Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gay Mormon Identity

The question of identity is a perplexing one, especially among gay Mormons. Discussions of labels (gay, SSA, SGA), the viability of mixed-orientation marriage, the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, and other topics surrounding the issue of sexual identity and orientation can be difficult and sometimes inflammatory. Those discussions can also be enlightening. For me, two of the most troublesome words used frequently in some circles are "affliction" and "struggle." I believe those words pre-emptively limit our chances of having open discussions about what the full experience of homosexual orientation means for individuals, families and society in general.

I can't help but think that unless there is an openness amongst the hierarchy and general membership of the church regarding the legitimacy of other paths, institutional Mormonism will not be a place where that vital, lifelong process a good friend of mine spoke of---"form[ing] a complete identity that includes every aspect of our personalities, goals, desired, weaknesses and strengths"---can occur.

By insisting upon using terms like "affliction" and peudo-clinical acronyms, many LDS leaders and members end up defining people primarily by sexual orientation (seen by many true-believing Mormons as having to do mostly if not exclusively sexual acts or non-sexual physical intimacy some believe to be inappropriate). Because of this, their interactions with gay people---however they define themselves or live their lives---are all too often limited in the very way those leaders and members say gay people should not limit themselves in understanding their identity. To put it bluntly, saying that gay people are fixated on their sexual orientation is engaging in the dangerous fallacy of blaming the victim. When the presumption is that we as gay people should work toward removing our "disordered" homosexuality and focusing our efforts toward healing from an "affliction," there is no space to incorporate our sexuality into our whole selves, or accept that there are multiple legitimate ways to live a good, meaningful, fulfilling life as a gay person.

If I could have a conversation with anyone within the church hierarchy or other influential Mormon thinkers willing to have a real conversation about this, I would ask him or her to consider how religious conviction is any different than a person knowing deep down that they are gay. Both are deeply personal. Thoughtful people arrive at either one through a process of deep pondering and reflection. In other words, laying aside the religiosity part of a Mormon testimony, what is the difference between the two convictions "I know the gospel is true" and "I know I am gay," at their most fundamental level. I would really like to have a conversation about this with a thoughtful LDS church leader or member.

Some Mormons are literally obsessed with defining every aspect of their lives by their Mormon identity. Even most church leaders would see that lack of balance as at least somewhat unhealthy. At the same time, most church leaders would likely say that being a Mormon should frame and inform every other aspect of life. So, in a lot of ways, most discussions about being a person who is gay and from a Mormon background come down to a question of what is the overarching part of identity for each person. And in the case of far too many Mormons, that requires denigrating and even altogether delegitimizing certain parts of identity other than religious identity.

I deeply believe that most Mormons are decent, compassionate, honorable people. Most Mormons know gay people (even if they aren't aware that those people are gay) at work, at school, in their neighborhood, at church, among their friends and within their family. Those people who are gay experience and frame their identity in different ways. I think if Mormons gave themselves permission to interact with the gay people around them at the ground level, person-to-person, honestly and openly, everyone would benefit. While I am very pessimistic about the LDS church as an institution ever fully accepting gay relationships, I do hold out hope that Mormons as individuals, families and friends will have those awkward, challenging and ultimately wonderfully transformative personal interactions with the gay people around them, and share in the beauty of their common humanity.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree, Paul, with a lot of what you say and share some frustrations regarding the way in which the LDS church deals with the topic of homosexuality.

    My hope is that as more and more GLBTQ members are comfortable speaking up and becoming visible, more and more LDS people will think twice about what they say, think, vote, and believe regarding our folk.

    In this context, I think Gandhi had it right when he urged, "be the change you wish to see in the world."