About a year ago my friend and I were driving to a party. He had only recently completed a mission and was ‘anxiously engaged’ in Provo dating life. I hadn’t told him that I was gay at the time, but somehow or other the conversation veered towards homosexuality. I expressed how difficult it must be for gay people in the Church, especially when they aren’t able to pursue any romantic interests. My friend had a chipper rejoinder: “They can just be celibate. That way they can still be part of the Church, and in the next life they’ll be perfected and won’t have to worry about being same-sex attracted.” Problem solved.
Except that it isn’t.
A commitment to life-long celibacy is not an ideal solution to the problem of same-sex attraction, and it worries me that members often think that it is. Particularly dangerous is that word ‘just,’ as in “They should just be celibate.” It implies that this is the obvious default answer, that it is a simple solution which anyone can do. I don’t blame my friend for his answer, since his life circumstances never required him to think too much about this problem. For queer people, it may feel like it’s all we think about. While celibacy may be viable for a few, it is devastating for most.
Let’s start with a basic Gospel principle. Celibacy has never been part of God’s plan, though abstinence is. I’m using these words with a somewhat specialized meaning, so let me clarify. Celibacy as I’m using it here is a life-long commitment to never engage in any romantic or sexual acts. No intercourse, no kissing, no cuddling, no hand-holding. Nada. Abstinence is the commitment to refrain from sexual acts until marriage, though couples may still engage in non-sexual acts such as cuddling or kissing. While some people may experience only a few years of abstinence and others go through decades, the key thing to remember is that abstinence is temporary. It is a transition period that isn’t meant to last forever.
God made this pretty clear in the Garden of Eden: “It is not good that man [or woman] should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Yet this is exactly what we ask queer people to do when we say that they should lock up all their emotions for life.
Part of the problem is that we as a Church are in limbo. Back in the 70s, with the understanding we had at the time, we were certain that homosexuality could be cured like any other disease. For example, President Kimball said that homosexuals “can often be helped to a total cure by a kindly Church leader who understands” (1) and insisted that “homosexuality CAN be cured, if the battle is well organized and pursued vigorously and continuously” (7). We never insisted that queer people be celibate because once they were cured “marriage and normal life can follow” (Kimball 6).
But over the past 40 years our understanding of sexuality has grown. Recently Church leaders have been expressing different counsel in regards to changing orientation:
Case studies I believe have shown that in some cases there has been progress made in helping someone to change that orientation; in other cases not (Elder Lance B. Wickman).
And mixed-orientation marriage:
It’s not always successful. Sometimes it’s been even disastrous. So, we think it’s something that each person can evaluate and they can discuss, both with priesthood leaders and family and others, and make decisions. But we simply don’t take a uniform position of saying “yes” always or “no” always (Elder D. Todd Christofferson).
I’ll leave the ‘yeses’ for another discussion and focus on those who cannot change their orientation or cannot make a heterosexual marriage work, through no fault of their own. These are the people that we say should just be celibate.
Theologically, this is something new. It’s only been in the last decade that we’ve acknowledged that some people really can’t make a heterosexual marriage work. Before that, we believed that everyone could be cured with enough effort. Now we have this new situation, and we haven’t yet figured out a good answer. So we say “Well, just be celibate,” but I hope this is a temporary rather than a life-time solution. Because in the end, celibacy has some extremely damaging drawbacks.
Although the lack of sex is trying, it doesn’t compare with the painful void of no relationships.
I have often heard members compare resisting homosexual impulses to resisting drugs, alcohol, or kleptomania. The problem with this analogy is that you can survive without all these things without any serious damage to yourself. But going without a romantic relationship for your entire life is very damaging. It’s a lot like going without the sun.
Imagine you are locked in a dungeon when you hit puberty. You are well cared for, and your family visits you from time to time, but you are told that you must never go outside again. Your body needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, used primarily to help your body absorb calcium. You have all the milk you can drink, but it doesn’t do you any good. Your bones weaken, your muscles must spend more energy to contract, and even your nerves function with less efficiency. The world literally appears duller to all your senses. There are certain foods you could eat to get some vitamin D, but even then the loss of sunlight produces a spectacular loss of hope.
In a similar way, humans need strong relationships. We grow when we fall in love, when we sacrifice for another. We learn to work through problems and thrive on common goals. As wonderful as friendships are, they do not provide the intimacy and emotional intensity necessary for such growth. We are stunted when we do not express this part of ourselves. All the scripture reading and prayer in the world won’t fill that void. The whole world appears duller.
Worst of all is the loss of hope. Remember that abstinence is only a temporary state with the hope, however dim, that it will end one day. But celibacy has no hope of ending. Queer Mormons must actively squash any opportunities that threaten their celibate state. As Jamison Manwaring put it:
Single people pray every night to find someone to fall in love with. Gay people trying to stay in the Church pray every night not to find someone to fall in love. (Montgomery)
One suggestion that straight members and leaders make is that “this is but one aspect of any person’s life, and it need not become the consuming aspect of his or her life” (Christofferson). If someone decides to go down the celibacy route, this is certainly necessary. The alternative is to obsess over it. But we live in a church that places marriage and family above everything else. It can be somewhat difficult to forget, especially when we hear quotes like this:
Romantic love is not only a part of life, but literally a dominating influence of it. It is deeply and significantly religious. There is no abundant life without it. Indeed, the highest degree of the celestial kingdom is unobtainable in the absence of it. (Elder Boyd K. Packer)
I don’t want to demean those who have chosen to be celibate. They are people of great faith who are willing to make tremendous sacrifices. I’m more concerned with other members who think that this is an easy decision and expect all queer people to follow this standard (even those who are not members of the Church). There is a huge difference between deciding to be celibate because you believe that it is what God wants you to do and feeling pressured to be celibate by your family and culture. The former is a noble if difficult decision while the latter leaves one feeling trapped and hopeless. But in either case, those who remain celibate have worse internalized homophobia, distress from sexual identity, depression, lower self-esteem, and poorer quality of life (Dehlin et al. 300).
So what are we, as Chirst’s Church, going to do about this? We could look at our queer brothers and sisters and say “Well, they’re coming to Church every Sunday. They’re not breaking any commandments. Our work here is done.” Or in other words, “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth” (2 Nephi 28:21). I’m afraid that too many of us do this. A better approach would be to invite them into our homes and give them as much friendship and support as we can muster. This is better, but it still only treats a symptom rather than getting to the root of the matter. The best course would be to find a way to remove the need for imposed celibacy.
The solution is not necessarily to allow same-sex relationships. I believe that we have reached a point where human understanding has met its limits. Despite hundreds of thousands of LDS gay men and women striving to find reconciliation for their faith and sexuality, we still haven’t made much progress. Current Church policy is still caught in a hybrid of 1970s and 2015 understanding of sexuality, and our brothers and sisters are paying the price in anguish. We’ve had millennia of queer people pass away in silent suffering. We at last are having an open discussion, striving to understand how non-heterosexual orientations fit into the Plan of Salvation.
Now is the time to ask the Prophet.
We as a Church claim ongoing revelation. When we don’t understand something, we can go to the Prophet and inquire of the Lord. All too often, though, God doesn’t give us an answer until someone asks the question. What would happen if every member of the Church were to pray to God on a regular basis asking how we can help our brothers and sisters who are queer? What if we were to plead that He reveal to the Prophet a way to stop the pain of imposed celibacy? How might faith unlock the windows of Heaven?
I do not know what the Lord might reveal. He could allow same-sex marriages, or reveal an effective way to change orientations, or a solution that no one ever dreamed of. What I do know is that too many of our members are growing up in pain and sorrow and despair, and the usual tools we employ are not healing them.
And we need to do something soon. Only 29% of queer members stay active in the Church and only half of those are currently in mixed orientation marriages, a projected estimate of 69% of which will end in divorce (Dehlin et al. 291). Once we factor in those who have already divorced, this means that only 9.6% of LDS gay members are receiving a lasting temple marriage, while 90.4% are denied it. Our current methods aren’t working; we need the Lord’s help.
So instead of saying to our brothers and sisters, “Just be celibate,” let us say “Stay celibate for just a little while longer. We’re figuring out something better.”
Christofferson, D. Todd. “Purpose of This Website.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. 2012. http://mormonsandgays.org/ Accessed 6/11/15.
Dehlin, John P., Renee V. Galliher, William S. Bradshaw, Katherine A. Crowell. “Psychological
Correlates to Religious Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction: A Mormon Perspective.” Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health 18 (2014): 284-311.
Kimball, Spencer W. and Mark E. Petersen. Hope for Transgressors. Salt Lake City: The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1970.
Montgomery, Thomas. “A Difference of Opinion.” No More Strangers: LGBT Mormon Forum.
June 25, 2014. http://www.nomorestrangers.org/a-difference-of-opinion/. Accessed June 11, 2015.
Oaks, Dallin H. and Lance B. Wickman. “Interview With Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Lance
B. Wickman: ‘Same-Gender Attraction.’” Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, 2006. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/interview-oaks-wickman-same-gender-attraction. Accessed June 11, 2015.
Packer, Boyd K. “Eternal Love.” BYU Fireside, November 3, 1963. Quoted in Bruce C. Hafen’s
“The Gospel and Romantic Love.” https://www.lds.org/youth/article/print?lang=eng&url =/youth/article/the-gospel-and-romantic-love Accessed June 19, 2015.