Friday, March 11, 2011

Dear Anonymous: The Matter of “Choice”



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.

___________________________

Dear Anonymous,

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.

13 comments:

  1. Jeff in Colorado (jeffwcos@yahoo.com)March 11, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    Great post.

    Something occurred to me while I was reading it...

    Lately, we've started to hear LDS Inc leadership tell us that gay people will become heterosexual in the next life. Apart from the fact that such a statement seems to violate previous/existing LDS teachings about the eternal nature of our spirits, it bothered me on a personal level.

    And, while reading your post, I think I just realized why it bothers me: If you change my orientation from gay to straight now or in the next life - I wouldn't know who that person is. It is such a deep part of me. Not even a "part" of me, it's not something that can somehow be simply extracted and replaced.

    And this is coming from someone who is still in a heterosexual marriage and is not openly gay. So even though I am, by most accounts, living a "hetero" life... I still can't imagine who I would be if my orientation was changed from gay to straight.

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  2. Jeff - I totally agree. I have heard these statements and I find them repulsive - i.e., the ultimate reparative therapy! You present an interesting insight into why this concept would (presumably) fill every gay (whatever their Kinsey score) Mormon with revulsion. It points to the extremely problematic "core" of LDS theology, which ultimately boils down, as I've said before, to heterosexual marriage and never-ending heterosexual sex - which to 99.9% of gays would probably be a pretty good definition of hell. :)

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  3. To be fair, I don't think Anonymous was making all of these assumptions. He never said that you made a choice to be gay, he just said to try and hold on and make it through life without acting on your feelings. Yes, this is an extremely simplified view of what it means to be gay, but it does have merit. Many of us have chosen (because we believe) to do everything we can to remain faithful to our beliefs, even if we are gay. I'm just as bothered by you as anyone about the misconceptions of being gay most church members have and how totally unfair, and in many cases, hateful, the church's teachings and actions of its members are, but to be fair to anonymous, we simply don't know how or what he believes regarding many of these assumptions.

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  4. I agree too, Jeff. I've expressed to my family on several occasions that the idea of becoming hetero in the next life is about as repulsive a thought as I can muster. This is NOT my idea of heaven. What kind of heaven could it possibly be for a gay person to be saddled with someone of the opposite sex for eternity? This is supposed to be a reward? I'm supposed to look forward to this?

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  5. I love the insights and logic with which you lay this foundation. I have linked this post to my blog, if OK with you? Have you ever considered putting your ideas, reflections, experiences, and insights into a book? It would be fabulous and could reach SO many people, both in and out of the church.

    Thank you for sharing your soul with us in the ways you do. I know I, for one, am very touched and affected by all you share and have shared.

    Love and respect, always.

    (I have had to come back to this post a few different times today- with the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in the Pacific rim, my mind has been worried about my brother and his family who live there. All is well, but it has been quite the morning.)

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  6. @Forester - Thanks for your comments. Fair enough. But let me point out that I said that "I believe" that certain premises and assumptions underlie the question that Anonymous ultimately asks. I did not presume to state categorically that this is what he believes.

    I wrestled with how to approach this because there are so many different premises and assumptions that I believe lie beneath his ultimate question, i.e., Is it worth it? The process of trying to "deconstruct" the mental processes which could lead to posing such a question sort of went like this for me: It would presumably be much easier for someone to "stick it out" or even overcome if homosexuality were in fact a choice or even a "weakness" akin to alcoholism or drug addiction or any other kind of addiction. So much of what many people believe about homosexuality is in fact ultimately based on this core premise, i.e., that being gay is a choice. That is why I felt it important to address this first.

    @This Blog Author - Thank you, and yes, you are obviously free to link to my post; I'm honored. I appreciated that you commented that I was trying to lay a logical foundation, because that is precisely my goal in the series of letters that I plan to write. I am trying to use the process of logic to "back up" from Anonymous' ultimate question and examine what logical steps may have/likely took him to that point.

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  7. Inviticus,

    I am always amazed at how detailed and spelled out you describe things. Thank you for doing so.
    I don't totally agree with your second premise. I am not sure as to why I have consistently felt differently than a lot of gay men I know but I don't find my identity so tied to being gay as you do. I totally support any pursuit of finding someone to love and building a relationship. However, I believe having a sexual relationship with someone is a choice. I believe having sex is a choice. I have no intentions of telling anyone what to do with that choice or judge anyone’s choice. I also believe my sexual identity is only a part of me and not necessarily the biggest part of me. There are so many wonderful amazing things for me to experience in life. My role as a father, as a grandfather, as an educator as an artist, as a business man, etc., are all very meaningful to me and would continue to exist regardless of my sexual identity or attraction. My enthusiasm for outdoors and adventure would continue regardless of my sexuality. I do identify very strongly with being a man and I appreciate the masculine and feminine aspects of my being. While I agree that my attraction to men is not a choice, just as another man’s attraction to women is not a choice, I do believe that there are choices that both homosexual and heterosexual men can control.

    Wayne

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  8. @Wayne (Anonymous) - I found your comments interesting and stimulating (in the sense that they 'stir the pot.') In my mind, my second premise doesn't have anything to do with sex, per se, but more to do with sexuality and identity. What I was trying to say is that to call someone's decision to be who they are a "choice" is wrong.

    Note: I was NOT saying that just because someone accepts that they are gay that they must come out. A gay person may choose, for any number of reasons, to stay closeted. That doesn't change the fact that he is gay; it merely means that he doesn't want to come out. On the other hand, I believe it is wrong to use the word "choice" in a negative way to describe a gay person's decision to live their sexuality by coming out.

    To carry this further, and in regards to your comments, one does not come out just to have sex with people of their own gender. That is only one part of one's identity, one aspect of one's sexuality. This is precisely the premise that underlaid Anonymous' original comment, i.e., that coming out is all about sex. I plan to write about that in a subsequent letter.

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  9. Wow! Thanks again for your wonderful insight. It always makes me laugh when people say that being gay is a choice. Did you "choose" the color of your eyes, or what hand you write with? No. It just happened. My earliest memories were that I was different than my brother. I didn't know how exactly, but the knowledge was there.

    By age ten, I knew. A kid at school called me a fag. I didnt know what the word met, but when I got home from school I asked my mom, "am I a fag?" She said, "No honey. That's a boy that likes other boys." oops! I guess I am a fag! Ha! Ha!

    At that age, you aren't choosing anything. You are just coming to a realization about yourself. That this is a part of you and that this is who you are.

    Have a great weekend.

    Kevin

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  10. Invictus -

    Your response to my comment brought up a couple of question for me. 1) What does it mean to be out of the closet? And 2) does the fact that having sex is a choice change or lesson sexual identity?

    I think I am confused about your analogy of freeing the slaves to another form of slavery. For all practical purposes a gay man could come out – be an openly gay man – and still be very active in the Mormon Church. He wouldn’t have to hide his sexual identity. He wouldn’t have to hide anything about himself at all as long as he didn’t have sex.

    You state:

    “If one cannot express who one is, there is no life, only existence; for to be alive is to be – completely, wholly, naturally, authentically”

    The question I have for you Intictus is does this statement include sex to be alive?

    I guess on the one side it would seem to give support to Anonymous’ question about “enduring” the 20 years for exaltation, if having sex is a choice. However, in my response to Anonymous, I expressed my feelings about that. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that. But if someone wants to do that I believe it is a choice there for them to be made. And I don’t believe it lessens their authenticity at all.

    Wayne

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  11. Lesson = Lessen in the first paragraph :D

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  12. @Wayne - I am not going to try to define "out of the closet." Most people have a pretty good idea what that means. As to your second rhetorical question, I don't really understand it.

    The analogy to freed slaves has nothing to do with the LDS Church, and I can't really add to what I've already written. I will say, however, that I frankly find your statement about a gay man being very active highly theoretical.

    As to your questions and comments about sex, I will defer those to a future post in which I intend to specifically address the issue of sex.

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  13. I am excited for you next post! Thanks!

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