30 April 2011


I recently had a great time at a big party downtown, went with some friends and met a bunch of new people. In the course of talking with them, the subject of my growing up as a gay Mormon would frequently come up. And the reactions were consistent: raised eyebrows, slight drops of the jaw, words like “wow” or “OMG that must have been difficult” or “congratulations, you survived.”

I’ve gotten used to responses like this. What’s interesting is that they’re so uniform and predictable. Every single person says virtually the same thing. Now, it’s undeniable that life inside the LDS Church can be so all-consuming that one truly has no idea how people outside the church view those who are inside. So this has been a very interesting lesson, particularly in post-Prop 8 California, as to how so many view the Mormon Church: hostile territory at best.

I’m sure most active Mormons would react in ways ranging from mild disappointment to taking severe offense at hearing such opinions. After all, Mormons consider themselves followers of Christ and I know that many of them really do try to act that way. To have those efforts rewarded with such characterizations by outside observers can be hurtful, because Mormons reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally place a high priority on being nice and they reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally hate to be the bad guy.

But then I think of episodes that have happened in the lives of some of my own friends, in light of the Savior's admonition to judge things by their fruits. Parents coming unglued when a gay son well past legal adult age decides to spend a few hours with another gay friend who the parents haven’t vetted and pre-approved. Parents who know a son is gay and are helping with college expenses but cut him off financially when he makes the mature and responsible decision to get married (to another guy). Siblings de-friending a gay sibling on Facebook or flooding him with guilt-inducing messages about “empty chairs in heaven” or “shaming the family and breaking mom’s heart” and so forth. Family members clinging like barnacles to ideas about homosexuality that are scientifically unsound but which bolster familiar prejudices. I need not mention the countless times that the shame and the guilt and the criticism have gotten so bad that suicide has seemed the only way out.

A Facebook friend of mine recently said “Mormons have no boundaries.” And she was pretty much right. There is something about Mormon culture that makes its adherents blithely assume they can ask the most outrageously personal and intrusive questions of other Mormons, or treat them in the most incredibly insensitive ways, without even stopping to think whether they’re being impolite or nosy. Doing or asking things they would never dream of with a non-Mormon friend or neighbor. This is the flip side of the “eternal family” idea. If you come out as a gay Mormon, you are seen as choosing to get up and walk away from the heavenly kitchen table over which Mom & Dad preside and which they’ve been taught is the ultimate eternal goal worth aspiring to. You are choosing to destroy their eternal hopes.

When seen from that perspective, it’s no wonder that parents come unglued when an adult child just wants to go spend a few hours with a gay friend, or that siblings would unfriend their own sister or brother on Facebook, or that parents would pay big bucks to snake oil salesmen hawking various seminars or weekends or programs claiming to teach their gay boy how to be a real man and stop thinking about boys when he fantasizes. After all, these gay kids are threatening to destroy the eternal family, so extreme measures are justified, right? This threat must be fought. It can’t be accepted as legitimate, even if the kid is an adult. After all, the prophet and apostles said so.

And when I explain these realities to people I meet at parties who’ve never met a Mormon before, that’s when their eyes really get big and their jaws really drop. And the phrases change to things like “You’ve got to be joking” or “I had no idea it was that bad” or “what a hot house” or “I thought the Catholics and the Jews had the monopoly on guilt.”

And here’s why I mention the bit about Mormons having no boundaries. It’s because responses like that, from non-Mormons looking at Mormon behavior about this issue, are normal human reactions to the behavior I’ve described. But in my experience, countless Mormons would just brush off such reactions and say “well, they don’t really understand.” It’s that unwillingness to question the assumption that they have the full picture on this (or any) issue, and thus the right to do or say anything amongst other Mormons (particularly family members) necessary to promote and preserve The Officially Approved Goal. I saw it after my mission when almost immediately people began asking me why I wasn’t married yet. I saw it after marriage when people I hardly knew at church would ask why we weren’t having kids. Or after we started, would ask why we weren’t having more. It happened so often that I got to the point of rehearsing a couple of pre-packaged responses designed to put such people in their place and tell them “back off, you are being rude and insensitive.”

The disconnect is huge. Because, as I’ve said before, some of the most truly Christ-like people I’ve ever known have been Latter-day Saints. But there is something about modern Mormon culture and groupthink that is hostile to the basic Christian principles of freedom of choice and which rejects any individual belief that doesn’t conform to whatever was said in the last General Conference.

And that is why friends of mine, confronting this immense monolith of Mormon opprobrium, tearfully say things like “I just can’t understand what makes my desire so wrong, immoral or disorderly” when they know how that special guy makes them feel down to the core of their soul: happy, whole, complete, filled with every good and noble and positive emotion and aspiration, with love and a desire to be with, care for, and do every single one of the same things any straight couple would be praised and celebrated for within the Mormon culture. Yet, clinging to misinterpretations of six small verses out of the entire Bible and their uncritical adoption by LDS leaders as a basis, so many Mormons reject the evidence of the words and hearts and lives of their own sons and daughters and impose incalculable heartache rather than do the hard work of questioning their own received prejudices.

I should say here that this post is not prompted by my own family, but by a broader trajectory of experience, recently repeated, in which I’ve seen this kind of insularity inflict this kind of pain yet again on someone I care a lot about. I understand the pain that Mormon families feel when they believe one of their own is choosing to reject what the family believes is the only way for them to stay together forever. And I also understand the pain of being the one who can’t seem to get anyone to really listen to or believe everything he says.

And that’s why, as I recently told another friend currently struggling with this same issue, ultimately there’s no way to bridge this gap. The church into which he was born has framed the issue such that he must either give up all hope of the fullest happiness he is meant for in order to comply with the church’s demands, or else he must accept (as my own bishop and stake president freely stated) that the church has no explanations or answers for him and thus he must seek his own and make his own decisions for his own life. Some, including some of my own friends, choose to stay in circumstances where they try to balance between these two, and I fully respect their right to do that. I also believe that even such efforts at balancing will ultimately and unavoidably yield a choice of one of these two alternatives.

What will it take to cut this tragic Gordian knot? The only thing that will permanently change the Mormon mind is a new revelation through the president of the church. I can't help believing that God knows far more about this subject than we do. But a new revelation that would legitimize gay relationships would be far more earth-shaking than Spencer Kimball’s 1978 change in policy on priesthood. It would re-write LDS doctrine more radically than has ever been done since the days of Joseph Smith. I seriously doubt the risk-averse corporate managers who run the LDS Church right now feel any need to take on something like that, or want the responsibility for the outcome.

And so the helicoptering and the tears and the secret sorrowing and the misunderstanding will continue. And I will continue to meet people at parties whose jaws drop and whose eyes get big and who wonder how any gay Mormon guy keeps his sanity. And I will nod and agree. And I will also tell them that there’s always reason for hope; I survived, I’m doing great, others have done the same. And someday the church is going to have to change and catch up.

So a shout-out to the one particular buddy concern for whom has sparked this post, the one who faced such family outcry for wanting to just go hang out with a friend. You know who you are. Hang in there. You are stronger than you think. And it really does get better.


David B Baker said...

My ridiculously long comment became a post: - http://blog.davidbbaker.com/2011/04/do-mormons-have-boundaries/

Anonymous said...

Can I give you a big AMEN!

LDS Folks are far too invested in the religiosity of others.

And boundaries...don't even get me started!

My current blog post is about this very same issue - that as LDS we had no clue what people really thought about us, because those people tend to just be polite and not speak up to our faces when they think we're nuts.

Good post! Thanks

MoHoHawaii said...

Here's how I explain the boundary problem to non-Mormons:

Every year, your teenage daughter will be interviewed alone in a closed room by a man three times her age who will ask her if she masturbates, and if so, how often and how.

The non-Mormons who hear this think I'm joking. Mormons just say, "Yeah, so?" There's a big difference between the two responses.

Alex said...

This is a fantastic post.
Amen brother.

Michael said...

I'm not Mormon, but i grew up 10 houses down from the temple in Las Vegas. I got asked alot if i was LDS but my parents bought the house before it had been built i would explain to them. My point is although i was and still am surrounded by mormons, i am still an outsider and your post was wonderfully well written, informative and held my interest; however, mormon guys always have kept my interest. Thats all i wanted to say. Thank you.