Note: This is the first in a series of articles that will directly address upcoming 2014 Church curriculum lesson material that could unnecessarily lead to editorializing on homosexuality and same-sex marriage and be hurtful to members of our community. We recommend you prayerfully consider how you might share this article with others. Additional ideas are included below.
To many individuals, phrases like “strengthening and preserving the family” or “defending the family,” sound like a commonsense invocation of concern about the well-being of one of the fundamental building blocks of society. Of course we should strengthen, preserve and defend the family. When such phrases are paired with other phrases like “forces in the world seeking to undermine the family” or “erosion of family values” or “attacks on the family,” again, many people hear such phrases as commonsense observations about the many risks, pitfalls and dangers that every family faces.
However, to most gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people, and to their families and loved ones, such phrases often sound menacing and demoralizing. We are accustomed to hearing people describe the very existence of LGBT people as a threat to the family. We are accustomed to being told that gay people who desire to establish committed, loving bonds are “attacking the family” merely because they want to form or preserve a family of their own. Many of us were disowned by our families of origin when we came out. Though of course most Church members do not approve of bullying and rejecting behavior, we are used to seeing gay kids bullied in their schools, kicked out of their homes, exposed to violence, and reduced to homelessness and prostitution all in the name of “defending the family.” In our experience, rhetoric about “defending the family” against “worldly attacks” acts as a wedge to separate us from our families, our loved ones, and our church. So when we hear Sacrament Meeting or Stake Conference or General Conference talks, or Sunday School or Priesthood or Relief Society lessons announced that bear titles with those kinds of phrases, we are often leery.
Ironically, LGBT people understand perhaps better than most how important the family is, because so many of us have experienced firsthand the fear of being rejected or disowned by our families just at the moment in our lives when we are most vulnerable and most in need of family support. Many of us have been rejected, disowned and expelled from our families. We know firsthand the power of the family, either to heal or to abuse. On the other hand, when our families rally around us and support us, we experience a depth of joy and gratitude that many heterosexual people who take the love and support of their families for granted won’t. If you want some sense of the depth of feelings LGBT people experience in relation to family, attend a Pride parade in any American city and watch how enthusiastically family support organizations like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) are received.
Despite nervousness about the potential for a topic like “Strengthening and Preserving the Family” to veer into an anti-LGBT direction, this is a very important topic to LGBT people. The material provided in chapter 4 of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (pp. 72-81) is fortunately inspiring and inclusive. It emphasizes how parents strengthen their families through devotion and loyalty to their spouses and to their children.
In this chapter, Joseph Fielding Smith is held up as a role-model, and is described engaging in gender-non-stereotypical behaviors such as baking pies and nursing sick children. He is portrayed disciplining his children through moral suasion rather than through sternness or corporal punishment. He is portrayed, in other words, as a father who led through example while respecting the agency of his children. This is the kind of upbringing I had in my LDS home, and the kinds of examples my LDS parents set, and I am the better for it. Families are strengthened when parents spend time with their children, and when childrenlearn how to be less selfish and to serve others. If families fail, this lesson implicitly teaches, it is not due to any forces assailing it from without, but because of centrifugal forces from within of selfishness, lack of devotion and insensitivity. The lesson implicitly rejects the assumption that “strengthening and preserving the family” requires us to focus on or scapegoat others.
The lesson discusses the eternal nature of family, arguing that to deprive human beings of family in the next life would be to condemn them to eternal loss and loneliness. Eternity is an extension of the sociality that we establish here – a very Mormon concept that goes back to the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Thus, whatever joy we hope to experience as a family in the next life, we need to begin to practice in this life.
The yearnings we all have for connection, and the yearning for our intimate connections with one another to transcend this mortal coil are universal, experienced by all people, LGBT and straight. Whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage doctrinally, the movement for marriage equality exists because gay men and lesbians are asking for the right to make lasting commitments to one another. They want relationships that inculcate commitment, mutual devotion and selflessness. Many same-sex couples care for and nurture children, either from previous marriages, or through foster care or adoption. Instead of avoiding parental responsibilities, many LGBT individuals embrace them. Whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage, it could at least be acknowledged that gay couples who seek it are actually embracing the kinds of family values this lesson holds as a central purpose of our mortal existence.
Although Church leaders have gone on record opposing legal same-sex marriage, through the MormonsAndGays.org website and through publications such as the brochure God Loveth His Children, the Church has also made it clear that they expect parents to embrace and unconditionally love their LGBT children, and they expect LDS wards to welcome and minister to all people, including LGBT people, regardless of relationship status. Expelling or abandoning a child who has come out as lesbian, gay, bi or transgender would be contrary to LDS family values. Treating any member of the family with unkindness or disrespect, or making any member of the family feel unwelcome would be contrary to LDS family values. LDS family values should encourage us to listen to and attempt to understand one another, not to judge or condemn without knowing what it is like for our LGBT brothers and sisters and sons and daughters to walk in their own shoes. LDS baptismal covenants constrain us to “bear one another’s burdens,” and to strive to become of “one heart and of one mind.” How we can do that without welcoming, listening to, and seeking to understand LGBT children of our Heavenly Father, our own spirit brothers and sisters?
Fortunately, there are many examples of LDS families and wards applying these principles. I hope that in coming months and years, as Church members study and teach each other about the importance of the family in talks and lessons, they will continue to focus on the core gospel principles of love, devotion, service, selflessness and inclusion. I hope that, rather than scapegoating others they don’t understand, they will continue to focus on things that we each – all of us, LGBT and straight – can do to be more loving and Christ-like and to make positive contributions to the families we all belong to.