A few days ago, an anonymous commenter left the following comment with respect to a post on my blog (the gist of which was 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.
“You have a teenage daughter, so I'm guessing you have to be at least mid-40s correct? Average life expectancy of the American male is 76 years. So, 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'm not your bishop so I don't think what you do directly effects me very much, but I'm just curious about your thoughts on whether those 20 years are worth what you're giving up.”
This comment struck me as representing what is unfortunately common thinking among most members of the LDS Church with respect to homosexuality. Because of this, I asked for readers of my blog to contribute their own responses to this comment before I prepared a response. What follows, today and in subsequent posts, are a series of letters, written by me, addressed to this anonymous poster that attempt to respond to this comment, both through my own words and those of others who posted replies to the comment.
Thank you for your interesting comment. Though you actually posed only one question, to which I will eventually reply, there are a number of premises implicit in your comment, which in turn are based on certain assumptions. I started to write you a letter to identify and discuss these premises and assumptions, but it quickly became apparent that I would need to break this up into several letters. I want to take the time and make the effort to do this, however, because I believe it is upon these (largely unspoken and unarticulated) assumptions and premises that most Latter-day Saints base their opinion of and outlook toward homosexuality.
I believe that at the heart of your comment is a belief, shared by many if not most Latter-day Saints, that homosexuality is a behavior pattern that is the product of the exercise of one’s will. In other words, one can choose to be attracted to persons of one’s own sex or not, and furthermore, one can choose whether or not to “succumb” to such attractions. It is of these premises that I wish to write in today’s letter.
Premise #1: Being Gay Is a Choice
You, like perhaps most active members of the LDS Church, first of all appear to believe that being attracted to persons of one’s own gender is a choice. Beyond this, you appear to believe (again like most LDS) that, even if having same-sex attraction (i.e, being gay) is not a choice, making a decision to act on those attractions (i.e., accepting one’s homosexuality and living as a gay man) is a choice which need not be made. These are closely related, but two entirely different, choices and should be examined separately.
The leaders of the LDS Church, like many other religious leaders, used to teach that being homosexual – i.e., attracted to persons of one’s own gender – is a choice one makes, much like choosing to yield to temptations to smoke, drink or engage in pre-marital sex. For example, Elder Boyd Packer made the following statement in 1976: “There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just 'that way' and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie.” (Despite the fact that the Church’s position with respect to the “causes” of homosexuality have changed, Elder Packer echoed similar thoughts as recently as his most recent conference address, in October 2010.)
Along with the belief that being gay is a choice was the companion belief that homosexuality could be “overcome” through therapy, fasting, prayer, etc.For example, Elder Spencer Kimball taught in 1964 that the “disease” of homosexuality is “curable,” and a First Presidency letter issued in 1970 stated that “homosexuals can be assured that in spite of all they may have heard from other sources, they can overcome and return to normal, happy living.”
Though there remains considerable debate about what “causes” homosexuality – i.e., is one born with a disposition or pre-disposition to same-sex attraction (a precept which various leaders of the Church continue to speak out against) or is this somehow acquired, e.g., through environmental factors - even the Church now recognizes that homosexuality – i.e., being gay – is not a choice and cannot be “overcome”.
The Human Cost of Believing that Being Gay is a "Choice"
Anonymous, if you and other Latter-day Saints would take the opportunity to talk to and actually listen to a gay man or a lesbian, or to the many parents in the Church who have gay sons or daughters, you would learn that most homosexuals know from a very early age that they are gay. It is something that they may sense even before going through puberty, but which typically becomes very apparent in adolescence. Some deal with confusion for a number of years before they come to accept the fact that they are gay, but this confusion typically starts at a young age.
Having come to this realization, however, these persons must then live and grapple with the fact that they are taught (see, for example, the statements quoted above) that their very essence is repugnant to God; that somehow, someway, they made a choice which turned them into something “impure and unnatural” (to use President Packer’s words).
This condemnation eats away at them for years, causing them to doubt who they are, to loathe who they are, to constantly seek to hide who they are, to continually seek – in vain – acceptance. Is it any wonder that many young people who struggle with these thoughts and feelings end up suffering from deep depression and often turn to the “ultimate solution” – suicide?
The Discovery: Born That Way
Anonymous, you should know that, before any person makes a decision to “come out”, to accept their homosexuality and to seek to validate themselves after a lifetime of self-loathing, that person has traveled a long, dark, harrowing journey that has nothing whatsoever to do with debauchery and everything to do with a desperate search for love, understanding and acceptance. As I have written about here, many have testified that it is only after they have done everything the Church has asked them to do, only after they have gone through immense struggle and pain, that they have finally gained a witness that, despite what the Church and others may say, God accepts them for who they are.
However arrived at, the epiphany of accepting one’s homosexuality almost inevitably leads to the conclusion, which turns into a witness, that one does not choose homosexuality and that homosexuality is not caused by environmental factors. Rather, one comes to the conclusion – as I did – which one then embraces and cherishes – being transformed in the process – that one was born this way, that being gay is as much a part of one’s nature and identity as being a man or a woman, introverted or extroverted, short, tall, white, black, brown or yellow.
Premise #2: Living as a Gay Person is a Choice
The second premise that is implicit in your comments, Anonymous, is that, whether or not a person chooses to be gay, such a person can choose whether or not to be gay. I’m not trying to flippant here; I’m just trying to make a point.
Some people treat same-sex attraction in the same category as heterosexual lust, i.e., it is something bad that should be bridled. It is a weakness, like a predilection to alcohol or drugs or other addictive substances and behaviors. This attitude was reflected in some recent comments by Elder David Bednar at a conference for young adults where he compared same-sex attraction to Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”; i.e., it is something to be borne, to be endured, but never to be embraced or affirmed.
But let me ask you to think about this, Anonymous: having gone through everything I’ve just described to reach a point where a gay person feels that he can not only accept himself as gay, but even recognize and affirm his gayness as an integral part of who he was created to be, is it realistic, fair, humane or just to expect him to treat his essence as something that, while not loathed, is nevertheless to be only endured and repressed, accepted in one way but denied in another? To do so, is to me analogous to freeing the slaves after the Civil War, only to thereafter consign them to a different type of slavery, to offer freedom but deny the exercise of it. If one cannot express who one is, there is no life, only existence; for to be alive is to be – completely, wholly, naturally, authentically.
All this being said, Anonymous, I understand that you and many other Latter-day Saints may believe that there are reasons which justify, condone and even require that a gay person can and should ignore who he really is and pretend to be something he’s not. It is to this topic that I will turn in my next letter.