Why the Conference Talks about Gay Marriage Are Steps Forward

Would anybody have believed on Wednesday, November 5, 2008 that Prop 8 was actually going to propel the movement for marriage equality forward in unprecedented ways?

I certainly didn’t, though in praying and seeking comfort from God about this, I got a very simple, quiet prompting from the Spirit saying, “Forgive. Be comforted. I will make this right.” That prompting enabled me to let go of whatever anguish I was feeling at the time and trust that God was moving us collectively in the right direction, even if the results from the polls in California seemed to be indicating the opposite the day after the election.At least one very palpable reason Prop 8 did in fact move things forward is because it forever shattered the taboo in LDS circles on speaking openly about homosexuality. And we saw the proof of that in General Conference this past weekend: not one but two conference talks openly discussing same-sex marriage, and introducing, as a topic for discussion, the legal, moral and spiritual ramifications of same-sex marriage. Now very many people may not like what was said in those two talks. I for one liked what was said very much. Not necessarily because I agree with everything was said (though I agreed with much that was said), but because I think the statements that were made implicitly opened up questions that very much deserve to be discussed.

Elder Nelson in his talk, for instance, discussed the importance of self-mastery as a gateway to the highest virtues. He used fasting as an example of a practice that allows us to master our appetites in favor of a greater cause — care and concern for the poor. I was deeply inspired by what he said about this, and absolutely agree with him about the essential role that self-mastery plays in schooling us for the very highest human virtue of love.

But to me, if you are going to introduce this point in the context of same-sex sexuality, then you invite a discussion about whether the conventions of continence and commitment that come with marriage ought not to apply to gay and lesbian individuals. Aren’t gay and lesbian individuals who desire the rights and responsibilities of marriage essentially saying, “Yes, we agree! Continence, commitment, self-mastery, which includes reserving sex for the right time, is something we want!” Can anybody really say that desire to link our sexuality to a framework of love and commitment is a bad thing? And don’t we undermine the value of marital commitments in the eyes of our youth if we say one standard applies to heterosexuals but another standard applies to homosexuals?

There were very many fundamental spiritual principles that both talks presented that I agree with 100%. I agree with Elder Oaks that “cultural and family traditions,” “political correctness,” “career aspirations,” “material possessions,” “recreational pursuits,” and the search for “power, prominence and prestige” can be idolatrous. I agree with Elder Oaks that the starting point for all discussion about painful, divisive issues must be to emphasize God’s love for all and the equality of all before God. God is no respecter of persons! Many I have spoken to in the days since conference have commented on the fact that Elder Oaks’ strong statements about “moral courage” and standing up for what one believes in regardless of what others think about them has inspired them to engage with this issue more–not less–deeply.

As a Latter-day Saint, I found tremendous comfort in Elder Nelson’s comments about the importance of learning as a central aspect of our experience in mortality. I have learned so much wrestling with this whole issue of homosexuality and the challenges LGBT experience has posed for the Church. I believe it is teaching us the value of charity, empathy, patience and unity. I was comforted by his assurance thatevery single one of us is created in God’s image. I experienced a spiritual confirmation of his witness that every stage of life — including death! — is a sacred and necessary component of the plan that will enable us to achieve eternal happiness.

There was only one thing that did not resonate for me, but I felt grateful that both talks introduced this question which can only continue to be discussed as we collectively wrestle with this issue. This had to do with the presumptions of both speakers about the etiology and nature of homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general. Both speakers either implied or directly asserted that homosexuality did not exist in the pre-mortal realm and that it will not exist in the post-mortal realm, and that in the mortal realm it is best understood as a “temporary” (temporary meaning, only through the course of mortality) condition or “affliction.” Elder Nelson in his talk spoke of “imperfect bodies,” addressing the challenge of physical or mental disabilities. He didn’t directly say homosexuality was a “disability” per se, though I doubt that he introduced a discussion of physical imperfections in the framework of this talk by chance.

I am extremely doubtful — just from studying what we know about the prevalence of homosexuality in all higher species, and uniformly throughout humanity in every race and culture we know of — that homosexuality is a mortal “flaw” or “imperfection.” To me, it appears adaptive. In human societies, it functions well as a tribal/familial survival mechanism. It provides social benefits, even as it surfaces in ways that do not hinder the transmission of a family’s genetic inheritance. To me, everything I know about homosexuality militates toward it being an intended and functional part of creation.

What I know about LDS theology in terms of the relationship between spiritual creation and physical creation to me militates against the notion that something functional and positive in creation wouldn’t have existed before spiritually, nor continue to exist after spiritually. If I understand Mormon scripture and teaching correctly, those aspects of ourselves that we experience as most core to who we are — including things like sexuality and gender — are also eternal aspects of ourselves.

Now this is why lesbian, gay and bi people experience such anguish when we are told that our sexuality is “flawed,” or “sinful.” We experience this anguish even if we are not acting on our sexuality. I’ve witnessed this time and time again. I know so many faithful LDS gay, lesbian and bi people who are living all the standards of morality taught by the Church, but who find themselves deeply wounded when the suggestion is made that this aspect of us is wrong, a flaw, evil. I think it is because we experience this as a core aspect of who we are.

I have frequently reflected on my own encounter with God on this subject in the summer of 1986 after I had nearly committed suicide, and I felt prompted to pray to God, and God spoke to me very clearly about my homosexuality. God spoke to me clearly in specific words and phrases that have always stuck with me since: “I know this about you, because I know you from your inmost parts.” I have often turned that phrase over in my head, “from my inmost parts.” My inmost parts are those parts of me that are most eternal, that existed before I was clothed in a body of spirit or, in turn, clothed in a body of flesh.

Over the years I have encountered increasing numbers of LGBT people who have had profound spiritual experiences with God in which God revealed to them something critical about their own natures. I’m aware now of hundreds of individuals who have had these experiences.

I am aware of certain SSA individuals who have had very different experiences; who have had spiritual experiences confirming that their SSA is not a part of their eternal nature. I have no more reason to doubt their experience than I have to doubt my own experience with this. I think it’s very likely that there are different kinds of homosexuals.

But all of this is critical data! It cannot and should not be dismissed.

Will it be discussed as we continue to wrestle with this issue? The fact that it was discussed not once but twice at General Conference assured me that we will. I remember that notorious talk that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a few years ago that caused similar upheaval and upset. I remember feeling comforted — not upset! — by Elder Packer’s talk for the same reason I have felt comforted by these talks. He posed the question, “Why would God do this to anyone?” That, I believed then and I still believe now, is the question that needs to be asked.

There’s one final reason I was comforted by these talks. I have a testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ. I am comforted by the sense of burden I hear expressed by leaders of the Church to the effect that this is not their Church and not their doctrine to mold or shape as they wish. I would want no part of it if it were. I believe our leaders are doing the best they can with the information they currently have, and I believe that until they are authorized to do so by revelation from God, they have no choice but to teach what they teach. I personally take comfort in that.

I know that many do not take comfort. Many continue to experience anguish about this. I wish people didn’t have to feel anguish about this. A friend of mine messaged me through Facebook recently and described to me how her response to this situation was to go to her knees and seek comfort directly from God. And she found the comfort she needed! Others don’t find comfort in prayer. I say, find comfort from others then. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself and be reassured that you are good and that you are entitled to figure this out and make your own decisions about what is best for you.

In the meantime, I hope we will all take comfort in Bishop Caussé’s talk at the Priesthood session. Bishop Caussé expressed the same notion that Elder Oaks did, that “our wards and quorums do not belong to us, they belong to Jesus Christ.” And he used that principle to remind us that “no one is a stranger to our Heavenly Father,” and “in this church there are no strangers or outcasts, there are only brothers and sisters.” Like Elder Oaks, Bishop Caussé reminded us that God is no respecter of persons and that “in every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him.” And he reminded us what kind of righteousness Christ will hold us accountable for at the final judgment bar.

“I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” (Matthew 25:35)

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