LGB and single Mormons play suffering Olympics. There are unique challenges, to be sure, but several similar institutional problems stemming around questions of singleness, sexuality, and The Family™. This was the money paragraph for me: “Therefore, LGB Saints are faced with a dilemma few other Saints face: family or Church? If they choose marriage and children, as they have learned at Church to value above nearly all else, the Church could very well expel them; if they choose Church, they will sit on the margins, hearing forever about the virtues of marital and family life while forbidden to partake.”

    As a non-married hetero Mormon woman in my 30s, I have strongly felt something similar re: whether I marry in the faith (/the temple) or not. I’m in a years-long committed relationship, the best of my life, with an atheist. There’s good reason to believe that what it will take for me to fulfill the marriage-and-children imperative my own way will be unconventional by church standards. It’s certainly not the same heartrending paradox faced by LGB Mormons, but I think increasingly other single Mormons (especially women, given the stats) are feeling a similar family/Church tension about interfaith/out-of-the-faith marriages.

  8. Rachel E O says:

    I confess my initial gut reaction to the intro to this post was defensive. When you wrote re: changing doctrine, policy, and teachings, “That is not my answer,” I thought to myself, but that *is* my answer, and I’m not sure I want to invest emotional energy in engaging with a post that is not willing to consider significant doctrinal and policy changes and might have subtle homophobia and apologetica for current doctrine scattered throughout. (And this was my reaction notwithstanding the fact that I am a total Neylan McBaine fangirl.)

    But I decided to come back today and read the post, and I’m so glad I did, because your post was not at all what my gut reaction led me to fear. In fact, your two posts are a rich and unique exploration of what can and should be done by members and leaders at a local level to more effectively make welcoming and inclusive space for LGB members in the church, short of those doctrinal changes, which the vast majority of us as individual members have little power to effect in any event.

    I also realized upon a second read that, with the phrase “or at least, not my starting point,” you are not even explicitly denying the need for or desirability of significant changes in doctrines, policies, and teachings, just as I doubt that Neylan McBaine would reject a prophetic revelation authorizing women’s ordination to the priesthood. Rather, you personally don’t find that to be the most productive or necessary starting point for engagement. And indeed, I think you are filling a void in the discourse that I hadn’t even really realized existed. We need the Taylor Petreys, just as we need the Exponent IIs and Feminist Mormon Housewives — but we also need these words and ideas you have shared, just as we so desperately needed Neylan’s work.

  9. What a surprise to me to realize married people in the Church might view my single state as synonymous with being selfish or lazy. I guess I spent too much time in singles wards. We were just church members there. Who knew what you were thinking of us?

  10. schlange says:

    Michael, thank you so much. As a heterosexual male, I am not unaware of the many challenges our LGB brothers and sisters face, but your detailed accounting of these problem areas opened my eyes to many issues I have not fully comprehended. I wish, how I wish, that every apostle, stake president, and bishop would read this.

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