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)

12 comments for “Why the Conference Talks about Gay Marriage Are Steps Forward

  1. Matt Mosman
    October 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    My hero. Oh, good heavens, John. You’re a wonder, and I admire you tremendously.

  2. Becky Coombs
    October 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I REALLY REALLY needed this. It is literally an answer to prayer.THANK YOU, John!

  3. No one important
    October 9, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I am deeply discouraged after what I heard at conference. When Packer made his infamous comment three years ago, we could pass it off as the ramblings of an old, out-of-touch man. And the church even edited what he had to say. So it did prove to be a rallying point for change. But the Oaks and Nelson talks (plus comments from Anderson, Christofferson, and others) made it clear that the church will always consider practicing gay people to be immoral and under the influence of Satan. These statements cannot be passed off or swept under the rug–they will be quoted from pulpits and in church magazines for decades. There is no argument that can be made against them. Furthermore, no one I know seems the least bit upset about what Oaks and Nelson said. All anyone is talking about is the women who tried to get into the priesthood session. I am convinced that we’ve gone as far as we can. Although celibate gays might be able to find a place in the church, there is no hope for practicing homosexuals in this church, period. I give up.

    • October 9, 2013 at 3:09 pm

      Some one important: I have to say that the one thing I really find discouraging is how much pain and anguish these statements have caused. The pain is real, for the reason I stated above: our sexuality IS a core part of who we are.

      Let’s assume the Church has gone as far is it will go on this subject… You have not gone as far as you can go as a human being. You’re entitled to all the joy and happiness you can find in life, so find it. And find people who will love you and support you unconditionally in that quest for happiness, if not in the Church outside of the Church.

    • Brent
      October 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      In our hearts, we know what’s right and what’s wrong. We can feel it in our guts. Homosexuality is not wrong. Loving someone is not wrong. You know it.

      When the label you’ve been assigned doesn’t accurately define you, maybe it’s time to shed that label? When I discussed all my concerns with my Bishops over the past almost 10 years, one of them finally said to me, “Did you ever consider that maybe you’re not a Mormon? You have your beliefs. The church has its beliefs. Stop trying to bend one of the other to match. Be true to yourself. You’ll end up happier in the long run.” It was the most profound thing anyone has ever said.

      So my counsel? Be true to yourself. Don’t let a label define what you can or can’t believe or feel. Follow what you know to be true. Mormon leaders aren’t leading. They’re dragging their feet and falling behind. They’re not perfect. It’s okay. But like brother Utchdorf said, this church isn’t led by perfect people. And that’s another way of saying, it’s led by ordinary men. Not God. Not special Prophets. Just normal average men who make mistakes. Shed the labels that don’t fit you. Embrace the ones that do. Be true to yourself.

  4. October 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    If folks are interested in talking/processing about Conference, Affirmation is sponsoring a call-in event tonight…

    Click here for more info:

    http://affirmation.org/news_2013/2013_155.shtml

  5. Trina Hernandez
    October 9, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    John,
    Bravo! Bravo! Indeed, we are in the most interesting times of our day, but we must endure. Yesterday, after having a good cry and listening to wonderful music that got me through disfellowshipment number one, I put this all into perspective and let it be. I am not so sure why I allowed these conference talks to discouraged me so.

    African American history in this church is much like the same as to what we are all experiencing now. I do not know the day nor the time when these things shall change, or if they will ever, but I refuse to allow ANY MAN shake my faith again. The Lord is at the head of this Church, and at least there is dialogue about the subject. I must admit, it stings, but the Lord knows and sees all. It is my belief that it is not US who are not ready to comply to things that are bigger than us all, it is members of the Church. They are in the “law of Moses” stage… the letter of the law. Maybe they are not ready for what the Lord has in store for all of His children. Maybe we have to wait so that we can enjoy ALL of the blessings that come to us all, instead of just some of them. The Lord and man rarely think alike, and God is no respecter of persons.

    I have challenged myself to something new. If I truly am going to take on the name “pioneer,” then I must learn to be more like them. I can start with learning how to endure to the end. Just because things aren’t happening the way that I would like them to, doesn’t mean that things aren’t happening… because they are.

    My parents have been married for over 20 years. The man that I call dad is Caucasian. I mention this because they have endured the stares, whispers, back-biting and everything else that comes along with an interracial marriage. Although they do not agree with my lifestyle, I must admire their courage and strength, both within and out of the church. Brothers and sisters, if you cannot endure this pain until the day that things change and you must leave, do so with dignity and respect to yourselves, regardless of how others treat you. The church members are not the Gospel, they are just a part of it, just as we are. If you must go, know that in my heart, I believe that you have left it better than you found it. I thank you all for your stories, responses and posts about all of your personal stories of courage, sorrow and heartbreak alike. May we all be able to continue to uplift and support each other. Peace to you all, love and blessings.

    • October 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm

      Trina – You’re an inspiration to me! I am coming more and more to look at this in terms of “the Great Trek.” We’ve got a desert to cross, so make sure you’re well stocked, and you know how to rely on the Lord. The other reason I love the trek analogy is because it allows us to be in this together with each other.

  6. October 9, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Hi John:

    It has been such a very long time, and no surprise that you are in the thick of this Tom and Wendy Montgomery “movement,” and I believe it is a “movement.” This video will be central in the coming weeks in Hawaii, I am sure, since there was another “order from on high” that a letter be read from every pulpit in the state there a couple of weeks back. It was notable that this “dictum” did not even approach the nature of the June 2008 “dictum,” however, which was when I felt obligated to resign my membership (and ended up as the opening words in an Associated Press story in the process).

    So here we are now, with a “movement” that can gain traction in Hawaii, and spread. If the $98 that came from four Mormons in the Washington State failed effort to block Ref 72 is any indicator, rational Mormons, left to listen to the promptings of their heart in Hawaii, will hear the voices of Tom and Wendy Montgomery. Meanwhile, the voices of the tired old general authorities, with their memories holding fast to the days of Ezra Taft Benson and his support for McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and the idea that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement was a community plot, may not find much traction in Hawaii. That older generation, with the narratives of the Tea Party mind-set of “take our country back” stuck in a constant loop, are finding themselves more alone, and people like you, John, and parents like Tom and Wendy Montgomery, are there to plant the seeds of a new narrative.

    As an aside, I noticed that your blog above did not touch on Dieter Uchtdorf’s comments on, “We have made mistakes in the past that have caused people to leave Mormonism.” Those comments have earned him the title of “The Mormon’s Pope Francis” on Huffington Post, and I can’t help but think he was referring to Ezra Taft Benson, the biggest “mistake” ever allowed to happen in Mormonism, in my opinion.

    Regardless, I hope to live to see the day when Tom and Wendy have a wonderful – and very gay wedding – for their son, where the chapel is full of supportive Mormons.

    In closing, John, I just wanted to let you know that my oldest son, who had done everything within his power as a “liberal Mormon” to be active with his fiance through the 2008 Prop 8 campaign in San Diego, was driven out of the church over the issue. When he became an atheist in the wake of the actions of bigoted Prop 8 actions by Mormons, the woman who had by then become his wife chose divorce over the risk that her children might follow in their father’s steps and not be active Mormons. My son would have been an incredibly devoted Mormon, if there had been any room for him as a “liberal” in the church. Perhaps that church is now history and a new era has opened up. Perhaps Prop 8 was another “mistake” that Dieter Uchtdorf was referring to. He might want to apologize to my son’s ex-wife.

    Love you, John. You are dedicated to this cause, and I thank you for that.

    Lester Leavitt

  7. Jay
    October 10, 2013 at 12:39 am

    John, leave it to you to find rays of light in such talks meant to injure and set Gods path straight. In a sea of darkness, you have found light.
    Thank you for showing us that the master’s touch is always the right one even when it seems darkest. A lesson I needed to be reminded of.god bless you and yours.

  8. October 10, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    John,

    I think you have a very interesting perspective on this. I remember one of the last times I went to church was pioneer day a few year ago. I was in my single ward, and felt the connection as the pioneers were celebrated. Then the priesthood lesson was on the law of chastity, and there were various quotes from general authorites (such as Pres. Hinckleys’ “so called gays and lesbians”) that spoke against homosexuality. What bothered me the most, though, was not the fact that the lesson manual contained harmful messages towards, as you said, a core part of who I am, but that the teacher didn’t even address homosexuality in his discussion of chastity. I felt left out, excluded, ignored. I can relate then to seeing any mention of homosexuality at this level as a good thing, as getting people to think about the issue.

    That being said, I cannot understand in my mind how to find a place in Mormon theology. It is so bent on heterosexual reproduction, from the temple ordinances to the family proclamation, so much of the faith is based on procreation and marriage between a man and a woman. How do you deal with the fact that homosexuality is ignored by the plan of salvation, at least as it is always taught? .For me, I couldn’t and can’t bring myself to reconcile with a faith that excludes me as a person on a fundamental level.

  9. Mike C
    October 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Thank you, John, for this beautiful post.

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