More than twenty-five years ago when serving as Bishop of the Los Angeles Singles’ Ward I gave a talk in sacrament meeting titled, “No More Strangers and Foreigners: A Mormon-Christian Response to Homosexuality” . The substance of that address was a result of the conclusion I had come to that there was something fundamentally wrong not only with our understanding of homosexuality but how we related to those whose sexual orientation was toward their own gender. This realization did not come as a sudden revelation but rather as a slow unfolding as I ministered to the gay and lesbian members of my congregation. Having grown up in a homophobic family, congregation and community, I had deeply entrenched prejudices about LGBT individuals. I had been taught to see them as flawed, perverse, and even dangerous. I also had been taught to see them as having chosen their condition and willfully refusing to change it.
As I met with these saints and tried to understand their experience as well as my responsibility as their minister (from the Latin, minister, meaning servant), I experienced a clash of cultures: what they were disclosing to me in their most candid and vulnerable conversations simply did not jibe with what I had been taught. What I came to realize is that instead of being wicked and rebellious, these Latter-day Saints were, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, striving with all of the energy of their souls to be faithful, to honor their covenants, to shape themselves to a model that they experienced as both foreign and unnatural.
Many had failed in their attempts to conform to the Church’s expectations but were still striving to do so. Many blamed themselves for their failure to become attracted to the opposite sex, which often caused them to redouble their efforts at faithfulness, which in turn often led to more disappointment and self-blame. As they told me their stories of realizing they were different, of their fear of disclosing their affectionate and romantic feelings to anyone, of their anxiety about God’s love, and of the starkness of their futures, my heart began to change. I found myself responding to them not with judgment but with compassion. I believed what they told me.
In my talk, “No More Strangers and “Foreigners” (given in 1986),I attempted to lay out what I had come to understand about this condition and what our responsibility as “fellow-citizens” of Christ’s kingdom meant—both to us and to the gay men and lesbian members of our congregation.
As part of my remarks, I included the following from a gay Latter-day Saint:
We belong to your priesthood quorums; we teach your Sunday School classes; we pass the sacrament to you each Sunday; we attend your Primary classes, your faculty meetings, your family reunions and your youth conferences. We sell you groceries, we keep your books, we police your streets, we teach your children in school. We preside over your wards and even your stakes. We are your sons, your brothers, your grandsons, and who knows, but by some riddle of nature, we would be you as well.
Among other things, the following is what I attempted to teach members of my ward:
- “What most researchers do agree on, and this is confirmed by my own experience in counseling numerous Latter-day Saint homosexuals, is that homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation any more than heterosexuals do.”
- “We simply do not know what causes one person to have a same-sex attraction and another person to have an opposite-sex attraction.”
- Therapists report “that in the range of homosexual experience, some may have more choice than others with regard to their sexual attraction.”
- “Some [gays], following what at one time was Church counsel, but which no longer is, have even married and had children to prove their sincerity in trying to adapt themselves to the heterosexual norm.”
- “When heterosexuals so glibly tell homosexuals that all they have to do is start thinking in the opposite direction and change will come, they do a great disservice to the noble efforts of those who have struggled to try and become something that they are not.”
- “Most Latter-day Saint homosexuals who stay connected to the Church live in a state of almost constant conflict because they feel they must choose between being true to the Church and being true to themselves, because they must choose between being open or closed about their homosexuality, and because they desire to be intimately involved in the Church and yet recognize that they belong to a group who generally are treated with scorn and derision by the very community they wish to be a part of.”
I recount this not to prove that I was more enlightened than others twenty-five years ago, but rather to say that the mythology, false science and bad theology that have informed the discourse about this issue within Mormon religion and culture have persisted not because the information was not available but rather because we have been so resistant to it—at a cost to individuals, families, congregations, and the Church itself. In other words, we have been unenlightened because we have chosen to be. To quote Hugh Nibley’s observation regarding our willful ignorance about blacks and the priesthood, “The most impressive lesson . . . is how little we know about these things—and how little we have tried to know. . . . It is God who gives us the answers, but only after we have been looking for them for quite a while—and what the Saints have been seeking is not light and knowledge . . .” (emphasis added).
It is gratifying that many of the ideas that seemed so evident to me twenty-five years ago are now entering the Mormon mainstream. But knowing is only the beginning. The greater challenge is to act on the knowledge we have. As King Benjamin said, “If ye believe all these things, see that ye do them” (Mosiah 4:10). Jesus goes further, promising blessing for acting: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17 NIV), Blessing await.