Revelation, Agency, and Integrity: A Discussion of Comments Made in General Conference
Revelation, Agency, and Integrity: A Discussion of Comments Made in General Conference
On October 9 Affirmation sponsored a conference call to discuss the recent LDS General Conference, which included statements by Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson, condemning same-sex marriage. What follows is a transcript of the discussion.
» See also: Strategies for Dealing with Discrimination
Tawnya: Hello, this is Tawnya Smith, and I’m your host for this teleconference, A Response to General Conference October 2013. I’m pleased to introduce our panel that is here to respond to your thoughts, feelings, and concerns about the conference. We’d like to first introduce the president of Affirmation, Randall Thacker. I would like to thank him for his dedication and all the work he has done since the conference to provide support for the Affirmation community. He was also instrumental in pulling off this call in such short notice. Thank you very much Randall.
Also, from the Affirmation leadership I’d like to introduce Tina Richerson. Tina is a vice president of Affirmation. Also on the call is Bob Rees. Currently, he teaches Mormon Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and at the University of California Berkeley. He blogs on LGBT issues at, No More Strangers LGBT Mormon Forum. And a welcome to Tim Weymann. Tim is a gay man who was raised Mormon, and is currently a licensed clinical social worker in the Salt Lake City area.
This panel is comprised of individuals – some who are LDS, some who are not; some who are active, some who are inactive; some who have left the church, some who have a testimony, some who do not. We are gay, lesbian, or allies. It is our wish to welcome all perspectives and honor the feelings of everyone, even if, and when, they do not reflect our own personal views.
The Purpose of This Panel
Tawnya: We are not here to gain a consensus or come to agreement concerning these issues. Rather, we are here to speak and listen deeply to one another so that we can learn and then reflect upon our own inner truth for guidance. We are all on our own journeys and we have different needs at different points along the way. We hope that this discussion will be helpful to you wherever you are on your journey.
The purpose of this call is to create a safe space for callers to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns, receive support, and for all of us to benefit from a rich dialogue. Because we want to create an environment where we can be completely honest and free to be ourselves, we are not going to make this call available as a recording on the website as we have done with past teleconference calls. This call is being recorded only for our own purposes for making a written account of the call. You will not be identified in any way in this account, so please feel free to be real.
Our format tonight will be totally structured around the comments of you, our callers. Before we start taking calls, I would like to take a few moments to bring us together as a group. Please make sure that you are physically comfortable and that you will not be distracted if at all possible. Take a few deep breaths and release from your body the stresses of the day. Gently set them aside for now. Take a few more deep breaths, and now consider why did you want to join the call tonight? What is important about the conference? Why do we need to discuss it? Why is it important to you? If it is helpful to jot down a point or two, a question or comment, we invite you to do that right now. It might help you better listen to the call while you’re waiting for your turn to speak. As you take a minute to do that, I’m going to turn it back over to our operator who will give more specific instructions for how to indicate that you would like to ask a question or make a comment.
Palpable Pain and Strong Emotions
Tawnya: While we’re waiting [for the first question], I’d like to ask Randall Thacker to comment briefly upon his general thoughts about the General Conference and maybe talk to us a little bit about what you perceive as the reaction within Affirmation generally.
Randall: Hello everybody, it’s nice to be together with you this evening. I asked Tawnya if she would host this call for us because on Sunday I could palpably feel the pain and some of the strong emotions that were in the community. I think a very important part of what we’re trying to do at Affirmation is help people be able to find peace of mind, a space of healing, and a way to move forward with their lives in a healthy and productive way. The goal of this call is for you to be able to come forth and share some of your feelings and emotions. I know that I, personally, was elated at times during conference and at other times was brought down into feelings of sadness. I experienced a range of emotions, so please feel free to share.
Tawnya: Thank you Randall, I appreciate you offering that.
Elder Oaks and the Meaning of Idolatry
Caller 1: Hi, this is Caller 1. One thing I noticed, that I was wondering if I could get your reaction to, is the context of Brother Oaks’ talk, was a talk that began talking about the Ten Commandments and how those for gay marriage are violating the commandment of having no other gods before me, which seemed like a bit of a stretch, but what I took from it was the whole new ground of basic doctrine that could be a bit disturbing. I am wondering where people think this is headed.
Bob: We tend to think of idolatry as worship of pagan gods or gods made of stone or wood, but as I understand that particular part of the Ten Commandments, especially within the context of how the idea of idolatry is presented elsewhere in scripture, it seems that anything could become an idol or false god to us, even the Church itself. Even if we feel we are completely in accord with church teachings, we still might be guilty in placing our emphasis somewhere other than on the Lord. This is why the first commandment is to love the Lord with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength. It’s interesting that there are those qualifiers, and it’s also interesting that the first of these is the heart. When we truly love God in this way, we are much less likely to place our devotion on false gods or to idolize something that we shouldn’t, because the love of God has a power to keep us centered—keep him in our hearts and our hearts on him. It’s easy for each of us to look at others and feel like they are worshipping false gods, and of course there’s a lot of that going on in our culture, but I think we need to be careful not to use that commandment in a way that is too judgmental.
Tawnya: Would others on the panel like to respond, as well? When I was reading the conference talk today, it occurred to me that if one was putting God first, and as many people at the Affirmation conference shared, they shared moments of personal revelation that they knew that they were gay, and that they were completely loved by the Divine, or Heavenly Parents. In that sense, I would interpret it to mean that if you did not go forth on that knowing, on that deep personal revelation, to not go forward and follow that prompting, that guidance, for whatever reason – church or family or whatever – that could be construed as a form of idol worship. You could look at this both ways. The title on Dallin Oaks’ talk was “Are we serving priorities or gods before the God we profess to worship?” If the God that we worship is telling us to love our partners and our families, I think we better consider doing that, even if someone else would interpret it differently.
Caller 1: I agree entirely with what you’re saying, but it doesn’t really address my question. It seems, and my concern is that this is opening up a whole new front of ways for local people to start hassling gay and lesbian Mormons because it’s reducing it to a pretty simple commandment. I’ve already seen a bit of it in our own area. There’s been a lot of talk and concern about it from two different stakes here. Members saying, “uh oh, it’s open season here again.”
Bob: There’s no getting around the difficulty that this talk presents a problem to a number of people. From my point of view, there’s no way to soften the blow that many experienced in hearing it. If one looks at the history of the church, however, there have been a number of instances in which there have been matters difficult for the members to comprehend or follow, so I think that it is important to keep in mind that, as the Church teaches, besides being itself, God’s most precious gift to us is our agency. I had the students in my Mormonism class at UC Berkeley this semester watch general conference. In the discussion we had later, I asked them what major themes they observed in the conference addresses. One student replied, “I was really surprised how much an emphasis there is on agency in Mormonism.” I said, “Yes, that’s very key. The principle of agency and personal revelation are two of the grounding principles of the Restoration, which means each of us is ultimately responsible for three things: getting our own confirmation of what we are taught, seeking for inspiration and revelation, and doing what we can with our lives in relation to the truths we understand. That ultimately places responsibility on each person, and there is a tendency in Mormonism for us to shift that responsibility to someone else, including general authorities. So each person is responsible for how he or she responded to Elder Oaks’ address—and any personal decisions or actions based on it.
Handling Anxiety or Depression over General Conference Remarks
Caller 2: I also felt similar to Randall, with moments of elation and also moments of great sorrow during this past conference, and I had been comforted by a lot of things I read the last few days, the Radio West interview, John Gustav-Wrathall’s post about the conference. My question is about the reconciliation between these two different emotions – the elation and great sorrow. I wondered if anyone on this panel has insights as to how to reconcile these two feelings and how to not let it become overwhelming and a point of anxiety or depression.
Tim: Part of the difficulty comes from the incongruence, these things that don’t come together, and I think we’re really set up for this kind of thinking in our culture, in Mormonism, that things have to go completely, it’s either this or that. One strategy is validating all the truth. The sense of “I was very elated and I’m feeling very sad” – that both things don’t negate each other, that there’s a layer of acceptance to it. I know that doesn’t resolve the situation, but it could soften the edges. Accepting that this is how it is, and this is what I’m going to do, which is the second part of that. It’s very hard because you want congruence, but I think that’s part of the setup, trying to force congruence where there isn’t any.
Bob: Having watched and listened to conference for 60 years now, the emotional ups and downs that many experienced in listening to the different speakers are not peculiar to this particular conference. Most people find particular sermons or authorities who speak to them and others who clearly do not. The emotional barometer at any given conference likely fluctuates, and if we look at that in the context of conferences in the 19th century that were often contentious and openly confrontational, I think that may give us some perspective and ultimately remind us that our individual relationship with Deity is the loadstar of our religion, and that should exist to some extent independent of the fluctuations, contradictions, and conundra, and paradoxes that are inevitable in any human organization.
Tawnya: I would also like to say that for me, when I’m in a situation where I’m having different emotions happening at the same time, it’s useful for me to use the arts as a container for what I’m thinking or feeling. Many people like to write poetry or journals. It’s important to take time, especially after an event, to really go into what you are feeling and work through it a little bit and see what’s underneath it. You don’t want to go too deeply and get stuck there. If you feel you’re in a really vulnerable place, I wouldn’t recommend it, but there’s something really useful to work with those feelings and see if there’s a message for you. Sometimes when I’m having those feelings, there’s some sort of action that I need to take or there’s something that I need to do or say to someone, sometimes I need to just feel those feelings until I’m finished feeling them. Sometimes in our very busy society we tend to want to get rid of our feelings very quickly and move on to the next thing, without feeling bad while we’re trying to do other important things. But I think that especially when we’re experiencing elation and deep sorrow, as you said, both of those deserve equal time. If you take equal time with them, I think they will balance. You might understand something about yourself and what your needs are if you take time to draw out or to write a poem or just journal about it a bit, and see if that might be helpful to you.
Relying on the Spirit to Interpret General Conference
John Gustav-Wrathall (Caller 3): Bob, something that you said resonated with me when you were talking about how it’s a very typical conference to go and, like you said, connect with certain things and not connect with others. It was very interesting to me that at this conference, the very first talk in the first Saturday session was Elder Hales, and he specifically talked about how one of the main purposes of attending conference is to not just listen to the words of the speaker themselves, but to listen to what the Spirit is telling you. I frequently have this experience at church, not just at conference, where there are things that a speaker might say that, as I’m listening, will trigger my own internal questioning or thought process. Sometimes I will get spiritual insights that may sometimes even be the opposite of or contrary to what is explicitly being said. Sometimes there will be a questioning process in my own head, and I’ll say “can that be right?” and I seek and get my own revelation sometimes right there on the spot. That’s one of the reasons I keep a notebook with me at church, so I can jot those insights down as I listen to them. I thought it was quite wonderful that Elder Hales introduced conference basically by saying this is how we listen to conference. We don’t just listen to what’s being spoken, but we listen to what the Spirit is telling us. I’ve found that really helpful.
I think certainly listening to Elder Oaks’ and Elder Nelson’s talk, I think that I’ve heard those messages about marriage enough that it didn’t shock me. It wasn’t something that really struck me as something I wouldn’t expect to hear at conference. I heard a lot of things in those talks that I really liked and that really resonated with me. I actually liked what Elder Oaks had to say about idolatry. I think that there are a lot of ways by which we become idolatrous in our culture, within our Mormon culture, we can become very idolatrous in many ways. In terms of thinking how do I relate to my fellow brothers and sisters in the church, when I go to church next Sunday, rather than the starting point of the conversation being “gee, this talk was really awful,” there are things we can talk about that were positive, and that begins a certain conversation we can have that hopefully will deepen our relationships. I wouldn’t get discouraged by this, and say there’s no place for me, so I’m not going to engage with the church. I think that would be very harmful by people who need us there and need to be encouraged by our lives and our experience.
Bob: John, I appreciate what you said, and I read your blog. I listen to conference with two sets of eyes, two sets of ears, and two hearts. One of them my own, and one for that person out there that I think might be having difficulty. I think of the young people I met at Affirmation who came away from that conference full of hope and the desire to go back to church and to seek fellowship, or at least hopeful that they might be able to at some point. As I was listening to that talk, I felt in my heart that some of them were going to be depressed over that. I felt that Elder Holland’s talk maybe should have been the very last in the conference, talking about depression, because I think it was inevitable that some people were going to find [Elder Oaks’ talk] very difficult, and our task is going to be trying to help those people bridge from there back to their hope.
General Conference and the Recent Supreme Court Decision
Tawnya: Bob and John, how much do you think the Oaks and Nelson talks were inevitable, considering the Supreme Court ruling that happened between the last conference and this one? Didn’t the church actually need to clarify a position, and in a way, haven’t they repositioned this, in a way, making it a moral issue, because they know, in a sense, that there’s not really a legal issue?
Bob: The answer is no. I say this because that message is already so clear. How many of us in the Mormon universe are not clearly aware of that position, especially because it’s so adamantly articulated on the church’s website? What was disappointing to me at the conference was that no one seemed to be articulating the other very hopeful, very positive messages onMormonsAndGays.org, which are accept, love fellowship, and invite our LGBT brothers and sisters. I don’t remember hearing one speaker say those words in relation to gays. It was more the imbalance, the contrast, between the message which was not articulated and the one that was. I try to listen to each address with two minds, two hearts and two sets of eyes and ears, and I couldn’t help feel the anguish that I imagined many gay and lesbian saints felt during Elder Oaks’ address.
John: Bob, I think that they did try to articulate that, although they did not do it very clearly. Both of them made statements about how God loves all people, and so on, so there were pieces of their messages that were intended to echo some of the messages on the MormonsAndGays.org website, but they didn’t really explicitly draw that out, and they so explicitly talked about marriage as a political and social and moral issue that obviously that was going to drown [the former] out. I agree with you that they probably didn’t technically need to, but I am sure that they felt they needed to, and I thought it was interesting, especially in light of the letters that were written to the Hawaii stakes, which pretty explicitly acknowledged that members of the church are on different sides of this political issue. It did kind of make me wonder if there was worry on the part of some leaders, and maybe specifically on the part of Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson that people are worried that things are changing too fast, people wondering Is the church losing its voice, and so on. I can see how leaders may have worried about that and how that fear and concern may have motivated what happened.
Bob: Frankly, I don’t think there’s ever any worry about the church moving too fast.
Using Our Free Agency to Chart Our Journey
Randall: I would just like to throw in that we are all in very different spaces. Years ago, I couldn’t have gone actively to church and heard a talk like that. It would have been impossible for me to emotionally and mentally feel good and to be able to live my life in a healthy way. Where I’m at is a different space now, and luckily, in a very affirming ward, [but] I recognize, and I think it’s important for every individual to listen to what’s best for them. I would hate for someone to feel that because other people are going back to church that that’s [what they should do, too] because that may not be the healthiest space for them, and I know that for me, being away for a while was very helpful to me. It provided a way for me to really hear myself, and to know what I really felt God wanted for me. I want to add that as an option – I almost hate to use that word, but it leans on agency.
John: Let me ask one question. I hear what Randall is saying, and I appreciated what Bob said. I think it’s right for the focus of the conversation to be on those who are most vulnerable. I’ve definitely become aware, in the last few days, of people who have been devastated by this, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to learn about individuals who have been almost completely shut down by what happened. Those in that situation need to be our primary concern. My question, of Randall, would be, does it make a difference to be able to see other LGBT folks who are active in the church, who did attend conference, who attend our wards, who are finding some ways to cope? Does it help to have people who are in that place present? Is that reassuring? Or is this really a thing where no one can really help and it’s just something you need to figure out on your own?
Randall: That’s a really good question, John, thank you for asking. For certain people, for me, I really wanted to walk back in the door, authentically as a gay man, openly, and have no reservations of what would happen to me. It was when I reached the point where I didn’t give a darn what would happen to me that I walked back in that door. But it had to come from deep, deep, down inside me. I don’t think I would really recommend – I hope people reach deep down inside and follow what, and when, it feels right, if that’s the choice they’re going to take.
The Church as “a Finger Pointing to the Moon”
Tina: I’ve been thinking about- to get back to John’s question –whether it’s beneficial for people to stay in the church or for LGBT LDS people to be seen at church. I think #1, it’s not important for anyone else aside from the person experiencing it. I read a blog or post that said If you’re thinking about leaving the church over this, consider the people who need to see good examples and active LGBTQ people at church. Consider the youth, consider being an example. First and foremost, that’s important, but I agree with Randall that it has to come from your own place of safety. If it’s ever not safe to be at church – for years it wasn’t safe for me to be at church, I just couldn’t handle it, and I left until I could navigate into a safe space with myself and my relationship with Heavenly Father. In that safety, I was really truly relying on God and not anyone else. Not what I heard in conference, not relying on what my Bishop told me, but simply the soul-searching and finding the strength from Father, the Spirit, and the Atonement, and really utilizing all of the good things from conference that were said.
What I got from conference was the power of the Atonement, and I let that, those things, feed me, instead of let them hurt me. I focus on my relationship with God and let him show me what to do and try not to worry about the rest, because there’s so much. My mind wants to take me places where it could be unhealthy, and I just try to focus on following the Spirit and the love and embodying the parts of the doctrine that make me whole. You can’t always pick and choose, but we can try, wherever we are. Remember this – the church is just a finger pointing at the moon, it’s not the actual moon itself, to quote a Buddhist saying. We have to keep our relationship with the moon open, and take all of our pain to God directly and say, what am I supposed to do with this? I need some help now! That’s my mechanism.
We Are All Entitled to Personal Revelation
Caller 4: How are you guys? I am happy to finally be back on a call again; it’s been a tough few months here. I think some of the topics that have been raised are really, really important, and I appreciate everything that’s been shared. I kept thinking of myself before the Affirmation Conference, which I so wish I could have been a part of, how much wonderful press the Affirmation Conference is getting via Steve and Barb, when you have someone visible like that within the church, I kept wondering when is it going to be addressed because people listen and people watch, I believe members of the church certainly did. I don’t want to diminish the good that happened through that, because I think that was a huge step forward as far as LGBT people and their allies.
My father’s a Patriarch, and I always think back to the time that Prop 8 was going on, and a friend of mine, a wonderful friend of the community, felt the pressure from his local leaders and ended up giving to Prop 8. He was in the entertainment industry, and that got out, and it became so uncomfortable for him that he ended up leaving his job, even though his employers really wanted him to stay on, and were going to stand behind his right to give to whatever he wanted to, and I remember having some thoughts about that and talking with my father. And my father’s first thing was exactly what’s been said over and over today, which was that he looked at me and said you know, no one in our family gave to Prop 8 because at the end of the day, we’re all entitled to personal revelation, and so everyone has that. It’s always given me comfort in how we’re dealing with what we’re hearing from the pulpit. But I’m old, that’s easy for me to say now, I’m comfortable with myself and the most important thing to me is my relationship with my Father in Heaven.
Dealing with Hurtful Messages
Caller 4 Continues: I go back to the question that was asked and what Randall was saying about maybe those young people, that felt this huge sense of love at the Affirmation Conference, to be followed by this, and what they may be feeling walking back into their wards and stakes and having somebody possibly look down at them because of those words, and if people in our community are strong, and there are a lot of them that are, and are going to church, I think the question might become, to some young people, are they coming because they agree with what Elder Oaks said, are they agreeing with the fact that maybe they made a mistake here. I think an effort’s important to possibly invite young people or allies or anyone who’s a part of the community, to go with them to fulfill whatever spiritual needs we need, I think that’s an important message. I don’t think that going necessarily means that you agree with everything that is said there, but if people need that for a sense of community, I think the best we can do is say “I don’t agree with everything that was said there. There is a part of me that wants to go to church and continue to fulfill that part of me spiritually.” My question to someone on the panel, or anyone that can answer, are we getting any sort of emails or messages that some people are nervous to go back to church, and are we offering any thoughts or suggestions to them?
Randall: I think that would be a marvelous thread to start somewhere. The beautiful thing about social media is how quickly we can develop ideas and solutions, and anybody can do it. That’s a great idea, and I would encourage anyone who is listening to this call, to compile those ideas and stick them on the Affirmation Facebook page, or email them to LDSaffirmation (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll collect and compile them.
Tawnya: So, you’re suggesting people on the call contribute their own ideas about how to support people who may be feeling vulnerable right now about going back to church after conference. I would also like to ask Tim what your advice would be about how there was a time, for Randall and Tina, when going to church wasn’t healthy for them, and can you offer some ideas to help some of the people who are listening to discern when is it healthy and when is it not healthy, what warning signs or stress signs are important to listen to in terms of internal cues so people aren’t putting themselves in a difficult situation?
Strategies to “Soften the Blow”
Tim: Every person is different, but I think there are some general things, I think like the previous caller who talked about the emotional factors, I think that what we have a tendency to do is when things aren’t fitting, we internalize and blame ourselves, so the cue could be feeling sad or dejected, but then what we do from that cue to resolve that cue is blame ourselves instead of recognizing that that’s the cue that this doesn’t jive and this isn’t right. Externalizing the message instead of internalizing it. That’s one strategy for minorities to deal with. I really encourage people to be really intentional, again that other caller, I really liked how you recommended the journaling – what is it about this situation that’s so uncomfortable about these things not reconciling? Sitting with that with curiosity rather than fear will provide you with an answer to what your boundaries are and what’s safe for you. But you’re certainly in a quandary being in that type of setting because you don’t always know, it always has the potential to be unsafe to you. That’s true for all LGBT people, wherever we are, but especially more so in some of these conservative religious settings.
I would say going in with a safety plan, counting on that if you do choose to go in, it will happen, not in a sense of denial but realism, knowing the limits of what you’re going into, so that you have a plan of when this happens, I will…. And following through with that “will.” When I go and this is said, I am going to do this…. Those are some strategies to mitigate, to kind of soften the blow. Those are the main things I would add. We certainly are setting ourselves up if we’re not recognizing the reality of the situation, and the whole setup is that chain of disappointment: I want Elder Oaks to say this, and he doesn’t, so I’m sad, and what do I do with that? A lot of it goes back to that acceptance piece, acknowledging where people are at, not in the sense of accepting it as your truth but accepting that’s where they are, and then finishing the story by that’s where they are and this is what I’m going to do. This autonomy idea, Tina was touching on it, and Randall has, where you have a detachment, at least some. This will be a requirement, if you’re in the church as an LGBT person, to have some level of detachment for your psychological health. An ability to separate yourself when things like this are spoken, otherwise it really will crush your soul.
A Testimony of Your Wholeness
Tawnya: There are definitely times when it’s safer than others, and that has to do with how you’re feeling about yourself or how strong a sense of self you have. If you’re confused about what you’re about, you might be feeling more vulnerable than when you’re sure and confident. I just think of at the Affirmation Conference hearing all the testimonies of people saying they had a sense of personal revelation, where they knew they were gay and loved, that that was how they were made, that they were sure of that. If you have that testimony of wholeness, you have a sort of strength that gives you a confidence that when you hear something, you’re still going to feel sad or maybe rejected, but you’re still going to know what your guidance is, but if you’re still discerning that, trying to figure out what is God’s message to me, or maybe I’m angry and don’t even want to talk to God because I’m so frustrated – I know I was in that place for a while – if you are still struggling and going back and forth between messages from the outside and what are your internal messages, I think it’s really important for you to be honest with yourself about what you really need to preserve or maintain a sense of stability within yourself. I know that was important for me for a time when I couldn’t attend a church. Later, I could, but there was definitely a time I didn’t know myself well enough, and I needed some space and time to figure that out, and Tina and Randall both touched on that.
You Are Responsible for Your Safety
Tim: What I would add to that is to really simplify what I was saying earlier: There are two ways to have safety – you are either around safe people or you make it safe. The moment that that person you hoped or thought was going to be safe, when they become unsafe, it is your job to make it safe for you. That may be doing some of the things you were just saying, it may be simple mental efforts, reframing what you’re hearing, mentally rejecting what you’re hearing. It could be physical things like getting up and leaving, turning something off, getting other points of view by talking to other people about it, like what we’re doing now. The underlying foundation is that you’re responsible for your safety, and you have two ways of doing that – being with safe people or making it safe.
The Meaning(s) of Love
Tawnya: This email question (Caller 5) says the following: It seems to me that Elder Oaks is trying to make a distinction between God and love. He classifies our sexuality, or more accurately the nature of our love for others, as a behavior, as idolatry, and most important as something contrary to God himself. The primary reason that these ideas conflict with my own is that in my understanding the primary purpose of the plan of salvation and the fundamental nature of God, is love. My understanding is that God and love should and cannot be divorced from each other. I would like to know the reaction of the panel towards this juxtaposition made by Elder Oaks. Also, how do we move forward with our efforts to help others understand this, when revered and powerful leaders of the church continue to establish the nature of our love as some sort of sinful, foolish infatuation?
Bob: One of the difficulties is that we have one word – love – for so many kinds of deep (and sometimes not so deep) and complicated human emotions we associate with that word. When we equate God with love, I think we have to be more precise as to the kind of love we associate with deity—that of which the gospels, John’s letters, and Moroni speak– the pure love of Christ. There are many other kinds of love, of course, including the range of intimate love between humans. One of the truths of the Restoration is that romantic, erotic and sexual love are part of our divine inheritance and therefore part of our promised eternal glory. One of the difficulties is that our culture has refused to acknowledge that non-heterosexual love in its complexity and multiplicity fundamentally is no different from heterosexual love. That is, on the experiential level, deep intimate bonding, deep emotional connectedness is common to all healthy humans.
Tawnya: Because that precision was not used in the talk, is that potentially exploitive, then, in maybe blurring the boundaries by what is meant by love? Blurring them up and confusing the issue. It’s basically making it seem like persons that are gay or lesbian can’t possibly have a divinely inspired love for one another, and I have a personal testimony that that is not true. I believe that I do love my partner and that is a very sacred love. Is the Oaks talk really taking advantage of the imprecise description of the word love here, and using it to suggest that gays and lesbians can’t possibly have that kind of love?
Marriage and Procreative Powers
Bob: Elder Oaks says that outside the bonds of hetero-normative marriage all uses of our procreative powers are to one degree or another sinful. Most sexual expression among humans does not focus on procreation but rather on physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy. To think of this complicated and even mysterious amalgam of expressions and emotions as primarily procreative is to somehow diminish their richness and complexity. Again, part of Joseph Smith’s enlightened understand is that our sexual powers, expressions and pleasures are gifts beyond that of procreation.
Also, we need to keep in mind that church doctrine and practice on the use and expression of sexuality have been quite elastic at times. In the 19th century under the practice of polygamy there were many kinds of marital relationships, some of which were procreative and some that were not, some that were sexual and some that were not, and some that were eternal and some that were not. Elder Oaks was very clear, as the church’s website is, as to what is acceptable and what isn’t in the eyes of the contemporary church, What I sense most gays and lesbians want the Church to recognize is that from their earliest years the Church itself teaches all children (whether they turn out to be gay, bi or straight) to desire, plan, and prepare themselves for that deep intimate connection with another person who ultimately completes them fulfills them, and makes them whole. This is taught at their parents’ knees, in primary, in Sunday school, in young women’s and young men’s programs, in seminary—everywhere. No one can grow up in the Church without understanding that his or her crowning achievement in life is to find that special someone and create a mortal and eternal nuclear family unit. To devote one’s life to that objective and then be told that it is not a possibility, at least in this life, and that what and whom they truly desire is also not a possibility in the eternities, causes a profound existential crisis, one that can unravel all prior teachings and obliterate future promises. It is in a sense like growing up in a family in which every child is promised an opulent Christmas, only to wake up on Christmas morning to find that all of the other children in the family have multiple Christmas gifts and surprises, but there are none for you.
Thus, something that is absolutely given in every normal human being to desire and that the church itself emphasizes as the great crowning achievement of human beings is denied to a significant group of people. As a church we have not and currently do not have any idea as to what this must feel like for gays and lesbians. Not only have we have failed to understand our gay and lesbian saints, we often blame them for not being sufficiently patient, acquiescent and righteous.
Same-sex Couples and Sexual Desire
Tawnya: In Elder Nelson’s talk, he’s talking about appetites, about freedoms from self-slavery and things like this, then goes right into defining marriage, specifically. To me, that is exactly what this caller is getting to. The Church sees any sexual relationship between two men and two women, they see that only as some kind of sexual desire, and there’s no acknowledgement that LGBT people have stated and told bishops and leaders in the church that they have a type of love, that it’s not lust or just sexual desire, but that there is a clear, undeniable, unmistakable longing to be united with that other person in that sense of oneness that you were just describing. To me, that is very problematic, especially for people who know that to be true, that they know they are meant to be with that person, to love that person, and that is something they are being called to do by their Heavenly Parents. The juxtaposition of the word appetite, and then suggesting that that’s all that LGBTQ people experience, again, is kind of offensive, at least to me.
Randall: I was forwarded, first thing Monday, by a colleague who knows about my work in the LGBT community, the article in the Washington Post, and I found it profoundly ironic that they talked about Oaks’ talk, and right after talked about President Monson expressing his loss for his wife and says “She was the love of my life, my trusted confidant and closest friend. To say that I miss her does not begin to convey the depth of my feelings.” And that is love. That is the love that same-sex relationships feel. To answer the original question, as we just live our lives in that kind of love and relationship, we will have to be patient for people to see that it is real love. I know a couple who has been together for 40 years, one now getting sick with Alzheimer’s, his partner’s caring for him in all the ways that my mother and father have cared for each other in their troubles as well. It’s our demonstration of that same kind of love, I don’t know any other way for us to really overcome that stereotype.
The Importance of Making Safety for Oneself
Caller 6: Mine is more related to making safety for yourself. It’s a comment. When my son started junior high, he was having some trouble adjusting to the changes, and being with ninth graders. The assistant principal told him “I know this is tough. You’re welcome to come in here and cry to me whenever you want, or if I’m not here close the door and you can cry yourself, but when you’re in the hall, I want you to hold your head up high. Do not cower. Do not invite bullying.” Knowing who your allies are – if you want to go to church and already have some identified – make contact with them. Let them know you need their support. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re inviting bullying. Don’t call up the person you know is waiting to hear those words, on Sunday, and then get both barrels from that person. You just don’t have to do that. You can protect yourself. I would invite comments on how to identify our allies. Some of us know that our bishop is our ally. Maybe just connecting with him or someone else in our ward if you want to go to church.
Tina: It has been my experience that #1 in church, people are not necessarily going to attack you, because we are raised to be kind and gentle, Mormons, in my experience, are trying to be kind and gentle. I’ve never met a person, in church, who would ever say anything harmful or hurtful to me, when I let them know that I’m a lesbian. I take a lot of comfort in that. I would say that to the person who does want to still attend church, even though two or three apostles came out and blatantly said what they said, creating a certain type of environment, the 99% majority of people attending church are sensitive to what we’re experiencing as a culture. I’ve had so many people reach out to me saying “Are you okay?” People I go to church with asking me, that was probably a hard conference for you, and I’m here. I’ve had a great outpouring of concern from my member friends.
Responding to Hurtful Comments
Caller 6: I have a ward member from Europe who is very blunt. He has tried to line me up with women. I say, “I don’t think that’s going to work out.” He says, “You’re going to settle for guardian angel, then?” That can be very hurtful. Certainly the Montgomery’s have described that or worse in their ward.
Tina: It’s true that people can be people. They can be harsh and they can be rude and just being Mormons doesn’t make everybody super nice and lovely, it’s true. You’re right. But maybe drawing on what Caller 4 said, being prepared with some ammunition when someone is vicious or malicious, if that happens what are you going to do? What is your response?
Caller 6: My point is don’t cower, don’t invite the bullying.
Tina: Reaching deep and finding a point of calm. I struggle with that myself – I don’t even want to say nice words right now when people, I just have the blinders on so severely and they ask you the stupidest questions or they say the stupidest things, the most hurtful things, how to find that place of letting go of my gut reaction and saying something mindful. Something not reactionary but thought provoking to them, or just pointing that they are being really mean. Sometimes that goes a long way. “That’s not a nice question. That hurts my feelings.” There’s a lot to be said for that. I think often people don’t realize what they’re saying.
Caller 6: Or “Did you intend to be mean just now?”
Tina: Perfect, that’s a perfect response. “Did you intend to squish me like that? Is that what Jesus would do? Would he just step allover my emotions? Do you realize that’s what you just did?” That will definitely disarm a situation for sure.
Caller 6: And if you can do it with good humor, too.
Tina: Yeah, this is such a heavy topic, and we’re all walking around with our hearts on our sleeves. It is nice to try and approach it with a little less severity, even though that’s really difficult to do. I’m forty, and have been living with this my whole life and am just now at a place where I can say you’ve got your head in the wrong space, friend, and try to make light of it.
Tawnya: What about when the bullying or confrontation comes not in a one-on-one situation, but it comes in someone’s testimony in testimony meeting, or comes in someone’s talk that they’re giving, and it’s more of a blanket situation? I think sometimes people might hide in that situation because there is not that one-to-one element.
Tina: You’re right, Tawnya, that definitely is the hardest situation, when in Relief Society there’s a talk on chastity, and there’s a paragraph all about homosexuality, and how it’s all bad no good, and how to sit in there and just let it pass. Just let it pass and realize you’re in a particular situation, and perhaps the best way to address it is going later to the person who gave the talk and doing it one-on-one, or even being super bold and super courageous, and stopping the class and saying, Look, I am that person that you’re naysaying, that will definitely change the environment of the group, but you definitely want to be sitting by a good friend.
Caller 6: There have been posts on Facebook about speaking up in Sunday School. I think Randall had many people come up and offer support afterwards, and thank him.
Tawnya: Thank you Caller 6 for helping us to process about more direct issues, with other people at church and how to maybe keep ourselves protected, and how to speak up in good ways, hopefully to dispel some of the myths and help people realize when they’re being insensitive.
Finding Your Own Guidance
Another email (Caller 7): Why should I stay in the church when it seems like most of the prophets and apostles and local leaders and membership in general don’t want us here? Or, if they do want us here, it seems like it is only conditional on us changing in ways that we can’t, by denying our homosexuality? I have an inkling that President Uchtdorf meant this to be part of his message even if he didn’t say it outright.
Randall: I want to go back to what Tina said about the moon, the church not being the moon but pointing its finger at the moon. First of all, maybe step back and detach yourself from the question of going to church or not, and attach yourself to the question of what do I really feel? And what does my relationship with God really mean? Get to the point where you see that full, beautiful, harvest moon, and feel God’s love that’s really big, and you can decide if that pointer to the moon is going to help you in growing in that relationship. If it is, maybe find an ally in your local area who could help you find a safe space. When I decided to go back, the Elders Quorum president approached me that first day. He wanted to come visit, and I told him if you come visit, this is what you’re going to find. And he said that’s ok, that’s ok. He talked to the bishop and told me later that night “the bishop’s fine, don’t worry about it.” You don’t know what you’re ward is going to do. There are people out there who will take you as you are, and who will put your to work. And there are leaders up above, in headquarters, who are fighting for us. But many of them, their hands are tied. The first, most important thing is to see that beautiful harvest moon yourself and then make the decision that’s best for you.
Tawnya: I know of a person who was a member of the church for over forty years, who has since removed their name from the records. I know this person very well, and in this person’s experience, she feels that she is not called to stay in the church, that she is to search for truth and meaning and the love of God, and at least at this time in her life, it’s absolutely correct for her to do that outside of the church. I know that in my personal experience, I went through a period of being away and coming back and being away, and I felt that I was following my guidance at all of those points. I would reiterate what Randall was saying, the most important thing is your relationship to the Divine, and that you’ll know whether it is right for you based on what guidance you’re given. What are you called to do? It has really nothing at all with other people and other people’s views or opinions or beliefs about you. It has everything to do with what is your guidance telling you and follow it. Don’t worry about that and don’t be worried about if it changes 2 years from now or 5 years from now or 10 years from now, but continue listening to what is really best for you in your heart.
Bob: I edited a collection a couple of years ago called Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons and I’m working on a second volume right now. I would encourage people to read these personal stories of faithfulness because sometimes it helps to see why other people have made the decision to stay and how they’ve negotiated that territory. I think it’s much more challenging for an LGBT person because generally if a heterosexual member decides to come back to church h or she is greeted with open arms, but for gays or lesbians it can be like walking across minefield. I recommend to my LGBT friends who feel the urge to reconnect with the church inquire as to the openness of the ward they are considering attending and the flexibility of the bishop before venturing a return. Nothing is more discouraging than to make an effort to return and find that it is not a safe or hospitable congregation or an open and compassionate bishop.
The Role of LDS Allies
Sherri Park (Caller 8): I’m in Mormons Building Bridges, and the leadership would have really liked to be on this call, but they’re doing another LGBT activity tonight. I’m taking good notes, though, for them. I want to talk about the “Sit with me Sunday” that I did last year. I got this idea, I felt like it was revelation, and what we had over and over was many people wanting to sit with someone, and not being able to find an LGBT person to come to church with them. I wanted to say that we’ve had some absolutely devastated people on our website this week, and have been trying to work through letting them vent and letting other people comfort them. We’ve had some veiled suicide threats. It’s been a rough couple of days here. I want to do this “Sit with me Sunday” again, and hope you can help with that.
Randall: We’d love to help out, Sherri.
Sherri: It’ll be on the website, and I’m trying to match people up. Most people will say I don’t know anybody, but we’ll try it again this year, maybe at Christmas.
Love and Mixed-orientation Marriages
Tawnya: A man sent this in (Caller 9): My wife is gay, and President Monson’s talk brought her to tears for most of the rest of the day. She said she wanted what he had with his wife, even though we love each other very much. It prompted a lot more questions about our marriage and our plans for the future, divorce, eternal friendship together, etc. This gentleman is saying that his wife is gay, is longing for the kind of love that President Monson described, which we’ve already discussed a little bit. Would anyone like to respond to this?
Bob: I find this absolutely heartbreaking. To me it illustrates what I said earlier about the failure of heterosexual Latter-day Saints to truly understand that what they desire is no different from what their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender fellow Saints desire. In their book The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, Terryl and Fiona Givens talk about that deep longing for intimacy that is such a part of who we are, and that none of us feels complete without it. Many people find this love, some find it and lose it, and some never find it, but continue to hope for its possibility. To be denied even the possibility of such love in mortality is to suffer an enormous loss, a blow to one’s very soul. I feel that those of who are heterosexual need to awaken our greatest imagination and compassion for this dear woman and all of those who suffer as she does. Beyond that, I feel we need to petition the heavens constantly on behalf of all of those who wake up on Christmas morning expecting that what has been promised to them will be fulfilled, not on some faraway future Christmas but on the very one in which the rest of us open our gifts, which, after all, are made possible by our Lord and Savior who gave the greatest gift of all and who makes all gifts possible.
Randall: I’m wondering if Tim would have any general advice around what they might do to address this.
Tim: A relationship is so unique, whether it’s a relationship between you and the church or you and a significant other, whether it’s a mixed orientation marriage or not. However, the implication I’m getting in that is there’s something stirring in this current relationship, and my heart goes out to both of those people involved. It’s reevaluation time for what they want and what is important to them in their relationship, and that could be coming to terms with what can’t be or even mean changing things. It’s a very complicated situation, but I don’t know that any of us have an answer other than support, emotional support as people process. I would echo what Bob says, our culture has made this recipe clear, it seems like that. I would just encourage this person to have compassion and patience with himself and his wife, because they were both doing the best that they knew how with what information they have, and that’s what they’re currently doing, and now it’s probably time to seek even more information. I don’t know that I would say anything beyond that.
Tawnya: We’ve covered a lot of different territory. We don’t have any more calls or emails, but let’s go around our panel quickly for a final statement or closing word.
Tina: I’m very happy to be on this panel and hear the concerns. It is my hope and deepest desire that people are able to deeply root in themselves their relationship and feel the power of God’s love, and put that above and beyond anything else. And to know that love is the answer, love is always the answer.
Tim: I do have a list of strategies for dealing with discrimination, stigma, maybe we could post that online so people have an idea of what to do, so you have a safety plan, something to draw back to, so that you can practice before you come across those situations.
Bob: I really appreciated what thoughtful questions the callers asked, how sensitive they were, and I appreciated the response of my fellow panelists. I come away with two lasting impressions: one, the deep caring, love, and concern, expressed in this discussion, and, in contrast, the suicide ideation that plagues so many of our young LGBT brothers and sisters.. None of us should be indifferent to the fact that many of our best and brightest have chosen that ultimate exit because they could find no consolation, no hope. It is imperative that we change our church culture so that never happens again. None of our intransigence, our lack of charity, our lack of emotional caring is worth one of those many suicides. I hope none of those who listened to conference came away with that impulse.
Randall: I’m continually learning from all of you and I take great joy in the love that we feel in this Affirmation community, and I hope that we go out and spread that with others.
Tawnya: I’m going to close our call tonight with a quote from Elder Oaks’ talk: “A moral coward is one who is afraid to do what he thinks is right because others will disapprove or laugh. Remember that all men have their fears but those who face their fears with dignity have courage, as well.”
May we all go to our Creator to discern if we are in right relationship, seek to do our best to be loving and kind to others, and find the courage to face our fears that we may have dignity and peace.
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