Mormons, Homosexuality, Change, and Uncertainty
by Gregory Prince
This talk was given at the 2018 Affirmation Bay Area Conference in San Francisco, California, on Saturday, May 5th, 2018.
Before there was knowledge, there was certitude. In particular, there was certitude about the nature of a post-mortal existence, and that certitude shaped an inflexible view of the nature of the current existence. In other words, if something is not thought to exist in a future state, it cannot be legitimate in this state. What a very small group of men thought they knew about the future largely shaped the world in which LGBT Mormons attempt to live.
Now, to the essential questions: What is homosexuality? How did the LDS Church get to where it now is with respect to its relationship to homosexuality? And where might things go from here? There is yet another question that I cannot answer, but that you should: Why should you give a damn, given the treatment that most of you have received from your church?
In fact, the LDS Church had existed for nearly a century-and-a-half before it gave a damn. While same-gender love had been in existence seemingly since pre-historic times, few people lost much sleep over it, and it did not even have its current name—homosexuality—until the end of the 19th century. Michael Quinn wrote a book that convincingly documented both that same-gender love was well known within the 19th-century LDS Church, and, to paraphrase the late Daniel Schorr, that it wasn’t even ignored.
Demonization and criminalization of homosexuality within the United States occurred over a period of decades following the turn of the 20th century, through an unholy alliance of medicine, which decided it was pathological; religion, which decided it was sinful; and government, which decided it was illegal. By 1960, the medical establishment, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—better known by its acronym, DSM—had labeled it a disease; religious traditions of all flavors regularly denounced it from the pulpit as sinful, sometimes in the same category of sin as murder; and every state in the country had criminalized sodomy.
Note that I did not include science as a partner in the unholy trinity. While both science and medicine, on a good day, are evidence-based, the earlier condemnation of homosexuality by medicine was bias-based. Evidence-based science had little to say until recent decades, although it now speaks in an increasingly thundering voice.
As medicine declared homosexuality an illness, religion did its part by cherry-picking biblical verses to “prove” its sinfulness, often ignoring content in the same verses that had long since been discarded as anachronistic, at best. For instance, many cite this verse in Leviticus as justification for their homophobia: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” And yet, they gloss over the adjacent verses, such as verse 10: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commiteth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Scriptural cherry-picking at its worst.
Mormonism had very little to say on the subject—and nothing by way of official policy or doctrine—until years later than other religious traditions, but its boat was in the same river of thought.
The foundational LDS concept of an open canon provided no clarity, for none of the uniquely LDS scriptures—Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price—even hints at homosexuality. Even the quasi-canonical words of Joseph Smith are completely silent on the subject. Nonetheless, when the church finally spoke on the subject, its voice lacked no certitude. Many of you have seen the musical, “Les Misérables.” In the original Broadway version there was a song, sung by a waif, that said, “I’ve never read the Bible, but I know that it’s true.” Similarly, LDS leaders who have formulated policies and doctrines about LGBT issues had no scientific understanding of homosexuality, and yet they were—and are—absolutely certain that what they have formulated is true and permanent.
The church’s first official policy was announced in the 1968 edition of its General Handbook of Instructions—the LDS equivalent of Roman Catholic canon law. With no explanation, the term “homo-sexual acts” was included in a list of transgressions that may be grounds for formal church discipline—in those days, we called them “church courts.” Since no definitions or guidelines were included, it was left to the local ecclesiastical leader to interpret the alleged transgression and determine a course of action.
Unofficially, however, the shadow of future church president Spencer Kimball loomed large when, one year later, he published The Miracle of Forgiveness, a book that attained de facto canonical status four years thereafter when Apostle Kimball became President Kimball. Chapter Six carried an ominous title that accurately conveyed Kimball’s feelings about homosexuality: “Crime Against Nature.” While taking a complete pass on lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender, Kimball hit hard on male homosexuality, calling it a sin “equal to or greater than that of fornication or adultery.” As far as cause was concerned, Kimball was unequivocal—as have been most subsequent General Authorities: “Many have been misinformed… that ‘God made them that way.’ This is as untrue as any other of the diabolical lies Satan has concocted. It is blasphemy. Man is made in the image of God. Does the pervert think God to be ‘that way’?” And response? Equally confident, Kimball asserted, “Let this individual repent of his perversion, force himself to return to normal pursuits and interests and actions and friendships with the opposite sex, and this normal pattern can become natural again.”
Now, let me shift gears momentarily and introduce the term “paradigm.” It is a conceptual framework within which to place the workings of the natural world. For example, the Laws of Thermodynamics do not actually regulate the natural world; instead, they best describe the self-actuating workings of that world.
Spencer Kimball did not invent a new paradigm of homosexuality; instead, he merely embraced the existing one, which I call the “behavioral paradigm.” Simply stated, it holds that homosexuality is a chosen sexual orientation that can be “un-chosen.” For decades, this paradigm informed all church doctrines, policies, practices and attitudes regarding LGBT people. As long as dogma was the basis of the paradigm, it was generally accepted—except, of course, by LGBT people who knew damned well that they had not chosen their sexual orientation (nor, for that matter, their gender identity, although that issue still is not on the church’s radar screen).
Seven years before Kimball’s book was published, an American physicist by the name of Thomas Kuhn published a book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the term “paradigm shift.” The term merely formalized a process that was well known to experimental scientists: As accumulated data expose flaws in an existing paradigm, the initial response is to fine-tune the paradigm, smooth out rough edges, and create “epicycles” to explain inconsistencies within the paradigm without having to scrap it entirely. At some point, however, a defective paradigm—that is, one that does not square with verifiable data—collapses and is replaced by an entirely new one. That process is called a paradigm shift.
To give you some understanding of the process, think about the ancients who saw the earth as the center of the universe, with the sun and the stars all revolving around it. That paradigm worked until it didn’t, and that happened when scientific instruments quantified the movement of celestial objects. When increasingly accurate measurements showed the paradigm not to be sustainable, it was replaced by a new one, that the sun was the center of the universe. Eventually, more sophisticated measurements showed that the center of the universe is a theoretical point wherein occurred the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and that all matter is racing away from the center at increasing velocity.
Now, back to the behavioral paradigm of homosexuality. A big part of the problem with the paradigm was that it simply did not reflect the reality that LGBT persons lived. But that, alone, was not enough to cause a shift. Instead, the gradual accumulation of scientific data invalidated the notion that sexual orientation could be changed at all, while simultaneously documenting a growing list of biological processes that determine sexual orientation. I will now dip lightly into the science of homosexuality.
Two caveats to get started. One is that in this and subsequent sections I will be speaking of the “LGB” portion of the LGBT world. That is, lesbian, gay and bisexual, all of which refer to sexual orientation—the persons to whom one is sexually attracted. The flip side of the coin is gender identity, which is the gender with which a person self-identifies, independent of that person’s anatomical sex. If the two match, one is called “cis-gender.” If they differ, one is “transgender.” Transgender is an entirely different reality than LGB, one that science has yet to illuminate significantly. I bypass gender identity not because I view it as any less important than sexual orientation, but because the paucity of data doesn’t allow me to say anything useful.
The other caveat is that my remarks will focus primarily on male homosexuality. This is not because I view lesbianism, bisexuality or other “flavors” as any less important, but rather because the nearly universal focus—indeed, fixation—of LDS Church policies, procedures and statements has been gay men.
There a general consensus that between 3.5% and 5% of adults throughout the world self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. There is no persuasive evidence that the percentage has varied significantly across time or geography.
While not representing the majority within a given species, homosexuality is a common phenomenon within the animal kingdom— notwithstanding LDS Apostle Boyd Packer’s claims to the contrary when he said, without documentation, “Animals do not pair up with their own gender.” A well-documented study of sheep showed that, given a choice, 8% of rams mated exclusively with other rams. Long-term same-sex pair bonding has been reported in ungulates and some birds. A standard reference on the subject of homosexuality in animals, published in 1999, documents homosexual behavior in nearly 500 species of animals, while an estimate seven years later put the number at 1,500. I will leave it to you to ponder why this trait perseveres among such an astonishingly broad array of species.
Seven decades ago, when Alfred Kinsey brought the study of human sexuality into the daylight, he placed it on a scale from 0—completely heterosexual—to 6—completely homosexual—with a score of 3 denoting bisexuality. Although Kinsey’s scale moved understanding forward in the short term, it worked against it in the long term, for two reasons. First, it described only one side of the coin: sexual orientation. It said nothing about gender identity. Second, by placing various embodiments of sexual orientation on a single straight-line scale, it suggested that while different sexual orientations may vary from each other quantitatively, they were qualitatively the same. But they are not. Indeed, male and female homosexuality are not simply the mirror images of each other. A special issue of National Geographic in January of 2017, entitled “Gender Revolution,” notes that Facebook offers users fifty terms to characterize their sexuality. Rather than viewing sexuality linearly, one should imagine a multi-dimensional array—something like a galaxy of stars with clusters in some locations, single stars in others, and empty space in between. If you can construct that mental image, you have some appreciation for the complexity of human sexuality in all of its flavors—heterosexuality included—and also can appreciate that the search for a single basis of all homosexuality is as fruitless as the quest for the Holy Grail.
In attempting to shed light on the causes of homosexuality, I turn first to genetics. In using that word, I refer to the sequences of nucleotides in DNA—the beads on the string—that constitute the blueprint by which genes produce proteins. “Epigenetics,” on which I will spend more time, refers to the large variety of mechanisms that control how the genes function.
Dean Hamer, a pioneer of the molecular biology of sexuality, didn’t find the gay gene he sought, but he did find that gay brothers had an increased probability of sharing markers in the Xq28 region of the X chromosome. While not identifying a single cause underlying male homosexuality, Hamer’s work, which has been confirmed broadly by other laboratories, provided strong evidence for a contribution of Xq28, and hence, for genetics. More recent studies have shown that an additional marker, this one on chromosome 8, is shared between homosexual brothers at a rate significantly higher than between straight brothers.
Before molecular biology came of age, family studies, wherein homosexuality clusters in certain families, and twinning studies pointed towards a significant, although not decisive role of genetics. The twinning studies are particularly compelling. There are two types of twins. Identical twins have identical DNA sequences, while fraternal twins share variable percentages of DNA sequences with each other. If genetics were the only factor underlying homosexuality, one would expect 100% concordance among identical twins—that is, both twins would either be heterosexual or homosexual. If genetics were not a factor at all, one would expect the same concordance among fraternal twins as among identical twins, since fraternal twins develop in the same in utero environment.
In fact, the numbers fall between the two extremes. The concordance among identical twins is up to 60%, but among fraternal twins, it is only about 15%. This is strong evidence that while genetics is a factor, it is not the only factor that determines sexual orientation. The other, and more dominant, factor is epigenetics.
From the time the fertilized egg is implanted in the wall of the uterus until birth, the developing fetus is immersed—literally—in a sea of maternal factors that help to shape its development. Sometimes, epigenetics can take the fetus down a different pathway than the genetic code prescribes. I will walk you through two important examples of how epigenetics can shift sexual orientation towards homosexuality.
The first is the birth-order effect, which is seen only in males. It is estimated that 15% to 28% of gay men owe their sexual orientation to this effect. While the mechanism is not completely understood, it appears to be due to interactions between the male fetus and the maternal immune system that have increased consequences for each subsequent male birth. After the birth of one son the likelihood of each subsequent son of the same biological mother being gay increases by 33%. If the likelihood of the first is 5%, then that of the second is 7%. The effect is additive, such that the seventh son would have a 28% chance of being gay. Consider that in light of the large size of many LDS families. Daughters do not experience a similar phenomenon, nor is the effect on sons influenced by the number of older sisters. And the effect is only true for right-handed sons. Who knew that this could be so complicated?
The other example is probably more important in causing homosexuality. It is called “epigenetically canalized sexual development.” In plainer English, at a very early stage of fetal development, epigenetic factors that are not part of the DNA but can be passed from either parent to the fetus affect the way the “sex” of the fetal brain is imprinted. What that means is this: testosterone is present in all developing fetuses, but in higher levels in the male. But in order for testosterone to exert its effect in imprinting maleness into the fetal brain, there must be a receptor for it within that brain. Generally, male fetuses have higher levels of testosterone and higher levels of testosterone receptors; while females have lower levels of testosterone and lower levels of testosterone receptors.
In some instances, however, there is a mismatch that is determined by an epigenetic factor inherited from a parent. This can result in male embryos with low levels of receptors, in which case testosterone cannot fully exert its masculinizing effect on the brain. Alternatively, female embryos can have high levels of receptors, in which case even the normally low testosterone levels that circulate within the blood of female fetuses are preferentially grabbed by those receptors and allowed to exert a masculinizing effect on their brains.
All of this brain imprinting occurs prenatally. At the time of puberty, when testosterone or estrogen levels begin to spike, the imprinted brain is impervious to their effect, notwithstanding the gender of the genitalia. In other words, a female with a fetal-masculinized brain will be sexually oriented towards women; while a male with a fetal-feminized brain will be sexually oriented towards men, hormones—and hormone therapy—notwithstanding.
Since these epigenetic factors are not necessarily inherited equally, one identical twin may be gay while the other is straight, in spite of them having identical DNA. Identical twins are not as identical as we once supposed.
The genesis of sexual orientation is an area of science that is undergoing much cutting-edge research, and it is certain that future discoveries will elucidate more examples of homosexuality being biologically determined, whether through genetics, epigenetics, or a combination. But the bottom line has already been written: homosexuals are, indeed, “born that way.”
With science as our backdrop, I will now walk you through the rationale underlying LDS policies, procedures, doctrines and attitudes relating to homosexuality. The earliest church-written guide for ecclesiastical leaders, published in 1973, chided “professionally trained people” who differed among themselves in their opinions regarding the cause of homosexuality, whereas “the gospel makes the issue clear. Homosexuality… is learned behavior (not inborn).” General church officers, most notably Apostle Boyd Packer, were even more forceful in denouncing any notion of a biological basis. “There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just ‘that way’ and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life.”
If, as these sources claimed, biology is not the cause, then what is? LDS Church leaders have, for over a century, posited a creative array of causes, the first being, of all things, monogamy—this at a time when they were attempting to justify polygamy. Others included contagion, Satanic influence, pornography, curiosity, and proselytizing. None was tempered by uncertainty.
The aversion to a biological paradigm of homosexuality is common among other conservative religious traditions, which justify their sin-based viewpoint by a highly selective reading of biblical verses; but the Mormon construct is more nuanced. Spencer Kimball’s First Presidency wrote, “To believe that immoral behavior is inborn or hereditary is to deny that men have agency to choose between sin and righteousness… It is inconceivable that—as some involved in homosexual behavior claim—he would permit some of his children to be born with desires and inclinations which would require behavior contrary to the eternal plan.”
Yet another explanation derives from the Latter-day Saint belief that one’s identity, including gender, began prior to birth—that is, spirit beings in a pre-mortal state bore the identity that they would later have as physical personages—and will remain unaltered in a post-mortal, resurrected state. Using again as a starting point the assumption that homosexuality is inherently sinful, this exercise in circular reasoning goes on to conclude that God is incapable of making a mistake that would place a person into a sinful state because of biological imprinting, and therefore there can be no biological basis for homosexuality. Boyd Packer gave this explanation in 1976: “From our pre-mortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men—masculine, manly man—ultimately to become husbands and fathers.”
Having proclaimed without reservation that homosexuality is a choice rather than a biological imprint, church leaders naturally concluded that the choice could and should be reversed—that homosexuality could and should be “cured.” Various “cures” were put forth over several decades, with some focused on self-help and others on interventions by professionals—interventions that were at times barbaric. All had one thing in common: they didn’t work. And they can’t work, because you cannot change a biological imprint once it has been placed upon the developing brain, and the brain—not the genitalia—dictates sexual orientation. Scientists who were paying attention could see this coming for decades. Religionists, on the other hand, are guided by dogma rather than science. Confronted with data, they generally respond by shooting the messenger and becoming science-deniers.
Now, let’s take a step back from science and look at the nature of church doctrines and policies. Often, these begin simply because the guy in charge decided they should begin. Over time many change, either because reality steps up, or because the process that we call revelation causes leaders to change—perhaps they are one-in-the-same. A paradox is that religion, which deals with the least verifiable—the unseen world inhabited by God—uses the language of certitude. So one must learn to filter the language of certitude when dealing with religious assertions.
One graphic example is the very nature of God, as taught by Joseph Smith. By looking critically at his sequential accounts of his First Vision, we can see that he changed the nature of the Godhead as his own theology evolved. Initially, it was “modalistic”—that is, there was only one God, but he could appear in different forms. By 1835, that had evolved to a bipartite Godhead, with the Father being a personage of spirit, and the Son being a personage of flesh. The Holy Ghost was an ethereal essence, something like the collective consciousness of the Father and Son. By 1838, the tripartite Godhead taught within Mormonism today emerged, with the Father and the Son both having physical tabernacles, and the Holy Ghost moving up to a spiritual personage. When Joseph Smith said revelation was “line upon line,” he wasn’t joking. Often changing, but never lacking certitude.
Now, let’s look at a major paradigm shift within Mormonism, which occurred in 1978. After more than a century of denying priesthood ordination to males of black African descent, the church abolished the policy. Along the way, church leaders bought into a pervasive doctrine of “cursed lineage” that was used by other churches, as well as governments, to justify discrimination against blacks. Within the LDS world, the curse came not from biology, but from choice. Sound familiar? In other words, in an attempt to justify a discriminatory policy, church leaders—most notably Brigham Young—taught that some spirits in the pre-mortal world had been valiant enough not to be thrown out of heaven, but not quite valiant enough to merit a first-class ticket to this world. Most church members bought into the explanation, without questioning, for more than a century. Science eventually made it clear that skin color is biology, not choice. Indeed, we now know that the human race originally was black-skinned, and that light skin represented mutations that had a selective advantage as groups migrated to northern latitudes and needed higher levels of sun-induced vitamin D. If you want to ponder a thought during a boring meeting sometime, consider the physical appearance of God, including skin pigmentation, if, indeed, humankind, which began in Africa and not Missouri, was created in his image. In the case of the priesthood ban, practical considerations such as the Brazilian temple and the desire on the part of President Kimball to take the gospel to all nations, including black African nations, caused the paradigm to collapse before science was able to lay waste to the whole concept of race.
With respect to LGBT issues, however, the behavioral paradigm is being maintained in spite of many practical considerations that challenge its validity. The emerging consensus regarding the biological paradigm may be—should be—what eventually causes collapse of the behavioral paradigm. When and how will that happen? I have no clue. But in the meantime, you need to live your lives without prejudice from your chosen faith tradition. For most of you, that continues to be the LDS Church. If you choose to try to stay, how do you do so in the face of a hierarchy that continues to be homophobic while saying, “Damn the torpedoes of science”?
First, you must take care of your own mental health. Therapists are seeing more and more clearly that many who are LGBT, and particularly those who are heavily invested in organized religion, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD. Laura Dulin, a mental health therapist known to many of you, said of PTSD:
“I think a lot of people are misdiagnosed. They may show up as classic depression, but the actual trauma is what it means to be rejected by your family, told by your bishop that you have committed a sin next to murder, and you are integrating some idea about yourself as a sexual deviant who is dangerous. And then the symptoms showing up are more like people having flashbacks and being triggered into fight or flight, or having nightmares about what happened. Or, just by walking into a church or anticipating seeing their families again, their whole body is getting into distress. These are more the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than they would be a classic anxiety disorder or depression.
Initially, the trauma is so severe that thinking about God is synonymous with thinking about rejection from the community, rejection from God’s kingdom, and being worthless. The other side of the coin, staying in the church, means I’m cutting myself off from ever having a partner, and it causes all these psychological problems and pain that comes with that. No matter which way you cut it, people who left and people who stayed can still be experiencing the same type of symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”
In a doctoral dissertation completed just a few months ago, Brian Simmons found that three-quarters of the LGBT Mormons in his study fit the profile of PTSD based just on their religious experiences—a rate ten-fold higher than for the general U.S. adult population. PTSD is a chronic condition that will not resolve itself, your’s and your bishop’s good intentions notwithstanding. It requires ongoing professional therapy, whether you choose to stay in the church or to leave. So take care of yourselves first.
Second, come to grips with your religion on your terms. Some of you may have seen the PBS documentary entitled “The Mormons,” which was broadcast eleven years ago. I worked for two years with its producer, Helen Whitney, and as she was putting the final touches on it she said, “I’ve interviewed hundreds of Mormons. You have a very good religion, but too many of your people borrow it. They need to own it.” She was absolutely right, and I have seen ever since then how many people show up without ever taking possession of their religion.
While ownership has many dimensions, the one that I wish you to consider is the essential relationship between you and the church. Jesus put it this way: “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” You must decide if your church is made for you, or if you are made for it. I hope you decide the former. If you let it serve you, you will move to a place where you can then help to make it better; but if you merely become fuel for the engine, your story will not end well. Engage at whatever level works best for you. I’d much rather see someone engaged at 10% and happy, than at 100% and miserable.
As you engage, look for friendly ecosystems within the church. Some may be virtual communities on the Internet, but others may be real communities of kindred souls within or beyond congregational boundaries who can support each other even when injurious messages come from the institution. Within those ecosystems, give and love unconditionally, even when others around you don’t. And as you get yourselves to firmer ground, reach out to those who are more in need than you. You’ve heard the story of crabs in a bucket that will pull down any that attempt to climb out. Do the opposite, and if you climb to the edge of the bucket of despair, reach back and help others to join you in leaving despair behind.
What happens if you give it your best shot and it doesn’t work? This question came up two years ago in a symposium at which Marlin Jensen and I spoke. A young man, likely gay, said to Marlin, “You talked about leaning into Mormonism, even through discomfort. What would you say to somebody whose leaning in doesn’t allow him to move past the discomfort of doubter’s confusion, but actually is chipping away at his sense of identity and value?” Marlin’s response was as surprising as it was refreshing: “I wouldn’t want you to lean into Mormonism if that causes you anything but joy. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I think it could be; I think it represents the universal truth. But if in a given case it doesn’t work, I’m with you. I would love you notwithstanding and wish you well in whatever life’s path you take.” There is the prophetic voice!
I am not suggesting that you put your lives into an indefinite holding pattern in the hope that things will change for the better in the church. Instead, live the best, fullest life you can in the face of things as they now are, and under terms of engagement that work for you. Carpe diem.
But let me at least speculate a bit about future possibilities. Current church doctrines, policies, practices, and attitudes with respect to LGBT people represent “reverse engineering”—that is, they accept as an unquestioned “endpoint” an afterlife in which there is no gay, and thus have no means of legitimizing gay in this life. The way to delegitimize gay in this life is to say that it is merely a bad choice that can be reversed. But is our afterlife theology truly finalized? If you go back to the beginning of the Restoration, you find a radically different afterlife theology than we now have—one where there was universal salvation with no gradations of glory. Do we yet know much about the afterlife? No. Our understanding of many “great and important things” yet to be revealed is evolving, and probably will continue to do so, both backward- and forward-looking. I have yet to identify any significant doctrine of Mormonism that has undergone no change since the Restoration began.
At times, I have the mental image of the Children of Israel, who wandered in the desert for forty years before their “groupthink” evolved to a point where God allowed them into the Promised Land. LGBT issues within Mormonism are generational, just as they are throughout American society, and as younger Latter-day Saints move up the org chart and eventually settle into some of the Red Chairs, they will bring their younger worldview with them. And the groupthink, even among the Red Chairs, will evolve. Within the lifetime of many of us have come changes for the better that would have been inconceivable during the Dark Ages of the Kimball years. Has change come to a permanent halt? I think not, although I cannot predict what and when change will occur. But I do know that the image of the Body of Christ cannot be complete until we move past the point where one part can say to another, “We have no need of thee.”
In the meantime, live fully in the present, and allow faith to make you comfortable with uncertainty. And always remember one of the most profound statements of Joseph Smith: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.”