Millie and Gary Watts
The Logical Next Step: Affirming Same-Sex Relationships
by Gary M. Watts
This essay was originally published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Thought (Volume 31, Number 3 [Fall 1998]: 49-57). Posted
with the author's permission. © Gary M. Watts
Recently I had two lengthy discussions with local LDS church leaders
about homosexuality. Those discussions convinced me that the problem
faced by homosexual Mormons and their families in their relationship
to the church, and the problem faced by the church in its relationship
to its homosexual members and their families, are not insoluble. I use
the word "problem" advisedly, when in fact we have before us today two
I would like to identify these two conundrums and then conjecture about
a possible solution—one that makes sense to me but may be nonsensical
to others. Intricate and difficult problems rarely have simple answers.
I am not so naive as to expect that everyone will embrace these ideas,
but I am willing to make the effort because both the church and its
homosexual members are important to me.
Identifying the two conundrums is rather simple. For homosexual members
of the church, it is represented by a church policy that, in effect,
forces its gay members to make a choice between two core identities.
On the one hand, there is their inner core of same-sex attraction, which
countless gay members will testify they discover, not choose; and on
the other, there is their belief in the authenticity of the gospel of
Jesus Christ as embodied in the LDS church. While virtually everyone
concedes that the causes of homosexuality are complex, almost every
gay person I know tells me that choice is not really operative and that
their same-sex attraction just happened.
The reality of the matter, regardless of the origins of homosexuality,
is that a small percentage of our LDS members find themselves romantically/sexually
interested only in members of the same sex. These individuals are aware
that church policy has "zero tolerance" for any sexual activity between
members of the same sex, or for that between any of its members outside
marriage. They realize that this means they can never become romantically/sexually
involved with someone of the same sex and remain a member of the church
in anything approaching good standing. Hence, they are forced to choose
between a romantic/ sexual relationship and full membership in the church.
I've previously referred to this as a veritable "Sophie's choice," because
it is so difficult and so painful for anyone who is already integrated
into and has developed a testimony of the truthfulness of the LDS church.
Some actually do choose the church and thereby a life of celibacy and
service in much the same manner as Catholic priests and nuns, but by
far the majority choose a relationship and ultimately leave the church
voluntarily or via church discipline.
To my knowledge, there is no substantive data on this, but I am privy
to a survey done by Ron Schow, co-editor of Peculiar People, in
1995 at an Affirmation conference in Las Vegas. The survey sample included
approximately 100 Mormons, the majority being returned missionaries
who identified themselves as gay, and dealt with their activity in the
church. They ranged in age from twenty-two to sixty-six, with an average
age of thirty-six, and came from fine church families. (Six of their
fathers had been stake, mission, or temple presidents; eight of their
mothers had been Relief Society presidents; twelve of their fathers
had served as bishops or branch presidents; ten more had a father who
had served as a counselor in a bishopric.) Their church attendance averaged
93 percent as children, 94 percent as teenagers, 94 percent as young
adults, but currently was 14 percent. This, despite the fact that 65
percent had counseled with an average of 3.3 church leaders, 40 percent
had gone to LDS Social Services for therapy for an average of nine sessions,
and another 50 percent had gone for other counseling for an average
of eighteen sessions. To suggest that these previously active, contributing
church members failed as members from a lack of effort seems disingenuous
to me. These numbers simply corroborate the latest scientific research
that sexual orientation is not readily amenable to change. The exodus
of so many good, substantial members of the church is unfortunate, both
for the church and for the individual, and should cause great concern
among church leaders.
The conundrum faced by ecclesiastical leaders begins when their gay
members choose a relationship. Most leaders are aware of the intense
feelings that precede the choice of a relationship by gay members. Most
leaders are truly empathetic and saddened that these circumstances have
occurred, but are also loyal to the church and feel duty bound to adhere
to church policy. In many cases they initiate a disciplinary council
which usually results in the expulsion of their gay members from the
church. Anyone who has sat on such a council will testify that they
are gut-wrenching and clearly represent some of the most difficult decisions
imaginable because of the intensity of the love by the gay member for
the church and for his or her partner. Part of the difficulty for the
church leader is his awareness that his gay members are valuable, that
they may have been making a contribution to the ward, and that the expulsion
from membership will likely mean the end of what some would identify
as "a beautiful friendship."
These realities occur in many wards and stakes in the church and are
the source of much discomfort for members. Gays and lesbians and their
families are torn between the reality of same-sex attraction and their
love for the church. Church leaders and members are torn between their
love and empathy for their gay members who are forced to make this "Sophie's
choice" and their duty as leaders to implement church policy and remain
loyal to the doctrine of the church.
The following story about the experiences of a gay couple I know illustrates
some of these complexities. Interestingly, and to add to the complexity,
both men met at Evergreen, an LDS Social Services-supported program
for gays and lesbians which stresses behavioral modification and/or
celibacy. They have been in a committed, monogamous relationship for
the past six years. During the first three and a half years of their
relationship, they were active and welcome members of their LDS ward
in Salt Lake City. Their bishop was aware of their relationship, welcomed
them in the ward, and encouraged their participation in ward activities.
One of the men was called as priesthood organist and played faithfully
every Sunday for almost three years. They met with their bishop on a
quarterly basis and received encouragement to be faithful and monogamous
in their relationship and to continue to concentrate on improving their
spirituality and to do the best they could to live Christ-like lives.
About four years ago, they purchased a new home in a new stake in south
Salt Lake and came under the jurisdiction of a new bishop and a new
stake president. The new stake president and bishop were not supportive
of their relationship. Consequently, disciplinary councils were called
and both men were excommunicated. Neither claims to be bitter, but neither
has attended church since then. Their former bishop was disappointed
with the excommunications because the Spirit had told him, when he had
made it a matter of prayer, that they should not be disciplined but
should be encouraged to stay active in the ward and committed in their
relationship to each other. He had read the General Handbook of
Instructions and was aware that the purpose of excommunication
was to help individuals repent of their sins, change their feelings
and behaviors, and start anew. He was skeptical that sexual orientation
was changeable and felt that these two young men would be better served
by encouraging their activity and acceptance by fellow ward members.
In fact, he confided to them that he would "rather empty the Great Salt
Lake with a teaspoon than excommunicate [them] from the church." The
bishop has been the subject of some criticism by, to use Richard Poll's
term, "iron rod" Mormons, while at the same time supported and praised
by "liahona" Mormons.
The unfortunate part of these two young men's experience is that it
is being repeated too often in the church. Faithful gay members seek
out ecclesiastical leaders they know to be tolerant and informed about
the complexities of homosexuality and are occasionally successful in
maintaining activity and acceptance in wards and branches with such
"spirit of the law" leaders. When gay and lesbian church members sense
their ecclesiastical leaders are uninformed, intolerant, and judgmental,
they become inactive or try to find a ward with a more tolerant leader.
Eventually, most gay couples encounter leaders who are uncomfortable
with having them participate in ward activities while in a relationship,
and, as a result, they migrate out of the church to seek a more gay-friendly
Many church leaders and members simply wring their hands and suggest
that God in his infinite wisdom will sort it all out in the next life.
In the meantime, we continue to experience the pain and anguish inherent
in these horrible conundrums. Can anything be done to improve the situation?
In thinking about various options that might be employed to resolve
these two conundrums, we need first to accept and understand some necessary
realities. These are: (1) The church will not amend its law of chastity.
Bolstered by tradition, scripture, and prophetic pronouncement, church
leaders will continue to stress the need for compliance to this law.
(2) Most of gay and lesbian members and their families will continue
to see their same-sex attraction as a normal biological variation that
is rarely, if ever, chosen and not readily amenable to change. That
position is certainly supported by the three major professional organizations
that deal with homosexuality: the American Psychological Association,
the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Association of
Social Workers, who issued a joint statement in their 1994 "friend of
the court" brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that "research firmly and
consistently rejects the widespread assumptions that sexual orientation
is the same as sexual conduct, that sexual orientation is freely chosen
and readily subject to alteration, and that homosexual or bisexual orientation
is a mental disorder causing impairment of psychological or social functioning"
(see Romer v. Evans et al., U.S. Supreme Court, no. 94-1039).
(3) Current church policy as it relates to homosexuality has and will
continue to produce significant pain, anguish, dissent, and consternation
among both straight and gay members. That bitter fruit is unlikely to
go away and will continue to plague the church until some accommodation
is made. (4) It is irrational to believe that allowing gay members in
committed relationships to remain full members will usher in a new era
in which heterosexuals will begin to seek homosexual relationships.
People who do not have same-sex attractions are not going to seek a
same-sex relationship simply because the church validates committed
same-sex relationships. (5) Church policy as it relates to homosexuality
evolves as our understanding of sexuality increases, and it is vitally
important that no one comes to the current debate assuming that current
policy is fixed and immutable. The very title of my essay, "The Logical
Next Step," implies prior steps.
When one compares the first substantive statements by the church about
homosexuality published in the 1973 Welfare Packet on Homosexuality
with the 1992 brochure Understanding and Helping Those with Homosexual
Problems, or with Dallin Oaks's article in the September 1995 Ensign,
some changes in policy are evident. The earlier pronouncements implied
that homosexual thoughts were "learned behavior (not inborn)" and resulted
from sexual abuse and/or dysfunctional parents or families, and that
heterosexual relationships should be encouraged for gay members by their
leaders. The church has now recognized that "some thoughts seem to be
inborn," that "parents should not be blamed for the decisions of their
gay children," and that "marriage should not be encouraged" as therapy.
Unfortunately, these positive, progressive steps taken by the church
have not yet significantly improved the church experience for gay and
For the remainder of this essay, I would like to build on the church
experience of my two gay friends to explain why I think the logical
next step for the church in ministering to its gay members should be
some form of sanctioning or affirming committed, monogamous same-sex
relationships. I would like to speculate about what might be the probable
outcomes if bishops and other local leaders were encouraged, rather
than discouraged, to follow the example of my gay friends' former bishop.
Let's face it: most bishops, without encouragement from the First Presidency
and/or general authorities, will continue to be uncomfortable about
providing support for gay members who have chosen a committed, monogamous
relationship. Such encouragement would not necessitate a change in doctrine,
but would require a change in the way the church implements policy regarding
sexual intimacy outside the bonds of marriage. I believe this has the
potential to provide some reward and incentive for gay members to sustain
a committed, monogamous relationship that would have value for the church.
If gay members in committed relationships were able to feel that their
relationship had value and that it would enable them to remain members
of the church, I believe that most of the animosity currently extant
would evaporate overnight. Other benefits to the church would flow naturally.
Gay members would continue to be active in the church and would be able
to make contributions which are sorely missed presently.
Recently I attended a funeral service for one of the great women of
Family Fellowship, Carol Mensel. (Family Fellowship is an LDS-oriented
support group for the families of gays and lesbians.) Her gay son, Robert,
is a talented musician who left the church shortly after discovering
his same-sex attraction. He is currently in a committed relationship
in Oregon, where he was music director for St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
for four years and is currently conductor of the Portland Gay Men's
Choir and director of the Rose City Freedom Band. The family asked Robert
to make the musical arrangements for her funeral. The music was perhaps
the best I have ever heard at any funeral. Robert is a Mormon expatriate
who, I am convinced, would still be an active, contributing member if,
as a church, we had been able to value the integrity of his relationship
with his partner. He is just one example of thousands. It is inconceivable
to me that the church doesn't feel his loss, but many former members
who are gay will so testify.
Does the LDS policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual activity outside
marriage necessitate that all relationships between gay members have
no value? Present policy makes no distinction between committed, monogamous
same-sex relationships and promiscuity; no distinction between responsibility
and sexual license. It occurs to me that placing no value on committed,
monogamous same-sex relationships is at the root of the strained relationship
between the church and its gay members, as well as their immediate and
extended families. One way to value a committed, monogamous same-sex
relationship is to institute a policy that allows gay members in such
a relationship to maintain their membership in the church. Temple recommends
and attendance could still be restricted to members who are in full
compliance with the law of chastity. We have many members of the church
who do not qualify for temple recommends for a variety of reasons. How
many of our members really comply fully with the law of tithing or live
the Word of Wisdom without deviation? Perhaps we would do well to de-emphasize
the word "law" and emphasize the word "ideal." Most members who are
unable to live these ideals completely nonetheless remain active, contributing
members and benefit from their participation in the church. Ironically,
the church did not oppose domestic partnership legislation in Hawaii,
accepting such legislation as a quid pro quo to prevent same-sex marriage
from becoming legal. The church's lack of opposition is a tacit admission
that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships may already have some
value in its eyes.
The reality is that few gay members can function in a heterosexual relationship
or want to live in celibacy. A policy that recognizes this reality and
stresses responsibility and fidelity in a committed relationship would
create a "win-win" situation for the church, its gay members, and their
families. If such a policy were in place, the majority of gay members
would stay in the church and feelings of bitterness, hurt, anguish,
and hostility would dissipate. Gay members would be better served by
attending church and working on their spirituality than by being excommunicated.
Immediate and extended family members could take some pride in encouraging
their gay children to be in committed relationships just as they encourage
their straight children. Such a position would disarm critics who suggest
that too often the emphasis on the family comes at the expense of homosexuals
and those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to find or live
in the ideal family of a father, a mother, and their children. Jonathan
Rauch, writing in the Wall Street Journal (29 Nov. 1994), aptly
states that "divorce, illegitimacy and infidelity are the enemies of
the family." He points out, however, that "reports and articles by 'pro-family'
groups devoted obsessive attention to homosexuality while virtually
A policy of including gay members who are in committed relationships
would allow for the formation and recognition of non-traditional families,
but families nevertheless. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, gay members
are not anti-family; they simply fail to see "family values" as universal
when their own relationships receive no value whatsoever. Gay and lesbian
members would, for perhaps the first time, feel welcome that they finally
have a place in the church. The church could even become a place where
gay members with an interest in things of the spirit could socialize
rather than congregate in gay bars. The exodus of so many gay members
and their families and friends from the church would cease, and acrimonious
feelings and expressions would certainly diminish. Many individuals,
unable to give unqualified support to the church because of this issue,
would return to the fold and once again become its advocates.
Aside from the excommunication of my own son, the most painful experience
for me has been witnessing the failure of attempted heterosexual marriages
involving gay Mormons. Current church policy discourages such marriages,
but gay and lesbian members continue to try them as long as there is
no acceptable alternative for inclusion in the church. Sooner or later,
most of these marriages fail, and the pain and anguish thus produced
are incalculable. The straight spouse, their children, and their extended
families are victimized by both the gay member and a church policy which
continues to stress the importance of a heterosexual temple marriage
without exception. Placing some value on committed, monogamous same-sex
relationships would benefit the church and its members by substantially
reducing the incidence of these tragedies.
In creating a "win-win" situation, the church should consider distancing
itself from those radical elements which continue to spew homophobic
rhetoric and refuse to treat gay members and other homosexuals with
the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. Church leaders
who hold responsible civic positions on school boards and in state legislatures
should be encouraged to be sensitive to and aware of the needs of these
men and women. Young people discovering they have same-sex attraction
need solid information about homosexuality, not condemnation. Some believe
the church has abrogated its responsibility to these young members when
it opposes inclusion of information about homosexuality in school curricula
and provides no credible information about homosexuality in priesthood
and young women's lessons. To the credit of current church leaders,
families affiliated with Family Fellowship have seen a noticeable decline
in condemnation of gay family members from the pulpit in general conference
over the past two years.
In closing, I would like to comment briefly on the morality of homosexuality.
Perhaps I could begin by sharing some of the lyrics from a Billy Joel
song entitled "Shades of Grey."
Some things were perfectly clear, seen with the vision
of youth. No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed a corner on truth.
These days it's harder to say, I know what I'm fighting for. My faith
is falling away, I'm not that sure anymore. Shades of grey wherever
I go, the more I find out the less that I know. Black and white is
how it should be, but shades of grey are the colors I see.
Those who have read my previous essay in the December 1997 issue of
Sunstone entitled "Mugged by Reality" will understand why those
words have relevance for me. My wife, Millie, and I have six children
whom we love deeply. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but in
my judgment they are all responsible men and women. Four of them identify
as straight, two as gay. I don't know why two are gay, but all six are
similar except for their sexual interests. When people ask me what I
want for my gay children, I respond: I want them to have the same rights
and opportunities as my straight children. I do not believe their sexual
orientation is amenable to significant change and I would prefer that
they not live alone. Intuitively, it seems to me that they have the
same capacity to become involved in a moral relationship as my straight
children. The morality of a relationship should be judged on the way
the relationship is conducted, not on who is involved in the relationship.
In my judgment, it would be immoral for my gay children to attempt a
heterosexual relationship simply to comply with church and societal
norms. Heterosexual relationships are not "natural" for my gay children
and homosexual relationships are not "natural" for my straight children.
To insist that my gay children change or act as if they are heterosexual
seems inappropriate to me. I have encouraged my gay children to seek
someone they can love and share their life with and to be moral in that
relationship. I would prefer that such relationships have the church's
blessing and am sad and disappointed that this is not possible at present.
I lament the fact that my gay children and other gay members of the
church do not have a place to meet in the church and, too often, feel
they must socialize elsewhere.
People sometimes criticize me for relying on my own intuition when it
comes to the morality of homosexuality and suggest that I am going against
God. My own intuition also tells me, however, that our current understanding
of what God may have said about homosexuality is incomplete. I've read
the passages and am not prepared to accept the literal interpretation
of what was written since it flies in the face of reason and our current
understanding of homosexuality. God's commandments are not arbitrary
and should be able to stand on their own merits. When someone's only
defense for suggesting that a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship
is immoral because they believe God has declared it so, they are on
a "slippery slope." As Peter Gomes points out in his new book, The
Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: Morrow,
1996), a literal interpretation of the Bible as "God's word" has been
used in the past to defend slavery, anti-semitism, and anti-feminism,
as well as to justify hostility towards homosexuals. Fortunately, we
rarely see literal biblical interpretation used today to justify racial,
ethnic, or gender prejudice. I'm hopeful that we can make similar strides
in understanding homosexuality as we learn to read the Bible with heart
and mind. A commitment to reason, as well as to things of the spirit,
is indispensable when trying to decide what is just and unjust, moral
and immoral. Discussion is essential in revealing new possibilities
for understanding morality. I offer this expression sincerely and with
the fervent hope that it may precipitate more dialogue and hopefully
contribute to solving these vexing conundrums.