Tom Christofferson and Jacob Hess
Part III: Short of complete agreement, is there a peaceful way to navigate these identity differences moving forward?
We’ve spoken so far about lots of dynamics in this identity conversation – especially some of the reasons this can be so challenging and tense to talk about. In the last portion of our conversation, we turned our attention more proactively towards ways we might navigate these tensions – moving through them and working them out productively and harmoniously – while concluding with some of our own take-away insights, questions and even a few recommendations.
J: I’ve made the case earlier that dropping the identity conversation is not a possibility – and indeed, continues to feel threatening to many believers. And in the reverse direction, having the conversation at all can also feel like a threat, as you’ve hinted. That makes me wonder whether there isn’t a different kind of way to frame up the identity conversation so that we can still have it – but without it feeling like so much of a threat?
Earlier on, I mentioned a challenging exchange with an exuberant evangelical as an analog conversation almost predestined towards hostility. To be clear, my interactions with evangelicals has been pretty overwhelmingly positive. Later on that year, I started collaborating with two local pastors on community projects – and frequently meeting over breakfast to share our hearts and faith. Despite our serious differences (and their ongoing fear for my soul), I have been deeply strengthened in my faith and commitment to Jesus by knowing them.
That connects to this other question we’re taking up. Namely, if evangelicals and Latter-day Saints can still maintain warm relationships of trust even while disagreeing profoundly on “who we are” (even to the point of fearing for each others’ salvation because of lives and views we see as dangerous), what does that mean for conservative Christians and those identifying as gay? (communities that, of course, can overlap). If that kind of harmony-amidst-disagreement is possible for evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, could it also be possible for the gay community and communities of orthodox faith?
Would love to hear your thoughts on that.
T: Let me start by saying I don’t think the identity conversation is a threat, I think it is counterproductive and weakens the case we want to make about freedom to chart our own course. When we start off by saying “if you identify this way, you must or will make choices that are contrary to God’s plan,” I think we’re both inaccurate and ineffective.
But, yes, I believe having warm relationships of trust between my LGBTQ brothers and sisters and my sisters and brothers across the spectrum of faith communities is not only possible, but essential. But I fear the clock is ticking on the time to make that happen. In my perception, power is shifting in this country, at least, from communities of faith to the LGBTQ community. Again, in my view, in the past communities of faith seemed to feel that they did not need to find common ground with the LGBTQ community because they had the power to pass, for example, the Defense of Marriage Act. And now, it seems to me, that many in the gay and trans community feel that they do not need to find common ground with people of faith because they have the power to pass the Equality Act.
We would be so much better off as a nation, in my view, as communities and as families if we could talk about what is important to each one of us, to seek for deep understanding and then look for commonalities and compromises that allow each group to gain and retain as much as possible.
To me, selling a cake is the silliest of all possible places to define a line between religious privilege and civil equality. But we are going to be stuck in that place if individually and collectively we don’t rise above it and identify solutions that will provide for most of the desires of all participants.
As Christians, we have the strongest requirement to not just see a wounded soul at the side of the road, but to personally provide care and bring the individual to a place of healing. As Latter-day Saints, we have promised to bear one another’s burdens and to mourn with those who mourn. I loved President Nelson’s statement that church leaders weep when we weep. So, for our families, our congregations and our neighbors, we are required to find empathic understanding and to work together.
That is why I feel strongly about embracing all the identities that have meaning in my life, that have provided ways for me to learn and grow. To revisit an earlier question that still feels important, do you think I’m unfair in feeling that discouraging acceptance of a gay identity has the effect of reinforcing shame?
J: No, I don’t think that is necessarily unfair, depending on what exactly you mean by “discouraging acceptance.” Certainly, the kind of “oh gross – what a sicko” message that some youth have heard from both peers and parents seems very different (not even in the same universe) as someone reminding this same youth, “you are a child of God – and that is more important than anything else.”
Yet these two kinds of messages are often both clustered in the “discouraging acceptance” category. All that being said, yes, I think it’s fair to say any negative attention or critique focused on something we experience as part of our identity (especially if it’s harsh or demeaning) seems like it could reinforce shame. I think you’re right about that.
It’s the accompanying prescription that seems to go along with that diagnosis that I continue to wonder about, Tom. Namely, if lack of acceptance is the problem, the solution is (more) fully embracing and celebrating all aspects of ourselves, no?
That is often presented as the singular antidote to shame – but I don’t believe it. To be more precise, I don’t think in a world of Pride parades and the larger cultural push towards gay rights, that a message of unqualified acceptance of one’s internal configuration of sexual inclinations as core to identity can ever be seen – not by people of orthodox faith – as being either obviously great or wise (for all the reasons we’ve already discussed).
Within a vacuum – or perhaps a larger Millennial society committed to Christ’s teachings – I think it could be a different story entirely. In that world, you and I might be in complete agreement on this. But within prevailing cultural conditions that almost always position a gay identity in fundamental opposition to what we describe as the covenant path, I’d suggest we need to stop seeing “accepting everyone exactly as they are” as either a simple proposition or a clean solution. I would continue to argue that adopting this view of oneself is to adopt a great many other assumptions about what life is supposed to be – many of which conflict profoundly (albeit subconsciously) with the sweet message of Jesus.
Especially His teachings about being born again and receiving a mighty change, Tom. I rarely (if ever) here this in context of gay youth. Instead, it’s an incessant focus on their being somehow uniquely “perfect” – and right exactly as you are.
That’s not true for any of us. We all have so much to learn, and develop, and grow from – yes, including in matters of sexuality, intimacy and identity (I know I do). So, for me, at least, the kind of prevailing rhetoric that includes insistence that “you are perfect” feels deeply antithetical to a gospel message centering on not only faith and love – but also repentance, and covenants that involve sacrifice.
Do we disagree on that point, Tom? I don’t think so. But I sense you may see something here I’m not seeing.
T: How do we encourage people to change if we don’t acknowledge where they are?
To return to the Rich Young Ruler, it seems to me Jesus sees both the desires of the young man’s heart and the reality of his financial circumstances as He tells him to sell all, distribute the proceeds and follow Him. Do we think he would have said the same thing to a beggar? To me the very essence of a conversation of mutual respect is to allow the person with whom you’re engaged to speak for themselves, to tell you how they perceive themselves, their surroundings, their challenges, and aspirations.
Now, you do raise an important point, about understanding what an individual means as they describe themselves. I try in every possible setting to encourage bishops and youth leaders to understand that when a young person identifies themselves along the LGBTQ spectrum, they are not saying they have transgressed the law of chastity. All they’re saying is that as a result of their internal wrestle over whatever period of time, they are now ready to share something they have learned about themselves. It is a moment that calls for, if not celebration, at least greater love and empathy, not censure. By the same token, I think we should also be earnestly teaching that identifying as trans or gay does not limit the freedom to choose what an individual will do with that reality in their lives. My advice to young people is always to live as close to the Spirit as they can, so that when moments of decision arrive they will be as prepared as possible to make the best choices they can.
J: You’re right that we should hear people out deeply, in their own self-understandings, and listen far more carefully than we do. There’s no question – that is the beginning of so many other things needed that must build on top of that.
And hurrah to greater empathy – and less censure! And to this statement: “I think we should also be earnestly teaching that identifying as trans or gay does not limit the freedom to choose what an individual will do with that reality in their lives.”
All you’ve said is also a good reminder and strong encouragement in my own life to reach out more, and with more tenderness. I know you don’t love the description of “same sex attraction (SSA).” Yet especially when surrounded by examples of coming out narratives deeply critical of faith communities, I can imagine you also understand and empathize with the impulse of some to have a language to talk about legitimate inner experiences of attraction without feeling beholden to a larger movement that can perhaps overemphasize this characteristic at the expense of others?
T: It seems to me that “same-sex attraction” has been put forward as a preferred term — in my view, predominantly by straight people — who want to portray a short-term stopover, not a destination: it connotes, I believe, a sense that something that is simply an attraction is either easily changed, ignored, or overcome.
To me, the descriptor “same-sex attracted” fails to convey a sufficiently broad understanding. If you are a “straight” person, happily married to your companion, does the word attraction convey the depth of your feeling, or more likely, is it just a tiny, albeit happy, portion of the whole of your relationship? There are those in the LGBTQ community, though, who see the SSA/SGA descriptor as appealing, even helpful. For some it is a way to mark their belief that these feelings will not continue in the next life. And for some, it is a way of indicating their separation from what they see as a monolithic view of the gay community that having sex is the essential component of the identity.
To me “gay” doesn’t specify anything behaviorally or even philosophically, which means it is also malleable enough to include my own sense of myself. All that being said, I recognize that words develop meaning through context and usage over time, even though I don’t think calling myself gay says anything about whether I’m keeping a covenant I’ve made concerning the law of chastity any more than “straight” answers that question for you.
So I think the most productive way to engage in a conversation around identity is to begin by asking each participant what they understand specific words (gay, straight) or phrases (same-sex or same-gender attracted) to mean. And, if we can agree that identity is not inseparably connected to behavior, to clearly distinguish between the two in conversation.
If we can recognize that identity does not equal behavior, then I think a conversation about identity can be both productive and rich in sharing the feelings of our hearts.
J: Asking someone “what do you mean by that word” is a fantastic way to start a conversation – and could save us a lot of grief in America, I think.
To your question about “straight” and it’s proportional value in my relationship, my answer might flummox you, but I don’t define as “straight” – for the same reason Ty Mansfield doesn’t identify as “gay.”
Neither of us see this as a category differentiating human beings in a fundamental, eternal way – so why delineate our lives by it now? (Hence my question about standing before God one day – and what will He be focused on).
As I mentioned earlier, I recognize some will interpret my answer as a sign of “heterosexist privilege” – but that’s also not a concept I embrace as true. (Yet my resistance to any such ideas will be further proof by some of my insistence on retaining power accrued by my social category; I really can’t win in these conversations!)
Hopefully we can have space to disagree about even these fundamentals. Speaking of fundamentals, as far as language is concerned, I’m hearing you push back here on a few things: (1) The presumption that a “gay” identity automatically translates into this behavior or that (2) the idea that an “attraction” description doesn’t quite do the full experience justice.
I still think there’s legitimacy to people having some descriptor for their experience that doesn’t imply identity. That’s how I’d explain the value of “same sex attraction” – and why I would encourage my son to use it. Perhaps the very thing you dislike about it (it’s insufficiency) is precisely what others appreciate about it (it’s not over-committing me to all these other ideas that come along with “gay”)?
That’s also why I’ve tried drawing some attention to contrasting views of identity over the years. As we discussed earlier, however, any such attention can feel almost inherently antagonistic and dismissive to those in the gay community. Yet as you know by now, Tom, I just don’t personally see any way around a more productive, open (and yes, loving) conversation about identity teachings – at least, if we are to find our way to a richer relationship between the communities of orthodox believers and LGBT-identifying folks.
Let’s get back to that question we started this second part of the conversation with….While acknowledging the almost inherent threat this kind of a conversation can invoke, do you have any advice about how we can broach an identity discussion (that acknowledges different perspectives) in a way that won’t feel so unsettling?
T: Perhaps one way is not to think of it as a discussion of identity, but to think about it as a conversation about choices and directions. I would like to see us begin by simply acknowledging that the individual with whom we are engaging is in the very best position to tell us about themselves. We honor and respect their self-knowledge, that they are the captain of their soul, as Kipling wrote. Then, I think we ask how they would like us to support them. If requested, that support could include offering perspectives and counsel. Hopefully, the request will always be for love and continued prayers in their behalf.
J: Interesting. One of your premises that someone else “is in the very best position to tell us about themselves” is sometimes true for sure, but always?
What about my 9 year old? What about someone who is extremely depressed or angry? Human beings have a capacity for remarkable self-deception – including mature, adult human beings. So, while generally agreeing that it’s good to trust people’s own intuition and self-awareness, to insist (as some have) that everyone’s story is “sacred” and not to be questioned, is one step too far.
Better to invite space for scrutiny – even on that level – so that if I’m not seeing something, even about a matter as sensitive as identity, I’ll allow someone else to help me see that (prophet, brave friend, or otherwise).
But I do like your attention to the value of focusing more in conversation about choice and directions (except, insofar as one might choose between different options for how to understand their own identity, right?)
That’s how this suggestion still feel a little to me, Tom – like attempting to remove from the table the most important choice of all….the choice which, I might add, shapes and delimits all the other choices in a fundamental way.
Of course, we agree there is something undeniably valuable in granting people space to navigate their own identity path (and trusting to some degree their own intuition in the process). Once more, it’s when that trust becomes absolute (“trust that teenager and don’t you dare tell them otherwise”) that it quickly feels stifling to the best of parental and eccesiastical guidance.
Why even dare try to teach a son or daughter or youth anything different than “look inside to find who you are?”
My answer: Because without any such teaching – they will by default accept other teaching about who they are, from somewhere else.
If it was you they were hearing from – a heartfelt disciple of Christ reminding them of real possibilities in staying on the covenant path – it would be one thing. But clearly (no offense to a beautiful man!) there are even sexier, louder, more compelling voices out there (from Taylor Swift to the hundreds of “I’m out” Youtube super-stars) ready to Tell Them What To Do after coming out.
Although in some ways you’re sharing the same message, in other ways you’re clearly not. All of this brings me to something that came up in a recent text message, an excerpt of which I copy below with your permission:
It seems to me it is essential for both robust mental/emotional health and for knowing one is welcome in Christ’s church and kingdom to make crystal clear that a gay or bi identity is neither moral nor immoral, it is simply one of many realities we perceive in this mortal experience. (We have neither scripture nor “thus sayeth the Lord” indications from contemporary prophets to indicate whether that reality has meaning outside of this mortal experience.) If we can start with “we love all of you, we acknowledge the reality of your identity AND we feel genuine empathy and compassion for the desires of your heart and the conflict experienced as you desire to follow Christ including abstinence from sexual activity consistent with those deeply heartfelt desires,” to me at least we begin a conversation that feels lovingly free of condemnation, inferiority, and other-ness.
There’s so much I love about this, especially two things: (1) “neither moral or immoral” and (2) a humility of uncertainty of what this means eternally. Neither of these have much prominence, I would point out, in the popular rhetoric teens are hearing today – which centers much more around this is good and something to be embraced as who you are – and there’s no question it’s core to your future happiness.
As a mindfulness teacher, I’ve seen the powerful relief that can come in students when they approach a difficult experience (whether sensations in the body or emotions/thoughts) and allow it to be “exactly as they find it” – without trying to “control or fix or manage or make it different.”
I’ve always felt like this could be a powerful way to approach same-sex attraction as well – and it’s how I would approach it as a father if my son confided having that experience: Not sickness, not pathology, not something to “fix” – but something to make space for and mostly let-it-be.
That’s very different from what others – including even you – would tell my son, but it’s a message I believe would remove angst without confusing him with a new identity narrative.
T: At the risk of repeating everything we’ve both said, I have to take exception to your comment that a given identity “shapes and delimits all the other choices in a fundamental way.” I simply don’t accept that premise for all the reasons already stated.
From my perspective, it is not helpful for the parent of a young pre-teen or teenage to abrogate any stewardship the moment the son or daughter — and let’s be frank about this, most kids doing the announcing are pretty terrified about the possible reactions they will receive — announces that they are gay, queer, transgender, or whatever term they might use. Surely, after the very first reaction, which is hopefully to reassure the child of unqualified love as well as appreciation for the trust shown by initiating the conversation, there is an opportunity to probe with open-ended questions, a time to seek additional information about their frame of mind, their feelings, their own concerns and hopes. In other words, the parental conversation doesn’t end when identity is shared, the opportunity for a much deeper and richer discussion is just beginning. Unless things have changed much more than I realize in the past couple generations, I’m pretty sure parents still share their own feelings about how they want to support and protect their child. They provide a broader or at least different context with which to examine these feelings and the frame of identity.
In that conversation with a twelve or thirteen year old, I hope the parents are mindful, as you say, of not trying to control of fix, but rather to understand and guide, and that the young person is mindful as well, not trying to control their parents, but allowing space to hear and absorb other perspectives, concerns and hopes.
I don’t think a parent needs to be overly concerned about the words their daughter or son uses to describe what they are grappling with about themselves, rather the energy of the conversation can more effectively be directed towards understanding what the individual means by the words they’ve chosen, and how they hope to direct their lives using that insight as a launching pad.
J: Most everything you’ve shared about this ideal parent-child conversation feels just right – the affection, trust, mutual hearing. I stand behind my comment, however, about how language fundamentally shapes our experience and often constrains our view of possibilities – quite apart from our intent and hopes (and very much connected to the way a particular word functions – and connections to a larger community and strong narrative in society today).
As much as I’ve come to love your voice and perspective, you are a lone “voice crying in the wilderness” as far as these teens are concerned – with a thousand other voices telling them (and with much bigger budgets) what “gay” will and should mean for their life.
For that reason, if not “overly concerned” (you’re right, let’s not freak out!) I do think parents should be attentive and even concerned about the particular language a child is embracing as a reflection of reality – their reality.
It almost feels like the “gay” label locks people – especially young people – into a particular trajectory…with a magnetic force field.
As a way to further suss out the degree to which we’re seeing/sensing/saying the same thing (or not) – I want to proffer up a thought experiment that your text message evoked for me. Let’s imagine you had gathered 300 Latter-day Saint teenagers – all of whom experienced same-sex attraction (sorry, I know how you feel about the word – but for purposes of this, I need a label that doesn’t presume identity).
We take 150 of these teenagers – and invite them to one EFY-style event with socialization and inspiring education….and then do the same with the other 150 teenagers in another separate EFY-style event. The only difference between these two events becomes the precise message they end up hearing from an array of speakers.
At the first event, the teens heard a message like this:
You are beautiful sons and daughters of God. These sexual attractions are not a sign of pathology or sickness. Neither, however, are they necessarily indicative of who you are eternally – or a path you must take ahead. Like all people, you have some important choices ahead of you. Though you will face some challenges in your future path in the gospel, so does everyone. While appreciating the unique dimensions of your struggles, we want to encourage you to see that they are workable – and that if you choose, you can still find real happiness on the covenant path, both now and in the eternal future.
At the second event, they hear this message instead:
You are beautiful sons and daughters of God. These sexual feelings are not a sign of pathology or sickness. They are a reflection of who you are – and a beautiful part of you! As you embrace this and discover what it means in your future, you may have some painful choices ahead. We’re here at this conference to support you in this difficult experience of having grown up in a church atmosphere that doesn’t understand this part of you – and may never comprehend it. Everyone is different in how they navigate the difficult paradoxes between a faith you love and these feelings so core to who you are. You’ll know what is best for you – and others should support you in doing what is right for you.
Although the messages are similar (in not pathologizing or fighting against the inclinations – and reinforcing the profound value and worth of everyone there), clearly there are some very important differences. Especially this: The first message is not neutral about embracing the gospel as central to future happiness – while the second is. And the second message is not neutral about following these sexual attractions as central to future happiness – while the first resists going this far.
The real difference in these messages would show up in how they are “lived out” over time. So imagine we then followed these teens forward and observed how the next 10-15-20 years turned out. Would there be any meaningful differences?
Which group would be more likely to stay closely involved in the Church and hold to their covenants? Which group would be more likely to stay open to covenant marriage -and more likely to end up being a parent? We might also ask about level of spirituality, happiness, and emotional/physical health.
I can’t imagine any scenario where the first group isn’t substantially higher than the second in virtually all these categories. Would you disagree?
If not, maybe it should be a concern that it’s the second message most Latter-day Saint teens are hearing from well-intentioned Latter-day Saint support groups in relation to sexuality – from virtually everyone who opens their mouth who isn’t a prophet or Tom Christofferson (or associated with North Star). And maybe that’s why we’re seeing so many of these teens walk away.
T: With the best will possible, I hear your original statement as suggesting there’s only one way to do this, whereas I think the most powerful message expresses our faith in the very personal knowledge the Lord has of each and every individual, as well as the Holy Spirit’s ability to teach each of us in the ways we best learn. Perhaps the reason I react strongly to your message is very personal to me: I’m grateful for my path of learning, even though others may see it as having been wandering and wasteful. But all those experiences have brought me so much more deeply to Christ, as my heart has been changed. Everyone certainly need not learn the ways that I have, but nor should we sow fear about following our internal compass.
And by the way, I think the “painful choices” rhetoric is as accurately included in version one as in version two. Life is about choices, and some choices preclude others, at least simultaneously. Let’s be candid, upfront, and bold about that truth.
But I also take exception with the phrase in the second version suggesting a “church atmosphere that doesn’t understand you”, if that is suggested as uniquely applying to LGBTQ young people. I have the privilege of teaching Single Adults, and have spent time with recently returned missionaries, and some of these folks would say they experience a church atmosphere that doesn’t understand single people or people with questions about gender roles as stated in the family proclamation.
You ask which group is more likely to stay open to covenant marriage, and I think you’re dancing a jig on a minefield. Some “mixed orientation marriages” work and some don’t. The consequences for the ones that don’t are visited on the spouse and children as much as they are on the LGBTQ partner. I don’t think we should discourage all people from entering into such a marriage, nor should we encourage all people to do so. I think our best course is to encourage individuals to gain all the information they can about their range of choices, to seek professionally competent assistance as well as spiritual guidance, and to recognize that their choices will have consequences.
I would suggest there isn’t one undisputed answer to the question about happiness and emotional health based on the choices an individual makes.
So, let me answer your question about likely outcomes of either statement, with questions of my own. Which statement encourages individuals to act from love, rather than fear? Which statement ensures an individual knows the church, their family and their God loves them because of who they are, and who they are becoming, rather than what they do? Which acknowledges the purpose of this life as a time of learning to choose God, to hold tightly to the first and second great commandments?
Those questions get to the kind of statement I want us to make to LGBTQ teens: the power is in you, we lovingly support you in your journey, in doing the very best you can in the circumstances of your own life to follow Christ, just as we are so imperfectly doing in our lives. God has not left any of us alone, He has provided His Son not only to show us the way to return to Him but to make it possible for us to learn each day to turn toward Him, the meaning of repentance, to stumble and rely on His strength as we pick ourselves up, He has provided the voices of prophets, living and dead, to help direct us to Christ, and He will hear and answer our pleas to Him through the Holy Spirit of truth.
J: Are painful choices always inevitable, Tom? I know we often hear that in this kind of a conversation – and something I’ve often heard from Kendall Wilcox. But I’m not so sure – and suspect it might inadvertently contribute to an awkwardly paradoxical tension in these teens (one I’m suggesting, yes – is partly related to our language). I take your push-back on my suggesting “there is only one way to do this” as appropriate caution about rigidity – which I hope I can embrace while still underscoring the covenant path as the way to the highest joy. Yes, for all of us.
However much I love some of the many elements of what you summarize as your ideal message, Tom – it’s a little too open-ended for me. I would want my teen to hear something more than that. Something more encouraging about the possibilities along the covenant path – and less “let’s see how God leads you.” I say all that honoring your intent and earnest desire for teens to find Christ. Without more explicit guidance, I suspect – and fear – that many teens (mis)take this kind of a message as a permission for a free-for-all exploration.
Let me ask a sensitive one, but that still feels important to touch on. Thank you for letting us explore some honest wonderings. But after years of feeling resistance, fighting, fixing, I totally understand why it would be a relief to someone to simply say: No more resisting. This is who I am – I am gay!
As a preface to what I’m going to say next, we both agree that sexual orientation is not a pathology, a disease to be fixed, managed or controlled. So, although the comparison is imperfect, there’s a sort of similar relief I’ve seen in people saying “now I have a name for this intense sorrow” after being diagnosed (“depression…bipolar…anxiety”). However helpful such an identifier clearly can be sometimes, I’ve seen other examples of how that label, “I am bipolar” can tangibly shape (and yes, constrain) future possibilities. In other words, whatever relief or new possibilities that label might have opened up initially, I always wonder if labels can place certain, inadvertent (and invisible) limitations on people long-term. [Lots of other lighter examples could be mentioned, such as hearing someone say “I’m a type A person, so back off” or “I”m just a yellow personality, lighten up” or “I’m not a night person” to justify why people can’t expect anything different].
We have a mutual friend who identified as gay earlier in life (and felt relief), but more recently has felt (what he would call) a prompting to no longer identify as gay, because it was somehow limiting his progression. Do you believe this could be true for others too? Without denying the real relief that could come from the label initially, could there be some longer-term ways it inhibits or constrains eternal progression?
T: I think what we’re really saying, even though we come at it from different directions, is that we aren’t intended to be clones — that was the plan of salvation we rejected! — rather, we all need the latitude and freedom to learn for ourselves, and to choose for ourselves. At some points, being able to say “this is my reality, these words are descriptive of what I’ve come to know about myself”, is both empowering and freeing. Over time, or with different experiences, we may come to feel we need some new words to express a more current or now better way to comprehend and describe what we have learned about ourselves. So, my desire is that we not try to constrain, that we not dictate to someone how they should understand themselves, rather that we encourage iterative learning, a building process. There are examples of how we can hinder our own growth (“I am a slow learner,” “I can’t understand math”, “I have no social skills”) with narratives that undermine our own power. But in my experience, saying “I am gay” neither diminishes my potential for broader insights nor it is determinative of my actions. With the caveat that I very possibly misunderstand, it seems ironic to me that some of the souls who are most determined that persons not identify themselves as gay are also vigorous proponents that behavior is chosen, that identity need not drive actions. Am I being unfair?
J: Why would that be ironic, Tom? I see behavior as chosen – and I also consider (as the Buddha did anciently) it a problem when we attach (at least prematurely) to certain ideas about identity and allow that to drive actions. And yes (in line with these views), I’ve raised critical questions about what it means for people’s faith and future family, when people uncritically adopt a gay narrative in the surrounding conditions of society today. Once again, honest question: why is that ironic?
T: The irony is that if, as you and I strongly believe, each of us are intended to act rather than to be acted upon, why do we suddenly assume LGBTQ people are incapable of being the masters of their own destiny, especially as they seek divine guidance in the journey, the moment they share what they’ve learned about themselves? If we have identified that a plurality of Latter-day Saint LGBTQ people leave the Church within a certain number of years of coming out, rather than a focus on what 4% of church membership can do differently in terms of identity, how about a focus on what 96% of church members can do in terms of making such an inviting place of our congregations that LGBTQ people will find real reasons to stay?
J: I see. You’re right about the irony.
On the other point, it seems to me the justified message of “you need to be more loving” has been relentless over the last decade, while what I’m raising has been largely ignored. As a result, so many have been convinced that their happiness and well-being depend on Those People figuring out how to be more loving…with little, if any, attention on all these other factors that can play a substantial role.
We have another mutual acquaintance who once told me he believes after the resurrection, he will come forth a gay man. As I told him then, I’m open to that. If revelation came to that effect, it wouldn’t necessarily shake me in some fundamental way – or cause great concern. But rather than wait for possible future revelation, it has seemed to me that many are taking it upon themselves to try and personally usher the Church into embracing this – through public pressure and demands.
I know we both share some level of concern with this, particularly in the side-effects this can have on people’s faith. Even while understanding and empathizing with the passion (and even frustration) that can be involved, are there ways you think this energy could be channeled into more productive engagement together (arm in arm across differences) to improve the situation?
T: My feeling is that when we know so very little about the big picture of the next life, why get caught up speculating about details? In my experience, the Lord’s generosity to me always exceeds any possible merit or claim I may have on Him, so I am at peace feeling that His mercy, His grace and His love ensure that whatever awaits exceeds what I might imagine. As President Eyring recently said, “You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the … arrangements will be more wonderful that you can imagine.”
I believe in the 9th Article of Faith, that God will yet reveal many great and important things. So my prayer is that my heart will be prepared for whatever He will choose to reveal, whenever that might be. I don’t think it helps me to thus prepare if I’m already certain what the Lord will say. I have lots of hopes and ideas of possible directions, but my focus is to live the commandments as we currently understand them and pray for greater light and knowledge.
As you say, I have seen many examples of where one’s certainty about the Lord’s thinking leads to dissatisfaction with prophets and disaffection from all the many important functions of the church, especially ordinances of the temple, the great gift that has been given to use to play a small role in linking together all of our brothers and sisters in our Heavenly Parents’ family.
Nephi’s words that “all are alike unto God”, and Paul’s exhortation that “God is no respecter of persons” resonate deeply with me. This is how I want to live my life, to see the divine soul in every individual. That expansive view, and my prayers for greater light as the Lord sees fit to grant it, do not, I think, make me an “ark steadier” nor one who seeks to front-run prophetic revelation.
I wonder how we can be more effective as members of congregations at making a home for people who feel their lives or the lives of those they deeply love are hampered by our current understanding of doctrines? I feel like as a church we could be having a greater impact in the world if we could retain the talents and energy of those who are impatient to learn more, as well as those who are at peace with current knowledge. How do we broaden our tent of compassion and engagement while honoring the revelatory process?
J: Last question (promise!) (: We discussed at length our shared concern with messages that lead families to feel pressure in having to choose between the gospel and their child. John Gustav-Wrathall tells of trying to convince his family of this early on – “choose between me or the Church, Mom?” But he’s also related how he’s glad they didn’t make that forced choice. He wasn’t sure he would ever have made it back to attend church if they had yielded.
I’ve felt so far that we both have a desire to create a more robust space that protects agency: a space that fosters freedom, where individuals and families have a genuine choice to make.
My own sense is that as long as the conversation centers around no-brainer dichotomies such as “are you a loving person…or not? Are you inclusive, compassionate…or not?” it’s pretty hard to have that kind of freedom and space.
That’s why I keep coming back to the identity question. If we can’t agree on space to disagree about who we are in a kind, loving, respectful way, I’m just not sure how we’re ever going to create that kind of space so important to individuals and families feeling freedom to direct their own lives. Does that make any sense? I’ll be curious at your response.
T: I don’t really like the phrase “agree to disagree”, although I appreciate the underlying sentiment of comity. I would rather we were in a place of feeling that we are always seeking to learn and grow, that our experiences, in the world and spiritually, have already taught us many lessons and we have drawn many conclusions, but we want to understand other perspectives, that we value what we can add to our insights because of the willingness of another to share their perceptions and realities. So, I prefer the phrase, “we agree to understand”.
And yes, I wholeheartedly agree that a parent who seeks to impose their religious beliefs on an adult child is little different than that child seeking to impose their irreligious views on a parent. If we claim freedom of belief for ourselves, we must grant it to others. Some will say that institutions always have greater power than individuals, and there are aspects where that is correct. But when we speak of our church, we always have the right to leave and follow for ourselves the Light of Christ granted to all His children, the church cannot compel us to act or believe. I find particularly compelling my friend Bob Rees’ insight that this is the Church of Jesus Christ AND it is the church of the Latter-day Saints, that we individually have responsibilities as members to ensure our congregations are places where discipleship can flourish and the Spirit of Christ can dwell.
J: You suggested we list out three points that we feel are still being misunderstood in public discussion, when it comes to our own perspective. Here are mine:
1. We disagree about identity. Although you would think this would be obvious, it’s really not.
2. It’s not a problem to disagree about identity. Where some of the different perspectives around identity show up, it’s most common to still hear them cast as a serious problem – reflecting hate, or bigotry, or lack of acceptance, compassion, faith, love, etc.
3. Significant problems arise when the previous two points are ignored. Once we assume that identity disagreements are problematic and that identity itself shouldn’t even really be an issue of disagreement in the first place (“it’s just natural…it’s just obvious…”), I strongly believe we’re forced into a conversation that causes deep pain. Inadvertent pain, yes. And hidden pain (often showing up only over time)…but substantial pain nonetheless.
Which is exactly where we seem to be on this important issue in America – and many other questions like it. In a conversation that seems impossible and deeply painful.
That’s precisely what has made this conversation so refreshing, Tom – it’s exactly the opposite of that pained conversation. I’ve been filled with light and fresh insight so many times in our back and forth – in person, via phone-call, email and text. Although I’ve experienced this kind of beautiful exchange many times on lots of topics, I’m always struck by how much joy, peace and power there is in it – and how much affection it generates in its wake. Quite a contrast to what’s going on all around us.
On an emotional level, that’s my big takeaway. On a spiritual level, what I find most significant is how two individuals – each striving to follow and love the Lord – can arrive at honest differences of perspective about important matters of identity, sexuality and faith itself.
Is Jesus really okay with that? Oh, I think He is. One day, we’ll all have the Mind of Christ. For now, as long as we’re striving to understand His will – and open to humbly being shown where we might be off, we’ll keep getting closer to that. I can’t help but think the kind of exchange we’ve had (and hope others will consider), can get us nearer to that over time.
All that being said, I’m struck by how enjoyable, peaceful, powerful – and what a contrast to what’s out there!
T: And my three points that I would dearly like to express in a way that more people might consider them as they formulate or reformulate their own feelings on this topic are:
- One of the most powerful messages of the Restoration is that we are agents to act, not to be acted upon and that the power is in us, we need not to be compelled in all things. We act on that belief by according others the respect of allowing them to tell us what it feels like to be them, how they perceive themselves and the world about them. We do not need to fear the words an individual uses, and we certainly need not prescribe or proscribe their word choices, because of our overriding faith in their ability to freely choose how they will follow Christ.
- If we, as members of the Church, act differently in the future than we have in the past, we have reason to hope that we will see different results. If we see that most young people leave the Church within a few years of declaring themselves to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, then it is at least as reasonable to look at what we can do differently to create a more accepting, nurturing environment in the Church, ensuring there is a place for everyone in our worship services, as it is to assume specific language will always determine specific responses. As one quick example: women who worked outside the home were often called to repentance by other congregants when I was young; we’re not perfect now but that certainly happens much less frequently, and my sense is that most young women do not automatically assume they would imperil their standing in a ward if they pursue a professional career.
- Let’s be willing to say there’s a lot we neither know nor understand about the next life. Let us then allow others grace to have their own ideas or hopes, and ensure an environment where we welcome others to join us in seeking to learn all the Lord will teach, in His time and in His way, to keep our hearts and minds open to whatever He will choose to reveal.
I’ve enjoyed the chance to wrap my mind around some new perspectives, to learn and grow. One belief that has been reinforced for me is that using terms like “right” or “left”, “progressive” or “orthodox” is an inhibitor to the unity Christ demands of his disciples, as well as being an impediment to learning. That’s one way, at least, that we can avoid simply lobbing opinions over a wall, rather than truly engaging. If we can ditch the labels that divide us — dare I say, the narratives of identities that divide us? — we are much more likely to listen with minds eager to expand and hearts seeking a greater capacity to bear one another’s burdens and to rejoice in one another’s joy.