No More Strangers Panel, Sunstone Conference 2013–John Gustav-Wrathall

(This is part of a four part series including remarks made by four panelists at the Sunstone Symposium Session focusing on this blog–

Blogging and the Charting of a Gay Mormon Spiritual Path

Early on in the brief history of the Bloggernacle, the “MoHo” (Mormon Homosexual) Blogosphere was dominated by folks who were in mixed orientation marriages or celibate, and who wanted to make a go of full Church membership and involvement. Most gay ex-Mormons were trying to put the Church behind them, and didn’t necessarily feel the need to blog about it, though some were. Over time, however, gay Mormon blogs were documenting transitions out of the Church and into gay life.

The Moho Blogosphere was generally bifurcated between SSA (or “same-sex attracted”) Mormons and gay ex-Mormons. There has always been a middle ground that was both gay-affirming and Mormonism-affirming, but it has been a “middle ground” in the same way that “no man’s land” is a middle ground between two armies: under fire and constantly shifting. There’s an assumption on the side of many faithful Mormons that God or the Holy Spirit gives up on you if you embrace your gayness. Or there’s an assumption among ex-Mormons or non-Mormons that the Church will never tolerate gay people, and if there’s no place for you in the Church, there’s no point in practicing your faith as a Latter-day Saint.

What we know now — and we have spectacular research to back this up — is that the middle ground is actually a place gay Mormons find by default.

When Affirmation was founded in 1978, for instance, there was a strong spiritual focus. Affirmation only became spiritually unfocussed after initial attempts at dialog with Church leaders were harshly rebuffed, with General Authorities unequivocally insisting that you cannot be gay and Mormon.

The recent research by Dehlin, Bradshaw, et al. revealed the existence of literally hundreds of gay and lesbian Mormons (47% of a sample of 1600) who have had profound spiritual experiences in which God affirmed them as gay or lesbian. We know from this that God and the Spirit do not abandon gay and lesbian individuals just because they enter into same-sex relationships. And we find that large numbers of gay and lesbian Mormons don’t abandon their faith or their testimonies of the Church, even when the Church seems to reject them. They work hard to make it work, and give up only in the final extremity. Some never give it up.

The problem is the middle ground so far has required embracing cognitive dissonance. Church leaders have historically told LGBT people what they were supposed to feel and what they were supposed to be. They weren’t gay, they were straight children of God “going through a phase,” “experiencing “gender confusion,” or “struggling with the affliction of same-sex attraction.” There was confusion and struggle created by the attempt to fit what we were actually feeling into the explanatory scheme we were presented. It wasn’t a phase, and it didn’t go away through therapy or prayer or just getting married. It wasn’t gender confusion; we pretty much knew what gender we were. It wasn’t an affliction and it wasn’t an “attraction.” It was love, and it was one of the most beautiful and many splendored things God ever gave us capacity for.

To occupy the middle ground required remaining in a place of irresolution: trusting BOTH the promptings of the Holy Spirit that told us the Church was true, AND trusting our own capacity to discern, achieve self-understanding, and make good, moral choices that were best for us in our unique circumstances. Occupying middle ground put us in a space of waiting: for family, for Church members and leaders, and for God. It required seemingly inexhaustible supplies of patience. But the middle ground is a good place to be. It’s where I personally find the greatest sense of integrity and wholeness.

The exercise of holding the middle ground has been more difficult, the more overt hostility there was between Mormon culture and homosexuality. Only the most tenacious could stay there in the extreme climate that existed from about 1960 to about 2010.

What we’re learning now is that all it took was the smallest kernels of compassion, empathy and listening on the part of straight Mormons — both members and leaders at the highest level — to make that difficult default position more tenable. Prominent statements of Church leaders started the thaw in 2006 by acknowledging that same-sex attraction doesn’t go away and generally is not cured, and enjoining compassion. Mormons Building Bridges showed us what some of us knew all along: that Mormons are a thinking, compassionate people; not mindless, not heartless., for all its limitations, told gay and lesbian people: We want to hear your stories, and we want you in our Church. The bigger and more believable the message of compassion, the more attractive and more tenable that default middle ground of faith and LGBT self-love becomes.

It was in the environment of this thaw that Randall Thacker was elected president of Affirmation last year, and Affirmation returned to its roots, taking dramatic steps to reaffirm our ties with the Church and our love for the Gospel. Affirmation’s main on-going challenge is to deal with the carnage that was wrought by years of inattentiveness and lack of empathy in Mormon culture, while protecting the impulse toward faith that has been evident in every generation of gay Mormons as far back as Affirmation can remember. Affirmation’s new willingness to reocccupy the middle ground has resulted in an influx of gay Mormon youth, both in the leadership and general membership of Affirmation. 

The No More Strangers blog was founded earlier this year on principles that were conducive to middle ground. Daniel Parkinson, who has done the lion’s share of coordinating the blog (with a little help from me!) left the Church a long time ago and (so far) is making no moves to come back, but he recognizes the importance of the gay Mormon middle ground as a default space for gay Mormons, and as a life-saving space for gay Mormon youth, so he is making the case for the middle ground, and cultivating it as a blog admin.

In “No Respecter of Persons” (March 18, 2013), Daniel used Mormon theological concepts to consider just how God might be testing us as individuals and as a Church through the challenge of homosexuality. A number of posts have addressed the question of how the Atonement applies to the struggles faced by gay and lesbian Mormons, like Bill Bradshaw’s beautiful essay, “Is the Atonement Out of Reach?” (February 12, 2013) and a transcription of a Facebook conversation entitled, “One of Those Great On-Line Conversations (This Time about the Atonement Applying to Homosexuals)” (June 18, 2013).

A number of posts make the case for gay Mormons to “seek wisdom” directly from God. Daniel Parkinson does this in “Moroni’s Promise and James 1:5-6 (Asking God Directly about Being LGBT)” (July 7, 2013). But so does Joseph Broom in “To Young Men Only: The Gay Version” (March 15, 2013). Other posts are first-hand accounts of gay and lesbian Mormons praying and receiving affirmation from God related to being gay, such as “Gifts from my Faith Tradition” by Berta Marquez (March 28, 2013); “The Journey to Gay and God Gives an Answer” by Ellen Koester (July 14, 2013); and “Flipping the Light Switch and Letting God Light the Path” by Kathy Carlston (July 21, 2013). In “The Gift of the Holy Ghost, the Second Commandment, and Implication for a Gay Mormon” (May 19, 2013), Jim Best describes how the guidance of the Holy Spirit has helped him navigate his life’s challenges and his relationship with his same-sex partner.

Gay Mormons are articulating our spiritual journeys in terms that make sense within the larger narrative of the Restoration of the Gospel. We are beginning to recognize the similarities between our journeys and the journeys of faith heroes like Lehi and Nephi leaving Jerusalem and entering an uncharted wilderness; Abraham trusting in seemingly impossible promises of posterity and salvation; and conflict in the early Church over the place of Gentiles and the meaning of the Law in the plan of salvation.

We understand that the Church is as much about a process of ever-unfolding understanding; that the doctrine of Restoration means living in a world full of wrong-doing and wrong-understanding that God is, line upon line, making right. We are grateful for the principle of continuing revelation.

We recognize that assuming institutional and Church leader perfection is a form of idolatry. We know the scriptures well enough to be familiar with the scriptural precedents of God needing to correct the leaders and the institutions to whom he’s delegated specific tasks in the accomplishment of the plan of happiness.

We are learning the centrality of forgiveness and repentance to finding joy in our relationships with each other and with our straight brothers and sisters. And we are seeing how our courage in navigating those relationships can be a light to the Church.

Gay Mormons find the middle ground by default. We get driven from it only when ideological warfare makes it intolerable. It is the polarized positions — that EITHER gay people must divorce themselves from their sexuality in order to please God OR that gay people must renounce their faith in order to be truly free — that are unnatural and extreme. Ideological warfare has made the unnatural seem natural, and the natural seem unnatural. The truth of the middle ground is that we are all beings with a spirit and a body, that we are all both spiritual and sexual beings simultaneously, and that human wholeness and integrity and love and freedom demand that we each be permitted to figure out for ourselves how make a place in our lives for both.


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