We See What We Believe: The Heterosexualization of Gay Men and Lesbians in the LDS Church
by Jeffery R. Jensen, M.D.
Presented at Washington, D.C., Sunstone Symposium, 1997. This article was pulled from internet archives and was originally published in 1997. Some edits and updates have been made to the original text. It’s possible information this article treats as current is out-of-date and readers are encouraged to verify with more recent sources. If you believe an update should be made to this text, please let us know.
The Moscow School of Psychiatry developed a psychiatric diagnostic system which, by the 1970s, became the standard approach to diagnosing mental illness in the former Soviet Union. Under the Soviet diagnostic system, Soviet dissenters were classified as suffering from a serious mental illness, particularly schizophrenia (Chodoff, 1991, 1985; Reich, 1991). The dissenters fell into five main diagnostic groups: advocates of human rights and democratization, nationalists, would-be emigrants, religious believers, and citizens inconvenient to the State. Bloch (1991) noted: “They shared the characteristic that they had deviated in some way from social norms and conventions laid down, and regarded as obligatory, by the Soviet state” (p. 494). Because the dissidents’ actions of dissension to the Soviet Union alone were considered evidence of their mental illness, psychiatrists were empowered to commit them to psychiatric hospitals for periods of weeks to years. While in the hospital dissidents were subjected to psychotherapy and behavior modification treatments as well as occasionally forced administration of medications to treat their “illness.” Evidence of effective psychiatric treatment and, consequently, the condition of release was a dissenter’s recantation of his/her dissident beliefs.
It is tempting for Americans who value liberty, democracy, and free speech to regard the actions of those Soviet psychiatrists as barbaric. But, by all accounts, most of the psychiatrists who participated in the treatment of dissidents honestly believed (and may still believe) in the singular correctness of the Soviet social and political ideology. From their point of view, deviance from the social norm is unthinkable for the sound mind, so dissident beliefs must reflect mental illness.
We find in Soviet psychiatry a poignant example of how psychological theories are particularly susceptible to the influence of cultural norms, mores, and ideals. We find in psychoanalytic theory no less of an influence. Sigmund Freud began developing his theory of psychoanalysis in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. His theory delineated a sequence of psychosexual stages which lead to “normal” adult mental health, barring traumas or overwhelming anxieties that could arrest development and leave the person preoccupied or “fixated” with more immature or infantile psychosexual developmental tasks. As it turns out, his description of the outcome of normal psychosexual development happened to describe the average nineteenth century, Austrian, bourgeois male — himself and his associates. Unknowingly, he took his late nineteenth-century cultural norms and beliefs and translated them into what he considered universal norms of development and mental health. His thinly veiled contempt for religion combined with his unquestioning reliance on his own Judeo-Christian culture for the definition of “normal” led Freud to transform what religion considered “sin” into what he and his followers considered arrest of “normal” psychosexual development or regression to more infantile polymorphous perverse sexuality. Consequently, psychoanalytic theory added very little to the understanding of homosexuality since it shares its roots in the same Judeo-Christian tradition which condemns homosexuality as immoral.
In 1973, the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the APA’s list of mental disorders. The sizable literature which led to the deletion of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (the DSM) demonstrated that, contrary to traditional cultural and psychoanalytic beliefs: 1) batteries of psychological testing could not distinguish homosexuals from heterosexuals (i.e., there is no psychological profile or constellation of psychological or cognitive deficits or defects which set homosexuals apart from heterosexuals); 2) the incidence of mental illness among homosexuals is no different than the incidence of mental illness among heterosexuals; 3) there is as much psychological diversity among homosexuals as among heterosexuals; and 4) the difficulties with social adjustment that some lesbians and gay men experience mirror the difficulties observed in other socially devalued groups such as racial and ethnic minorities and women (Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1991).
The declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness left us with a century’s psychoanalytic literature describing a condition which existed primarily in the minds and fantasies of those who provided the treatment meant to eradicate it. Take, for instance, the theory on the development of male homosexuality propounded by Charles Socarides, a psychoanalyst and leading figure in the social opposition of lesbian and gay rights. He believes that male homosexuality results from an early disturbance in the infant’s relationship with his mother. The child perceives of his mother a hostile, withholding breast. Socarides believes that his adult homosexual male patients are attempting to recapture in their partners’ penises the hostile, rejecting breast of their infancy. (See Lewes, 1995 for a more in-depth review of psychoanalytic theory and male homosexuality.) His penis-breast theory, like much of psychoanalytic theory, is not based on perspective, direct observation of pre-homosexual children nor collaboration with his patients’ mothers but rather on his own beliefs about the necessary pathology of homosexual orientation. Such is the legacy of psychoanalysis.
But, as previously noted, intemperance toward gay men and lesbians did not originate with psychoanalysts; they simply codified the prejudice that already existed in the nineteenth century, Western European, Judeo-Christian society into sets of psychological formulations. They used and abused the unique public trust granted to the profession to attempt to enforce in their patients, through psychotherapy, social norms, and prejudice. The fact that the actual lives of lesbians and gay men differed substantially from psychoanalysts’ and society’s beliefs about gay men and lesbians had little impact on the persistent propagation of the mythology of “the homosexual.” The dogged persistence of erroneous observations in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence led Judith Lorber (1995) to state: “We see what we believe” (p. 42).
I borrowed Lorber’s phrase, “we see what we believe,” for the title of this paper because an examination of the perspective on homosexuality supported and proffered by LDS church leaders and LDS Social Services demonstrates that “official” beliefs regarding the immoral condition of homosexuals precedes and informs their treatment/mistreatment by ecclesiastical leaders as well as “believing” mental health professionals. LDS church leaders tell LDS mental health professionals what to believe about gay men and lesbians and some LDS mental health professionals put the religious beliefs into psychological jargon which is then quoted by church leaders in support of their “official” positions. Ronald Bingham, the department chair of the educational psychology department at BYU, and Richard Potts, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at BYU, approvingly noted (1993):
Most Church leaders seem to agree that professional counselors can play an important role in helping individuals experiencing problems with homosexuality. However, since not all therapists in the community possess personal values consistent with Gospel principles or with the Church’s position regarding homosexuality, ecclesiastical leaders will likely be selective in making referrals.
The Church has supported efforts of the LDS Social Services and other consulting professionals to research the issues and to offer a reparative therapy approach which assumes that homosexual behavior can be changed. Therapists who acquire appropriate preparation can counsel individuals who struggle with homosexual problems and can serve as a useful resource to such people and ecclesiastical leaders. (p. 14, emphasis added)
Rather than asking its mental health professionals to review the literature and tell them if homosexual orientation can be changed through psychotherapy, “the church” told LDS Social Services what the conclusions of their “research” will be and left it up to the professionals to find a way to include the church’s position in a psychological theory and treatment approach. The response from the “professionals” has been tail-tucking compliance. Consequently, prominent LDS mental health professionals, including a number of professors and administrators in the psychology department of BYU, are encouraging LDS mental health professionals to adopt professional attitudes consistent with “the church’s position regarding homosexuality” regardless of professional training, ethics guidelines and experience that would otherwise encourage the professionals to remove such biases from their clinical and research practice. Any shred of scientific and professional integrity within LDS Social Services as well as the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP) has been replaced with religious propaganda. What the former Soviet Union psychiatrists did to Soviet dissenters in the name of the State is being encouraged and enacted by influential mental health professionals in the LDS church at the demand — and with the blessing — of LDS church leadership.
The Heterosexualization of Lesbians and Gay Men
One must ask, what is it about lesbians and gay men that would lead the presumably otherwise intelligent and honest men in church leadership and LDS Social Services leadership to self-delusion at best, dishonesty and deception at worst? The answer, surprisingly enough, is that the discourse on gay men and lesbians isn’t about gay men and lesbians at all but rather heterosexuals. In their minds they have heterosexualized lesbians and gay men, seeing them and treating them as if they were bad or deviant heterosexuals. Instead of demonstrating an understanding of the real lives of lesbians and gay men, what we hear, read and see from church leadership as well as LDS Social Services are beliefs widely held among intolerant heterosexuals about gay men and lesbians. These beliefs are derived from stereotypes of gay men and lesbians widely accepted as truth among heterosexuals. Stereotypes arise from — and add to — social prejudice which creates and reinforces misunderstanding, fear, and hate, justifying discrimination and, sometimes, violence against lesbians and gay men. In the time remaining, I will briefly outline four interdependent factors associated with the church’s heterosexualized assumptions which may account for much of the church’s “official” antipathy toward gay men and lesbians.
First: The assumption of universal heterosexual orientation. In the assumption of universal heterosexuality, we find the most poignant example of the statement, “we see what we believe.” This assumption pervades all of the discourse on gay men and lesbians. Many intolerant heterosexuals assume that gay men and lesbians choose their sexual orientation. According to this belief, lesbians and gay men are defiant, confused or deceived (i.e., recruited) heterosexuals. Consequently, gay men and lesbians have been punished (legally, socially, or ecclesiastically) for defiance or subjected to indoctrination and coercion for the supposedly confused or deceived. Many gay men and lesbians have been counseled by bishops and stake presidents to get married to a person of the opposite sex in the mistaken belief that once a gay man has sex with a woman or a lesbian has sex with a man his/her “true” heterosexual orientation will emerge. More recently, some church leaders (Oaks, 1995) have acknowledged that gay men and lesbians do not choose their sexual orientation but they still hold out the possibility of a change to heterosexual orientation despite the lack of any convincing evidence that such a change has ever really occurred (Haldeman, 1994). From a heterosexual point-of-view, homosexual relationships are unnatural because — understandably — they would feel unnatural for heterosexual men and women if they were to so engage. However, church leaders give no evidence of understanding that heterosexual relationships feel just as unnatural for lesbians and gay men.
When the myth of universal heterosexuality fails, those who feel compelled to condemn homosexuals invariably fall back on the authority of Biblical tradition. Dallin Oaks (quoted from Bingham & Potts, 1993) stated: “The Church does not ‘recognize homosexual marriages’ because ‘there is no … scriptural warrant for homosexual marriages’” (p. 5). However, if one is to rely on the Bible to justify prejudice, it is important to understand what the Bible actually says and what it does not say about homosexuality. Such an examination reveals that Biblical writers labored under the same mistaken assumption of universal heterosexuality. After reviewing the Biblical passages which are interpreted by many Christians as prohibitions against homosexual relations, Peter Gomes (1996) concluded:
The Biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order, reflecting not so much prejudice, which it surely does, but what the Roman Catholic Church calls “invincible ignorance,” which all of the Christian piety and charity in the world can do little to conceal. The “problem,” of course. is not the Bible, it is the Christians who read it. (p. 162)
The second heterosexualizing factor is the fusion of human sexual intercourse with reproductive imperatives. The Judeo-Christian creation myth specifies that Adam and Eve were commanded to multiply and replenish the earth. Church leaders place an extraordinary emphasis on men and women in the 20th century fulfilling that commandment given to Eve and Adam. It is true that gay and lesbian sex is not reproductive sex but neither is the vast majority of heterosexual sex (Michael, et al., 1994). Lesbian and gay couples use sexual intercourse for the same purposes as heterosexual couples; a way of giving and receiving pleasure and as a way to strengthen intimate bonds. A double standard is employed in this regard: lesbian and gay couples are condemned because they cannot — between the two of them — procreate, but heterosexual couples may decide not to procreate or may not be able to procreate yet they continue in full church fellowship. Church leaders further condemn lesbian and gay couples for having sexual intercourse out of wedlock yet they pay extraordinary sums of tithing money in lawyers fees to keep gay and lesbian couples from joining in legal and lawful marriages. This is more than feigned piety — it is sheer mean-spiritedness.
The third heterosexualizing factor projected onto gay men and lesbians is the social division of men and women. Oaks’s (1995) anti-gay doctrinal treatise begins with the statement: “God created us ‘male and female.’ What we call gender was an essential characteristic of our existence prior to our birth” (p. 7). The First Presidency’s Proclamation (1996) added, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” What they are saying is that men and women are, by design, intrinsically and eternally different. So what are those differences and why are they being employed by church leaders as reasons to condemn lesbians and gay men?
First, the differences. Social psychology research has provided us an image of what our culture considers “masculine” and “feminine.” “Masculine” traits are assumed to be more or less inherent and exclusive to men while “feminine” traits are inherent to women. Our social stereotype of a man describes him as a leader, strong, independent, aggressive, competitive, physical, less emotional, more sexually driven, etc. Our socially constructed “feminine” stereotype describes a woman as subordinate, emotional, dependent, delicate, submissive, passive, creative, more relationship-oriented, nurturing, and sexually passive, to name but a few (Rothenberg, 1995). These stereotyped gender attributes are not merely descriptive; they are proscriptive and prescriptive. Most girls and boys in our culture are socialized from birth to play with gender-defined toys, to dress in gender-defined clothes, to prefer or avoid gender-defined colors, to pursue gender-defined academic or vocational careers. Big boys don’t cry. Girls don’t spit. Boys who prefer art to sports are sissies. Girls who prefer auto mechanics to homemaking are tomboys. Lorber (1995) comments: “Gendered people do not emerge from physiology or hormones but from the exigencies of the social order. … The moral imperatives of religion and cultural representations reinforce the boundary lines among genders and ensure that what is demanded, what is permitted, and what is tabooed for the people in each gender is well-known and followed by most. Political power, control of scarce resources, and, if necessary, violence uphold the gendered social order in the face of resistance and rebellion” (p. 41).
Gender differences, of themselves, are insufficient to explain the enforced social division of women from men that we find in the LDS church and other segments of our society. More explanatory is the way that our stereotypes of “masculinity” and “femininity” bias the distribution of power to men. Compare, for instance, the rhetoric on gender differences we hear from the pulpit to a few of the remarks by US Supreme Court Justice Bradley in 1873 regarding the appeal of Myra Bradwell who had been denied a license to practice law by the Illinois Supreme Court based solely on the fact that she was a woman (Bradwell v. Illinois, 1873):
[T]he civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. … The harmony, not to say identity, of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband. So firmly fixed was this sentiment in the founders of the common law that it became a maxim of that system of jurisprudence that a woman had no legal existence separate from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative in the social state. … [A] married woman is incapable, without her husband’s consent, of making contracts which shall be binding on her or him. … The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. … [I]n view of the peculiar characteristics, destiny, and mission of woman, it is within the province of the legislature to ordain what offices, positions, and callings shall be filled and discharged by men, and shall receive the benefit of those energies and responsibilities, and that decision and firmness which are presumed to predominate in the sterner sex.
As we find in LDS church leadership, at the time of this Supreme Court decision, all persons of power, such as legislators and judges were, by definition and design, men. All authoritative discourse about the inherent capacities and roles of women with regards to power in the family and society was pronounced by men who jealously guarded their control of women. This 1873 ruling upheld traditional Judeo-Christian gender role myths, reaffirming the power of men and the subordinate status of women whose legal and social standing, until relatively recently, has been that of property of their husbands; as Alfred Lord Tennyson put it, women were “something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse” (Johnston, 1972).
From its restoration, the LDS church has been obsessed with the masculinized traits and attributes of power and authority. Indeed, the male-possessed priesthood has been defined as the power and authority of a male God. For church members, the possession of a penis is the first and foremost requirement in sharing with God his priesthood and his power, exercised — on the most basic and intimate level — over one’s wife and children. The most visible symbol representing the power of the worldwide church organization is the distinctly phallic Church Office Building, pointing erect toward God. As LDS we live in and perpetuate a culture which deifies “man” while, if considering her at all, places woman definitively beneath him.
This leads us to the second part of the question: why do church leaders refer to gender differences when they attack lesbians and gay men? Simply put, they believe gay men possess characteristics which belong to women, and lesbians possess characteristics which belong to men. From a heterosexual point of view, this may make sense since the mistaken belief of universal heterosexuality leads one to assume that, by definition, all men are attracted to women and all women are attracted to men. McWhirter (1993) points out:
Although a number of studies of homosexual orientation in men and women have found histories of childhood gender nonconformity (for boys, not playing in “rough and tumble” games or team sports, and playing with dolls; for girls, being “tomboys”), the majority of gay men and lesbian women do not exhibit excessive effeminate or masculine behavior. Yet there is a frequent association in the scientific literature between effeminacy and gay men and between masculinity and lesbian women. When a man experiences sexual desire for another man it is assumed that he must have some female characteristics to explain his “female” desires, and vice versa for lesbian women. In fact, despite the popular myth that “you can always spot one,” the majority of homosexual persons present no identifiable evidence of their sexual orientation by their gender role appearance, mannerisms, or language. (p. 42)
Though the majority of lesbians and gay men do not manifest gender nonconformity, the stereotype of the “feminine” gay man and the “masculine” lesbian persist in our culture. Those stereotypes influence how we see people from the stereotyped groups. Weissbach & Zagon (1975) presented a short video interview of a man to two groups of subjects. One group was told that the man in the video was homosexual. The subjects found the interviewee “weaker, more feminine, more emotional, more submissive, and more conventional when he was labeled gay than when he was not” (Fernald, 1995, p. 92). In a circular, self-fulfilling manner, people will see in others what they expect to see, thus confirming in their own minds the validity of their stereotyped beliefs. We see what we believe.
Because they are believed to possess characteristics of women, gay men are either encouraged to become “masculine” and thus join their brothers in their rightful place or are treated as inferior and subordinate, like misbehaving women. Because lesbians are believed to possess characteristics of men, they arouse in intolerant heterosexual men and women the drive to put them in their subordinate and dependent place, sometimes at the threat of violence. The social division of women from men is especially important in the LDS church where gender determines who gets social and ecclesiastical power. But social gender role factors alone do not adequately account for the depth of intolerance engendered in many men and women in our society. The final factor of this paper takes us from the social sphere of anti-gay/lesbian bias to the more intimate, psychological sphere.
The fourth heterosexualizing factor influencing biases against lesbians and gay men is gender enmity, particularly men’s enmity toward things “feminine.” Heterosexual men persecute gay men and lesbians in large part because they see (or believe they see) in gay men characteristics of women and in lesbians characteristics of men. Often beginning in junior high school, children and teenagers from intolerant social climates learn to use labels such as queer, faggot, sissy, and fairy, to express antagonism toward more stereotypically “feminine” boys regardless of their actual sexual orientation; a man doesn’t have to be gay to be called gay. When men have sex with men in cultures such as Latin America, Islamic countries, prisons, and the armed forces, only the receptive partner (equivalent to a sexually passive woman in heterosexual intercourse) is labeled and derided by the community as gay (Wooden & Parker, 1982; Chauncey, 1985). Male recruits to the Armed Forces routinely are called “ladies” and “girls” by their drill instructors until they complete basic training, at which point — having extricated all “womanly” weakness from their bodies and minds — they become “men” and “gentlemen.” Studies (Kite, 1992; Kite & Deaux, 1986) demonstrated that when sharing information about themselves in a “getting acquainted” setting, heterosexual men who are more intolerant of gay men and lesbians describe themselves as lower in “femininity” and higher in agency (e.g., assertive and independent) than men who are more tolerant. Internal gender enmity leads men who are intolerant toward lesbians and gay men to go to excessive lengths to make sure that others know that they are not “feminine.”
Because of their physical similarity to boys, higher degrees of gender role nonconformity are tolerated in young girls (i.e., tomboys). But that tolerance stops in adolescence when young women, developing secondary sexual characteristics, are socialized to become the object of sexual conquest among men. In our culture, they start wearing makeup. Some develop eating disorders in a distorted effort to have the perfect body while others think about plastic surgery to correct any perceived physical defects which might make them unattractive to young men. A woman who wears no makeup, who takes engineering or auto mechanics courses rather than homemaking, who does not orient her life around men, is at high risk of being called a lesbian regardless of her sexual orientation.
Traditional heterosexual gender enmity within the LDS church is heatedly defended. Two prominent justifications for “natural” gender enmity are found in psychology and the Judeo-Christian creation myth. In conclusion, let’s briefly explore these two sources.
In its convoluted account of the development of male homosexuality, the LDS Social Services document Understanding and Helping Individuals with Homosexual Problems (LDS-SS document, 1995) attributes to the developing gay man a missing sense of “masculinity” caused by the failure of the father to exercise his “absolute veto power over a prolonged mother-son attachment” (p. 11). It reduces male homosexual orientation to a sexualized drive to internalize the father’s “masculinity.” However, none of the heterosexual males who dreamed up these theories reduce heterosexual male orientation to a sexualized drive to internalize the mother’s “femininity.” To the contrary, traditional psychoanalytic theories, developed primarily by heterosexual men, turn the family into a psychological battleground between sons and fathers where the mother — and, subsequently, womankind — is the victor’s prize. The chief characteristic of “masculinity” supposedly transferred from father to son is competition among men, particularly for the possession of women.
In a similar vein, the LDS-SS document attributes the development of lesbian sexual orientation to a mother who, because of her pathologic relationship with men, transfers her dependency needs from her husband onto her daughter, thus “masculinizing” her daughter (p. 16). From a heterosexual male point of view, this may make sense since women, by heterosexual male definition, are dependent on men. The LDS-SS document characterizes lesbian relationships as overly dependent (p. 18), though a woman’s dependence on a man is seen as “normal.” It is the lesbian’s lack of dependence on a man, or, phrased another way, her perceived independence from men which is seen as the pathologic element in lesbian sexual orientation development.
In neither instance is there any convincing data to support the claims made by these theories. Since they make sense to heterosexuals, especially heterosexual men, they are assumed to be true. Supporting data is superfluous. We simply decide to see what we believe.
The most widely employed justification of gender enmity in the LDS church, however, is found in the Judeo-Christian creation myth. God — a man — created Adam first, and from Adam, God created Eve. After Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and gave the fruit to Adam, God said to her: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Moses 4:22). These are the roles assigned by God to Eve and, presumably, all women. She is defined in terms of her subordinate relationship to her husband, for whom she was created as a help meet for him (Moses 3: 18, 20). We find this same ideology echoed in current proclamations by “the Brethren:” “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and the protection of their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” — period! (First Presidency, 1996). The only task given by God to Eve (and women) is the only task which Adam (and men) cannot take from women — the bearing of children. Or can’t they? Speaking at a Priesthood Commemoration Fireside, Boyd K. Packer (1989) said of gay men:
Never can two of the same gender fulfill the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. No two men or any number added to them, no matter how much priesthood they may think they possess, can do it. Only a woman can bestow upon man that supernal title of father (1989, p. 73).
But isn’t that what the creation myth tells us? Two priesthood-bearing men (Elohim and Jehovah) created man (Adam), and from Adam, a man, came the birth of Eve, a woman. Our creation myth leads us to believe that we human beings are the products of a woman-less creation. Our God (the ideal man) appropriated from women that one characteristic of womanhood which men cannot otherwise possess. As Lopez-Corvo described in his book God is a Woman (1997), our creation myth projects upon God man’s covetous and envious attitude toward women’s unique ability to bring life into the world. A woman’s reproductive potential, when possessed by man, completes his transformation into his all-powerful ideal, God.
The problem is that the rest of a woman comes packaged with her reproductive abilities. Consequently, men in power (i.e., apostles and prophets, legislators, husbands and fathers), referring authoritatively to their creation myth, have made rules, laws, commandments, and customs which carefully regulate the scope of a woman’s personhood so as to complete man rather than compete with him; ergo, the “feminine” ideal trait of passivity. A woman’s potentially unregulated and independent personhood, which may deprive man of his ideal personal completeness, drives his gender enmity.
Because of deeply ingrained gender enmity, lesbians (as well as women feminists), perceived as independent of men, become targets of those men who feel entitled to possess and control women. Because of gender enmity, gay men are perceived as breaking ranks with men; trying to possess another man (i.e., feminize a man), or — worse — be possessed by a man.
Early in my psychiatric training I began treating a woman with a severe personality disorder. I experienced intense frustration with her because every time we made progress in the therapy she would decompensate and hurt herself. After about a year of repeating this cycle I experienced a flash of insight that has remained with me since. I realized that I had no idea how she thought or felt. We spoke the same language and that led me to believe that we shared other perceptions as well, but I discovered after many frustrating hours that we thought in very different ways. In order to help her, I first had to learn from her how she perceived and interpreted the world around her. I learned from her and subsequent patients as well as friends and acquaintances, an important lesson which has improved me as a psychiatrist and, hopefully, as a person. I remind myself daily, and teach my residents, this adage by Emerson: “The sign of the true scholar is that in every man there is something wherein I may learn of him. In that I am his pupil.”
This is the major problem with the perspective on homosexual orientation passed on by some of the LDS church leaders and LDS Social Services. It is clear that the writings of many church leaders including the First Presidency’s document Understanding and Helping Those Who Have Homosexual Problems — Suggestions for Ecclesiastical Leaders (1992) as well as the LDS-SS document (1995) do not lead to an understanding of lesbians and gay men at all. What we find in those documents are dry, dehumanizing pontifications added to caricatures and stereotypes of gay men and lesbians drawn from a distinctly heterosexual male point of view.
I have five pieces of unsolicited but sorely needed advice to offer church leaders as well as my mental health professional colleagues in LDS Social Services:
Stop talking about gay men and lesbians as if you knew them. Your writings prove you wrong and reflect badly on the integrity of the church!
Seek first to love people rather than judge them. Your careless and thoughtless blanket condemnations of lesbians and gay men combined with the falsehoods you use to justify your judgments hurt everyone in the church, especially faithful gay men, lesbians, and their families. Joseph Smith never said anything about lesbians and gay men. But he did say this of men in leadership positions: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of nearly all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C; 121: 39).
No matter how much you may beg, plead, pray or cajole, you cannot make gay men and lesbians heterosexual. But you can help them to be whole by loving them and finding ways to help them love themselves. Far too many of our lesbian and gay youths kill themselves because of what you say about them (Remafedi, 1994). Don’t teach them to hate themselves. Encourage them to form healthy, loving, fulfilling, nonexploitive, eternal relationships with their companions or potential companions as you do with your heterosexual youth.
Don’t hold out a promise of change in the name of Jesus; your prejudicial beliefs are your own. By basing a change in sexual orientation on the Atonement and repentance you drive many spiritually sensitive women and men out of the church and, possibly, into spiritual chaos. Because they cannot change they may feel that — due to some intrinsic evil — Jesus has abandoned them. Those who believe your false promises and remain celibate in the hopes of eventual “cure” are consigned to a misery paralleling that of thirsty Tantalus whose punishment from the gods was to stand in a pool of water which forever receded just out of his reach.
Before you can overcome your negative biases toward lesbians and gay men you need to be aware of your condescending and rejecting views regarding women and “femininity.” It is an insult of the highest order to consider all of the cultural, scientific, social, political and economic accomplishments of women as secondary to their reproductive capacities. Likewise, it is insulting for men who have (or desire) primary responsibility for raising children to consider their contributions as inferior to women’s or “unmasculine.” Additionally, neither women nor any of their parts should be considered property, possession, or missing pieces of men.
Most of what has been said and written about gay men and lesbians by church leaders tells us more about the leaders themselves than lesbians and gay men. If one wants to learn about gay men and lesbians she/he would be well advised to set the Ensign aside and invite a lesbian, gay man or a gay couple to your home and talk to them. Rather than seeing in lesbians and gay men what you have been led to believe about them, talk to them, see them, hear them, love them, and believe what you see of them and their experiences. You will understand so much more.
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