The central theme of the Circling the Wagons Conference held in Salt Lake in February of this year was relationship building. The focus of the conference was on developing a set of guiding principles or norms for people of differing perspectives to engage in dialogue. This wasn’t just navel-gazing. It wasn’t just hand-holding and singing “kumbaya,” though there was a certain amount of that. But we were there with a purpose, and that purpose was to save lives.
We recognized that much of the tension and animus within the Mormon community over the issues related to same-sex attraction or homosexuality or gender identity (however defined) was being driven by our community leaders, and that those who are most vulnerable, those who are young or isolated or who are still wrestling to figure things out for themselves are being damaged by the hostility or the judgmentalism of individuals within our community. The goal of the conference was to call a “cease-fire” so to speak, so that people in the middle, people in “no-man’s land,” wouldn’t be in the line of fire any more.
I get this. I agree. I have long felt that a central problem for gay, lesbian and bi Mormons has been that there was seemingly no place in our faith community for our sexuality, and no place in the LGBT community for our faith. I have long felt that there is no moving forward for us if we can’t be whole and integrated and embrace every aspect of who we are, as embodied children of God, honoring our yearning for connection to God as well as our yearning for an intimate connection to another human being. Our brokenness comes not from our sexuality, nor from our faith, but from our inability to reconcile the two.
Many of the people I spoke to after the conference found it a frustrating experience. They wanted to engage in discussion of the substantive issues. Were we to engage in discussion of a substantive issue, I think the issue that would first need to be discussed is What Exactly Are We Talking About When We Talk About Whatever It Is We Talk About. A sign of the nature of the problem is the fact that we can’t even agree on the words to use — gay, lesbian, bi, same-sex attracted, same-gender-attracted. The words themselves are often fiercely contested.
In some circles I walk in, using the phrase “same-sex attraction” is a dirty word, akin to using “the N word” in discussions related to race. It’s a word used to denigrate and dismiss and shut down. On the other hand, there are circles I seldom walk in where the terms “gay, lesbian and bi” are equally spurned, for much the same reason. These words — among those who reject them — are used to try to force everybody into the same mold, to imply a kind of identity which certain people simply don’t see themselves as having.
The debate boils down to this. On one side, we have individuals who feel that describing what they experience as merely attraction is dismissive. It does not begin to capture the totality of what they experience in relation to being gay. For them, the only thing that does their experience justice is to recognize that for them it is about far more than attraction. Being gay is not just about sexual attraction. It has spiritual, social, emotional elements. It is rooted in our very being, body, spirit and soul, a constituent part of who we are and how we are made, in this life and for eternity.
On the other side, we have individuals who do not see their experience in relation to their attraction as touching the core of who they are. It is one aspect of their lives that they don’t see defining them. Many are certain that even if it seems intractable or unchanging in this life, it will not be part of who they are in the next life, in eternity. It is not a part of their eternal soul. To define this attraction in some existential way, as a core or defining characteristic of who they are doesn’t fit. When members in the LGBT community say to them, “Oh, you are gay” or “you are bisexual” it feels presumptuous and oppressive.
What if both sides are right?
What if some of us really are talking about “same-sex attraction”? What if others of us really are talking about “being gay”? What if they are two different phenomena?
Everyone admits that what we’re all talking about is the phenomenon of experiencing sexual attraction toward members of the same sex. But for some of us, that “attraction” is rooted in something more existential, while for others it is not.
If that were true, then of course we would get confused. Those of us who are gay would hear a same-sex attracted individual talk about his or her experience, and, without thinking about it beyond a superficial level, we would say, “Oh, that person is just like me. All they need to do is to come out and accept who they are, and they can have a full and normal life.” On the other hand, those who are same-sex attracted would hear a gay person talk about his or her experience, and they would think, “Oh, that person is just like me. All they need to do is realize that there are ways to work through or around their attraction, and they can have a full and normal life.”
What complicates it is that we have plenty of gay people who have tried reparative therapy and have been told by family, friends, Church leaders and therapists that all they need to do is try hard enough. They have been damaged by shame and lack of understanding when that didn’t work for them. On the other hand, we have plenty of same-sex attracted people who have experimented with “the gay lifestyle” and — even in relatively good situations and stable relationships with a same-sex partner — they were feeling an emptiness, a lack of fulfillment. They too have been harmed by shame and lack of understanding, as people would tell them, “You’re a victim of internalized homophobia.”
But what if we just listened to each other?
What if we just accepted that one person’s experience is their experience. Not a model for what everybody else’s experience should be, but just one person’s experience.
If that were true, and if the major source of our pain and confusion has come from trying to force fundamentally different kinds of experience into a single model, wouldn’t that completely change how this whole thing unfolds? Won’t that have implications for us as a church and society and as a members of the human family?
But the only way we can find out is if we keep talking to each other and keep listening to each other.