I have no doubt that Christ would reach out to LGBT+ individuals, especially those who suffer most, and I think many of the Christian LGBT+ advocates and allies hope to model their outreach after Him. Unfortunately, the dialog between these people and many traditional Mormons have not been particularly charitable or productive. Accusations of bigotry and godlessness are common, and one need look no further than this blog to see comment sections filled with indignation and bile—and it goes both ways.
One idea that has continued to irk me is the assumption that if you support the Church’s new policy, you must not truly care about the people who are affected by it, and its counterpart, that if you disapprove of the new policy, you must not be faithful. I believe neither of these assumptions is true. In this post, I only address the first, in part because I think many have already articulated the latter. As I approach this topic, let me begin by acknowledging that I am a heterosexual white male who is happily married and an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; I do not think this disqualifies me from addressing this issue, though I admit I may not always understand the experience of someone who identifies as LGBT+.
As I said, I have no doubt that Christ would reach out to individuals within our community who are suffering, including those who identify as LBGT+. How exactly He would do so is not so clear to me. In what follows, I will explain an alternative paradigm about relieving the pain and meeting the needs of people who experience same-gender attraction and/or identify as LGBT+. I begin with the premise that the psycho-emotional turmoil that can eventually lead to suicide among LGBT+ members of the Church (and others like them) stems from the tension between their identity and LDS doctrine and/or culture. Given this premise, I think most of us are likely to agree that 1) this tension should be addressed and 2) the current situation must change.
As many have pointed out, one way to relieve that tension is for the Church to make changes. Likely, some of the staunchest defenders of the recent policy change would agree, I hope, that some members have, if nothing else, spoken insensitively about non-normative sexuality. All can certainly become better at speaking with people who identify as LGBT+, and speaking about sexuality in general (and homosexuality in particular).
That said, tension exists between two points. In this case, one of those points is the Church. But it is one-sided to think that is the only possible path to relief; the tension could also be relieved by addressing the other point.
While some may defensibly say that the Church should do more to “accept these people for who they are,” it could also be advocated (just as defensible, in my opinion) that society should stop insisting that sexual orientation represents “who they really are.” A person who experiences same-sex attraction is many things, and sexual orientation need not be the defining characteristic. True, our highly individualized and sexualized society generally insists on making one’s sexuality among the most important aspects of identity, but perhaps, within our local church communities if nowhere else, we can transcend those broad societal pressures and cultivate relationships in which “who someone really is” has little or nothing to do with sexual orientation.
To explain what I mean by this, consider one’s skin color as an analogy to sexuality: In our society, skin color has tended to matter quite a lot in how we identify ourselves (arguably in a way similar to sexuality). However, I can imagine a society in which eye color mattered more than skin color. People would see me and, mostly ignoring my skin color, would notice and respond to my hazel eyes. There is nothing essential or necessary about which aspects of our appearance matter for identity. I think something similar could be said about sexuality. Our mode of categorizing sexual orientation currently matters quite a lot, but I can imagine a society in which it did not matter so much.
In that kind of society, one’s identity would not be implicated in the acknowledgment of same-sex attraction. If I found myself feeling attracted to other men, I would not necessarily experience a crisis of identity because I would not feel inclined to attribute to those emotions definitional authority. I believe this would diminish the tension between identity and Church doctrine and culture. Sexual identity would be less heavy in the weighing of identity because there would be other aspects of one’s self that were more culturally significant. Ironically, the now common insistence on identifying people by their sexual orientation and then on accepting them as that identity depends on and reinforces the belief that our society’s categorization of sexuality actually represents who these people really are. That belief is as necessary an ingredient in the anxiety-producing situation as is the Church’s culture or doctrine.
Tension results from the disparity between two poles, neither of which in this case is monolithic and immoveable. Admittedly, the identity end of the tension is harder to see because it is part of an ideology that is pervasive and ubiquitous—it’s in the air we breathe. But identity is not as simple and straightforward as some might like to think. I am not an expert, but I do have an academic interest in identity (in its relation to learning), so I believe my opinion is reasonably well-informed. I will simply say that, in my studies, identity is generally not considered stable or unitary (in fact, many scholars prefer the term “subjectivity” to avoid this connotation), but seen as emerging from the relationship between individuals and their sociocultural context. This suggests that it can be changed by altering the context within/against which one relates. “Who we really are” depends on the way we relate to a given social context—and both the context and our relating, and consequently our identity, can change.
It is easier to point to ways the Church can change than it is to figure out how to change the way our identities are shaped. But just because it is easier does not mean it is better. I believe efforts like those expressed in a recent blog post of The Brothers Sabey to at least consider the identity end of the tension are worthwhile and even full of love and concern. It would be ironic indeed if these ideas were ignored because the authors were presumed ignorant, or disliked because they were deemed hateful. And I hope that those who agree with the perspective I have expressed here will interact with those of opposing viewpoints with the same kind of generosity of spirit, recognizing that, though we may not always agree on means, we likely share a vision of desired ends—the well-being of our brothers and sisters. Which side of the tension will ultimately provide the best means for reaching that end is yet to be seen.
David Sabey is pursuing a Ph.D. in Education. He has friends who have experienced same-sex attraction and who have identified as LGBT+. They remain friends. David usually writes for The Brothers Sabey blog, which attempts to provide a forum for nuanced and civil discussion of social issues and family life.