LDS Rhetoric on Homosexuality
Tin Ears and Hard Love: A Personal Response to Elder Boyd K. Packer's "Ye Are the Temple of God."
Honorable Mention, 2002 Affirmation Writing Awards
By Robert J. Christensen
I am a queer Mormon. Being Mormon is easy, but being queer is sometimes hard. It requires independent thinking beyond received pleasantries. It means deep and sometimes lonely introspection. Necessary are strength and will, and an honesty deeper and more true than the mouthing of shallow conventions. It is not easy, but being a queer Mormon can both inspire moral action and bring great joy.
Elder Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles
of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, at times bears
a forceful witness of Jesus Christ, but his frequent comments on same-sex
attraction are predictably pedestrian – and hurtful. They exemplify
the cognitive dissonance rampant in official Church of Jesus Christ
circles whenever topics sexual arise.
The conventional is mistaken for the moral and questions are seldom deep enough to spark a rejuvenation of Christ-like moral values.
Like many of us, Elder Packer turns his back on Joseph Smith's inquisitive
example. The Prophet welcomed the new; Packer sees the unfamiliar as
an enemy. This was all on display in President Packer's October, 2000
General Conference address, "Ye Are the Temple of God." [The Ensign,
November, 2000, 72-74]
The enemy at the center of "the Temple" is the queer Mormon, a fifth columnist, who seems all the more dangerous to Packer because of the average Mormon's slowly growing familiarity and acceptance of things queer.
The Reproductive Imperative
Current Mormon notions of homosexuality center on a Packer vocabulary shift, and several relatively commonplace stereotypes, one potentially vicious and all subject to empirical correction.
Elder Packer is not himself a vicious man, but his language resonates more with unconscious tones of discipline rather than with loving succor. He sometimes imposes new vocabulary on Mormon discourse, and the new vocabulary then forces discussion in his desired direction. "Free agency," for example, has been suppressed and replaced with "moral agency;" thus making freedom the enemy of morality.
Another example is "sex," a word which Packer studiously avoids. He has, with artistic license, substituted "the sacred powers of procreation" and paired it with "lust" as its antonym. The logic of the vocabulary shift is that any sexual act that is not specifically directed toward reproduction is lust. His shift allows him to recognize neither legitimate nor moral ends for a sexual act that is not reproductive. Sex as an expression of love, which delights and gives pleasure to the participants, which brings them into an intimate unity of mutual caring is, for Packer, to be neither acknowledged nor permitted in God's world.
A first and controlling stereotype is the reproductive imperative: All men and women must parent babies, lots of them, for this is the purpose of sex. The imperative initially finds geopolitical expression in Genesis 1:28, where Adam and Eve face an empty land. "...Be fruitful, and multiple," they are told, "and replenish the earth, and subdue it." They must reproduce to fill the newly created and empty earth. Abraham's seed must later reproduce to fill the Canaan that has been emptied of its original inhabitants by Israelite genocide. Same-sex sex must be forbidden for it is non-reproductive and will not contribute to the multiplication of Abraham's seed, to his gaining of greater glory.
The imperative's second expression is the priestly legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Israelite society, both tribal and familial, was patriarchal. The senior male headed both; all was his, both property and persons. The patriarchal lines had to be kept clean and clear of illegitimate claims to the inheritance, to the patrimony, so who could sleep with whom had to be rigidly regulated.
The reproductive imperative thus served both a geopolitical role and regulated kinship and property functions. In order to strengthen its power to enforce these secular functions, those with power provided it with a sacred genealogy. The secular was declared sacred.
A second stereotype is a same-sex variation of the traditional theodicy (Why is there evil if God is all powerful?) problem: Why is there same-sex attraction? "It cannot be true," Packer fervently believes, that "God created them with overpowering, unnatural desires" to love another of the same-sex. But what if it might be true? What if the desires are less frequently encountered–-like being left-handed--but nevertheless natural, a fundamental, untouched characteristic and disposition of a person? How might one decide such a muddle?
The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 9:7-9) recommends resolving a muddle by studying it out in the mind – attending both to the best books and minds and to the life experiences of others – and then making the muddle a subject of prayerful reflection. The study comes before the prayer. But there is in all of Elder Packer's writings not a hint of even passing acquaintance with what the best books and minds have to say about queer concerns.
What can the life experiences of others teach us, especially the life experiences of those who find completion in relationships with others of the same sex?
Lesbians and gays are not overly disturbed by questions of their creation. They respond with their own question: if God did not make us and our love, who did? For lesbian and gay members of the Mormon community, Father in Heaven created them and their loving fulfillment in others of the same sex. This is simply a given fact of existence, not of theological chatter.
Every gay or lesbian Mormon begins in a circle of one, isolated, alone
with his or her growing awareness and acceptance of the reality and
personal appropriateness of same-sex attraction. Then, one by one, they
begin to share their awareness, to invite others into their personal
circles. With fear and trepidation, they share with family, with friends,
and with God. And they wait for a response. If they are truly loved,
others meet their sharing with acceptance and support.
They first share, and then they are accepted. It is a simple and common pattern, one that is repeatedly found in the life experiences of thousands of lesbian and gay Mormons, especially as they share with Father in prayer, and as He accepts them in love.
Accepted in Love
Let us glance at the life experiences of several gay Mormons.
RF had worked many years as a colleague of Elder Packer and the other Apostles, but he had always been troubled by his attraction to others of the same sex. Early one morning he was alone in the quiet splendor of the Las Vegas Temple Celestial Room.
"...I was gazing at the large picture of Christ when the sun suddenly
caught the cut crystal of the clear glass "star" windows at the top
of the ceiling, and instantly, hundreds of rainbows... bathed the all-white
room.... At this precise Gethsemane-like moment I felt the inner peace
and comfort for which I had been searching most of my life. It became
clearer to me that God did indeed love me, that I was His son, and that
He wanted me to find joy. I felt literally bathed in the true love of
Christ. ... I was willing to take whatever steps were necessary to live
an honest and fulfilled life, for I knew my Heavenly Father would sustain
me." [Decisions of the Soul. Provo: Family Fellowship, 1995.
RF had shared his sexual awareness with Father in one of the most sacred places on earth, and Father had responded with dazzling light that brought peace and a assurance of sustaining love. The love he felt was warm, gentle, inclusive, not the disciplining, hard love that Elder Packer preaches.
JD was an exemplary Mormon youth: reading scriptures, being baptized for the dead, a mission, plans for marriage. "I had always known I was gay, from the time I was five years old." [Internet communication] He had had faith the mission would change him, but he realized one morning that it had not.
"...I was still gay, and... I would be gay when I got home. I was devastated.
I thought I had failed. ... I believed God wanted me dead." JD prayed
for a reason to live:
Suddenly, I was filled with this – energy. What I had always recognized as the Spirit, but stronger than any other time in my life. I didn't "hear" the voice, but I heard it clearer in my head than any thought I'd ever had. It said: "My son, why are you fighting me? Don't you realize that I have created you as you are, and have proclaimed my creations good? Now, go, and fill the measure of your creation, for it is not good for man to be alone."
Frustrated and depressed by his unsuccessful efforts to change his gay desires, JD had, like Joseph Smith, turned to Father in Heaven in prayer. Like many young gay and lesbian Mormons, he had thought of finding succor in death. But that was not Father's intent, that JD live forever condemned by an "unnatural conduct" that God had accepted. Queer or straight, he had been made by Him that he might have joy.
A third stereotype develops from the second. Since Elder Packer assumes God would never create a gay man or lesbian woman, he must account for their existence. They must have chosen their same-sex attraction. And having chosen, they must be able to un-choose. You chose to be gay or lesbian; now choose to breed.
The shallowness of the Packer analysis and advice becomes clear when one turns the table and asks about his unquestioned assumptions: "When did you choose to be a heterosexual, Elder Packer? And could you un-choose? Why is being a breeder less problematic for you than being attracted to others of the same sex?"
The cleverness of the Packer slight of hand, of his blaming the victim, impresses with its moral insensitivity and lack of proportion. How can one believe that God creates the deaf, the dumb, the blind, the quadriplegic, the HIV-positive baby – most all of whom know lives of deprivation and often of pain; but He does not create same-sex attracted individuals — whose lives are often of happy achievement? Nor does his slight of hand resolve his dilemma. If God would not create a same-sex attracted individual, why would he create an individual who would choose to be so attracted? Other than rhetoric and self-deception, what is the difference between creating a gay or lesbian person, and creating a person who would choose to be gay or lesbian?
Since Elder Packer rejects the "create" word, he opts instead for "choose." God did not create them gay or lesbian; they chose to be. When and where and why did they choose? He has no answers, nor do the life stories of gay and lesbian Mormons. But the stories are suggestive. Many speak of feelings of difference, of beginning fascination with others of the same sex, and this at an age much younger than the eight which marks accountability and responsibility among the Mormons.
From the mouths of two witnesses: JD has written: "I had always known I was gay, from the time I was five years old." And another, who toiled long in the Mormon bureaucracy: "My first recollection of being attracted to boys was before the age of five." [Personal communication] Many, many more witnesses could be called, but few, if any, speak the language of choice. They speak instead of discovery, of recognition, of becoming aware.
RJ's story is typical:
"Things came slowly for me. I knew nothing, was aware of nothing, so when others started to share their stories, their worried uncertainties -- perhaps they saw more in me than I was prepared to see -- I retreated to Sterling Library. I read and made pages of notes. I remember interest being shown, propositions hinted at, but I did not realize how much I had been attracted until afterwards, until the opportunities had passed. Wanting, but not allowing. Cycles of prayer and suppression, until one night I touched and was touched. My whole body vibrated, tingling with an electric energy I had not known. The truth of that moment I might try to repress, but I could not deny its reality. I did not choose it. Perhaps I had been chosen. It had taken years to recognize myself in my notes. It would take more years to accept the Designer's hand in my attraction."
But it is a rightness that Elder Packer finds himself unwilling to recognize; for him same-sex fulfillment can only be the lusty climax of orgasm. It is a climax that he believes Father could not, would not accept. (How ironic that the climatic union of orgasm has been the West's most powerful metaphor for union with God!) If God could not have created sons and daughters who find spiritual, emotional and physical fulfillment in others of the same sex, then – Packer imagines -- they must have chosen it for themselves. And having chosen it, they can un-choose it.
"But that acceptance was merely my first step in following Elder Richard Scott's counsel, to `search out the Designer's plan.' [The Ensign, May, 1990, 74-76] I have had girl friends. I thought I loved them, but I never felt the need for physical intimacy. Daddies never needed to worry. But then I met him, and a whole new reality opened. Younger, brilliant, struggling, but less for self-acceptance than the acceptance of a family that knew but could not understand. There were occasional moments of tension, but there was no marriage in our small Church branch that could compare for peace and happiness. We had planted the seed of our same-sex love, and from the fruits of our experiment we knew that the seed was good. Not long before his death he had written that our years together had been the happiest years of his life. They had been – to borrow from Alma (Chapter 32) -- sweet above all that was sweet, and we had neither hungered nor thirst."
"He died some twenty years ago. I have since known and loved others, and with growing understanding and maturity; the fruits born to each of these relationships have grown sweeter. For me personally, there has been a deep rightness in each of these several relationships." [Manuscript copy in my possession]
But does he preach truthfully? Or does he listen, when he listens, with a tin ear, hearing what he wants to hear, and then mouthing anew the traditions of the fathers?
He recommends as though his own desired ends were the unproblematic norm against which all other conduct should be measured.
But sexuality is not so simple. Elder Packer speaks as though change were simple and straightforward, but he indirectly admits that change might be a long, hard struggle from which one might "not be free in this life." Indeed, so pessimistic is he with the probability of it all that he must convert it into a miracle case: "He can cure and He can heal." After all, "that is what the Atonement of Christ was for."
For changing sexual attraction? I had always thought it concerned a Christ-like turn from self- to other-centeredness, and a reconciliation of fallible man with loving God.
The leading Mormon professional apologist, psychologist A. Dean Byrd,
has struggled to argue for the effectiveness of change. In The Ensign's
"When a Loved One Struggles with Same-Sex Attraction" [September, 1999,
51-55], Byrd approves the conclusions drawn by the Jewish fundamentalist
Jeffrey Satinover. Satinover has summarized dated studies (mostly from
the 1950s and 60s) that reported 52% of 541 same-sex attracted individuals
claimed "considerable" to "complete" change to heterosexuality. The
meanings of "considerable" and "complete" change are vague, subjective
and subject to considerable variation – from the complete disappearance
of same-sex attraction to the partial suppression of same-sex behaviors.
But even using these generous standards, The Ensign's own figures
still record 48% as showing no change. Witness John Paulk, the once
"changed" ex-gay drag queen who was discovered patronizing a Washington
gay bar in September, 2000. It is hard to take the "can change" case
seriously. The needed absolutism of religious literalism blinds to too
many lived realities, to too many hurts.
Testimony could be sought from both professional associations and individual Mormon therapists, along with the life-story witnesses of countless gay and lesbian Mormons who tried but for whom atonement-assisted change did not come. They called on Heavenly Father's name, but His voice, His promised change, did not come. Were His ears of tin? Did He sleep and need awakening? Or did He love them, accept their fulfilling completion in others of the same sex and -- unlike the good Elder Packer -- see no need to intervene?
The truth, however, is that the testimony of experts and individual life-story witnesses are simply not needed. Evidence for change – both theological and psychological, when read carefully -- crumbles from its own shallowness, dishonesty and bad faith.
Elder Packer sidesteps that evidence by counseling families and loved ones to show a "hard" love for those attracted to others of the same sex. When did Christ's love become hard? And what cost does such hardness impose on His children, and on the Mormon Church?
Costs unthinkingly imposed on His children Elder Packer and his institutional Brethren are painfully high, and virtually always in vain.
The Sexual Fit
Attraction is complicated. It is seldom 100% this or 100% that. It is less a question of sex drive ("lust" to Packer) than of seeking a sense of completion, a sense of finding meaning for each heavenly son or daughter. It is a process of self-discovery, and in that self-discovery there is a certain amount of testing, of experimentation. It is much like seeking a new suit. I try on one, but it is the wrong color. I try on another, but it is too big through the shoulders. I try on a third, and some how its color, its size, its fashion "fits," is "just right" for me. It might not fit someone else, but it fits me.
Some suits simply do not fit me. Sexual attraction is similar. Some "attractions" simply do not fit. There are many gay men whose sacred powers can satisfy a woman. And there are lesbian women who can fake it with great skill. But for neither is there a fit. For neither person is there a sense of completion and fulfillment. There is no deep satisfaction. There is no pleasure in the mere presence of a loved other. This simple fact somehow escapes some of the cleverest of minds, especially when their ears are of tin and they are unable to hear what they do not already know.
Finding a fit for one's life is not simple, especially when a particular fit has been
trivialized, even demonized, as Elder Packer has done with the same-sex fit.
He makes procrustean beds. Anyone can sleep in such a bed, but deep in the night Packer enters, trims and stretches, and maims--until the person fits and is left a psychological cripple. Such are the fruits of "hard love." One almost misses the somewhat warmer love and care which President Hinckley professes in Conference for gay and lesbian Mormons.
Finding a proper fit is a wrenching experience for same-sex attracted
Mormons. For years they have been taught the Mormon family fit, that
their hearts should flutter at the mere promise of a future opposite-sex
mate and an ensuing pride of offspring. Only when the promise is realized
will they have a shot at the brass ring of exaltation. The ring is social-sexual,
not the selfless giving of moral action. The socialization of the Mormons
is overdetermined, perhaps even surpassing that of the Jesuits. As same-sex
attracted Mormons begin to acknowledge their attraction, they often
experience a debilitating cognitive dissonance, a need to harmonize
conflicting realities. Their church tells them their eternal happiness
and well-being depends on an opposite-sex attraction which is foreign
to their deepest sense of who and what they are. And Elder Packer tells
them, and their family and friends, that they must betray that sense
of self in favor of their eternal salvation. Many struggle with the
dissonance. Some struggle to change their attractions, but more often
they are torn by conflicts between "ought to" and "real" attractions-–and
these conflicts enfeeble all of their relationships. Thinking themselves
neither heterosexual fish nor homosexual fowl, they remain emotional
eunuchs. Others, however, acknowledge the enduring realities of their
same-sex attractions, occasionally fall into an emotionally costly "slut"
stage of relative promiscuity, and finally emerge as gay or lesbian
Mormons ready to build faithful and satisfying same-sex relationships.
Their wills to self-preservation, coupled with seeing through Packer's
counsel, often causes them to withdraw their religious allegiances.
The costs incurred by these individuals are great, and made even more costly by Elder Packer's free advice. But he does not pay the bills.
And there are costs to family and friends, people struggling to harden their love for their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters, their friends, people struggling to understand the impossible, how hard love might be more than the absence of love.
But one hundred years from now the greatest costs will be seen as borne by the institutional Mormon Church itself.
The most obvious cost is the simple loss of gay and lesbian members. Many are talented, spiritually devout, and trying to live in a Christ-like way. It is a shortsighted tragedy to lose their energies and contributions when so many tasks remain to be completed in building an accepting and supportive Christ-like community.
Some confuse the enduring values to which the Mormon Church bears witness with the Church itself, but the Church, like all human institutions, exists within changing history. If it is to remain relevant, it must change in response to the changes of the times. This requires an unchanging openness and receptivity to those things which are yet to be revealed. Like the Prophet Joseph, we must be ever ready to see afresh enduring values, and not mistake them for temporary social forms. We must forever be thinking and rethinking, least we content ourselves with the dead traditions of our fathers.
Contentions over the relevance of tradition drove much discussion in
early China. Chuangtze, the great Taoist sage, reported a telling exchange
between Confucius and Lao Tse. Confucius had tried to teach the traditions
of his Chinese fathers. He complained that his students had found them
too hard to learn. Lao Tse, a rival sage, dismissed his complaints. "Your
traditions are but footprints in the sand," he told Confucius. "More
important are the feet that made the prints." [Arthur Waley, Three
Ways of Thought in Ancient China, p. 15]
If and when we deceive ourselves that the thinking has been done, we can be sure the thinking has not been done, and that our footprints will soon be swept away by the winds of the times. The costs will be great, and we will be like the virgins who were unprepared at the coming of the Groom.