Two years and a few months ago I was a missionary in the Isle of Capri ward in Goldcoast, Australia. In my first few weeks in the area, my companion and I attended a Priesthood Correlation in the meeting that really touched me. The Bishop, Daniel Shine, was an incredibly compassionate man, and he was discussing with the needs of individual members of the ward and how the ward leadership could go about helping them. The love in the room was tangible. There were multiple points where I was nearly moved to tears. It was obvious to me that these men cared deeply about the people in their ward, and were willing to do almost anything for them.
I've always been deeply impressed by the love that exists within the LDS church. And in many ways, church doctrine creates a cultural attitude that motivates people to lend a helping hand and to do good for those around them. Because of the deep respect I have for the people, I want to approach this post carefully. Since publishing my post last Tuesday, I've received so many loving, supporting messages from people. But I fear that in my last post I may have concentrated too much on the history of my own pain in regards to homosexuality and the church, and not enough on my purpose and what I hope to gain by sharing my story.
The Mormon community has a unique historical and current standing in the world of religious thought. Scars of its long history of being sharply criticized, violently attacked, and driven from place to place have a continuing impact on the way many members talk about and approach church doctrine and culture. There's an inherent defensiveness within Mormonism. Criticism evokes deep feelings and emotions, and there is a tendency in rhetoric to emphasize the positive aspects of the culture and to avoid anything that could be perceived as negative. There's also, sadly, a certain unapologetic aura and an unwillingness to apologize for past mistakes.
It's because of this cultural reality that I feel the need to clarify my love for the church and its culture before discussing the needed changes. I am very well aware that committees like the one I attended in the Isle of Capri ward meet weekly in wards across the world and do an incredible job of reaching out and helping those in need. But I'm also aware that "all is not well in Zion," and that things rarely change if we do not discuss them. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that "each of us has heaven and hell in him." It's true of the church and its culture as well. I want it to be very clear that in pointing out the "hell" I am by no means ignoring the "heaven."
I mentioned in my last post about how when I first began to seriously research homosexuality and the church the thing that was most shocking to me was the amount of suicides and depression among LGBT members of the church. The greatest cause of death for Utahns aged 15-24 isn't drugs, alcohol, or disease. It's suicide. 89% of these early deaths are males. One third of these men are homosexuals. This means that LGBT people are the single largest group of suicides. Church News also reported that about a third of suicides among youth in the church can be attributed to "gender identity issues." Consider this-- any father, brother, son, or friend you have throughout the church is over 6 times more likely to commit suicide if he is gay (something you may not know if he is closeted, which is most likely) (most of this information came from a paper written by my good friend, Derek. You can check out his blog here). The Family Proclamation was absolutely correct in declaring that "gender is an essential characteristic." So essential, in fact, that when LGBT people try to deny the way they experience their gender identity and sexual orientation, the results are all too often deep anxiety, life-altering depression, and death.
And the factors that create this reality are still continuing. About 40% of Salt Lake City's large homeless youth population identify as LGBT. Many of them were kicked out of their homes when they came out. In the past, church rhetoric emphasized that it was better to die clean than to live unclean; Bruce R. McConkie, for example, taught youth that their parents would rather see them "come back home in a pine box with [their] virtue than return alive without it." Unfortunately, many have taken this teaching (which I regard as one of Mormonism's more harmful) a little too far, feeling that they would rather have their children leave than be gay. And far too many LGBT Mormon youth feel that they would rather take their own lives than continue to live with the constant pressures to conform to a system with which they feel incompatible.
With such astounding numbers, it seems to me to be a systemic problem. When the word "gay" is commonly used as a synonym for "stupid" instead of a respectful adjective to describe how a significant portion of humanity experiences their lives, it's indicative of cultural problems that need to be addressed and changed. It's countless how many comments I've heard among friends and at church in which homosexuals are portrayed as the paragon of wickedness and as an exemplification of idiocy. Unbeknownst to the speaker, the object of their derision can often be found in the untold identities of their siblings, parents, and friends. We need to take a close look at what our system and culture are producing, and ask ourselves whether or not the product is consistent with our values.
The answer should be an emphatic no. For a people whose call is to "mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort," we seem to be doing a marvelous job of pushing the issue to the side. Most times I've heard homosexuality mentioned in church, it has only been to warn of the dangers of legalizing gay marriage and the threat that it supposedly poses to society. I once asked another gay Mormon friend about whether or not he had told his parents that he was gay, and he responded that he had. And then with pain in his eyes, he quickly added, "but they never want to talk about it." Tears almost came to my eyes, because I had experienced the same thing with individuals I've told in the past. And that can be one of the most difficult parts of it all--not only that there is ignorance about the subject, but that there is an active ignoring of its discussion. And so my message is that we need to listen and learn instead of mindlessly perpetuating the cultural prejudices of the past. We need to truly wonder about the life experiences of people before we make a judgment as to whether or not what they are doing is wicked and destroying our society.
"Coming out" shouldn't be as difficult as it is for people in our culture. It's because of societal pressures and the way people think and talk about the issue that it's difficult and awkward.
We need to be what we claim we are--namely disciples of Christ who understand that inasmuch as we marginalize 5-10% of the population and create an atmosphere that so divests them of hope that taking their lives seems to them to be the best option, we are doing it to Him. Inasmuch as we are using words that describe their lives to mean "stupid" and "less than," we are doing it to him. As long as we are treating their experiences lightly, we are treating Him lightly.
So let's create a new atmosphere in regards to homosexuality and Mormonism. Let's create an atmosphere in which open dialogue can take place. Let's create an environment where people are not afraid to share such deep parts of themselves with the people that they love most. Let's create a system and a culture where the products are compassion and peace instead of ignorance and fear. Let's be mindful of the words we use and the effects they have on others. Let's truly mourn with those that mourn and feel their pain as our own.
This is my message: that the way church members talk about and approach homosexuality, and especially within Utah culture, needs to change. The many lost lives necessitate it. And the change begins by thinking and talking about it.