Lesbian Mormon Identities: A Conversation with Jeanna Jacobsen
by Hugo Salinas
Jeanna Jacobsen recently finished a dissertation titled “Mormon Women’s Experiences with Same-sex Sexuality.” A Ph.D. in social work, Jacobsen conducted interviews with 24 women who have experienced some kind of same-sex sexuality (thoughts, feelings, attractions, behaviors, affections, or relationships) and are or have been members of the LDS Church. Jacobsen, who identifies as a lesbian of Mormon background, describes in her dissertation how these women’s experiences affected their religious and sexual identities.
My impression is that a number of causes combine to make LDS lesbian women virtually invisible. Would you agree with that statement?
I think there are a number of reasons that LDS lesbian women do not have more visibility. First of all, there are simply less women than men who identify as primarily same-sex attracted, so male voices tend to dominate LDS LGBT communities. Women experience both sexism and hetero-sexism. Another issue is that many LDS women, regardless of sexual orientation, who are not married to a man feel invisible or like second-class citizens in their Mormon wards due to the Church’s emphasis on priesthood and family. Experiencing same-sex sexuality is just one more reason why women feel like they do not belong and this may create a situation where women leave the Mormon Church for welcoming feminine spaces or hide within the Mormon community.
You quote studies suggesting that lesbians who accept their identity and disclose it to others tend to have more self-esteem and be happier. Does this mean that it is good for lesbian Mormon women to come out?
Not necessarily. Women should actively work on self-acceptance and self-worth. But, accepting oneself does not mean that it is safe to come out. One needs to consider family and community impacts. The potential loss of social supports may be too difficult to endure during certain times of one’s life without first building an accepting community. This does not mean hiding one’s sexual orientation is the best option. Most women I spoke with felt drained from hiding this important aspect about themselves from others, especially family. For this reason, they eventually came to a place where hiding produced more pain and coming out was a step in fully accepting themselves. Coming out is a personal experience and the right time is unique to the circumstances of the situation.
You say that most of the women you interviewed felt as though they had to choose between their sexual and religious identities. What are the outcomes of this choice?
The outcomes are as varied as the women with whom I spoke. In the end, the women chose the lifestyle and belief system that created the greatest sense of happiness in their lives. The Mormon Church often teaches in black and white, so many women did feel as though they had to choose between their religious identity and a same-sex relationship. Half of the women in my study left the Church and no longer identified as Mormon. Two of these women went on to identify with other religions, although several others connected with their spirituality through other means (such as nature or meaningful work). Re-establishing a belief system after losing the rigid, structure of Mormonism is difficult and spirituality can suffer.
Twelve women continued to identify as Mormon. These women attempted to find some balance between their sexual and religious identities, such as believing the core tenets of the Mormon religion but changing beliefs about God’s acceptance of their sexuality. Most these women were not active because they choose to pursue a same-sex relationship and did not feel comfortable in Mormon communities given the negative messages about their sexuality. Only four continued to actively participate in the Mormon Church. Two chose celibacy. The final two women participate in services to the extent they are able given their same-sex relationship status and are welcomed in their wards.
Can you think of specific things that bishops or Relief Society presidents could do to make it easier for lesbians to feel loved and welcomed in their wards?
Creating a welcoming environment for any single adult female would help. Women need to hear messages beyond just the importance of a heterosexual family and having a priesthood holder in the home. When they don’t or can’t fit the ideal, they leave. Bishops and Relief Society presidents need to show their love. Demonstrate acceptance, recognize the difficulty she might be experiencing due to internal conflict, and do not diminish or dismiss her sexuality. Letting women know that they are welcome in church regardless of her relationship status (including involvement in a same-sex relationship) goes a long way in maintaining someone’s desire to stay.