The talk he delivered at Circling the Wagons left many teary-eyed, myself included. Matt is another guy I am honored to call my friend.
Learn to Labor and to Wait
Circling the Wagons Conference, in San Francisco, CA
Thank you very much for asking me to be a part of this program. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see people gathering in support of gay Mormons. I love the Mormon church, and I have so many friends that I love so much who are gay. Like any follower of Christ, I am a supporter of love and friendship and acceptance and understanding, so this is a great event, as far as I’m concerned.
I feel it is my duty to point out, to begin with, that I firmly believe that the main issue in the gay community is not the set of difficulties placed on them by those outside the community. No, it is the truly terrible acronyms. LGBTQ/SSA? C’mon. You’re telling me that roughly 7% of the population is gay, and nobody’s in marketing?
Like some of you, I am an active member of the LDS church. I believe that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired, I believe in Joseph Smith as the prophet of the restoration, and I believe that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet today who receives divine guidance. My current church calling is as a high councilor in the San Francisco Stake. For those of you who are not members of the LDS church, that sounds like a much bigger deal than it is. It is literally true that the average traffic cone exercises more authority than I do. In short, though: I have no major axe to grind with the LDS church, and I don’t speak for the church in any way in these remarks. Like all of the rest of you, I’m not here to pick a fight.
But, well...I’m here. I’m here because I have great friends and family members who are Mormon and gay, and I wish they didn’t have to struggle the way that they do. I’m here because I’ve watched good things come into people’s lives in the Bay Area, not because we’ve innovated on church doctrine, which we absolutely have not, but just because we’ve tried to open up the culture of a few wards. Frankly, because we’ve tried to make those wards more Christian places to worship than many wards seem to be. And I’m here because I think every ward can and should be like that.
I’d like to spend a little time today talking primarily to members of the LDS church, but what I’d like to talk to them about is what I believe are common misconceptions about the church’s actual policies and positions with respect to LGBT people, and about how I think members of the church can use the correct positions to be far more welcoming to gay people in their congregations. I’ll talk about two things, really: first, about the correct positions on church disciplinary councils, and second, about the church’s position on choice as it relates to LGBT people. I hope that those of you who have no current affiliation with the church can glean something good from what I have to say, as well, even if it is only some comfort to your broken heart.
I want to begin, though, with a brief diversion on a couple of things I heard at yesterday’s sessions: First, l was really distressed yesterday to hear that the Montgomerys had been advised by a church leader to seek for their son re-orientation therapies from groups that are known to practice types of aversion therapies that -- I want to make this clear -- the church has specifically counseled against. I know it’s not just the Mongomerys -- in fact, I know that this occurred with many of you in this room --, and that distresses me even more.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made this very clear in 2006. In a widely-published interview, he suggested that we simply do not know whether or not any therapy is likely to change anyone’s orientation, and that the church has no particular position on conversion therapies generally. But he specifically acknowledged that aversion therapies have “contained some serious abuses,” and he made it clear that the church wants no part of those abusive therapies.
Churches tell us that sex is not to be taken lightly, and they are not wrong. Where they often miss is that they fail to take that statement both ways. It is not to be trivialized by silly immaturity, engaging in sex willy-nilly. Of course. But it is also not to be trivialized by pretending that a practice that contains within it the possibility of forever traumatizing a person with respect to sexuality is not the embodiment of evil.
Second, on nomenclature, and this is the only point where I’ll outright say that I’d like the church and its members to make a change: the church seems to encourage people to refer to LGBT people as people who “suffer” from “same-sex attraction.” I don’t believe that most Mormons understand that the term “same-sex attraction” is diminutive and offensive. I think we don’t grasp that. It reduces a gay person’s feelings for a partner, which are as rich and varied as yours and mine are with our spouses and which involve feelings of connectedness and a shared life, to “attraction.” The term tries to make it all about sex. I’ve joked with friends that if you were to continually try to contend that what I feel for Shantele is sexual attraction and nothing more, eventually you’d be coughing up some tooth fragments. I wish we would reconsider the use of terms that trivialize the gay experience or make it all about sex or attraction.
Okay. On to what I really wanted to talk about:
It will be very difficult to get the LDS church membership to be more welcoming of gay members if nearly all LGBT people leave the church. And many of them do not attend for a perfectly good reason, so I want to start for a moment on the elephant in every Sunday School room where an LGBT man or woman chooses to go: Will I be excommunicated from this church that I love because I’m gay?
I want to acknowledge that sitting here we have people who have had just that happen to them. I’m so happy that you’re here, demonstrating at least a measure of connection toward the church, if that has happened to you. I would say that to anyone who has been excommunicated, for any reason. It’s hard to retain that connection. It takes a special person to be here anyway. Thank you for that.
I want here to take a step to the side to address for the larger audience the entire concept of church discipline, since not every listener will be a member of my church. First, I want to point out that the church has every right to decide who is a member in good standing and who is not. Any organization does. If we’re a Boston Red Sox fan group, it is perfectly fair to remove the guy who always wears the Yankees gear from the group. So I don’t have a problem with excommunication in theory, and neither should you. Second, let me just say here that disciplinary councils in the Mormon church are exceptionally rare. In most of our congregations this year, exactly no one will be excommunicated.
I want to suggest that the actual policies of the church imply that such a thing should be uncommon for gay people; at least that it should not be even close to the norm for LGBT people to face church discipline. Here I want to leave the world of conjecture and opinion and delve straight into LDS church policy, and for this part of my talk I’d like to thank my good friend Bishop Matt Marostica of the Berkeley Ward for his wise instruction. I’m going to speak now about what it actually says in the Church Handbook of Instructions, so I have very little fear that what I’m about to say represents anything other than the actual policy of the LDS church. I don’t make any claim to speak for the LDS church, but the church’s own manual does.
The Church Handbook of Instructions is a document that any reader would conclude is written with exceptional care. As this is the document that guides the policies of the church throughout the world, it is pored over, edited and re-edited to ensure that it accurately reflects the policies that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would like to see instituted everywhere it operates. It is not a book to be trifled with, as every bishop or stake president will tell you.
In that Handbook of Instructions, where it talks about church disciplinary councils, there is a short list that gives very few reasons -- very few things that a church member may have done -- that would require a bishop or stake president to convene a church disciplinary council, which is the council that could in theory end with a disfellowshipment or an excommunication. Very few. And homosexual behavior is not one of them.
It then lists certain things for which a bishop or stake president may choose to convene a council, and there we see homosexual behavior listed as one possibility.
Okay, so there are two lists: the short list of things that require church discipline, and a longer list of things that do not require it, but for which discipline is a possibility. Now then, there are two things that absolutely must pop out at any serious reader of the Handbook:
First, it should be abundantly clear that if a bishop or stake president institutes a policy whereby church members who are LGBT always face a disciplinary council -- and forget whether or not they are disfellowshipped or excommunicated; we’re just talking about convening a council at all -- that church leader is acting outside of the policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That is a guaranteed fact. The End.
When the church says “must,” and gives a very short list, we assume that it means what it says. The local leader is not at liberty to institute another policy that adds to the list. That would be a different policy, not supported by the Church. Just as you would be out of bounds to independently add something to the second list -- for example, you can’t just randomly decide to start holding disciplinary councils for people who aren’t full tithe payers --, you are also out of bounds to independently decide to move things from the second list to the first.
The second thing that seems obvious is that disciplinary councils are to be entered into with exceptional care and tons of thought and prayer. The small set of things that require a disciplinary council are real horror stories -- I won’t list them here since they’re in a handbook that is not available to the general public, but trust me on that one -- so one is left to assume that whenever I’m convening a council I’m dealing with an exceptionally serious matter, presumably a matter on par in egregiousness or extent with those horror stories.
So to any local church leader who may be looking for a way not to force their gay members to be involved with church discipline, I’d just encourage them to read their Handbook. It’s right there, plain as day. And to a bishop or stake president who is disfellowshipping or excommunicating gay members as a matter of policy, I’d like to use this forum to encourage them to re-think that position to get more in line with church policy. This isn’t just my opinion. Again: read your own Handbook, and read it carefully this time. Yours will say the same thing mine does. You may choose, with love and care and prayer and presumably fear and trembling, to occasionally hold disciplinary hearings for offenses not on the first list. But you don’t have to, and it cannot be your policy.
So if we’re doing it right in the LDS church, meaning if we’re doing it the way that the church’s Handbook outlines, our gay members should feel comfortable coming to church and worshipping with us. As I’ve noted in other places: there is no recommend interview that you have to pass to worship with us, and no hurdle you have to clear to be a recipient of our love and concern. I hope that our gay brothers and sisters will choose to do that, and I hope they find a spiritual home in our wards and branches. It would be great for our straight members to have more experience with their gay brothers and sisters, in any case.
I think gaining that experience will help to change some people’s minds with respect to who gay people are in the first place, and I think that’s important. I’ve been in congregations where, even fairly recently, it has been suggested that being gay is a “choice,” which is both disappointing to me and surprising, every time I hear it.
Part of the reason that I feel that way is that people who are holding that position seem to feel that they are somehow supporting the church’s stated position, when in fact they are not. To be clear: the LDS church’s stated position on the question of whether or not being gay is some kind of a choice is that the church has no position on that matter. No position. None.
The Apostle Dallin H. Oaks said, “The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions — whether nature or nurture — those are things the Church doesn’t have a position on.”
This means two fairly important things: first, it removes any sort of halo effect from those who hold the truly insane position that being LGBT is a choice. They cannot argue that that is the position of their church. They are left to themselves with the weird argument that millions of people are making that choice, I guess because of all the awesome benefits that accrue to gay people in this society.
Or they are left to argue in greeting-card fashion that “God don’t make no junk,” thereby becoming guilty all at once of the logical fallacy of begging the question, and of having delivered massive offense while claiming to be loving people. It’s the same form of argument, really, that some evangelical churches use to define Mormons as being non-Christian, and it annoys us when they do it to us, because it is a rhetorical point that has zero value. I feel slightly dumber every time I hear it.
It’s a difficult position to be in. To hold the position that gay people in most cultures have the slightest say in the matter requires a twisting of normal thought so thorough that it makes the Gordian Knot look like a Girl Scout’s hair bow.
Second, the church’s position implies that an individual member of the church can with perfect propriety believe that being gay is an inborn trait. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with a Mormon holding this position, as so many of us do.
The LDS church is right to hold the position it does. Whether or not a man loving another man is “normal” or “natural,” or whether a person is “born that way,” or not are not religious questions, really. These are not conjectures about the nature of the human condition; these are in the realm of verifiable facts. By way of analogy: You don’t pray about whether or not I’m 6 feet 4 -- you bust out the tape measure.
As to whether it is natural to be gay, it would require a fairly tortured definition of “natural” to decide that it is not. It happens, and it happens at roughly the frequency of left-handedness in the U.S. population, according to a 2011 UCLA study. Believe me when I tell you that a long line of people think I’m a little odd, but it’s not because I’m left-handed.
Many conservative churches suggest that being gay is not an inborn trait, but this is absurd. You don’t need to peer into the eternities to divine some highly-prized pearl of an answer when you can simply walk up to a gay man or woman and ask them. Their answers will, of course, run the gamut -- I mean, yes, there is such a thing as a person who is gay through a collection of sociological factors --, but by and large they will tell you that they have been gay for as long as they can remember, and since before they knew what name to put to it. I guess you can decide that you somehow know all of them better than they know themselves, but Occam’s Razor suggests to me that the better idea is to take them at their word.
Put another way: no one questions my recollection or wonders if something happened to me when I tell you that my first crush was a girl named Melissa in Lewiston, ID. Why, when another man tells us that his was some boy named Brad in Kansas City, do we question him? Is there any reason, other than the lame excuse that his experience is in the minority of experiences, for us to do anything other than simply believe him and move on?
But for those who are not convinced by these arguments, I’ll give you a religious one: I want you to consider the possibility that you should believe that some people are born gay... because Jesus Christ said so.
To understand what Jesus said, you have to understand what the word “eunuch” meant to a person in Jesus’ time. From the time of the Assyrian Empire and of the Pharoahs, a eunuch was a male slave who had a particular job close to the king. Sometimes that job involved menial service to the king, where he would have the king’s ear. More often, it involved guarding or protecting the women of the royal family. Either way, either because the king didn’t want his confidantes to have divided loyalties through children or in-laws or because the servant would be in near-constant contact with the royal family’s women, the job description of a eunuch had one requirement above all: that he not be a threat to engage in sexual congress with women.
Probably because it’s more sensational to our minds, we tend to focus on what at the time they called “man-made eunuchs,” who became eunuchs through castration or genital mutilation, typically at a young age. By late Antiquity, though, the term had come to refer not only to castrated men, but to a wide range of men who could not or would not have sex with women. There were “religious eunuchs,” which was normally just a term for a monk. And importantly, probably the most common eunuch was referred to as a “natural eunuch” or a “eunuch from birth,” which referred to a man who just didn’t want to have sexual relationships with women. A man who didn’t do that...because it just wasn’t their thing. A natural eunuch...was a gay guy.
That this interpretation is true is enshrined in the Roman law known as the Digest or Pandects under Justinian I. In that law, they created a separation of rights between a “natural eunuch,” who had the normal rights of a Roman citizen, and “man-made eunuchs,” who had lesser rights.
Knowing that “eunuch” was a term in the meridian of time that meant something like “a man who cannot or will not have sexual relationships with women” can really help us. In particular, it can help us understand something that Jesus said in Matthew chapter 19, verse 12. If what I just said was news to you, then I’d guess that every time you read this passage before, you were puzzled by it. If that’s true, then you’re about to understand it really clearly and simply for the first time:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Now, I’m just a regular church member. Maybe I’m not right. For sure, you will hear people disagree with this interpretation. But I want you to pay attention to the game of logical or factual Twister that they have to engage in when they do it. Let me just say that for my own part, I think I just heard Jesus tell me that gay people are born gay: “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb.”
Why do I care so much about that? Why does it matter if we believe that gay people are born that way, versus thinking that being LGBT is a choice?
Well, to begin with, I guess I care because it’s obviously true, and I care that members of my church follow the example of Joseph Smith, and seek after truth, wherever they may find it. But maybe equally important is just this: Because it’s a kinder way of thinking about our gay brothers and sisters.
People who talk about being gay as a choice cannot seem to do it without a little bit of a snarl. There is disdain in their voices, not acceptance. Not compassion. Definitely not love.
As soon as you accept that gay people are part of God’s wonderful creations, they can be beautiful. They become brothers and sisters on the path, and not outsiders with an agenda to push. It opens a pathway to friendship and love and acceptance that really wasn’t there before.
I’ve heard people who believe it is a choice argue that they’re still “tolerant,” and even that they “love” their gay brothers and sisters. But tolerance is not acceptance, and a form of love that looks down on the supposed beloved is not love at all. It is not hard to divine whom we love and whom we don’t -- we show it by the way we act towards them, and by how thoroughly we wish happiness for them.
No, to love our brothers and sisters asks us to accept them as they are. The risk for straight church members who cannot find it in their hearts to truly accept their LGBT brothers and sisters is that they will fail in a covenant that they have made with God: that they will bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.
One of the key thoughts I want to share with my LGBT brothers and sisters is this: that I love you. That I take you as you are. And that in my long experience in this church, I have never been met with greater faith and heroism than among my LGBT friends. My friend Mitch Mayne doesn’t like me to use the word “struggle,” but oh my have you struggled. You have fought and you have cried and you have made decisions and committed to efforts that are heart-wrenching and difficult and far beyond anything I have experienced in my own life. You are stronger. I want you to hear, more than I want you to hear any other thing that I say today, that I admire you.
I admire you in part because you are trailblazers. You have hacked your way through a difficult path in order to make that path easier for those that follow. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was talking about you, I think, when he wrote:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; -
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.