Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dear Anonymous: “Attraction” and What It Means to Be Gay

This is my third letter to Anonymous, who posted the following comment a few days ago with respect to a post on my blog (the gist of the comment being that that I should go back into the closet because 20 years of “sowing wild oats” was not worth giving up “exaltation”):

“Sincere question for you here … Assuming you're 45, and will live to be 76, you're approximately 60% of the way through your life. Up to this point, you've been a faithful member of the Church, paid your tithing, etc. So, you've only got 40% of life to go and if you can just keep on the path for that last stretch, you'll very likely receive exaltation and be together with your family, as the LDS Church teaches.  On the other hand, if you choose to live a homosexual lifestyle, you've got, on average, 31 years (assuming you're 45) left. Keeping in mind that after 65 you're pretty much "old" (no offense intended) which brings the "wild oats" years down to roughly 20. Are those 20 years worth it … [i.e.,] worth what you're giving up?”

Since this comment struck me as representing what is unfortunately common thinking among most members of the LDS Church with respect to homosexuality, I asked for readers of my blog to contribute their own responses to Anonymous’ comment. 

Last Friday, I posted a first letter to Anonymous in which I discussed common misconceptions that being gay and coming out and “living” as gay both are choices of the will.  On Saturday, I discussed, both through my own words and those of others who posted replies to the original comment, another commonly-held belief among Latter-day Saints, i.e., that even if one accepts (a) that being gay is not a choice and (b) that for a gay person not to live as a gay person is not realistic, it is nevertheless possible and desirable for a gay Latter-day Saint to, in essence, ignore who he really is and pretend to be something he’s not. 

After publishing the second letter, Anonymous posted a further comment, revealing that his name is Bryan.  However, even though I now know his name, I will continue to address my letters to “Anonymous” – representing all those anonymous persons in the Church about whose beliefs and attitudes I will be writing.

This letter was originally intended to address the implicit premise in Bryan’s original comment that the only reason I would come out at this point in my life is the ability to sow some wild oats for 20 years or so; or in other words, that being gay is all about sex.  But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that there is yet another premise that underlies this premise about sex, i.e., the belief that being gay is all about “attraction.”  So this letter addresses the subject of attraction and – beyond that – what it means to be gay.


Dear Anonymous,

As I’ve mentioned in my two previous letters, your comment contains a number of implicit premises and assumptions which I think are common among Mormons (and others). Moving beyond the foundational premises concerning “choice” that I discussed in my first two letters, I want to focus today on a belief that is common, not only in LDS culture, but in society at large (though, thankfully, society as a whole appears to be moving beyond this misconception). This belief:  that homosexuality is all about sex.

(Parenthetically, just a comment about the term I used in the previous paragraph, i.e., “LDS culture.”  I think I should point out the obvious, i.e., that there is a difference between LDS theology/beliefs and LDS culture.  Some people would describe this as a distinction between the “Gospel” and the “Church” (although I would tend to treat the “Gospel” as a subset of LDS theology/beliefs). As opposed to my first two letters – which addressed premises and assumptions grounded primarily in LDS theology (but also impacted by LDS culture) – in today’s post, we move away from beliefs into the arena of purely cultural mores and misconceptions.  I plan, however, to return in future letters to a discussion of "Gospel" vs. "Church".)

Premise:  It’s About “Attraction”

As I thought about the matter of “sex”, however, it occurred to me that the belief that being gay is all about sex is really premised on yet another, more foundational belief, i.e., that being gay is all about “attraction.” Embracing this foundational belief, which I believe is usually done unconsciously, makes it far easier for, and more likely that, your average Mormon will come to see gay-ness as being all about sex.

Treating homosexuality as merely being all about “attraction” accomplishes many things for those who have an agenda. First of all, it narrows the tremendously complicated and multi-faceted topic of homosexuality down to one issue: sexual attraction.  Secondly, it then treats this “attraction” like a medical or psychological “condition” which has little or nothing to do with identity or a concept of “self.” Thus, you find the Church and other organizations using terms like “same-sex attraction” or “same-gender attraction,” instead of using terms like “gay,” “lesbian,” or even “homosexual.”

Having thus isolated this “condition”, those with agendas are then able to deal with this “condition” in a myriad of ways. It becomes, for example, the basis of “reparative” therapy. It serves as a basis for treating and regarding homosexuality much like alcoholism, drug addiction or any other form of addiction (an approach which has been particularly important / useful in the way the Church has traditionally dealt with homosexuality). It is also an important premise for treating homosexuality as a “choice” (also critical to the Church’s approach). 

Treating gayness as simply being about attraction also enables certain people to categorize and “deal with” homosexuality in terms that are acceptable to them, even though these terms bear little resemblance to reality. Among other things, it enables the de-humanization and demonization of gays through implying that they are simply slaves to their appetites and passions (or, in conventional Mormon terms, their “natural man”).

“Sexual Orientation”

The truth, of course, is that being gay is not just about an “attraction” toward persons of one’s own gender. The term “sexual orientation” comes much closer to expressing what every gay person knows about himself, but which many straight people apparently do not (or will not) understand and accept. This term was defined in the following manner (as a finding of fact) by Judge Robert Hanson in his 63-page written opinion overturning Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage:

“…Sexual orientation is integrally linked to the intimate personal relationships that human beings form with others to meet their deeply felt needs for love, attachment and intimacy. One’s sexual orientation defines the universe of persons with whom one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling relationships that, for many individuals, comprise an essential component of human identity and life. The bonds formed in these relationships encompass not only sexual behavior, but also nonphysical affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment.”

As an aside, it is significant that Judge Hanson wrote this definition as a finding of fact. That means he’s not saying this is what the “law” is – he’s saying this is actual fact, based on presentation of evidence to the court.  Legal rulings are not typically overturned on appeal based on an error concerning the facts of the case; this is very rare; appeals are won or lost based on legal findings.

For the purposes of this letter, however, this definition serves my purpose because it clearly describes that sexual orientation is about much more than mere sexual attraction.  But I would submit that even this definition, and even the term “sexual orientation” does not capture all of what it means to be gay. 

What Does It Mean To Be Gay?

Which leads to the question of what it means – to us who are gay – to be gay? I thought about this when I first started coming out last fall and asked this question of a new friend and mentor, someone who has been out for over 20 years.  His response follows:

“To me, being gay just means that I happen have the same romantic, emotional and sexual responses to persons of the same sex as straight people have to persons of the opposite sex. I am capable of precisely the same range of intimate relationships as straight people, from crushes, to flings, to a lifetime of committed partnership, the entire gamut.

“Being gay is analogous to being left handed. Both are traits that have a certain distribution in all populations regardless of culture. Both appear to have a biological basis. Both result in social difference and are evident behaviorally. Both harm no one. Interestingly, both have been the subject of religious discrimination. We forget this, but being left-handed used to be considered a sign of Satanic influence. Left-handedness was socially suppressed, and lefties often tried to pass as right-handed. (And let's just say that social accommodations like the invention of left-handed scissors didn't "redefine the institution of sewing.")
“People sometimes try to identify gay traits that go beyond sexual and romantic orientation. I'm not a fan of this exercise. There's too much diversity in the gay population for this to be successful. Overall, we may someday find that gay people have some traits (on average) in common with the opposite sex but with tremendous variation among individuals. You may well find gay men who are more empathetic than average straight man, but averages being what they are, you are also going to find about half of all straight men to be more empathetic than the average straight man. Still, I have some traits that are commonly associated with gay men: I tend to be more verbally fluent than straight men; I tend to be empathetic; I am more creative than a lot of straight men tend to be. I like cooking and classical music. I don't enjoy team sports. On the other hand I have some very male traits, many of which are obnoxious. :- )

“… At this point in my life I wouldn't ask to be straight if 'the cure' came along. My sexual orientation is not a part of me that could be carved away without changing me beyond recognition. The result wouldn't be "me." It would be someone else …”

This is one gay man’s answer to the question of what it means to be gay. I’d like to throw this open to those who read this to comment and provide their own thoughts about what it means to them to be gay. I’m sure any answers received will vary widely, but I think that all of them would probably share at least one thing in common:  all would agree that being gay isn’t just about sexual attraction.


  1. Invictus, I think you have expressed these thoughts incredibly well. These are things which I have long thought, but I haven’t been able to express them as you have. I want to send a link of today’s blog to so many people so they can understand better the way that I, and so many other people feel.

    At one point, someone in my bishopric, in reference to gays said, “It’s all about orientation to them.” I’m still not sure what he meant by that, but I think it reflects the underlying assumptions you discuss here. (As a note of clarification, the guy was a complete idiot, and if anything solidified my resolution to NOT share that information about myself, he sure did it with that.)

  2. Thanks for this ongoing series of responses Invictus. The additional comment from Annonymous/Bryan to your March 12 post was thoughtful. I'm encouraged by what seems to be a willingness to engage in discussion and stay open to your responses.

    The response to the issue of "what it means to be gay" written by your friend and mentor is wonderful. Please tell him thank you for so concisely stating what many of us experience.

    I unreservedly agree that being gay isn't just about sexual attraction---similar to the fact that being religious isn't just about the act of showing up to a worship service.

    For instance, to Utahhiker801's story about the counselor in his bishopric: I don't go around saying with a derisive tone in reference to religious people, "It's all about faith to them." Why? Because both orientation and faith are deeply personal and should be spoken of with generosity and an genuine effort to understand.

    * As an aside, I find it interesting that in the American system we protect religious belief, which is very much a choice on a number of levels, but not sexual orientation (except in a few states and cities). I'm not arguing in any way that we dismantle the protection for religious belief. I merely ask those (primarily religious folk) who would diminish the reality of a gay person's identity and orientation to honestly confront their assumptions about "choice" and where those assumptions logically lead. I'm feeling the genesis of a post here. :)

  3. @UtahHiker - Thanks for your comments. I'll be interested to hear of any reactions from those you share a link with. :)

    @Pablo - I conveyed your thanks to my mentor. I was actually on the phone with him when your comment came in. :) Thanks as well for your comments and insights. I liked that: "It's all about faith to them." ... :)