Saturday, November 13, 2010

Small steps, big hopes: Changes to the Mormon "Handbook of Instructions" dealing with homosexuality

Last week, the Mormon Church issued an updated “Handbook of instructions,” which advises local church leadership on how to address a variety of issues. I’ve included a description of the handbook and a link below, for those who are interested yet unfamiliar.

The handbook covers a wide variety of topics, including advising church leadership on how to deal with homosexuality and transgender issues. The changes to the document, while not sweeping, were a step in the right direction. For example, we removed the sections that said the homosexual relationships distort loving relationships, and the part that stated that homosexual thoughts and feelings were wrong.

On Thursday, Peggy Stack from the SLC Tribune called me to gauge my reaction to the changes. Essentially, I told Peggy this: While these are small steps, they are steps in the right direction. We’ve removed much of the damning terminology. But what remains troubling to me, is that we still reduce homosexuality to an act of sex---and it is not. Homosexuality is no more just about sex with someone of the same gender, than heterosexuality is just about sex with someone of the opposite gender. Sexual orientation is a key component of our identities, and is much more complex—and is about who we’re drawn to both emotionally and physically, and who we want to share our lives with.

I also told her that it was a little disappointing that the church left it up to the bishops themselves to advise members who seek counsel on the topic of homosexuality. With the very notable exception of my local church leadership (Adam Christenson, Dean Criddle, Craig Stewart, Matt Marostica, and a handful of others), most bishops—who are lay clergy—would probably lack the experience needed to guide on this subject.

I was thinking about your average Bishop, in, for example, Orem, UT. A man who has grown up in the community, and with the possible exception of his mission, has never left or traveled extensively elsewhere. Such a man, however well intended, would be ill equipped to advise on how to deal with being gay--and understandably so. There is no blame here, just honest recognition that his life experience would simply not allow him to be a solid source of information. We cannot transmit something that we do not have. It would be akin to you seeking my advice on nuclear fission; while I might have the best of intentions of helping you, the advice I give you could well blow you to bits.

I am a blessed man to live where I live, and to have the leadership, friendship, and guidance of the men that I do. However, not everyone is as fortunate. In fact, until recently, my own experience with church leadership on the topic of homosexuality has been rough going, at best. In all my years of membership, I have come out at least 5 times to various bishops, and without exception have been summarily ushered right back into the closet.
  • I've been referred to LDS Social Services and a therapist to be "cured" of my illness
  • I've been told I should always decline callings to work with youth and cite "personal reasons" (message being that homosexuality is also pedophilia, and by no means should I be honest with anyone about being gay)
  • I've been told that until I no longer have these urges I am to abstain from taking the sacrament
  • I've been told that since I am not in a relationship no formal action will be taken against me, and advised that I should not disclose the fact that I am gay to anyone within the church ever again

The message is the same: Homosexuality is something shameful. And, as long as we continue to enshroud homosexuality in secrecy and shame, it shall be a shameful thing. Shame brings about subversive, acting out behaviors—not healthy ones. It’s here where we see sexual compulsions develop, unsafe and drug/alcohol induced sexual binges, and secret gay sex in bathhouses and truck stops.

If all bishops and church leaders were as enlightened as the ones I am blessed to have now, there could be open, healthy, accepting dialogue about the issue of being a gay Mormon. It is this kind of counsel, advice, and listening that will truly affect change both within the church and within the gay community. It is my humble prayer that we continue to move in that direction.

Links to documents:

About the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions
The LDS Church issues instructions and guidelines to local leaders in a book called the Church Handbook of Instructions. A new version is being released this weekend, replacing the 2006 version and its updates. Local leaders, who are not professionally trained clergy, rely on a combination of worldwide satellite broadcast trainings conducted by General Authorities, regional and local in-person and satellite broadcast trainings, and the CHI to figure out to operate their local congregations on a day-to-day basis, with instructions both mundane and extraordinary.

The Handbook is published it two volumes, with the first one issued solely to priesthood presidencies of local units (wards, stakes, branches, missions and districts), temple presidencies, and General Authorities.

Average members, including all women (as only men are ordained to the priesthood) do not generally have their own copies of the Handbook, but theoretically can ask their local leaders to read/share specific potions of the volumes.


  1. Hey Mitch, designwolf/ Chris here, it makes me really happy that you are pushing this envelope gently open. I am not Mormon, myself, but I dated a Mormon gal in High School who is still one of my very best friends. I have defended the faith repeatedly, because I respect it even though it is not for me. I pray for the day that church members and the doctrine reflect the same views toward homosexuals. I know so many great guys who are ex-Mormons and would probably not be if the church had unconditional love... You are doing great work.

  2. Thanks, Chris! We need allies like you! Made my day!

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  4. I read many of the comments on the SLC article and was disappointed that so many people missed the point entirely. While I agree that the church (ANY church) should not be involved in the legal issues surrounding gay marriage, all churches MUST come to terms with the fact that they have gay members. And if they want to KEEP those members, church leaders must stop denying the fact that homosexuality is not a choice.

    You are literally helping write the future history of the Mormon church, Mitch. 100 years from now, when gay men and women able openly live their true lives AND be valued members of the Mormon church, your name will be part of their language.


  5. I realize your experiences shape your views. But I must say that stereotyping the Orem, UT bishop is the same sort of stereotyping we are hoping to help others overcome. Isn't it?

    I apologize if I misunderstood, but I hear similar comments from others in and out of the church. Yet I find most people I associate with in church are a lot like you and me. Compassionate. Open. Loving. Willing to understand and wanting to learn about each other. I think the exceptions (those who are judgmental and close-minded) are not so many in number. Possibly their strong characteristics can sometimes make us think there are a larger part of the population than they are in reality.

    Here's to not stereotyping.

    Keep writing. I find your words thought-provoking.

  6. Heya Cindy- I'm just seeing this! Thanks for your response...and point well taken. I was trying to prove a point that an average Bishop may not be well equipped to handle the gay topic--handbook or no. See my previous experiences listed above.

    I have found that while there are a lot of members like you and me, there are a large number still who lack the willingness to learn and to be open (see my other post on critical thinking). I think the capacity is there, but for whatever reason, many Mormons (on this issue in particular) are scared to step out onto the ice--and cite doctrine as a way to close down conversation.

    BTW, I love a good debate and love your comments! Keep on typin', sister! :-)