The Case of the Missing Lesbians: Where are the Queer Women in the LDS LGBTQIA/SGA world?
By Hermia Lyly
During one summer in college, I was in a short-lived relationship with a fun-loving, muscular, wealthy Italian-American guy. It was the Mormon version of a summer fling: I didn’t think of him as the “eternal companion” type, and we were both much more interested in going tubing, rock-climbing, cycling, and swimming together than we were in talking about marriage or our futures. When I had dated other guys, I was very serious about the possibility of marriage, and as a result I was very guarded with physical affection because I didn’t want to appear sexually impure. I was afraid that if I appeared too sexual, they would break up with me because they wouldn’t want to marry a sexually aggressive woman. With this guy–for the sake of the story we’ll call him George–it was very different. I didn’t care what George thought of me, because I was dating George just for fun and I had no long-term plans for our relationship. I was fine with kissing George because it didn’t mean anything.
It turned out that George really liked kissing. Lots and lots of kissing. Don’t worry, George never pushed past my boundaries, and he never kissed me or touched me without my consent. But whenever we kissed, he seemed far more interested in it than I was. At first it was fun because I was flattered to think that someone liked me enough to want to kiss me. But it was never exciting or romantic for me, and soon it became boring. I began to get distracted when we kissed. While he was doing his best to be passionate and tender, I was thinking about my homework, the groceries I needed to buy, or the funny joke that my professor told in class. It wasn’t that George was bad at kissing, it was just that I wasn’t interested in kissing him.
What was wrong with me? George was an attractive guy, and several of my girlfriends had admired his tanned skin, toned chest, and dark eyes. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t enjoy kissing him. I was troubled by the complete apathy that I felt when I was close to him. After a great deal of time thinking about what was wrong with me (and most of this thinking happened while I was kissing George), I had a realization: I was just super righteous and could not be overcome by lustful temptations. Thanks to all my scripture reading, personal prayer, and church attendance, no one could tempt me to feel sexually aroused. Besides, my Sunday School teachers had always taught me that men were just naturally more sexual than women. “Everything’s normal,” I told myself, “I’m just a really righteous Mormon woman with a low libido, but that’s okay because women are naturally have lower libidos than men.”
Boy was I wrong.
Let’s fast forward to a couple years later, when I slowly came to realize that I might not be the heterosexual woman that I always thought I was. Exploring the intersection of LDS culture and queer culture was equally terrifying and exhilarating, and even though I wasn’t totally sure of claiming a queer identity for myself, I was fascinated by the different stories and viewpoints that I discovered. Yet I was also frustrated by how few people I could relate with on LDS LGBTQIA/SSA websites. Nearly every personal profile or coming-out video featured a white man dressed in Sunday clothes sitting in a beautiful armchair and talking about how he knew he was gay since he was four or five years old. That wasn’t me. I was a poor college student who had a hard time going to church, and didn’t have any beautiful armchairs to sit in while someone interviewed me about my sexuality. Most importantly, I was not a man, and I didn’t doubt my heterosexuality until my early twenties. How was I supposed to relate to this crowd of men who had years of experience and confidence in their sexual attractions?
Where were the women? I scrolled through dozens of videos and profiles, but all I could find were straight women talking about their relationships with their gay husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, or grandsons. Stories of gay men were available at every click, but the stories of queer Mormon women were rare and difficult to find. I began to question whether or not I could actually claim to be a queer woman, because it appeared that the only queer LDS people were men. Was there a place for me, as a woman, in the LDS LGBTQIA/SGA world?
After more searching, I was eventually able to find stories and profiles of a few queer women. I was relieved to discover that there were women with stories that I could relate to, but I was also frustrated that there were so few of them. As a feminist, I felt betrayed. These gay men so desperately wanted to express their experiences in order to show people of marginalized sexual orientations that they were not alone. Why couldn’t they recognize that in the process, they were marginalizing queer women?
I found similar circumstances at LDS LGBTQIA/SGA gatherings that I attended. At any given LDS LGBTQIA/SGA gathering, the attendees consisted of about 50% allies, 45% queer men, and 5% queer women. Usually this meant that it was just me and one other queer woman. As a result, our conversations were often about the lack of queer women in the LDS LGBTQIA/SGA world. We spoke quietly in the corner as the people around us talked about the queer community as “the gays” and spoke about the queer male experience as if it was the default experience. They talked about showing love to “our sons, brothers, nephews, and uncles,” as if queer women didn’t exist. When I introduced myself to them, they often questioned my queer identity because I dressed in feminine clothes, had long hair, and didn’t appear butch. As far as they were concerned, the queer world was masculine: if you identified as LGBTQIA/SGA, then you must either be a man or dress like one.
After many talks with queer LDS women about the lack of queer women in the LDS LGBTQIA/SGA world, I’ve developed three theories about why queer women are missing and how we can stop marginalizing queer women.
The first theory is simple: queer women are missing because we have failed to make their (our) stories public. When I began exploring LDS LGBTQIA/SGA culture, the lack of queer women caused me to doubt my own queer identity. I can’t help but think that many other queer women have had the same experience, and have repressed their queer identity because they feel there is no place for them in LDS LGBTQIA/SGA culture. In order to make queer women feel welcome, we must make queer women visible, and share their stories just as much as we share the stories of queer men. Most LDS LGBTQIA/SGA groups display a heavy inequality between queer men and queer women. Here is just a sampling of the visual inequality between men and women:
- Voice(s) of Hope, a website that shares personal stories of LDS LGBTQIA/SGA people and allies, currently features 51 interviews. Of these interviews, only 13 feature women, and of those 13 women, only 7 are queer women.
- Mormons and Gays, the LDS Church’s official website regarding same-sex attraction, features 14 videos that focus on stories and viewpoints of specific individuals. Of these 14 videos, only 3 feature women. Only one of those 3 women are queer. And let’s not forget the title that characterizes all individuals in the LGBTQIA/SGA spectrum as gay.
- The BYU Understanding Same-Gender Attraction YouTube channel contains 22 videos, with 17 men and 12 women featured. While this is a substantially larger percentage of women than Voice(s) of Hope and Mormons and Gays, only 8 of the 12 women are queer women. That’s only 8 queer women out of 29 people.
How can we show love and acceptance to queer women if we marginalize them within an already marginalized community? We can begin the process of de-marginalizing queer women by sharing more stories, videos, and viewpoints of queer women, and by presenting queer men and women equally.
The second theory is that queer women are missing because they haven’t yet realized they are queer. As illustrated in my story about my boyfriend George, I assumed that my lack of sexual attraction to him was because I had been taught in church that women had naturally lower libidos than men. In each and every lesson on sexual purity at church, my teachers reminded us that boys had a higher sex drive than girls. They spoke of women as non-sexual beings who wanted relationships for spiritual, romantic, or emotional reasons. Men, on the other hand, were primarily sexual creatures who were easily tempted by pornography and immodesty, and wanted relationships for sexual reasons. By spreading the myth of women as non-sexual beings and men as sexually voracious, my teachers hoped to safeguard us against predatory men. Instead, they taught us to repress our sexualities. Whether our sexuality was lesbian, straight, bisexual, pan, demi, or otherwise, we felt guilty about any sexual arousal, and thought that feeling no sexual emotions whatsoever was wholesome, natural, and righteous.
As I have shared my story with other queer women, many of them have identified with this narrative. They ascribed their complete lack of sexual arousal in their relationships with men to their righteousness and their naturally low feminine libido. As one of my lesbian friends said: “There are thousands of queer LDS women. It’s just that they don’t know it yet. They’re in unfulfilling opposite-sex marriages assuming that they just have problems with sex or that their non-existent libido is a divine trait of womanhood. Mormon men are constantly told that they are sexual beings, which is why they can recognize their sexuality from such an early age.”
The problem with teaching women that they are not sexual beings is that it damages the sexualities of all women, regardless of orientation. It teaches women that if they don’t like sexual affection, it’s not a problem–after all, they’re just women, and women naturally don’t like sexual affection. In order to allow young girls to develop their sexualities in a healthy way, we must stop spreading the myth that they are not as sexual as boys.
The third theory is that queer women are missing from LDS LGBTQIA/SGA culture because they leave the Church at a faster rate than queer men. As many Mormon women on the Bloggernacle have pointed out, it is difficult enough being a woman in a extremely patriarchal church, let alone being a queer woman. Additionally, Mormon culture tends to value married women over unmarried women. Temple-worthy queer men who choose to remain in the church can still receive the priesthood, regardless of their sexuality. In a culture that all too often equates the priesthood with motherhood, a life void of priesthood, marriage, and children is a life as a Mormon outcast. Until women are equal to men in the Church–through actual changes in hierarchy and structure, not just by having elaborate Mother’s Day celebrations or lip-service–queer women will be a double-minority in the Church, and it will be harder for them to feel welcome.
It’s hard to start conversations like this one when it feels like we, as a church, are so far behind in our own feminism. How can we discuss queer women’s issues before we eliminate sex shaming from Young Women lessons? What could we gain by attempting to incorporate queer feminism into a structure that likely will not be willing to even entertain the notion for another half century? More importantly, how can we converse in a way that gives equal consideration to the experiences of LDS LGBTQIA/SGA people of all genders, when even among straight Mormons, women are marginalized and barred from the majority of leadership roles? The path to including queer women in the LDS Church is difficult, and requires a great deal of change. But if we profess to believe in Heavenly Parents who invite “all to come unto [them] and partake of [their] goodness; and den[y] none that come unto [them], black and white, bond and free, male and female,” it is the only path that is available to us.