Robert A. Rees
I begin with a quote from one of Seamus Heaney’s poems: “All I know is a door into the dark” (“The Forge”). In another poem (”Personal Helicon”), Heaney says he writes poetry “To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” Heaney’s words seem apt for how I see myself in relation to the question of homosexuality. I do not claim to have any special insights into this problem. I am not a medical researcher, a genetic scientist, or a psychotherapist. In other words, I have no special authority or professional expertise when it comes to sexual orientation. And, therefore, “All I know is a door into the dark.”
I believe this is a dark time as far as our understanding of homosexuality is concerned. If we doubt that, we need only look back at the long, sad history of brutalization and persecution of homosexuals, not only over the centuries, but also over recent decades. But in reality, we don’t need to look back to see such darkness. We need only look, to borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, into the “wilderness of mirrors” which represent our collective ignorance, prejudice and egocentricism. In many places today, homosexuals are considered evil, depraved, and even bestial. The FBI estimates that assaults against gays doubled between 1990 and 1998. A recent NBC television program showed signs of women and children carrying signs that read, “God hates fags” and “Fags will burn in hell.” Matthew Shepherd was beaten and left to die on a desolate road in Wyoming, Billy Jack Gaither was beaten to death by two friends, and Barry Winchell was beaten to death with a bat by one of his fellow soldiers. This is not abstract homophobia but cold-blooded murder of people because they are gay. But the darkness is not confined to these ultimate acts of violence; it is pervasive in societal attitudes and behavior. Most homosexuals do not feel safe in the midst of the world’s greatest and most progressive democracy here at the beginning of this new millennium.
I also believe that this is a dark time as far as the Church and homosexuality is concerned. An historic review of official Church statements about homosexuality; a review of the methods used by Church Social Services, Church-sponsored organizations, and BYU to treat homosexuals therapeutically; and a review of the mythology surrounding homosexuality within the Mormon community—all point to an evolving but not yet fully evolved understanding of homosexuality. An objective evaluation of current practices, beliefs, and attitudes suggest that we are not yet out of the dark. Without considering the merits or demerits of the Church’s vigorous campaign in California to pass proposition 22, the Knight Initiative or the Protection of Marriage Act, what is deplorable is the degree to which the Church’s involvement in this political issue has brought out homophobic sentiments and behavior by Latter-day Saints.
I cite a few examples:
A member of the high council in encouraging members to support Proposition 22 reported that if homosexual marriages were permitted it would lead to a number of terrible consequences, including the teaching of homosexuality in the first grade.
A Melchizadek priesthood leader, in encouraging members of his quorum to put signs supporting Proposition 22 on their lawns, said, “Of course if you put them there, the gays will take them down in twenty minutes.” When challenged, he said, “Well, maybe it would take them a hour to pull them down.”
A bishop in Southern California, spoke of those who were against Proposition 22 (which, either with or without his knowledge, included members of his own ward) as being “the adversary” who were being influenced by “The Adversary.”
An Elder’s quorum president suggested that if homosexuals were allowed to marry it would open a Pandora’s box of heterosexual perversions, including marriages between family members, between adults and children, and to a host of other evils. This all might sound familiar to Latter-day Saints since similar warnings attended the condemnation of polygamy—one of the “twin relics of barbarism”–in the nineteenth century.
Thus, in spite of President Hinckley’s strong admonition not to let support of Proposition 22 lead to prejudicial treatment of homosexuals, there has been more homophobic sentiments expressed in our meetings in the past year than I can remember over an entire lifetime. One only has to ask Latter-day Saint homosexuals living in California if they feel safer today than they did a year ago to determine the volatility of these sentiments.
The title of my remarks tonight includes a line from one of Theodore Roethke’s poems: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” I believe that in some ways, the darkness we are experiencing has the power to enlighten us. Out of darkness ultimately there must come light. Rabbi David Wolpe in his wonderful book, The Healer of Shattered Hearts, speaks of the importance of night: “God is intimately tied to the night . . . . In the greatest dark, the dark of Egypt, redemption occurs. In the ultimate night, that of the future, redemption is promised. God moves between the poles of night, danger and promise.” (p. 24)
I speak to you tonight as someone who has tried to find some light in this darkness. I speak to you as one Mormon Christian who has, through study, exploration, and prayer, tried to understand what it means to be homosexual in a homophobic world. As I said, I am not an authority on homosexuality. Most of my understanding of this human phenomenon comes from counseling Latter-day Saint homosexuals over the past decade or so. As I have spent time in the darkness of these people’s souls, I have tried to understand what my duty and responsibility are in relation to Christ’s homosexual children.
So that you will know where I stand in relation to the Church, I will tell you that I am a faithful, committed Latter-day Saint, one who believes in the reality of the Restoration, in the divinity of the Book of Mormon, in the special destiny of Christ’s church. I serve the Church fervently and take seriously the covenants I make in the House of the Lord. But I also believe I have a responsibility to use the best thoughts of my mind and the best feelings of my heart to search for and live by whatever truth I am able to find. I subscribe to B.H. Roberts’ description of a true disciple–one who is not content with merely repeating the doctrines of Mormonism but who, “cooperat[ing] in works of the Spirit, . . . take[s] profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and . . . cast[s] them in new formulas . . . until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression, and carry it [i.e., the Church] beyond the earlier and cruder stages of its development.”
So that no one misunderstands what I am saying here, I do not set myself up as anyone special in relation to this subject; certainly I do not see myself as any kind of an authority, or as above the authorities of the Church; nor do I speak for the Church. I value my membership in the Church and I sustain those above me, even when I do not agree with everything they say.
I would also like to give you a brief personal history in regard to my experience with homosexuality. I grew up in a homophobic family, a homophobic community, and a series of homophobic Mormon congregations. As a young man I had friends who boasted about “rolling queers” and I had myself violent feelings toward homosexuals. I made jokes about “queers” and “fags” and “dikes.” It could probably be said that I hated homosexuals, or at least that I felt I was expected to hate them.
When I was fifteen, I was seduced by my homosexual Latter-day Saint band teacher. While that was a confusing experience, it increased neither my homosexual feelings nor my homophobia. Well into my mature years I considered homosexuality a perversion and had a visceral reaction against homosexuals.
My attitude toward homosexual began to change when I began to know some personally. In graduate school some of my good friends were gay; when I started teaching at UCLA two of my teaching assistants and not a few of my students and colleagues were gay or lesbian. While I didn’t pretend to understand their sexual lives, I found these people basically like everyone else. Several became good friends. At this same time I became acquainted with several gay Latter-day Saints, all of whom were in pain over their conflict between their sexual identities and their relationship with the Church. I believed that this was something they could overcome if they were sincerely desirous of doing so.
When I was editing Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought during the late sixties and early seventies, I published what I now believe was the first article by a homosexual Latter-day Saint. I was haunted by one line from this anonymous author’s essay. “In a lifetime of Church activity,” he said, “I have yet to hear a single word of compassion or understanding for homosexuals spoken from the pulpit” (Dialogue: 10 [Autumn 1976] 99). It was while I was editor of Dialogue that I interviewed a group of Latter-day Saint homosexuals for what was to be a published conversation about their experience. That dialogue was never printed and as I listen to the tape and read the typescript of what I said, I am embarrassed by my ignorance and prejudice, by my inability to listen to and understand these people’s experiences. I was rude, prejudiced, and judgmental. If Gordon Miller or any of the others who participated in that interview are present tonight, I offer my most heart-felt apology.
I don’t think I really had any depth of understanding about homosexuality until I became bishop of the Los Angeles Single’s ward around 1986. It was my privilege during the more than five years I served as a bishop to counsel with a number of Latter-day Saints who were struggling with issues of faith and same-sex attraction. It was in those intense spiritual and emotional encounters that my heart first began to open, when my mind first began to grasp the complexity and the tragedy of what it means to be a homosexual Latter-day Saint. I owe much to those dear brothers and sisters who challenged my axioms, who schooled me in faith and sacrifice, who taught me much about love.
Most of them had gone through what for most of you is a familiar and tragic cycle: becoming aware of their homosexual feelings, usually at an early age; denying and repressing those feelings, then facing them tentatively with great fear and loneliness; being absorbed with feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and self loathing; sometimes exploring their homosexuality; usually making a covenant with God that they would make any sacrifice if he would just change them; often going on missions, throwing themselves furiously into church activity, fasting and praying for days on end, and going to the temple many times; sometimes marrying in a desperate attempt to transform themselves. At some point it is likely that there is an emotional breakdown preceded or followed by self-destructive thoughts and actions; always feelings of alienation, isolation, and loneliness; very often this cycle ends with the conclusion that either God doesn’t love them or they are unworthy of his love. Usually, the story ends with suicide, death from AIDS, estrangement from family, and/or excommunication from the Church. This is not a happy story.
As I say, this cycle is familiar to almost everyone in this room, either from personal experience or as a close observer. Recently I counseled with a young gay returned missionary. No one besides me knows he’s gay except for a counselor from whom he sought help while on his mission. As we talked I asked him about the strength of his homosexual feelings, whether he had any romantic or erotic feelings for the opposite sex (he did not), whether he had ever had a homosexual experience (he hadn’t), what he intended to do about his feelings, etc. As he told his story, I felt my heart breaking over what I saw ahead for this young man. The following is part of an e-mail exchange we had following that meeting:
Thanks for talking the other day. It sounds like you are really opposed to the idea of reorientation.
You didn’t listen carefully to what I said, and it is important that you understand where I am on this. I am willing to concede that some people may be able to change, especially if they are in the mid-range on the Kinsey scale. I just feel that not everyone can, and the research suggests that most can’t. If some can, that’s wonderful, but they and others should not generalize their experience to all homosexuals. As someone who has counseled homosexual Latter-day Saints for the past dozen years (not as a psychotherapist but as a bishop and friend), I take the position that, based on my experience, if change were possible for these people then they would have changed because they were so highly motivated to change, worked so hard over a long period of time to change, and were intensely spiritual in their efforts to change.
I have been giving that whole thing a lot of thought for some time, obviously. On the one hand, I was not incredibly impressed with some things that my counselor said, but on the other hand some of it made a lot of sense. He did not work for the church, but was a church member, so I would like to think that church policy was not dictating his thoughts.
I don’t know this individual, but many LDS psychotherapists are influenced by the policy, philosophy, and therapeutic practices of Church Social Services. The American Psychological Association has taken the position that homosexuality is not a perversion and that aversion and other types of re-orientation therapies are not ethical. To tell you the truth, we need more scientific studies. If some LDS psychotherapists are so convinced that change is possible, why haven’t they done any scientific studies in the past twenty-five years to validate their conclusions?
I don’t know. If, as some people claim, there is a 25% success rate in reorientation, that is 25% more of a chance than I have at the moment of being more normal. The way it is showing up for me is, “what have I got to lose?” Get depressed and discouraged? Already been there a whole lot. Get suicidal, well, been there tons too.
I certainly would not dissuade you from doing what you feel you need to do. I am not in your skin and cannot make decisions for you. I am concerned about the depression and self-destructive impulses. You must be careful and not let yourself get into a dangerous place. Your worth to your Heavenly Father is of inestimable value, and you must not forget that. I will be your friend, whatever you decide to do, and I will be happy to talk with you as you work things out.
It is a miracle that my mission president did not send me home. I don’t know. I just need more information. If I were to get married, someday even as I am now, I would be able to consummate the marriage, and my therapist seemed to think that would be all I would need as a starting point for recovering within the marriage covenant.
This is dangerous advice, from my point of view, and contrary to what
President Hinckley and Elder Oaks advise. Before I would take that chance, I would want to be pretty sure this would work. I know people who entered into marriage with the hope that it would work, but then the marriage ended after a short period of time. My psychotherapist friends at BYU tell me they know of successful marriages that have lasted for twenty years. But again we don’t know if these individuals were bi-sexual or homosexual. Certainly it is physically possible to consummate a marriage, but a marriage is much more than that, and the question you have to ask yourself is could you be intimate in a way that would be physically, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying for both you and your wife. You have to ask yourself if it would be ethically proper for you to enter such a marriage without disclosing to your partner your sexual feelings. I think it would be good for you to talk to people who represent a range of feelings/experiences–people on both sides of this issue.
I gave him the name of a gay Latter-day Saint whom I know who was in a similar situation when he returned from his mission.
A couple of days later this young man sent me an e-mail message in which he said:
I talked to David for about 2 hours on Sunday night, and it was really interesting, and pretty disturbing. It would certainly take a revelation from God to allow me to make the
choices that he has made. Short of that, I would never be able to live with myself. I have been through more trials for the church than I can express with my family and everything. I have done too much to ever allow myself to give up. The scary truth of matters is that I would really rather be dead than living outside of the church.
David really echoed what you and others have been saying about reparative therapy. I still don’t know about it for certain, but am getting more convinced that it is a bad idea. I am probably going to call up my therapist and have a conversation with him about it, to see if he has any other angles that I have not thought of yet, but I kinda doubt he will
have anything new to tell me.
I hope you understand that I am not encouraging you to do more than gather information, explore various possibilities, consider other people’s experiences, seek for guidance (both spiritual and psychological), listen to your own heart, and keep open the possibilities. I wanted you to talk to David because I believe he is one of the finest Latter-day Saints I have ever met, a person of great integrity who has struggled over this issue for many years. I have not encouraged him to do anything more than what he feels is right for him to do, and I have promised to stand by him whatever that decision is. I will do the same for you.
Perhaps there are aspects of homosexuality that no one, including the leaders of the Church, knows. Perhaps we are in a box over this issue and we need to start thinking outside the box. Perhaps, as with many other issues, there is more that the Lord would reveal to us if we only opened our hearts and minds further.
I have had several discussions with the “David” referred to above over the past several months. He is a gay Latter-day Saint in his mid-thirties one who has gone through the cycle I describe. The first time I met him, I observed to my wife that he seemed to be among the finest that Mormonism produces—a truly outstanding and upright man. He had served an honorable mission, served as an elder’s quorum president, and worked in the temple. Although he is now in his mid-thirties, he has never been sexually intimate. His mother had confided to me over the phone that her son had made several attempts on his life and that recently he had purchased a gun. After our first meeting, I told him that I could assure him of several things: first, that God would rather have him alive than dead, and, second, that God loved him unconditionally.
He revealed that he had fallen in love with another man but didn’t know what he was going to do about it. What he would like, he said, was to try and find someone with whom he could have a life-long relationship. He said, “Bishop Rees, the reason I don’t like the word ‘homosexual’ is that the sexuality part is not the most important part of what I want. I want an intimate loving relationship like my mother and father have. I have decided to find someone whom I can love and to whom I will be faithful.”
I asked, “How do you feel about this decision?” He replied that at the moment at least he felt good about it. I then said, “I will stand by you as your friend and if, when you stand before the bar of Christ, you have to be punished for what you have decided to do, I will stand by you and take your stripes with you.”
I spoke to him just a few days ago and he had lapsed into depression and suicidal feelings once more. When I testified to him again of God’s love, he replied, “If he loved me, why didn’t he answer me all those years when I pleaded so earnestly for his help?” I said that I wasn’t prepared to answer all questions about unjustified suffering in the world, that I could only testify of what I knew–that God loves us and wants our happiness more than anything in the vast compass of his creation and dominion.
I worry about this man, and I pray for him, and for the countless others like him who suffer unspeakably because, for reasons none of us understands, they love their own gender.
I seriously wonder how many of us could pass this test. How many of us would be willing to live lives expected of homosexuals—to deny ourselves all thoughts, fantasies, and imaginings about romantic and erotic love, to deny ourselves even normal non-erotic affection (for even this repulses the majority of society), to deny all expression, even self expression, of desire? In a powerful letter about his son’s suffering, David Hardy imagines a general authority standing before an assembly of freshmen students at BYU and announcing that they had been called to live celibate lives. He wonders how many would be willing to accept such a call. How many of us would be? In my pamphlet, No More Strangers and Foreigners, I said, “The question each Christian heterosexuals must ask him or herself is: ‘Would I be willing to forego non-romantic affection with those toward whom I have a natural affection and would I be willing to forego romantic and erotic expression for the entirety of my mortal life?’” There is only one religious organization which made this requirement of its members and that church did not survive long.
One of the observations I made as I was preparing for this address is that both society and the Church seem to make special accommodation for heterosexuals. These include the following:
–Polygamy was certainly an accommodation for male heterosexuals, liberalizing the traditional definition of marriage from that between one man and one woman to that between one man and several or many women.
–In some countries where it is illegal for citizens to obtain a divorce, the Church has made accommodation for people to marry again without obtaining a legal divorce.
–In some states and countries the Church recognizes common-law marriages.
–No Christian church of which I am aware, including the Mormon church, follows Christ’s teaching that “Whosoever shall put away [or divorce] his wife, except [it be] for fornication [or other sexual sin], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matthew 19:9). As far as I know, there has been no revelation rescinding this admonition and yet we honor marriages of those who have been divorced for many reasons much less serious than sexual transgression. [example from our stake?]
–When I was a student at BYU, Joseph Fielding Smith taught that Latter-day Saint couples should not practice birth control, something which, unfortunately, I taught to new converts in the mission field. Today, the Church leaves such decisions to individuals and seems to recognize that sexual relations in marriage are not only for procreation but also for mutual intimacy and pleasure.
–We do not treat heterosexual fornication and adultery with the same seriousness as in the past. This is not to say that the Church is any less condemnatory of these behaviors, only that in general the discipline for them is less severe than in the past. We may say that adultery is next to murder in seriousness, but we don’t actually treat it as such in terms of the discipline imposed for it.
What I am suggesting is that the Church has become more flexible, more tolerant, and more progressive with regard to heterosexual behavior. This is not to say that the Church has compromised its core position in relation to sexual misconduct or that it has weakened its vigilance against those forces which undermine sexual purity and fidelity. But I think there is no question that there has been a change in the way in which heterosexual experiences are viewed and accommodated within our ecclesiastical context as well as within our church communities. There is a sense in the contemporary church that marital sexuality is something not only to be expressed but even celebrated.
Such changes in attitude and policy should leave us both humble about what we know and more open to greater understanding. The history of every field, including religion, indicates that at least some of the axioms of previous generations are overturned by new discoveries, new revelations. We no longer bleed people for illnesses, perform frontal lobotomies, or consider oedipal complexes as the only answer to child-parent conflict. We no longer believe that the earth is flat, that it is the center of the universe or that humans are incapable of traveling to the moon. Most of us no longer believe that Adam was God, that the earth was created in six days, or that the flood was universal. We no longer believe that, that Blacks sat on the fence in the preexistence, that Native Americans are cursed by God, or that women are less capable or more subject to sexual temptation than men. Is it reasonable, therefore, to suggest that some of our ideas about homosexuality will be revised in future generations, that some societal attitudes may become more enlightened, that scientific discoveries may expand the dimensions of this phenomenon?
What can we anticipate as far as attitudes and policies toward homosexuality are concerned in the next century? I look back to Joseph Smith’s contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who ended his novel about Hester Prynn, the woman caught in adultery by her fellow Puritans, by showing her counseling others who “brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.” Hester comforts her fellow saints and, as Hawthorne says, “She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
Hawthorne was prescient in his anticipation of a more reciprocal heterosexual love, one based not so much on the sinful and forbidden aspects of sexual relations or on sexual inequality between men and women, but on the deep, intimate joys that are possible in marriage. Is it possible to think that we could substitute for Hawthorne’s phrase, “a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and man and between woman and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness”? I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point and be accused of preaching my own doctrine. I am only saying that we do not know what the future holds in regard to this matter and that both scientists and prophets may yet reveal important truths that would place the lives of our homosexual brothers and sisters “on a surer ground of mutual happiness.” We should be open to such revelations. As President Hugh B. Brown said in a talk to the students at BYU, “ We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon the false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.”
In my pamphlet, I suggested that since our enlightenment on this issue is limited, and since it affects so many of our brothers and sisters, we should consider making a special plea to the Lord for further light and knowledge. As I said, “Since this is a matter of such significance to the Church and since it involves the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters, perhaps as individuals and as a Church we should make the solution of this issue a matter of urgent fasting and prayer. . . .Surely [this] deserves very high priority among those matters for which we knock upon the door of Heaven.”
Perhaps one step toward a more enlightened position would be to establish a hierarchy of sins in the Mormon Church—something akin to the Catholic church’s seven cardinal sins. As I read the New Testament, it seems that Christ’s list of truly serious sins would include hypocrisy, selfishness, ingratitude, greed, failure to respond to the needs of the poor, pride, and abuse of power. And yet these are sins that in general bear no consequence as far as church disciple is concerned. I would guess that many who consider themselves virtuous, as automatic heirs of the celestial kingdom, as good and faithful members of the Church may be less worthy in the eyes of God than some of the homosexuals whom they condemn as being vile.
With such a paradigm it might be possible to imagine that a homosexual who lives in a relationship with integrity and fidelity, who is honest and generous and kind, who gives of her means to the poor, who consecrates her life to Christ, might be looked upon more favorably than an active priesthood holder who verbally abuses his wife and children, who is dishonest in his business dealings, and who holds sexist, racist, and homophobic feelings. The one might be excommunicated; the other most likely would not be. And this is why it is consoling to know that ultimately we will be judged by Christ.
Sometimes as Latter-day Saints we act as if we did not have a unique and radical understanding of God’s judgment. Often we speak of people who transgress a moral law or who fail to keep it as we would as if they were condemned to an eternal hell. Generally we treat homosexuals, as many right wing Christian churches do, as if they were being condemned to an eternal hell. But one of the great, enlightening, and ultimately consoling doctrines of Mormonism is that we will all inherit glory—even the least of which will be more glorious than what we experience here.
I would like to suggest some concrete steps this group might take that might help lead us to a better place as far as homosexuality is concerned.
First, I think we need to gather as much information as possible about homosexuality among the Mormons. This will be difficult because of the fear and secrecy that attend this issue, but I think nonetheless that we should try. Can we with some confidence estimate how many gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints there are in the Church, how many have left of their own volition or been excommunicated? How many have died of aids or committed suicide? I have been told by someone who has an enormous archive on homosexuality and the Church that there is a higher incidence of homosexuality among certain well-established Latter-day Saint families (for example, the Smiths, Cannons, and Kimballs) than among others (for example the Pratts and the Youngs). It would be useful to have data that would confirm or counter this anecdotal information. We need to have better research, both historical and contemporary, and more of it, and we need to start a database that will serve as the basis for research.
Second, I think we need to find more powerful ways of presenting the cause of homosexuals to our community. I suggest that open of the best way to do this is through art forms. I would like to see a collection of poetry, fiction, and personal essays dealing with homosexuality among the Mormons. I would like to see a play which presented in dramatic fashion the conflict that many homosexuals experience with the Church. I sketched such a play several years ago which was set in a high council court trying a homosexual for his membership. I can imagine a film or several films which deal with this subject. Perhaps someone could do a documentary which includes interviews with a variety of homosexual experiences with the Church.
Third, we need to expand our strategies for informing the general Church membership about homosexuality. There is so much mythology and misinformation circulating in our Church culture that is destructive to what we need to do.
Fourth, we must be willing to let our voices be heard in defense of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. This means, among other things, helping to create a safe place within our schools and communities for homosexuals. Many of you in this room have done and are doing this, and some of you have paid a high price for your courage.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, we all must be willing to comfort, love, and help these individuals and their families. We can do this by opening our hearts to them, by letting them know that we are available to listen and, if necessary, bind up their wounds. We can become their nursing mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
When I was bishop I got a call from a woman who said her brother was dying of aids and wondered if I would be willing to give him a call. I did so and invited him to come back to church. Over the course of his last year in mortality I had the privilege of seeing this man return to full activity in the Church and prepare to go to the temple. The members of my ward treated him with much love and acceptance. I think that through our association with him we all felt that we had been touched by an angel. Not too long before this lovely man passed away, he was able to go to the temple with many members of his family. One of his brothers, who had been inactive in the church for some years, said to me, “What I saw through you and the members of your congregation was a church that was compassionate, that reached out to my brother in love. It has changed my life.”
I believe that it is to such compassionate care of his homosexual children that Christ calls us. Wordsworth spoke of
That best portion of a good man’s life,–
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
Surely these acts are to be performed as graciously and as generously for those who are different from us as they are for those who are like us.
Some have suggested that there is an analogy between what happened with blacks and what is happening with homosexuals. No analogy is perfect, but there are some parallels that I think are worth noting. The most important connection I see between society’s historical treatment of blacks and its treatment of homosexuals is that sexuality is at the core of both issues. That is, what lead to the brutalization of so many blacks was the white person’s fear of black sexuality. This sexuality was considered non-human and animalistic, something powerful and mysterious although unnatural. It was also considered exotic and by its forbiddenness somehow tantalizing. The recent photographic exhibition at the xxx museum in New York called “Witness,” which chronicles the lynching of blacks in America between 18 and 1960, testifies of the fear of whites about black sexuality. Many black men were hanged for what were often falsified or imagined assaults against white women. Many of those who were hanged were castrated, symbolically suggesting the fear of their sexual power. The race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1924? which historians now say resulted in the deaths of more than three hundred blacks and the destruction of the entire black section of Tulsa, apparently started over the accusation of a white girl that she had been assaulted by a black boy. Traditionally in the South, white men, who kept black men in their place because they feared that white women would not be able to resist their sexual power, surreptitiously had sexual relations with their female slaves, generally against the women’s wills.
A similar hypocrisy seems to be at the heart of at least some heterosexual repulsion of and yet fascination with homosexual experience. Heterosexuals seem erotically fascinated by both gay and lesbian sex. A study reported on a recent PBS Frontline program on violence against gays demonstrated that heterosexual males who had the strongest homophobic feelings, in contrast with those with mild or no homophobic feelings, also had the highest degree of sexual arousal from watching films of homosexual activity. Commentators suggested that the impulse to be violent with homosexuals might be a way of these people striking out against their own homoerotic feelings.
In the special issue of Dialogue on Blacks and the Priesthood which included Lester Bush’s landmark research showing that there was no scriptural or revelatory basis for denying priesthood ordination to blacks, Hugh Nibley suggested that the problem presented by this matter represented “the best possible test” for us. Nibley says, “The Lord has often pushed the Saints into the water to make them swim, and when our own indolence, which is nothing less than disobedience, gets us into a jam, He lets us stew in our own juice until we do something about it. The most impressive lesson of Bush’s paper is how little we know about these things—and how little we have tried to know.” Nibley says that from Adam on down, God’s children have been “expected to seek for greater light and knowledge.” Nibley adds that generally the Saints have sought not for greater light and knowledge but for power and riches. He says, “In searching for the answers we must consult our feelings as well as our reason, for the heart has its reasons, and it is our noble feelings and impulses that will not let us rest until god has given us the feeling of what is right. Charity does not split hairs or dogmatize, and charity comes first.”
Perhaps homosexuality, just like the issues of blacks and the priesthood, is the best possible test of our humanity and our Christianity. Part of what it means to be a Christian is that through the grace of Christ we have the capacity to imagine what it is like to suffer as another person suffers. It is impossible to do this if we have anger, hate or revulsion for the other. Such imaginative projection is possible only within the context of love. Thus, those who revile and persecute homosexuals, who consider them perverted and evil, who feel they have some kind of sinister agenda, cannot possibly take on their suffering, cannot possibly hope to feel what they feel. But those of us who cannot escape imagination, feel, at least to some degree, what it must be like to to be anathema to society (the dictionary, by the way, defines “anathema” as “one that is cursed by ecclesiastical authority”), to be asked to emotionally castrate ourselves, to forego all romantic, affectional, and erotic experience. We can imagine what it must feel like to hate our own bodies, to be condemned for being who we are, to be denied normal fellowship within Christ’s kingdom, and to want to blot out our deep soul suffering through suicide.
With our Christ-inspired imaginations not only can we not entertain any feelings of hatred of or violence toward homosexuals, we are able to imagine a world in which they do not suffer injustice and indignities. It is a world in which the love and mercy of God are more real to them than the judgments of individuals and institutions.
God’s business is God’s business, and I don’t pretend to know all of his ways. I can answer questions out of the whirlwind about his mystery and majesty no better than Job could. I only know that he sent his Son to teach me how I must act. And, as I read the life and teachings of Jesus, I cannot escape the reality that I am compelled to stand up for injustice, to speak the truth as I know it, and especially to respond to those who suffer with whatever abundance my heart is capable of expressing. As we look around the world, it seems to us that God doesn’t care about suffering; and yet we cannot escape the reality that he asks us to care deeply about it.
What this means for me, to paraphrase the words of Alma, is that I am to willing to bear the burdens of my homosexual brothers and sisters that they may be light, to mourn with those of my homosexual brothers and sisters and their families and friends who mourn, and to comfort my homosexual brothers and sisters who stand in need of comfort—and in this way to stand as a witness to God that I am a true disciple of his son.
As I say, I do not pretend to understand the mysteries of God. Nor do I know why God has created some of his children so that they love their own gender. Job said that God “discovereth deep things our of darkness.” Perhaps we can too. All I know is a door into that darkness. I stand before that door with an impulse to keep it closed, but instead I open it, and with love I walk through. May we all so do, I ask in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was surprised a number of years ago when I heard that Lowell Bennion say that he didn’t have much interest in the Celestial kingdom; he just wanted to work side-by-side with Jesus.
Whatever else God is, he is a God of mercy, of long suffering, of forgiveness. He is a God of redemption even to those who turn away from him.
Each year the number of homosexuals in the Church becomes more evident. Perhaps we all know of bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, members of general boards, regional representatives who are homosexual.
I had a couple of questions that I wanted to ask you.
First, what is the name of that group to whom you will be speaking in Salt Lake?
Family Fellowship, a support group for gay and lesbian LDS and their families. These are people who have gone through the “refiner’s fire” on this issue. Many are good, faithful Latter-day Saints who have watched their children go through years of anguish, who have seen their sons and daughters excommunicated from the Church, and who are struggling to make sense out of their experience.
And why is it that you like them, and not Evergreen?
Because Evergreen preaches that everyone can change and I am convinced
that not everyone can. Also because of Evergreen’s association with the NARTH research group, whose scientific studies have been questioned by other researchers. That is, both groups seem so unilaterally focused on change that they ignore or discredit the work of other researchers which seem to contradict their findings. I would be much more comfortable with Evergreen if they were not so doctrinaire about change. They have lots of testimonials of people who claim to have changed their orientation, but they have no data on the degree of orientation of these individuals, nor do they have any longitudinal studies, which in this area are essential. That is, anyone can “change” for a period of time and perhaps some even change permanently, but until we track these people over a long period of time we have no way of knowing how long lasting the change is. I have a good friend who is an active member of the Church and a highly respected psychotherapist who says that she works with people who have gone through Evergreen’s program and that at least some of them revert to homosexuality after a period of time.
I have no evidence for this, but I would guess that homosexual fornication and adultery are punished more severely than heterosexual transgression. I can remember when I served on the high council in the Los Angeles stake a number of years ago that there were a number of disciplinary councils for sexual transgression. Fortunally, I have spiritual amnesia about most of them, but I remember two: a young man who was excommunicated for being an active homosexual and a member of the high council itself who had had sexual relations with a young woman in his ward who was put on probation. I remember feeling that the first was too severe and the second not severe enough.
In a recent article in the New York Times’s Sunday Magazine, Peter Schneider tells of a small group of average German citizens who risked their lives to save a handfull of Jews who went underground in Berlin and other cities. Schneider concludes his essay by saying, “The success . . . of the resistence to [a dictatorship] depends not on a few ‘great leaders’ but upon the civic virte of the average citizen.” As average citizens both of our communities and of the Kimgdom of God, it is our duty to stand up for the rights of homosexuals.