LDS Rhetoric on Homosexuality
Understanding and Helping Those Who Have Homosexual Problems, 1992
Two Manuals: Two Steps Forward, One Big Step Back
By Rick Fernández
A preface to this article is necessary for context. Mormons at the end of the 20th century live in a time when church leadership is deeply committed to a program of blocking serious historical inquiry. One may ponder the various motives behind this effort, but the outcome remains the same: Mormons are deprived of a historical context for their religious and spiritual journey. Mormon history has been reduced to a series of harmonized, consistent vignettes described by some as "faithful history." One searches in vain for publications issued by or approved by the church that inform us in a critical and comprehensive way of our past, with its many nuances and variations. We are led to believe that the way things are now is the way they have always been, and always will be. Such "easy" history readily lends itself to a mindset in the church that what is true is whatever the leaders tell us is true. Thus, the church appears never to grow, never to make mistakes, never to be in need of learning, and never unsure of its position. Nowhere is this truer than the manner with which Mormonism has responded to the issue of homosexuality. The church's current position reflects a position different than it had in the 1980's. The older position is one that, as this article will show, had little to recommend it. It is no surprise that the church would sooner let it fade without comment. I believe that homosexual Latter-day Saints have a duty not to let such history fade without comment. Only by remembering our history and learning from previous mistakes can there be hope for a future community of faith that is less arrogant, more open to being taught, and more willing to listen to all its members.
1981-1992: Where Have We Come?
The 1992 revision of the LDS church's guide to ecclesiastical leaders on dealing with homosexuality (Understanding and Helping Those Who Have Homosexual Problems, April 1992) represents a step forward in the church's approach to homosexuality. Though far from consistent, the general tone of the new manual conveys a long overdue sense of compassion and willingness to listen to gay and lesbian members of the church that was painfully absent previously. The comforting scriptural quotation from Matthew 11:28-30 ("Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . .") on the title page further serves to reinforce this new tone. Some appreciation is due church leaders for this effort to recognize and address homosexuality in the church. Unfortunately, however, many of these advances are hampered by the perpetuation of ideas about homosexuality that are one-sided and often simply erroneous. The net effect is to produce the feeling as one reads that what is being given by one hand is being taken away by the other, with the final balance still weighing against homosexuals.
When one compares this revision to the previous manual (second edition, 1981), perhaps the most obvious change is found in what is no longer being said. Silence is sometimes preferable to speech, and this is especially true with the church's current stance on homosexuality. It is tempting to believe that this revision reflects a desire to respond to concerns and objections that have been expressed over the last decade both by homosexuals and by professionals, church leaders and family members to previous ecclesiastical counsel. If true, it shows that church leaders sometimes are listening. What follows are some preliminary observations, followed by a more in-depth topic by topic comparison.
Civil Rights for Lesbians and Gays
Given the current political turmoil surrounding the struggle for recognition of the civil rights of gays and lesbians, it is worthwhile noting at the outset that the 1981 manual forcefully rejected the idea that homosexuals were "a legitimate minority group protected by law." It called such a view a deception based on false rationalizations. For whatever it is worth, the new manual is completely silent on this or any other public policy issue. Though an affirmative defense of our civil rights would be ideal, this silence is welcome compared to what might otherwise be said.
Special Concerns Addressed
There are two other areas where the new manual is clearly superior to the old one. The new manual recognizes that depression and suicidal feelings can be problems for people struggling with their sexual identity. It is refreshing to read the counsel that church leaders "should immediately contact a professional therapist for help" (emphasis in original). It would have been even better if there were some attempt to understand how the anti-gay culture and messages of a homophobic church and society contribute to such mental health problems among gays and lesbians, but that perhaps is too much to hope for at this stage.
Another step forward is the directive to encourage members who have engaged in homosexual behaviour to obtain testing for HIV and to seek competent medical help. One of the best things a person infected with HIV can do to prolong their life and health is early discovery and treatment. Unfortunately, every silver lining seems to have its dark cloud. This advice is given in order to protect "the well-being of a spouse, future offspring, and other family members." Apparently, if you were infected with HIV through your own acts of immorality, such concern is not forthcoming. The old distinctions between the innocent and the guilty are clearly implied. It would have been much better if the manual had the equivalent amount of concern for the one who was infected as well.
In another sign that the church is susceptible to the influence of the society in which it lives, the new manual carefully uses gender inclusive language throughout, and recognizes the existence, if not of gay men and lesbians, at least of homosexual behaviour by both men and women. The 1981 manual had one sentence in one paragraph that mentioned lesbianism, though it did so only to add that "the suggestions given for the treatment and prevention of homosexuality almost always apply to both males and females."1 The 1981 manual then proceeds to ignore women in the rest of the document. The 1992 manual deliberately uses gender-inclusive terms such as "person," "man or woman," "the member," "those who," "their," etc. It is refreshing, in a church that regularly employs language that defines the entire human race by one gender, to discover the inclusive tone of this document. However, as noted below, the attention given to masturbation as a major element of homosexuality would seem to indicate that the church still considers this a "male" problem. As with women's issues generally, explicit recognition of homosexuality among women is largely absent (which many women may not view as cause for complaint).
Homosexual Behavior and Homosexual Feelings
Now we begin a more substantive comparison of the two manuals. The 1981 manual began by defining homosexuality as "erotic physical contact or attractions between members of the same sex . . . it may include thoughts or emotional attractions without outward sexual behavior . . . ." Having made this distinction between outward action and internal feelings, the manual never again distinguishes between the two (as the church currently does), and thus includes both aspects under its subsequent condemnations of homosexuality. Those who began to deal with their homosexuality prior to the early 1990's know that, consistent with this older view, merely to be homosexual was considered reprehensible and condemned. Many in Affirmation have reported being sanctioned or excommunicated by the church simply for their feelings of homosexuality, without ever having acted on them.
Compare this to the approach of the 1992 manual. It begins, significantly, by restating a November 14, 1991 letter from the First Presidency to the church, entitled Standards of Morality and Fidelity. What is significant about this letter is that it states publicly in a formal declaration that there is a distinction to be made between homosexual feelings and homosexual behaviour.2 While some in the church may choose to believe that this action had no antecedent other than direct inspiration, it is surely significant that gays and lesbians in our church and other churches had been for years maintaining the necessity of making this very distinction. It is a crucial first step in the process churches take as they begin to reach out to and accept their homosexual members. In those churches, conversely, where this distinction is not made, the homosexual persons themselves tend to be condemned as sinful per se. Such an attitude makes it easy to exclude them from the church's fellowship or concern. Once the distinction is made, the Brethren can go on to say, as they do in the letter, "We encourage Church leaders and members to reach out with love and understanding to those struggling with these issues." This attitude should be compared with the almost paranoid fear of the 1981 manual that such reaching out might be confused with condoning the sin of homosexuality or might not be handled with the strictness required in disciplinary actions.
Causes of Homosexuality
Next in the 1981 manual follow two lengthy sections reaffirming the seriousness of homosexual sin and detailing its causes and types.3 While conceding that professionals do not agree on the causes of homosexuality, the manual nevertheless goes on to state that most professional research agrees that homosexuality is learned and influenced by unhealthy emotional development in early childhood. It then provides and explores the following causes, which it claims are consistently present in homosexuals:
After reviewing these causal explanations, the next major section, Counseling by Priesthood Leaders, provides practical guidelines to church leaders, who are here advised that "the following suggested guidelines and principles may help increase your effectiveness." Contrast this with the subheading of the new manual's title found on the cover page itself: "Suggestions for Ecclesiastical Leaders." This simple change from "guidelines and principles" to "suggestions" is an appropriate symbol for a new "kinder, gentler" tone that was frequently absent in the 1981 edition.4
- disturbed family background
- poor relationships with peers
- unhealthy sexual attitudes
- early homosexual experiences
As noted above, the 1981 manual did not shrink from elaborating at length on the causes and types of homosexuality. Contrast this with the new manual, which spends all of three paragraphs on this topic. In an apparent maneuver to sidestep the growing body of knowledge attained in the last decade by research in the areas of psychology, psychiatry, neurohormonal, genetic and biological sciences, the manual simply states, "No general agreement exists about the causes of such problems." It is certainly a welcome relief to see finally discarded the notions, long-since dismissed by most of our society, that a weak father and domineering mother, or poor peer relationships, or unhealthy attitudes toward sex (this, in a church which raises all its members to be suspicious of sex), or masturbation, cause homosexuality. However, this step is a two-edged sword; while it spares the church the task of defending the indefensible, it disingenuously asserts that in any event cause is irrelevant, since "regardless of these causes, these problems can be controlled and eventually overcome." But this is exactly the point of dispute, is it not? If homosexuality is a natural phenomenon rooted in the fundamental psychological and biological identity of a person, just as heterosexuality is, then does it not call for a serious moral evaluation on its own merits? This, it seems, is precisely what the leadership of the church is not yet prepared to do. If the leadership were presented with evidence that homosexual identity is a fundamental, enduring component of some set percentage of the population, not a choice, not a defect, not a willful rebellion against God's law, then would this not require them to rethink many of their assumptions about what it means to be homosexual? Would it not at the very least require a revision in the church's pastoral outreach to gay and lesbian persons?
Change is also evident in the manner in which the new guidelines no longer seek to establish blame for homosexuality, either by faulting the parents for failing to live up to their proper, church-defined roles as mother and father, or by blaming the gay person, who somehow did something to make her or himself gay. Yet, even with this change, the church's official statements continue to evidence a tendency to revert to the patterns of the past. For example, in the First Presidency Message of the July 1992 issue of the Ensign, Ezra Taft Benson is reported to state the following: "Today we are aware of great problems in our society. The most obvious are sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, drug abuse, alcoholism, vandalism, pornography, and violence. These grave problems are symptoms of failure in the home—the disregarding of principles and practices established by God in the very beginning."5 Perhaps the best that can be said about such statements is that those who help in writing First Presidency statements are not always aware of what comes out of LDS Social Services, and vice versa—a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.6
Masturbation and Homosexuality
With regard to causation, the 1981 manual devotes an entire section to masturbation, and begins with the curious observation that masturbation when practiced alone is not homosexuality. Where this idea comes from is not explained. One wonders, however, whether the outdated belief that masturbation leads to homosexuality that underlies this entire section is not somehow rooted in the confused idea that masturbation is an act of homosexuality. This section, despite the initial disclaimer, certainly implies that it is. The manual makes the statement that often the most powerful aspect of masturbation are the fantasies that attend it. Perhaps it is the focus on male genitals that this act necessarily involves that leads the writers of the manual to conclude that such a focus must engender homosexual desire. This would not be the only confusion in this section. To further the supposed link between masturbation and homosexuality, this section also makes the claim that masturbation is almost universal among homosexuals (as though this would prove that one causes the other or that masturbation was, by comparison, rare among heterosexuals). This section then provides a list of concrete steps in overcoming masturbation. Whatever value they may have in actually ending masturbation, there is not a shred of evidence that they apply with similar validity to homosexuality.
The 1992 manual, by contrast, devotes only three short paragraphs to a discussion of masturbation, and the tone, though related, is quite different from that in the 1981 manual. Less of a connection between homosexuality and masturbation is made, with the manual implying that the connection between them is related to the increased sexual urges that masturbation is said to cause.7 Nevertheless, following the line set forth in the older manual, the 1992 manual insists that homosexuality cannot be overcome until masturbation has first been overcome. Whatever progress has been made, this counsel continues to imply that the two are related. The vast numbers of heterosexuals who masturbate would be surprised to discover that this practice somehow poses a threat to their sexual orientation.
Homosexuality: An Orientation or a Difficulty?
There is another major step backwards in the 1992 manual, and the implications of this step are so profound that it is fair to say they outweigh most of the beneficial, positive statements made elsewhere. It is found in the following advice: "Be careful not to label the person as 'homosexual' or 'gay.' Such labels can undermine the person's belief that change is possible and may communicate the mistaken notion that a man or woman is born with a homosexual identity that cannot be changed. It is more appropriate to speak of homosexual thoughts, feelings, and behavior."8 Where did the authors of this manual come up with the idea that homosexual orientation can be changed? What do they have to say about the monumental efforts to change sexual orientation in programs carried out at BYU and LDS Social Service offices in the 1970's that have utterly failed?9 How is it possible to ignore all of the testimonies given by those who live a homosexual identity on a daily basis and who state that choice did not play a part in their recognition of homosexual orientation? How long can counselors working for LDS Social Services, under the direction of church leadership, continue to hold up examples of "successful reorientation cases" that usually prove, when inquiry is even possible, to be only façades? If the church knows the procedure for changing sexual orientation, why is it guarding this process? The directions outlined in this manual are not a substitute for a responsible and conclusive method that will give positive, verifiable results. Perhaps church leaders cannot reveal this method because they, as these manuals certainly indicate, simply do not know what it is.
What Is the Church's Answer?
When it comes to providing the answer to homosexuality, both the old and the new manual are consistent. Both speak in terms that despite being long on confidence are exceedingly short on specifics. The 1981 manual spoke of "[m]any written testimonies . . . gathered from individuals who have overcome homosexual problems and found peace and success in dating, marriage and Church activity." How these results were achieved is unexplained. Among the specifics, if they can be called such, is counsel to pray and read scriptures, attend church meetings, fast, repeat positive statements about oneself, be involved in service projects and pay a full tithing and generous fast offering. Such advice is well-known among Mormons, but whatever merit is has, is it really the panacea for everything including homosexuality? Several social, physical, disciplinary and emotional goals are also set forth in the 1981 manual.10 Noteworthy among these is the counsel to date women.11 The 1992 manual is similarly direct. It forthrightly states: "Change is possible."
Marriage, however, is no longer held up as the answer (see below). Those persons who have married, apparently successfully, and whom the church holds up as proof that change is possible may simply have a bisexual orientation, perhaps leaning more toward a heterosexual orientation, and as such, would not be convincing examples of a successful homosexual reorientation. That this possibility is not even alluded to further illustrates the shortsightedness of the 1981 manual. Nor is this remedied in the 1992 manual. It continues to rely on dubious assertions and vague prescriptions in dealing with homosexuality, which means that any pastoral approach that is based on this foundation will be seriously undermined from the start, and will be not only unhelpful, but actually spiritually dangerous.12
Marriage Is (No Longer) the Answer
As noted above, the 1981 manual clearly envisions a solution that relies on dating women and marrying in the Temple. It also envisions that "a dear wife and family" will be among the greatest support a man can have as he seeks to overcome his homosexual problems. If anything has been learned in the years since that manual first came out, it has likely been that marriage is not the cure-all leaders formerly thought it would be. Affirmation includes many among its members who, following direct counsel of church leaders who promised that this would be the answer, married in hopes of somehow being made heterosexual. The almost invariable results of such efforts are broken homes and broken hearts. In recognition of this, the 1992 manual bluntly states in a direct turnaround from previous policy: "Marriage should not be viewed as a way to resolve homosexual problems." While this advice is welcome now, it comes too late to help the many who relied on previous, harmful counsel. The 1992 manual frankly recognizes this, stating that "[t]he lives of others should not be damaged by entering a marriage where such concerns exist." Those who paid the price for following such errors were not only the gay men and lesbians, but their spouses and their children. What is inexcusably absent from the new manual, however, is any admission or apology from the church for the direct role it played in perpetuating such damage with its previous counsel.
A careful reading of the 1992 manual reveals a much more circumspect attitude about the chances of real change, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. When speaking of hope for change, the manual observes that "[i]n some cases, heterosexual feelings emerge leading to happy, eternal marriage relationships." Clearly, if this is true only for some cases, then for the vast majority, such change simply will not be forthcoming. Whatever value the church's approach has for those few who do seem to be able to marry, the simple fact is that there is almost nothing of value in this manual for the many for whom the plan does not work. Most distressing is that the manual, and thus the church, apparently finds nothing disturbing in this fact.
In conclusion, the 1992 manual does represent a minor step forward, at least in its more pastoral tone and its reduction in language spent on condemning homosexuality. In doing so it tries to remove some of the shame and fear associated with homosexuality, and it encourages family members to love their gay and lesbian members even when they are not willing to change. Ten years have seen the church learn a few things about homosexuals and our lives. Perhaps in ten more years we may see a manual that begins to recognize that homosexuality is not a problem to be overcome but a variation in human sexuality that has its own special role to play in the family of God. Such a manual will represent not only a new approach, but a new hope for a church that to the present has failed to embrace its mission of carrying the gospel to all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples.
- One wonders whether this meant that efforts by such "change" organizations as the Evergreen Foundation, who encourage gay men to form baseball teams and play sports as part of their reorientation therapy, should work for women as well.
- This is not to say that the church has not always made a distinction between feelings and actions, for in fact it has. Rather, the significance lies in the fact that the church previous to this declaration had never publicly made this distinction clear regarding homosexuality. Its prior declarations arguably had the effect of making the sinner feel not only that their sin was hated but that so were they.
- The manual describes homosexuality as a violation of the Lord's eternal plan, debasing and demeaning of those involved, as sinful as adultery or fornication. In a statement that must be recognized as unfair and prejudicial by any standard, the manual strongly implies that homosexuality as such may involve violent or criminal behaviour (as though homosexuality somehow requires this or that heterosexuality is free of such problems).
- The 1981 manual instructs church leaders to reprove rebellious homosexuals with sharpness, and to teach them gospel principles in plainness. Rebellious homosexuals are those who have little motivation to change and who "are openly active, even promiscuous in their homosexual behavior" (note the subtle equation between the two types of activity—one searches in vain for similar equating of pro-heterosexual activity and promiscuity).
- That homosexuality should be ranked among problems that are damaging to society, problems that are otherwise manifestations of irresponsibility, exploitation and coercion is puzzling to say the least. Such thinking is reminiscent of the discredited myth that homosexuality leads to the downfall of a society. One has only to insert "heterosexuality" in its place to see that sexual orientation has no place in this list. The mere status of being homosexual is no more conducive to violence, exploitation or licentiousness than is being heterosexual. More significant, however, is the fact that this statement marks the return to the idea that someone must be at fault, and in this case, the fault lies, once again, with the parents.
- This inconsistency in statements from church sources regarding homosexuality continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to taking much of what the church says on homosexuality too seriously. Discovery of this inconsistency does no little harm to the willingness of many gay and lesbian LDS to lend credence to guidance from church leaders. Most naturally come to the conclusion that the church knows too little to offer much that is useful in an area of their lives that is so complex.
- No citation is given for this assertion, and many would contest it, arguing to the contrary that refraining from masturbation is itself a principal cause of increased sexual urges.
- In this regard there is no difference from the 1981 manual, which advised leaders not to "label" members as homosexuals, urging them instead to refer to "homosexual behavior."
- Such practices included electroshock therapy, pornography and pharmacological agents, as referred to in Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation, Ron Schow et al, eds., Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991.
- Leaders in the 1981 manual are also directed to ask the member to read Spencer Kimball's The Miracle of Forgiveness and told that the entire book, especially the chapter on homosexuality, should be read. In the 1992 manual, by contrast, leaders are merely told to "[c]onsider having the members read [the book.]"
- No thought, however, is given to how women might feel about dating gay men, and though no advice is given to women specifically presumably this advice would not apply to lesbians.
- The numbers of LDS women and men who leave the association of the church after discovering their same-gender orientation must be monumental. While it should evoke great concern from those whose role it is in the church to be pastors of the flock, this concern has yet to lead to a serious reevaluation of an approach that forces people to choose between being honest to themselves and being accepted by their community.
© 1996 Rick Fernández