Monday, August 15, 2016

Mixed-Orientation Marriages

Can Oil and Water Mix?

I’ve had mixed-orientation marriages (MOMs) on the mind of late. Marriage is complex enough when both spouses are attracted to one another, let alone when one or both do not experience typical sexual or romantic attraction for their partner. In these instances we usually hear of gay men marrying straight women, though lately more stories of gay women married to straight men are beginning to emerge. I did some digging into the history of MOMs in the LDS Church and found some heartbreaking stories, as well some interesting developments in modern MOM culture. So let’s begin.

As best I can piece together the narrative, Church leaders used to counsel gay members to marry members of the opposite sex, possibly as late as 1987, as a means of curing homosexual feelings. The idea was that if people were to have heterosexual sex and realize how wonderful it was, as well as have children, they would live out the heteronormative lifestyle and find true happiness therein. Unfortunately, such a plan didn’t work out terribly well. Many families ended in heart-wrenching divorce, the most famous of which is Gerald and Carol Lynn Pearson. Some time after the divorce, Carol Lynn would ask her ex-husband:
“What would have happened if--if you had just made yourself stay where you were with us? If you had just forced yourself to put your other needs away?
Gerald thought a moment and then replied. “I would have become increasingly bitter and empty--just like Frank.” Frank was an old friend whom Gerald had recently run into. He was a homosexual who had married and stayed married and had gained eighty pounds in the last two years and hadn’t touched anyone during those two years, not even his wife. “I had to do what I’ve done. I haven’t done it perfectly. I would change a lot if I could, but I had to do it.” Had to? All that we had, all that we lost… Could not other choices have brought us to some better destination? (Carol Lynn Pearson 204)

With time it became apparent that marriage alone was not enough to make MOMs work. It was then that the leaders of the Church allied themselves with reparative therapy. The basic idea of early reparative therapy (aimed almost entirely at men) was that those who experience homosexual feelings had some form of arrested development that prevented them from fully growing emotionally or mentally into men. By teaching participants to act manlier and deal with childhood traumas, therapists promised that homosexual feelings could be cured. And so a new generation of young Mormons took the plunge into a new round of MOMs. Ironically enough, Emily Pearson, the daughter of Gerald and Carol Lynn, would follow in her parents’ footsteps and marry a gay man, Steven Fales. He even told her of his attractions in a place which was most symbolic of history’s tendency to repeat:
Why the hell had I brought us there to talk of all places? To the house where my mother had found out that her husband was gay? (Emily Pearson 225)
Yet Emily and Steven pushed forward, convinced that they could do better than previous generations:
Steven: We were gonna write a different story. We had faith in this new “reparative therapy”, in the Church, and in ourselves. We could lick it! We were supposed to be together. We had fasted and prayed. We had all the right confirmations. We would succeed where the previous generation had failed. We would defy Good-bye, I Love You and write Hello, I Love You (Fales 20).
Emily: Maybe together we had a “greater than us” work to do. Maybe we could marry and actually be successful at it. Maybe we could write a book together -- a far different book than the one my mother wrote. We would conquer successfully what my parents had failed miserably at. Steven and I could be the poster children for reparative therapy (Emily Pearson 227).
Steven took therapy sessions from the head of NARTH himself, The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality. He was taught the importance of connecting with his primal masculine energy, of behaving like a real man, and even quit his dream of theater and Broadway because it wasn’t masculine enough. But the wheels of history continued to turn, and soon Emily and Steven’s marriage ended in an even more bitter divorce than Gerald and Carol Lynn’s. It seems that being manlier wasn’t any more successful at curing homosexuality than heterosexual sex. 

And that brings us to today. The current Church policy is less ambiguous, though not widely known:

“Marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices” (Hinckley) and “Persons who have this kind of challenge that they cannot control could not enter marriage in good faith. On the other hand, persons who have cleansed themselves of any transgression and who have shown their ability to deal with these feelings or inclinations and put them in the background, and feel a great attraction for a daughter of God and therefore desire to enter marriage and have children and enjoy the blessings of eternity — that’s a situation when marriage would be appropriate” (Oaks and Wickman).

Elder Oak’s assumption that homosexuality is solely a male experience is a topic for another blog post. For now let’s focus on the rest. There is still some debate of exactly what “ability to deal with these feelings or inclinations and put them in the background” means. As far as I can tell, people should at least have some bisexual or biromantic tendencies before entering into a heterosexual marriage. Those who have exclusively homosexual/romantic feelings should remain single and celibate.  

Whether or not people can change from homosexual to bisexual or heterosexual is also uncertain. The official Church stance seems to be: sometimes.

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 (Oaks and Wickman).

People have found a diminishing of that same-sex attraction, almost to the point of vanishing, and others not at all. (Christofferson)

Elder Oaks didn’t rule our conversion therapy completely, but also spoke out against pseudo-therapies in general:

The Church rarely takes a position on which treatment techniques are appropriate, for medical doctors or for psychiatrists or psychologists and so on . . .The aversive therapies that have been used in connection with same-sex attraction have contained some serious abuses that have been recognized over time within the professions. (Oaks and Wickman).

So to sum up the principle: if you feel genuine attraction towards someone of the opposite sex, the Church says yes to marriage. If you don’t, the Church says no to marriage. Maybe therapy can reveal some bisexual tendencies, and maybe not.

There are still plenty of people in the Church today who would classify themselves as predominantly gay, yet have entered into MOMs. In one case a man said he experienced a singular instance of opposite-sex attraction towards his wife. In another a man was biromantic, though homosexual, and felt that this was sufficient to build a marriage on. In both cases these men were open about their feelings with their wives before marriage and had accepted their sexuality as something that wouldn’t change and are candid about it with friends, family, and ward members. I imagine that they suffer considerably less stress than their predecessors, as they don’t pressure themselves to change their orientation or gender expression.

The question is will the marriages work out this time around? The average MOM lasts 16.6 years (Dehlin et al. 299), yet this new practice of accepting a queer identity in a MOM is less than a decade old. It’s simply too early to have any data on whether or not this mentality will prove effective. History seems to show that many MOMs don’t make it. As of 2014, the divorce rate was 50%, projected to be 69% if conditions remain unchanged (Dehlin et al. 299). Yet many of these marriages were made when the stress of shame of queer opprobrium dominated. Genuine self-acceptance and acceptance of a queer identity coupled with open communication between spouses might prove the key to a successful MOM. Or it could be the newest fad that grinds another generation into crippling divorce. For my friends’ sake who are in MOMs, I certainly hope and pray the former is the case.

The sad part is that the Church now counsels queer members to ignore their sexuality as much as possible, focusing instead on their identity as a child of God. While these two identities could theoretically co-exist peacefully (and give MOMs the best chance at survival), pitting these two identities against one another as antithetical could produce similar stress factors which collapsed the marriages of the last and second-to-last generations.

So here are the questions for the day. Are the current methods of maintaining MOMs more successful than those that have come before? And if not, will humans discover or God reveal the right formula for a successful MOM? I personally do not believe a MOM is for me, but I also wouldn’t rule it out for others.

For now I will watch, wait, and see.
Works Cited:
Christofferson, D. Todd. “Purpose of This Website.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 2012. Accessed 8/15/16.

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.

Fales, Steven. Confessions of a Mormon Boy. New York: Alyson Books, 2006.

Hinckley, Gordon B. Reverence and Morality. Ensign. April 1987. Accessed 8/15/16.

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. Accessed 8/15/16.

Pearson, Carol Lynn. Good-bye, I Love You. New York: Random House, 1986.

Pearson, Emily. Dancing with Crazy. USA: Hulabaloo Press, 2012.