The Rise of the Celebrated Celibate and Single Sexual Minority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
May 3, 2021
by Nathan Kitchen
Over the past several years, a noticeable uptick of openly queer Latter-day Saint voices have been given access to the official channels of church communications. In these spaces (be it Deseret Book, church magazines and websites, or conferences), queer Latter-day Saints share their heartfelt experiences and experiential wisdom on platforms that would have been unthinkable in the days when “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” vilifying and threatening queer people, was sold at Deseret Book.
Some consider this moment a glasnost in Latter-day Saint relations with those who identify as queer, and indeed we all should recognize this moment as remarkable. Queer voices, it turns out, are currently a hot commodity in the marketplace of ideas in today’s social climate. Latter-day Saint queer stories are especially in high demand because they are valuable currency to swaying the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file members of the church. However, not every queer voice is useful to the church and in order to understand the current phenomenon of the rise of the celebrated celibate and single sexual minority in the church, we cannot just look at this moment alone.
The Latter-day Saint queer population includes various sexual orientations and gender identities. In this essay, I will focus on the sexual minorities in the church because this topic is not only my experience, but it is the intersection with which the church identifies as having the longest, most vocal history. Therefore, when we go looking for context to this glasnost moment, we do not have to go far. The church has left generations of living expert witnesses who were casualties of previous iterations of the church’s ever-changing management of its homosexual population.
We are familiar with the concept of classes at school and college. For example, in high school I was the class of 1986. I am also a member of another 1980’s class. But instead of calling it a class, I will call it a generation. I am the last generation of Latter-day Saint gay young men in the 1980s who were officially taught to get married to women as a remedy to overcome ‘homosexual inclinations.”
There are different generations of sexual minorities in the church. Because each generation is structured by the prevalent prejudice, harassment, and discrimination of the day, every generation has a different experience in the church according to how they were systematically managed.
The rise of each new successive generation in the church occurs when the church abandons practices managing sexual minorities that can no longer be tolerated by the general public, healthcare professionals, parents, and outside organizations.
Make no mistake, regardless of the generational changes, the prejudice, harassment, and discrimination does not go away. It is only repackaged into a new vernacular and retooled into new management pressures that press a new generation of Latter-day Saint sexual minorities into existence. Regardless of the generation, sexual minorities are very much still acted upon and not free to act for themselves in the same way their straight peers have the latitude to do in the church.
As we explore the past and present forces that structured and continue to structure the life of sexual minorities in the church, it is time to recognize that these forces not only cause mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual harm in sexual minorities, but they are infantilizing in comparison to how their straight peers in the church are treated.
The church has a dominant narrative about sexual minorities, and it is not true.
Seventy years ago, in response to the gay rights movement, the church solidified its dominant narrative about sexual minorities in the church. It is the foundational idea that God created and only blesses heterosexual supremacy and that heterosexual supremacy must be religiously protected and maintained at all costs, regardless the human cost.
This dominant narrative is the foundation used in every generation of sexual minorities in the modern church to create and execute entire ecosystems of policies and procedures used to systematically manage their homosexual population.
Because the dominant narrative in the church about sexual minorities is not true, the systematic management put in place to sustain this narrative does not age well over time and periodically collapses. These failures require the church to build a new system upon the old foundation, with new policies and procedures crafted to keep it viable for as long as possible until the next inevitable collapse.
These periodic collapses have had devastating, harmful, and life-altering effects on individual sexual minorities of the church who trustingly built their lives (and often their families) for many years on a narrative that ultimately could not sustain them.
These collapses and rebuilds have another effect. They create generations of sexual minorities in the church. Each new generation is greeted with the same rebuild vernacular: “Here is how you need to behave to be an acceptable gay in the kingdom.”
There have been roughly four generations of sexual minorities in the modern church.
The first generation has the largest class size. For them, the execution of the dominant narrative was absolute and complete rejection. It was a generation of erasure and ejection from church, church education, and family. Many refer to this as the “Miracle of Forgiveness” era, named after a book written by Spencer W. Kimball. Seen as the inaugural address to the first class, this book introduced the dominant narrative of the church about sexual minorities, explaining in graphic detail how it would be executed for their particular generation.
Even though this era lasted for several decades, the collateral damage to sexual minorities in the church was severe. We must never forget the queer souls who were caught in this moment, who spoke up in this moment, and who perished in this moment.
This era of outright violence and hostility didn’t age well. Enough time has passed since the anti-queer vernacular of the “Miracle of Forgiveness” era that such words and violent actions (such as BYU-sanctioned shock therapy) are now seen as aggressively violent and prejudiced, creating a harassing, hostile environment in both the church and the home life of queer Latter-day Saints and their families.
As it became more unsustainable to publicly reject and harass gay sexual minorities, the church began to focus on using shame to silently manage the behavior of its next generation of LGB members. All effort went into the unsustainable premise that if you can get homosexuals to act like heterosexuals, then they won’t be homosexuals anymore. This created my generation, the second generation of sexual minorities in the church. We are also known as the silent generation.
For example, in 1986 after digesting all the church books and conference talks I could get my hands on, including Spencer W. Kimball’s “Miracle of Forgiveness,” I concluded that even though I was a very chaste and orthodox seventeen-year-old, I was not acceptable in the sight of the Lord. So, I made an appointment to see my bishop to cleanse my inner vessel of homosexuality. In those days there was no difference between gay thoughts and actions in the church’s management of their gay population. Therefore, the very normal thoughts and internal maturation of a healthy gay teenager were pathologized as a shameful defect, unnatural, and a temptation to be overcome, often through conversion therapy.
Already dripping in shame when I walked into the Bishop’s office, once inside, I was treated as a straight kid with a shameful problem and if I wanted to remain faithful and obedient, I was to never tell anyone about these feelings, go serve a mission, marry a woman in the temple, and everything would be “all right.” The Bishop reinforced my shame by saying that he wasn’t going to tell my parents about this visit. Such news would be a disappointment to such faithful parents.
Isolated and making the best decisions with the information I had at the time, I walked out of the bishop’s office that night with religious conviction that I would trust and obey my bishop’s counsel with exactness. I knew exactly what to do. I was to push all these unimportant feelings deep down inside and never think or speak of them again. Just as they were unimportant to the bishop to validate or acknowledge, they were to be unimportant to me.
What I didn’t realize as a vulnerable 17-year-old young man was I had just been ushered into the church’s new and revised systematic management of the homosexual member, making me part of a generation of thousands upon thousands of trusting gay young men and women in the church who were silently being shuttled into mixed-orientation marriages under the cover of shame with the promise that “of course it will work out if you are strong enough, and if it doesn’t work out, then you weren’t strong enough.”
We were the generation of sexual minorities that was purposefully hidden from the rank-and-file member of the church so they wouldn’t be ashamed of us or alarmed by us. We were the generation that was hidden from ourselves, surrounded by shame-filled effigies designed to deter us from becoming visible.
As a gay man, I am part of a particular subset of my generation who experienced the entire scope of straight privilege, access, and power in the church right alongside our straight male peers. You knew us and looked to us for leadership ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. We were in your bishoprics and high councils, and stake presidencies. We extended callings to you and issued temple recommends to you. We taught your young men and gospel doctrine classes, organized your ward Christmas parties, and pulled handcarts alongside you on your Stake pioneer treks. We gave you comfort and aid and magnified our callings. All while managing our sexual orientation in ways that a straight person never has to do and will never understand.
Today we are none of those things, with many of us divorced and flung to the margins of the faith after years of being at its center. The execution of the dominant narrative in our day (that for a time made us acceptable gays in the kingdom) simply wasn’t true. It could not sustain us as we stepped out of the closet, many of us later in life, and rose from under the narrative of shame of our generation into an authenticity we were denied as young men.
This collapse is especially grievous because we were programmatically shuttled into mixed-orientation marriages without any informed consent for us or our wives about the risks and heartbreaks of such an arrangement. Most often marriages and families built on this foundation of sand did not survive the collapse.
The church abandoned my generation once they realized the deep flaws and real failure in using straight marriage and straight spouses as chronic conversion therapy. They retooled their execution of the dominant narrative which gave rise to the third generation of sexual minorities in the church. This was accomplished by introducing the wide-spread use of the term “same-sex attraction (SSA),” encouraging gay and lesbian members to not identify as gay or lesbian, but SSA, and then publicly and openly introducing same-sex attracted people into the church ecosystem as managing a great but admirable struggle.
Bishops and stake presidents would identify and work with sexual minorities struggling with same-sex attraction, taking on an AA sponsor-like role. The church turned to Evergreen, gathering sexual minorities together for conferences where General Authorities would encourage everyone along. Often sexual minorities who identified as having same-sex attraction turned to programs and conversion therapies that utilized non-evidence-based methods to cope with and diminish same-sex attraction. Because the church characterized the process as someone struggling with same-sex attraction, the inability to overcome the condition of same-sex attraction caused much distress in the homosexual population in the church.
On February 22, 2000, Stuart Matis wrote a letter to the student newspaper at Brigham Young University that illustrates the simmering frustration of this generation:
“I am gay. I am also LDS. I realized the significance of my sexuality when I was around 13, and for the next two decades, I traveled down a tortuous path of internalized homophobia, immense self-hatred, depression and suicidal thoughts. Despite the calluses on my knees, frequent trips to the temple, fasts and devotion to my mission and church callings such as Elders’ Quorum president, I continually failed to attenuate my homosexuality…”
Three days later Stuart Matis died by suicide on the steps of his local Latter-day Saint church building. He left a note stating, “I am now free…I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might become the catalyst for some good.”
Mixed-orientation marriages continued in this generation with a wink and a nod even though Gordon B. Hinckley expressly forbade leaders to guide members into them. More often than not, the fiancé with same-sex attraction and the straight fiancé worked together with professionally untrained lay priesthood leaders to demonstrate to all parties that the same-sex attraction was under control before the wedding. Even though both spouses were aware that they were entering a mixed-orientation marriage, nothing could prepare them for the real-world conflicts and unmet needs that would begin to pile up as weeks turned into months, which turned into years. This was a generation of quiet desperation and their struggles were cast as heroic even as the mental health of both spouses often suffered. The world got a glimpse of this generation when it was presented (and at times unfairly caricaturized) in TLC’s documentary, “My Husband’s Not Gay.”
Tragically, even though there had been some sort of informed consent before marriage, mixed-orientation marriages in this generation still failed at an alarming rate.
Between this generation and the previous silent generation, at any one-time Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families, and Friends provides intense peer support for over 600 sexual minorities—men, women, and the non-binary whose mixed-orientation marriages (as well as their physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health) did not survive the failed policies and practices of their generation.
In the wake of this collapse are the bodies of the sexual minorities of the church, the corpses of dead marriages and tears of innocent children. What is the scope of the failure here? Each queer member had a spouse, and with an average of three children per mixed-orientation marriage, this totals 3,600 people in 2021 that Affirmation is directly aware of who experienced life-altering adverse conditions under the collapse of the pastoral promises and systemic management of the second and third generation of sexual minorities in the church. This is the size of a large stake in the United States. This is a staggering number and it is only those we know about who made it through alive and wanting peer support in a Mormon cultural context.
Like all human endeavors, some mixed-orientation marriages do work out, but it is a minority and it is pastoral malpractice for the church to look past those lives destroyed by careless management systems, blame those who failed, and then hold up a statistically rare body of so-called working mixed-orientation marriages to support their actions during the second and third generation. Make no mistake, the human cost to uphold the false dominant narrative about gay people in the church is bone-chilling.
With this kind of wholesale failure, the church once again abandoned ship under the collapse of the third generation and today is now marketing its new and improved management of the homosexual population in the church: The celebrated celibate and single sexual minority.
For this generation, the church is walking out from behind the interview desk, and instead of finger-wagging, they are now sitting side by side this new generation of sexual minorities in empathy and folksy wisdom. It is now OK to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual! This would have been unthinkable in the “Miracle of Forgiveness” generation.
Instead of rejecting language, the church now has to market the benefits of belonging to an organization that affords its queer population less rights and protections than they are guaranteed under the constitution of the United States. Today, sexual minorities are specifically targeted with the message: “We celebrate you; we see you; we want you to talk about your identity and feelings. We will video them and put them on our website. We will publish your experiences and put them on the shelves of Deseret Book and in our official magazines. You can serve a mission, you can go to BYU, and we have callings for you.”
The magic of this new management system is that you not only have to carefully capture your sexual minorities when they reach marrying age, separate them from their straight peers, and funnel them into a newly constructed celibate monastic order of the church but you have to do it without using any of the other failed tactics used on the three previous generations of sexual minorities in the church: No public hostility or harassing speech, no ignoring identity, no physical violence, no conversion therapy sessions, and no directing gay minors, men, and women into mixed-orientation marriages, consensual or not. All the tactics of the past are turned on their ear because neither Gen Z nor their parents will put up with that nowadays. For this generation, it is now about “belonging.”
The draw of belonging to church, family, and God is a huge factor in the stability of a queer person’s life. This is all made a conditional safe space of belonging where as long as they remain single and celibate, they will be celebrated, accepted, and a part of the community of Saints. This is why it all seems so much better for this fourth generation of sexual minorities in the church because instead of facing the outright rejection and hostility of the first generation, the church now has created a space of belonging using soft and soothing language never before used with previous generations of sexual minorities. In the context of church history, this contrast is mind-blowing when you think about it.
Today, it is the practice to never threaten a sexual minority, only threaten their “belonging.” We saw this in full view during a Young Adult devotional in February of 2021, where Elder Holland addressed the issue of sexual minorities in the church and adamantly told the young adults that, “We absolutely don’t make any judgments about feelings or attraction.”
Yet there is a “but” clause to all of this that Elder Holland articulates very well as he continued his train of thought.
“We absolutely don’t make any judgments about feelings or attraction but rather on behavior and what one actually does. We don’t make an ecclesiastical judgment or a disciplinary decision on the basis of what someone feels or attractions that they have. What we ask is that you don’t act contrary to the commandments or contrary to covenants or contrary to the teachings of the Lord and the prophets. Please don’t act on attractions that would alienate you from the Spirit and the body of the Church.”
“Those who are willing to behave consistent to the commandments of the Lord will be able to hold a temple recommend, receive temple covenants, hold a calling, and enjoy all the blessings of the gospel. But it does take effort on the behavior side. Through that effort we will wait with you, cry with you, and be patient together as we bless each other with true brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Let’s be clear at what is happening here. The church is not just asking sexual minorities to refrain from sexual relations before marriage like they ask of straight members of the church. That is not what Elder Holland is inferring at all. That would be an equal ask.
Instead, he is threatening the very belonging of sexual minorities in the church if they act like their straight peers, claim equality, and marry according to their orientation. Everyone is the same until you start marrying, then the current management of the homosexual population in the church kicks in and you find that all along your life in the church has been structured by prejudice, harassment, and discrimination.
In this era of the celebrated celibate and single sexual minority, we will continue to see an increased visibility of carefully curated queer voices on major church platforms being used as currency to promote the current management practices of the homosexual population. To be seen and have your story heard is a social validity that all humans seek. It is particularly validating as a sexual minority to have your peers amplify your own personal story especially in your own supportive communities. Many LGBTQ people find church to be a supportive community at some point, and have every right to share their authentic story and feelings as a gender minority within the church.
However, as unfair as it seems, every queer story can be used as currency to support or undermine a point of view. And on an official platform of the church, it isn’t your authentic words that are powerful. It is the inequality you represent that makes your words powerful to the church.
The rise of a new sexual minority generation in the church always makes the previous generations sit up and take notice as we compare and contrast how the church’s most current management of its homosexual population has changed since we were kids. We make predictions of how long this version can stay inflated before it too collapses. It is alarming that this generation of sexual minorities is leaving their bishop’s offices armed with the conviction that they will be single and celibate because that is what God wants them to do. This is frightening because those in my generation left our bishop’s offices armed with the conviction that we would marry someone with a different sexual orientation because that is what God wanted us to do. The destination of this kind of thinking is not pleasant. This is not a celibate order of religious elites as in Catholicism where the celibate order runs the church. This is a second-class subgroup under the suspicious gaze and supervision of the straight majority.
While the church was ill-equipped to manage all the players in its now abandoned mixed-orientation marriage strategy, today the church is EXTREMELY ill-equipped to support the long-term mental and emotional health of a gay celibate order. In addition, if you are serious about committing every single one of your sexual minorities to lifelong celibacy you better deliver a lifelong effective support system within the social architecture in the church to not only support the well-being of your celibate order, but also the financial, social, relational, and professional ramifications resulting in life long singleness. Celibacy is a serious discipline, not a virtue. Celibacy cannot be maintained by platitudes alone.
Talk to any single straight Latter-day Saint and you will see the true state of evaporative promises of long-term singles support and inclusion in a ward and stake. Add the “gay, lesbian, or bisexual” adjective, and support for sexual minority singles just got more complicated. The church is just set up socially and theologically for singleness to be a temporary state. Even if the church ups its game for singles, it still won’t restrict its straight single members to lifelong celibacy like it does their sexual minorities
All this considered, it is terrifying to see a new generation of youth and young adults stepping into the space once occupied by mixed-orientation marriages in the church. Especially when we can still to this day witness the wholesale failure and destruction such homophobic social engineering caused for mixed-orientation couples.
I am not even sure how the church can manage a fifth generation of sexual minorities after celibacy and inequality does a slow burn through the mental health of this current generation of sexual minorities, collapsing the usefulness of today’s fourth generation tactics.
But I do know this and pass this heartfelt truth to our current queer generation in the church: amid the social engineering and management of its queer population, the church has a huge graduating class of queer alumni, wise peers and mentors, who have traveled the road before you. We survived the collapse of the dominant narrative of our day and today we advocate for you, we care about you, and we understand the pressure cooker of the LGBTQ/Latter-day Saint intersection because we stand there and have stood there. We know the true power of your story and receive it in the spirit in which you delivered it. Not as a weapon or a currency, but as a celebration of the power of the queer soul.
The dominant narrative in the church about queer people is not true. It cannot be sustained nor should it be. Instead, we increase the health and well-being of everyone in the entire church, when we sustain and support our queer peers without prejudice and with equality. It is time to stop the generational management of inequality in the church and recognize the full potential of what it means when we say, “All are alike unto God.”