Mormon Homophobia, Part One 18 August 2006Posted by Todd in Commentary, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
The bloggernacle [the Mormon blogosphere] is abuzz with a recently released “interview” with two of the hierarchs of the Momon church about homosexuality. Of course, it’s not an actual interview, but a PR device orchestrated by the “Public Affairs” office of the church. In the “interview”, Dallin Oaks (an apostle) and Lance Wickman (a seventy (obscure new testament reference)) explain the church’s current position on homosexuality. In many ways, it’s pretty much the standard line of most anti-gay religious reasoning, and merits little attention, except by believing members of the church. Who has the time to respond to every piece of homophobic propaganda that comes down the pike?
But I have chosen to respond in detail for a few reasons. First, this is the religion of my birth and my family, so I have a more personal stake in addressing the issues that come from the church hierarchy. Second, the LDS church spends millions of dollars fighting gay rights around the country, and so warrants careful monitoring. Third, the kind of pseudo-rational homophobia is more dangerous than the raving lunacy kind because it is cloaked in the guise of reasonable consideration and compassion. The original “interview” can be found on http://www.lds.org, but I’m not linking to it because I don’t want ping backs from the church. In what follows, i have excerpted the pertinent parts and responded (my comments are in bold italics).
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: At the outset, can you explain why this whole issue of homosexuality and same-gender marriage is important to the Church?
OAKS: This is much bigger than just a question of whether or not society should be more tolerant of the homosexual lifestyle. What is “the homosexual lifestyle”? This is a tired cliché drawn out by the Christian right ever since Anita Bryant and reveals a simply ignorance of the way real gay men and women actually live their lives. Over past years we have seen unrelenting pressure from advocates of that lifestyle to accept as normal what is not normal, and to characterize those who disagree as narrow-minded, bigoted and unreasonable. In a democracy, it is perfectly acceptable to call people who disagree with you narrow-minded, bigoted, and unreasonable, especially if they are narrow-minded, bigoted, or unreasonable.Such advocates are quick to demand freedom of speech and thought for themselves, but equally quick to criticize those with a different view and, if possible, to silence them by applying labels like “homophobic.” This is that profound misunderstanding of how free speech works that plagues conservatives, especially religious conservatives in America. Free speech means that you can say whatever you want, but that people get to talk back to you, and that you are socially held responsible for your beliefs. Free speech does NOT mean simply that you get to speak and no one can criticize you. indeed, the reason free speech is so valuable is because it allows for ongoing debate, dialogue, criticism, and exchange. In at least one country where homosexual activists have won major concessions, we have even seen a church pastor threatened with prison for preaching from the pulpit that homosexual behavior is sinful. I’m not sure what he is referring to here, but I’m assuming that he means in England, where a muslim imam was threatened with prosecution not because he suggested the homosexuality was sinful, but because he advocated using violence as a means to control homosexuals, which under the interpretation of free speech in that democracy is against the law. Given these trends, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must take a stand on doctrine and principle. This is more than a social issue — ultimately it may be a test of our most basic religious freedoms to teach what we know our Father in Heaven wants us to teach. Absolutely no action has been taken in the U.S. or any other country that would prevent a religion from teaching that homosexuality is a sin. This is simply a lie on the part of Mr. Oaks.
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Let’s say my 17-year-old son comes to talk to me and, after a great deal of difficulty trying to get it out, tells me that he believes that he’s attracted to men — that he has no interest and never has had any interest in girls. He believes he’s probably gay. He says that he’s tried to suppress these feelings. He’s remained celibate, but he realizes that his feelings are going to be devastating to the family because we’ve always talked about his Church mission, about his temple marriage and all those kinds of things. He just feels he can’t live what he thinks is a lie any longer, and so he comes in this very upset and depressed manner. What do I tell him as a parent?
OAKS: You’re my son. You will always be my son, and I’ll always be there to help you. The distinction between feelings or inclinations on the one hand, and behavior on the other hand, is very clear. It’s no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression. The sin is in yielding to temptation. Temptation is not unique. Even the Savior was tempted. Again, a tired cliché among the Christian set (and monotheisms in general). It is true that thinking about or desiring something are not the same thing as behavior. The question lies, rather, in whether or not acting on homosexual desire is in fact immoral. Notice I’m not saying whether or not it’s a sin, because that is really irrelevant in a democracy. Many religions think that marrying outside their religion, or eating pork, or drinking alcohol, or having premarital sex are sins. The question whether or not they should be legal behaviors and whether or not they are in a larger sense immoral are completely different questions.
[cut New Testment reference]
I think it’s important for you to understand that homosexuality, which you’ve spoken of, is not a noun that describes a condition. It’s an adjective that describes feelings or behavior. At the risk of splitting this hair further than Oaks has already split it (hey, he started it), language simply doesn’t work that way. A word denotes or connotes whatever it does within the context it is used. What oaks is actually arguing is that there’s no such thing as a homosexual, only homosexual feelings. I encourage you, as you struggle with these challenges, not to think of yourself as a ‘something’ or ‘another,’ except that you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and you’re my son, and that you’re struggling with challenges. So Oaks would tell his son that he’s not homosexual, he’s a Mormon with a temptation. Again, nothing new here. But the tack of saying that there is no such thing as a homosexual has an extremely dangerous effect. It tells people who are sexually and relationally attracted to members of their own sex that they don’t exist, but are rather simply weak-willed sinners, or suffering from the buffetings of a mythological being called “Satan” or, as reflected in the NT scripture Oaks would quote his son, God is testing them. This is a way of dismissing the reality of the experience of a homosexual person, and has the psychological effect of subordinating them on every level, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and social.
Everyone has some challenges they have to struggle with. Homosexuality is only a challenge in a society that makes it so. If Oaks’ hypothetical son had been raised in a religion that supported the 4-6% of its members who are homosexual, and acknowledged their difference, then this wouldn’t be a challenge at all. What makes it a challenge is living in a society of individuals, in this case Mormons, who believe that you are bad or wrong and must change to conform to their view of the world. You’ve described a particular kind of challenge that is very vexing. It is common in our society and it has also become politicized. Any group of people who are systematically and institutionally subordinated is by nature politicized. What has changed is that starting about 90 years ago, they started fighting back. What has changed is that homosexual Americans no longer accept their subordinate position in the society. But it’s only one of a host of challenges men and women have to struggle with, and I just encourage you to seek the help of the Savior to resist temptation and to refrain from behavior that would cause you to have to repent or to have your Church membership called into question. This belies the ignorance of church leaders who view attraction as a temptation. If they said this to a straight son, the effect would be completely different, because the nature of the “temptation” is not in question, merely whether or not they have sex. But for a homosexual, it is the very nature of the desire that is wrong, and may never be acted upon. That has a completely different effect on the homosexual person receiving this message. “You will be forever subject to this wrong and vile desire, and should you act on it, you will have sinned.” It also presents the highly problematic proposition that relying on an external God will alleviate these desires. Although research into the ex-gay movement has shown that faith can dramatically affect behavior, research has clearly shown also that faith cannot eliminate the desire itself. In other words, people can learn to get married, act straight, and have sex with their opposite-sex partner; but their homosexual desires do not recede.
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: If somebody has a very powerful heterosexual drive, there is the opportunity for marriage. If a young man thinks he’s gay, what we’re really saying to him is that there is simply no other way to go but to be celibate for the rest of his life if he doesn’t feel any attraction to women?
OAKS: That is exactly the same thing we say to the many members who don’t have the opportunity to marry. We expect celibacy of any person that is not married.True. The difference is that the single heterosexual person is not subjected constantly to the belief that their very desire to be married is sinful in and of itself. There may be social consequences for not being married (Mormons take marriage very seriously), but there is no belief that they are vile, abnormal, depraved, or sinful by the mere fact that they have sexual desires. There are no pamphlets released by the church telling them that their desires are evil or sinful (e.g., For the Strength of Youth), no books telling them that their desire is a sin next to murder (e.g., Miracle of Forgiveness), or constant harping about it in General Conference. Mormonism, like most conservative religions, has built up a culture of homophobia that inculcates a homosexual person with self-hatred from the outset.
WICKMAN: We live in a society which is so saturated with sexuality that it perhaps is more troublesome now, because of that fact, for a person to look beyond their gender orientation What the hell is “gender orientation”? to other aspects of who they are. I think I would say to your son or anyone that was so afflicted to strive to expand your horizons beyond simply gender orientation. Find fulfillment in the many other facets of your character and your personality and your nature that extend beyond that. There’s no denial that one’s gender orientation is certainly a core characteristic of any person, but it’s not the only one. Our entire society revolves around heterosexual relationships, from church, to politics, to pop culture. Human beings thrive on relationship and connectedness, in general. Are you seriously saying that getting a hobby will lessen the pain of being homosexual but never being able to act on it?
What’s more, merely having inclinations does not disqualify one for any aspect of Church participation or membership, except possibly marriage as has already been talked about. But even that, in the fullness of life as we understand it through the doctrines of the restored gospel, eventually can become possible. Gay people can usually function quite nicely in a heterosexual relationship, if they have the motivation to do so. This basically amounts to social blackmail: You can live like a heterosexual person and enjoy the full association of your community, or you can leave and be damned.
In this life, such things as service in the Church, including missionary service, all of this is available to anyone who is true to covenants and commandments. That is simply not true. Bishops and Stake Presidents are told to deny young men and women who are homosexual access to the missionary program, and Brigham Young University regularly blackmails its gay and lesbian students with outing and loss of transcripts if they do not conform to church standards (i.e., heterosexuality).
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: So you are saying that homosexual feelings are controllable?
OAKS: Yes, homosexual feelings are controllable. Perhaps there is an inclination or susceptibility to such feelings that is a reality for some and not a reality for others. But out of such susceptibilities come feelings, and feelings are controllable. If we cater to the feelings, they increase the power of the temptation. I’m having a hard time following his parsing of the layers of feelings. So attraction is an inclination, but not a feeling. When it’s a feeling, it’s controlable. So we should be able to stop the feeling? If we yield to the temptation, we have committed sinful behavior. That pattern is the same for a person that covets someone else’s property and has a strong temptation to steal. Right, because being gay is like being a thief. It’s the same for a person that develops a taste for alcohol. Exactly, it’s like being an alcoholic! Of course, why didn’t I think of that. Not ironically, the current iteration of the ex-gay movement treats gay men and women like addicts and models it’s meetings and programs on AA, which actually *does* work to set up a social system to keep people behaviorally in line with heterosexual/Christian norms for behavior.It’s the same for a person that is born with a ‘short fuse,’ as we would say of a susceptibility to anger. Even better, it’s like having violent tendencies! If they let that susceptibility remain uncontrolled, it becomes a feeling of anger, and a feeling of anger can yield to behavior that is sinful and illegal.In a broad sense, I have nothing against this view, in that there are ethically appropriate times to have sex and other times when refraining from sex is the ethical decision. The problem here is that there is NEVER an ethically or morally acceptable time and place to engage in homosexual behavior, a proposition I reject on its face.
We’re not talking about a unique challenge here. We’re talking about a common condition of mortality. Bullshit. Homosexuality is an abject condition in our society that carries all kinds of consequences that aren’t shared by alcoholics, thieves, or other criminals. The very fact that Oaks is comparing homosexuality to criminality belies his underlying hatred. We don’t understand exactly the ‘why,’ or the extent to which there are inclinations or susceptibilities and so on. But what we do know is that feelings can be controlled and behavior can be controlled. Yes, behavior can be controlled. The question is SHOULD IT BE, or better, under what circumstances should it be. The line of sin is between the feelings and the behavior. Incidentally, this isn’t actually supported by church teachings, which pretty clearly say that thoughts are equally sinful and that you are responsible for what you think. The pamphlet For the Strength of Youth for example talks extensively about “pure thoughts” and how if you have “impure thoughts” the spirit of god cannot dwell with you. The line of prudence is between the susceptibility and the feelings. We need to lay hold on the feelings and try to control them to keep us from getting into a circumstance that leads to sinful behavior. And so we are left with the big question, why. If I have an inclination toward other men, why SHOULD I refrain from acting on it? I have yet to hear that argument adequately made by any religious leader.
WICKMAN: One of the great sophistries of our age, I think, is that merely because one has an inclination to do something, that therefore acting in accordance with that inclination is inevitable. That’s contrary to our very nature as the Lord has revealed to us. Not my Lord, and not revealed to me. We do have the power to control our behavior. Which is worse, sophistry (which amounts to an aspersion cast on rational argument that you disagree with) or believing in a fairy tale and letting that fairy tale dictate your behavior? You are certainly free to believe in and live according to any fairy tale you desire. You are not however free to force me to live according to your fairy tale. And yes we do have power to control our behavior, but that’s not an argument for why anyone should not act on their same sex desire.
Continued in Part Two.