(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, author of SDGLN’s weekly faith and religion column RGOD2, has graciously allowed guest commentator Rob Donaldson to write a two-part series on LGBT and Mormonism. Part I offered Donaldson’s insights into what might be in store for LGBT Americans if Mitt Romney becomes President of the United States of America. In Part II, he gives a more personal perspective and looks at what the future may hold for the Mormon church.)
I was born and raised Mormon. Went to Brigham Young University, and because I trusted Mormon leaders who said “just get married and everything will be fine,” I married a beautiful young woman who, like me, did not deserve the breakup that ensued.
When California’s Proposition 8 came along, I couldn’t continue the charade I’d been taught that God required. I came out and began re-examining everything. When I dropped the pre-conceived conclusions I’d always been told to accept and just asked what the evidence supported, I reached very different results. And when I explained to local Mormon leaders why I felt I had to leave the church, to their credit they said they respected the integrity of my decision, thanked me for my years of service, and wished me well. Those men are true Christians that I still call friends.
I made these huge personal transitions in parallel with Prop 8 and the national marriage equality debate. I tried for a long time to reconcile being gay and being Mormon, eventually concluding that it’s impossible to be both and be happy. One or the other must yield.
So I’ve watched with interest a new development in Mormonism.
Mormon support for Prop 8 was not unquestioned within the church. Since then, there’s been a slow trend of individual Mormons speaking in support of LGBT equality. BYU still bans public same-sex affection but now allows a gay student club, which recently released an It Gets Better video that received national attention.
A handful of public advocates and supporters have emerged. My friend, columnist Joanna Brooks, has written about a recent conference in Washington, D.C. that discussed “the diversity of approaches to being a gay Mormon and on claiming LGBT affirming spaces within this deeply-held faith.”
Author Carol Lynn Pearson, who lost her husband to AIDS years ago, is a beloved and staunch advocate for LGBT rights.
One more opportunistic gay Mormon has used his daytime corporate PR skills to press release and spin his volunteer church job of keeping a local lay pastor’s appointment calendar into columns and fawning interviews with the national gay press, to whom he claims to be a Mormon “leader” (he’s not) whose church work as an out gay man is “unprecedented” (it’s not, a friend of mine did the same thing long before, serving quietly with no personal publicity) and makes him an example of Mormon “progress” (he’s not). Other leaders of gay Mormon groups counsel patience, predicting that the church must eventually change and accept gay couples.
I remain skeptical.
One blogger at the Washington conference described hearing gay Mormon men share how they’d been “cast out by a church who did not want them.” Statements by Mormon leaders against mistreatment of gays are rare and unnoticed by the membership. Mormons who preach acceptance and love of LGBT persons within the church are well-intentioned, hopeful, and remain a microscopic minority with little impact. The overall Mormon environment remains hostile to gays.
While Salt Lake leaders officially abstain, individual Mormons are busy gathering signatures for an initiative to repeal Maryland’s marriage equality law, convinced they are “defending marriage” and doing God’s will. Mormons are expected to support repeal of Washington state’s marriage equality law. Ostracism of gay Mormons by family and friends remains common; it has happened to me and many of my friends. Suicides of gay Mormons continue at a slow but almost predictable pace.
Still going strong are Mormon-administered groups like Standard of Liberty, which promotes “awareness of cultural and institutional licentiousness overrunning America” and seeks “to restore God’s essential sexual boundaries thereby protecting the young, preserving true marriage and family, ensuring religious freedom, and preserving civilized society.” Or the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank whose president Paul Mero once told Equality Utah’s marriage equality supporters that “true common ground [with LTBG persons] is nearly impossible to achieve,” that sexual orientation and LGBT persons’ ideas about marriage and family are “an illusion,” that LGBT people “play house as only a dysfunctional household structure can allow,” that “you think calling yourself a family makes you a family” and “in a very immature emotional frame of reference, you think love alone makes a family.”
This is the cultural climate within which senior Mormon leaders make church policy. Alternative voices exist but are comparatively weak and little-noticed. And from a religious perspective, Mormon homophobia remains rooted in a crucial Mormon doctrine: deification.
Mormons are taught to aspire to become like God and that anything else in the hereafter is a consolation prize, with eternal regret for not having done better. And in order to become like God, one MUST be married to an opposite-sex spouse in a Mormon temple. This non-negotiable requirement is clear in Mormon scripture, making, Mormon theology relentlessly heterocentric and temple marriages the church’s top priority. Even gay-friendly Mormons will confirm this. Against such a backdrop, any real equality for same-sex relationships in the church would eviscerate over a century and a half of teaching by men revered as God’s prophets and would risk huge numbers of faithful tithe-payers running for the exits, convinced the church had fallen into apostasy.
As I noted last week, only the church president can make such a change. And in a church conference last year, Boyd Packer, next in line for the top job, asked “why would [God] do that to any of his children,” that is, why would God make them gay. Packer’s statement prompted such bad press that it was removed from the published version of his speech. But it accurately assumes the Mormon theology I mentioned before: God loves all his children equally, therefore all must be capable of the heterosexual marriage required for the highest rewards, therefore homosexuality is not divinely created or approved, therefore it must be a mistake or a temptation to be fixed or resisted, at the peril of losing one’s eternal reward. Gay people “suffer” and “struggle.” They are not whole.
This is how most Mormons interpret their scriptures, and this is why it will be nearly impossible for the Mormon church to accept gay people with full equality without abandoning its own theology.
In the past, gay Mormons were excommunicated just for coming out. Now, policy is that it’s OK to be gay, but one must never “act on it.” That’s like saying “you can need oxygen, just don’t breathe.” The church frowns not just on gay sex but on any expression of same-sex affection. Mormon publications encourage gay people to avoid socializing with gay friends, or discussing gay topics, or engaging in behaviors that might seem stereotypically gay.
The church defends its ban on gay sex as consistent with “one standard of morality” for everyone, namely, no sex outside marriage. This disingenuously ignores the fact that straight single Mormons always have hope of finding “the one,” but a faithful gay Mormon does not. Their church demands that they remain single, celibate, and lonely throughout their lives; if they do, they’re told God will “fix” them and later on give them every blessing they didn’t have in this life.
But to a growing number of people like myself, raised Mormon but proud of being gay, this is no incentive at all. We should live a cold, lonely life, with the “heavenly” reward of being turned into something we never wanted to be anyway? No thanks. We’ve realized that, given the way the Mormon church has framed this issue and painted itself into a doctrinal corner, there was no reconciling the church and its demands with a happy life and the chance for the kind of love God intended for us. Nor do we think the Mormon church either trustworthy on these issues or capable of reforming itself to achieve true equality.
Norman Cousins said “The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.” The steady stream of gay people out of Mormonism shows most of them understand this and choose not to let anything more die inside.
Increasing understanding is fine, but the only thing that will stem this tide is a theological re-write so monumental that it could fracture the church. I think the leadership will play to their base, choose doctrinal consistency, and accept the ongoing loss of all the talent and devotion gay members could otherwise contribute. There just aren’t enough gay Mormons to force them to do otherwise.
I’m grateful for much in my Mormon upbringing. I wish my Mormon friends well. My path lies elsewhere, with new faith, new friends, new family. It’s been better than I could ever have imagined.