The Mormon Wall

I felt disheartened as I walked away from the restaurant. I had just had lunch with a former priesthood leader (whom I call John) who had responded relatively compassionately to a coming out letter I had sent to a few former close family friends. His response, among the few I had received, had been the most enlightened. When he had invited me to lunch, therefore, I had hopes that our meeting would go well.

It didnt.

I quickly surmised what the tone of the conversation was going to be when he began using the term SGA. I hate that term. I used it myself when I first came out. Well, I vacillated between it and SSA. I couldnt initially bring myself to refer to myself as gay. And so I understand why a lot of Mormon guys, particularly when theyre first trying to come to grips with their feelings of attraction to men, use these terms. They seem safer, less out there.

But when priesthood leaders in the church use the institutionally-approved term, what it says to me (among other things) is that they are trying to define the parameters of the conversation: they will take what you say and categorize it according to their filing system, rather than truly listening to you. They will decide which of your thoughts, emotions and experiences are valid and which are not, those not conforming to their view of the world being relegated to the dust bin. Of course, Im generalizing, but this has been my experience.

I got a further indication of how the conversation was going to go when John proceeded to tell me a lengthy story about a former work associate and friend who was gay (and was apparently the only gay person with whom this guy had knowingly interacted). I emphasize the word was. John told the story about how, after being inactive in the church for decades, this guy decided to go back. Long story short, he is now married to a woman and is enjoying all the blessings of the Gospel. Hmmm.

John then proceeded to tell me that he had had a number of experiences in his various callings in priesthood leadership, including that of mission president, that had shown him that there is a wide variation of sexuality, from purely heterosexual to purely homosexual. I told him that was called the Kinsey Scale. He said had never heard of that (!).

He told me, for example, of a young man he had counseled who had confessed that he was attracted to pre-pubescent girls, not mature girls. Thats just the way he is wired, John said. He then cited another example of his exposure to alternative sexualities by citing the case of the man he had counseled who had found himself to be a compulsive flirt, seeking to seduce as many women as possible without acting on his conquests.

I sat across from John, knowing that he thought he was being very open-minded, very compassionate, very understanding; that he was ministering. I did not want to confront him, both because I knew he felt he was being truly compassionate and because I had respected this man. However, I felt like throwing my salad at him. I had not expected this of him; I had not expected him to compare feelings of same-sex attraction to pedophilia and extra-marital lust all variations on a theme of sexual deviance.

I thought I would try to reach him. Try to open his mind a bit. I thought it was worth a try. I ignored my irritation at having been compared to a pedophile and tried to tell him what had happened to me in the wake of President Packers remarks last October. I mentioned the self-hatred I had experienced for most of my life. I tried to explain what it felt like to grow up and live with ones essence being referred to as an abomination.

A look of incomprehension came over Johns face. Why abomination? he asked.

Because thats what we were referred to as, I replied.

Well, he countered, Ive been in priesthood leadership positions for 30 years, and Ive never heard it referred to as that.

Now it was my turn to experience incomprehension. President Kimball taught that, I said.

I never heard him say that, he countered.

Its in his book, I replied, a slight edge in my voice.

Why was he fighting me? Why didnt he just listen. Why couldnt he just accept my feelings as genuine? Filtering. Filing. Valid. Not valid. No authenticity. Just filtering and filing.

I talked about praying away the gay. I related the story of how frustrated I had been when my new bishop had asked if I had ever prayed that my feelings of same-sex attraction would go away. Can you imagine, I tried to explain, what it must feel like to a guy that already hates himself because of these feelings he has, which he has been taught are very wrong, then to pray and fast that the feelings be taken away, only to find that God hasnt answered his prayer? It compounds the feelings of self-hatred and loathing.

The look of Oh, thats easy, I have an explanation for that crossed his face. Well, lots of people experience that. People with depression for example, which is very real, may ask, Why doesnt God take this away? We are all given trials, and God doesnt take them away for a reason. We have to learn to rely on the Savior.

At this point, I really wanted to scream. I really did. I was losing patience. First, the pedophilia comparison. Now the comparison to mental illness. I was beginning to despair. If I couldnt get through to this guy who struck me as relatively open-minded was there any hope at all of reaching other members of the Church?

I tried again. I tried to describe the agony [just so you know, thats a real emotion] that young gay Mormons face as they try to reconcile their feelings with their faith (and, I could have said, the growing cynicism that many older married, closeted gay Mormon men face as a sense of betrayal grows in them).

I could have quoted something I read recently, written by a Mormon guy who has recently accepted his homosexuality: For years, the very act of me bowing my head to say my prayers meant immediate feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy would wash over me. It was a terrible feeling. Each church meeting, each calling I was fulfilling, each temple session, there was always the underlying emotion of ‘my service isn’t good enough because God hasn’t cleared away the gay yet‘.

But I couldnt get past the Mormon wall the wall that is erected to shut out feelings and experiences (whether of others or ones own) that do not comport with revealed truth and/or the counsel of the brethren. Does it hurt to just listen? Does it challenge ones testimony just to try to be empathetic? Or is there no empathy once the moral judgments have been made? Is all that is left the platitudes about applying the atonement and finding true happiness?

I was truly discouraged by the end of the meal. And resigned. I am quite sure I will not hear from John again. I could tell he felt like he had failed to get through to me, just as I had failed to get through to him. I could sense a change at the very end of our conversation. He was withdrawing from the field, sensing that I was in the gall of bitterness, no doubt. (You know, the term self-righteous Mormons use for people who dont agree with them?)

The Mormon wall was up and the gates to the citadel had been closed. I had sadly, regretfully, but firmly been left to kick against the pricks.

This post appeared yesterday on my blog at http://invictuspilgrim.blogspot.com.

12 thoughts on “The Mormon Wall

  1. Wow, I am so sorry that you had to go through that!

    It is noble of you to keep making an effort to educate people when the subject is to intimate and personal to you. You never know when you might get through to someone (who may, in turn, go on to give good counsel instead of hurtful counsel to someone else). But it’s really tragic when it ends like that.

  2. While I sincerely appreciate your kind words, Chanson, I don’t think there was anything particularly noble about it – at least I don’t view it that way. As for me, the experience was disappointing and frustrating. But I have recently had occasion to try to provide counsel and support to a young man who is struggling inside of an extremely staunch Mormon family, who is struggling coming to terms with his sexuality – something he neither sought nor wanted – while scared to death he is going to lose those who mean the most to him in the world – his family. It literally drives me to tears of frustration when I see what this system is doing to brilliant, beautiful, spiritual young men and women like him. And it scares me to think how many are so close to seeking what they believe to be a peaceful solution to a conflict they see no what out of. I don’t know, frankly, whether to cry tears of sorrow or to scream in rage.

  3. From reading your story (here and on your blog), I understand that you’ve gone out of your way to come out to a lot of (very conservative) people whom you didn’t have to come out to. People like “John”, who clearly have had zero exposure to the perspective of a gay man coming out (to himself and others) after years of traditional marriage. And you run the risk of getting a lot of not-intentionally-hurtful-yet-ignorant-and-consequently-hurtful reactions like John’s. Yet, I think that showing sheltered folks that someone they respect is, in fact, gay can make a difference. Hence I think it is a brave and noble thing to do. And counseling young gay Mormons probably makes an even greater impact.

  4. Ive been in priesthood leadership positions for 30 years, and Ive never heard it referred to as that.

    Well, instead of having gayness be an “abomination” and discipline everyone who speaks of it, they now have this SGA thing. Mormons think that if they’re open to talking about homosexuality, this can reduce the “homophobia” of their culture and bring people back into the fold or prevent them from leaving. The idea is that heterosexuals can create a loving environment for those who are “identity-impaired.” So, they try to refrain from using words like “abomination” and they will deny it ever was used (which, really? c’mon.) They really don’t really understand that this new “mercy” is actually still “wrath” incognito.

    It’s interesting where church leaders get pushed on the subject, they will break out the word “abomination.” It fascinating to watch how this works (if one isn’t pained by it, and even then, it can still be fascinating). So, basically, the public affairs office in the 2006 Oaks/Wickman interview asks about a situation where a son has left the Church, says he’s happy with a male partner, plans to move to Canada to get marred (or perhaps New York? =p) and be with that partner for the rest of his life. What is a father to do? Wickman responds: “Homosexual behavior is and will always remain before the Lord an abominable sin.” It’s the only place in the interview the word crops up.

    So we can see here that the closer a situation gets to seeming righteous, the more the Church leader has to be strict — and the more they will return to that 1950s/60s/70s mindset to set a person straight. And in essence, that’s how the whole Church functions these days on the SGA subject. You’re allowed to float around with “silly” ideas in your head, people will “correct” you here and there, but the line now is “thoughts” and “behavior.” I can just imagine plenty of LDS sons with their LDS fathers actually talking about homosexuality until the son says, “Dad, I want a boyfriend,” and suddenly the father conjures ire from where he didn’t know he had it. On the other hand, there’s still plenty of social cues in the Church that would prevent a young person from coming out to themselves.

    I suspect that when a loved one jumps the “behavior” fence and becomes a “practicing homosexual,” most people just get sad. Enough sadness and you’d think they might actually start to think about the boundaries of the culture, but no such luck. The good news is that someone like John would probably still have dinner with you even if you were a “practicing homosexual.” Just like how the Church reaches out to prominent gays outside the Church, inviting them to events or whatnot. It’s very odd.

    In time, if enough states okay gay marriage — especially if they do so by popular referendum — the Church might start to look internally. But we’re probably looking at least another decade.

  5. It’s true, the church seems to have created a weird new space where faithful straight members can feel like they’re being compassionate as long as they can accept that a friend or family member is “struggling with SGA” (but can’t be happy for the same friend or family member if s/he’s happily in love with a person of the same gender).

  6. What your friend doesn’t realize is that you are as Mormon as he is. You understand as fully and as deeply the orthodox LDS position on this issue as he does and have spent decades trying to fit your life into that framework. He acted as if the ideas he presented were unknown to you, as if you were not already a fully acculturated Mormon man. It’s so weird.

    Really weird.

  7. Thank you, again, Chanson.

    Alan, I think you have it pegged pretty well. It’s this whole “let’s play nice so people will like us and think we’re not bigots and join the church” thing. Although there are changes occurring among the general membership as more and more LDS families are touched by this issue of homosexuality, I think the overwhelming majority are as you describe them (i.e., with respect to this issue).

    Although I wasn’t around at the time, I imagine a similar situation existed with respect to blacks back in the 60’s and 70’s: “We love them, we believe they should have equal rights, but we can’t change what the Lord has decreed with respect to the priesthood.” Members could play nice if they had to, but underneath the surface lay a vast pool of soft racism, fueled by the “knowledge” that these people were inferior in God’s eyes.

    Similarly, gays will always be “abominable”, as so eloquently alluded to by Elder Wickman. (Such an extraordinary statement, particularly coming from a member of the 70.) And no matter how nicey-nice members try to be, lying just below the surface is a huge pool of learned bigotry clothed in the mantle of “authority” and “revelation.”

  8. MoHoHawaii – what you said is EXACTLY right – and not just about the issue of homosexuality.

    Whenever I have conversations with Mormon friends, I am almost* always treated the same way, as if I must not have really understood certain doctrines, when I have been just as Mormon and immersed in the teachings as they!

    *there are a few rare exceptions, who tend to be a little more individual in their approach to the gospel.

  9. It’s almost like homosexuality has never actually been regarded as temptation, but is instead treated as if it’s already guilty.

    The place where I think this is most obvious is in the realm of gender therapy for children (and adults if we think about “Journey into Manhood”). The parents think the son might become homosexual because he likes to play with dolls or is effeminate or whatever, so they do what they can to try to make sure it doesn’t happen (by having the boy play sports or whatever). Potential homosexuality is treated as actual homosexuality as far as the culture is concerned.

    Now that church leaders have begun to say that it’s not the parents’ or child’s fault, and have acknowledged that this “afflicts” people across a gender spectrum, I’m sure plenty of LDS parents are wondering where the policy is going. A parent who supports their child completely is going to have a really hard time shoving institutionalized heterosexism down their kid’s throat when the time comes that the kid wants to date. It seems like a paradigm shift will be born from internal reasons just as much as external.

  10. I agree with @6 & @8 that it’s astonishing that “John” thought he was giving you helpful new suggestions. (“Have you ever thought of trying to pray the gay away?”)

    Forgive me if this is a strange stream of consciousness, but your story kind of reminded me of Connell ODonovan’s story:

    I tried re-orientation therapy one last time through the University of Utah Counseling Center to make me heterosexual. A Mormon therapist there named Randall F. Hyde (now an adjunct professor at BYU and chair of the Psychology Department at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo) put me through several sessions of extremely debilitating hypnotherapy, which culminated in a session during which Hyde hypnotized me and then had me split myself into Gay Connell and Straight Connell. He then had me visualize Jesus coming down through the ceiling and utterly destroying Gay Connell to dust and then a wind blowing all the dust away. This is the most emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually damaging experience of my entire life. Some 18 years later I am still healing from that traumatic therapeutic experience.

    Which, in turn, reminded me of Turn it Off:

    Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes; just find the box that’s gay and crush it, okay?

    I guess some of the humor of “The Book of Mormon” operates on the principle that comedy = tragedy + distance…?

  11. Invictus, let me propose a hypothetical. It’s completely crazy. But bear with me.

    Suppose that our Father in Heaven knows more than we do. I know, it’s crazy, but please keep an open mind. Suppose that he has been through Hell and back and made it to eternal glory. Suppose he had sacrificed all and has experienced all of the temptations, all of the pains and agonies that we all suffer here on Earth.

    Suppose that from his vantage point he knows what will make us happy. I know, it’s completely insane to imagine that, but just stay with me. A comparision might be that you are a father and you are up on a hill-side watching your kids play. Maybe they’re playing in tall grass. Maybe they don’t realize it, but they can’t see that there is a pit of snakes to the left or a precipitous drop-off to the right. Suppose they have grown to trust you and you tell them they need to go straight (no pun intended, well maybe it was intended) to avoid the pain of the perils to the left and the right.

    Suppose the kid doesn’t understand why, but trusts the father and goes straight. He’ll be better off. He won’t get bit. He won’t fall off the cliff. He may not understand why he is better off, but his father does.

    What’s my point? Here’s my point? What if the Lord’s living Prophet here on the Earth really is the mouthpiece for the Lord? What if you really will be happier here on Earth and in the eternities if you trust in your Father in Heaven?

    To further my point, you don’t have to believe this, but some people do. If they DO believe this, isn’t it their responsibility to try to help you see the same thing they see? You are perfectly welcome to disagree with them and not follow their advice. But if you do, you are 100% responsible for your own happiness and you need to stop blaming your unhapiness on people who offer advice and help that you choose not to take.

    You want them to be “open-minded”, but you aren’t the least bit open-minded about them. You don’t want them to believe and practice their religion as they believe the spirit has directed them.

    I don’t feel sorry for you. You need to cancel the pitty party and start taking responsibility for your own happiness and well-being. As much as others try to affect your wellbeing, it is ultimately 100% your responsibility.

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