Tolerance and Civility
If you are reading this and you are not I, then I have changed my mind and decided to let you read it. Many years ago, I decided to “out” myself and talk about my life dealing with same-sex attraction as a faithful and believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as a committed husband and father. That first time I wrote about it I was terrified. I could no longer hide comfortably in the proverbial closet. Since that day, I’ve been relatively unafraid to be honest with my feelings and my struggle, not only with same-sex attraction, but with life itself. Today, I think I’m more scared to post this than I was to first talk about same-sex attraction.
I started writing about my life on the internet long before I had ever heard the contraction for web log called a blog. I began in 1995 and posted on this very site. A couple of years ago, I discovered WordPress and found a better way to organize the things I was writing than my original design. You can still find my writings from those early times, now imported into this WordPress blog.
So now, fifteen years after that first post, I find myself fearing the repercussions of honestly sharing how I’m feeling. Let me say first that my earlier fears were justified. It wasn’t long after that first post that my words were forwarded to a general authority of the Church and it resulted in me being released from a calling in Scouting. The general authority and whoever sent him my words felt I should not be a leader of youth. Mind you, there was nothing in my behavior that would suggest that I was unfaithful to the teachings of the Church regarding marriage, sex, and morality. The action was based solely on what was considered to be my potential for behavior, despite a long track record with leading youth without corrupting them.
So, hopefully you will understand my reluctance to be completely open about my feelings. Of course, if I never publish this, there will be nothing to understand. If it seems like I’m procrastinating getting to the point, I am. I feel strongly that before I can begin with the meat of this post, I must first put my fears about it into context.
Now that you know that I am afraid, let me get to describing the nature and object of my fear and then, I promise, I will get to my subject. My fear is based on the fear of rejection, rejection by people who have professed to be my friend, rejection by local leaders of the Church, rejection by colleagues, and rejection by the Church itself. Please notice that I did not include in my list a fear of rejection by my family or by God. In those two relationships, I feel completely secure.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager watching late night TV in my basement bedroom, I saw an old rerun of a classic movie that never got much recognition beyond its original release. It was considered campy, which I think is a fair assessment. My problem is, I like “campy” stuff. As evidence, I point you to my status as a fan of Dark Shadows, one of the campiest TV shows of all time.
The movie I now describe was The Next Voice You Hear, starring James Whitmore and Nancy Davis, whom almost everyone will recognize as former First Lady, Nancy Reagan.
If you watched this trailer, then you know that the premise of this story is that for six days, resting on the seventh, God spoke to the world on the radio, urging people to love one another and work harder to get along. It is that message that I want to echo and do it in the face of my own struggle to understand and believe that the things said by those I believe to be the servants of God have said.
I am referring, in particular, to a talk given at the Semiannual General Conference of the Church by President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The title of his talk is “Cleansing the Inner Vessel“, which itself appeals to me because the name of my business is Inner Vessel Productions and is based on the teaching of the Savior that we should first cleanse our inner vessel before the outside can be cleaned.
Let me begin by saying that I have read and reread President Packer’s talk to discover my own feelings. My initial reaction, as soon as he began referring to things that hit home for me, was fear. I was not afraid he would be saying something that would make me feel guilty. I’ve had many a twinge of guilt upon hearing a speaker at general conference preach something I am not doing or condemn something I am doing. Not so with this talk. Pornography has never been something I’ve struggled with. Same-sex attraction is, but my behavior, for nearing four decades now, has been consistent with the teachings of the Church.
No, this time my fear was for what I felt his words would surely stir up among people I care very deeply about. It was for the many people I know who are hanging by a thread of a testimony to try to bring their behavior into conformity with the teachings of the Church. I was afraid for those who have already felt condemned by their leaders and have experienced that condemnation without much in the way of solutions for the dilemma they face. I was afraid for those who have already parted company with the Church and may have decided never to return. I was afraid for those who might someday want to seek the light I believe the Church offers and will not even look.
From a doctrinal standpoint, I had no quarrel with what he said. In fact, but for a few sentences in the middle of his talk, it seemed to me to be a message of hope in the atonement and mercy of the Lord. Yet, I also feared that those few sentences would drown out the message in the hearts and minds of most Latter-day Saints who deal with same-sex attraction. Despite that my behavior is consistent with those teachings, I felt a degree of condemnation, not for my obedience, but simply for being one who lives with feelings of sexual attraction to men.
I will be the first to say that it is often the job of a servant of the Lord to come down squarely on the side of the commandments and profess that disobedience is without excuse. I have become accustomed, however, to hearing that kind of a message accompanied by an expression of love that is more powerful than the direct rebuke. In fact, the same God who is direct with us also declared:
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death (D&C 121:43–44).
Mind you, I am not trying here to lecture President Packer for having seemed to omit this. I think that his promise of forgiveness that is the entire point of his talk is sufficient to fulfill this commandment. Still, most of the people I know did not feel it, and to be honest, until I reread his talk, I did not either.
Even though I now recognize that President Packer loves me and I even trust that he loves people who are struggling more with their behavior than I am, I only conclude that this love exists in the same way I finally came to realize in my adulthood that my stepfather loved me. I had to arrive at that conclusion by extrapolation. I can’t remember him, my stepfather, ever having said it.
Though I am tempted to deconstruct that part of the talk that seems to be directed at those who deal with same-sex attraction and even seems to be intended as yet another political line in the sand regarding same-sex marriage, I think that there is already plenty of analysis available on-line for that. What I want to approach has more to do with the fictional message of the voice of God in The Next Voice You Hear.
It has to do with the idea of tolerance, which I believe that the voice that Joe and Mary Smith in the movie was urging mankind to practice. It isn’t difficult for me to accept that people in the gay and lesbian communities feel intolerance when religious leaders proclaim that homosexual behavior is not approved by God. Heaven knows, I feel it to a degree myself.
It is also not unusual to me that someone who feels they are being treated with intolerance will want to protest. In America, they are guaranteed that right and I think it is a good thing.
What I don’t understand is the idea that one can fight intolerance with intolerance. Despite the old proverb about fighting fire with fire, it seems deeply hypocritical to lash out with incivility over the perceived lack of tolerance of another. Of the many people I’ve discussed these issues with this week, the most vitriolic have been those who were angry about President Packer’s words. If you want me to be tolerant, be tolerant.
On a personal level, the more I’ve stayed the course of my faith in the teachings of the leaders of the Church, the more friends I’ve lost who don’t have that same point of view. Reactions to me on that side of the question have ranged from railing accusations to cutting me off from communications and treating me like I’m little more than an annoyance to them. It hurts far more to lose the affection of someone I thought loved me than to be harassed by people that I never believed cared about me in the first place.
It’s only fair to say that it often feels that I don’t get much respect from the other side of the question either. A lot of people seem to think of me as a fence-sitter, because I also don’t entrench myself in either side of the nature/nurture debate. I truly don’t know what the genesis of my same-sex attraction is, and I don’t really care that much either. To me, that is neither a spiritual question nor even a scientific question. It is purely political and I choose to ignore it.
If you are one who believes that people can’t be born with a tendency toward same-sex attraction, you are probably thinking to yourself that I am rejecting the words of President Packer when he said, “Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Remember, God is our Heavenly Father.”
I would first remind you that I don’t believe in a biological determinant to same-sex attracted feelings, nor do I disbelieve it. I bear the same indifference to the nurture side of the debate. I don’t really see how President Packer’s talk was even about that. I assume that he was talking about those who think that any inborn tendency is a fatalistic guarantee that one cannot choose how one behaves.
I suppose if anything strikes me as difficult to understand about this statement by President Packer, it is how it meshes with this scripture:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
My understanding of this scripture and the interpretation I’ve heard of it by leaders of the Church is that in the absence of the influence of the Holy Ghost, we are all dealing with the spiritual death brought about by the fall. It does not shake my faith in God as a Father to understand that it is part of his plan that Adam experienced the Fall and that we are all dealing with “inborn” tendencies to want to choose sin and that it requires seeking the Spirit and the forgiveness that comes through the atonement to overcome that condition. In this, we differ greatly from other Christian denominations who view the Fall as God’s plan going awry and being tainted by Adam’s original sin.
I do think that my own personal version of how the Fall affects me is that part of my struggle with the natural man is a tendency to deal with same-sex attracted feelings. I will also attest that I am utterly convinced that to whatever degree I have been able to align my behavior with the will of God has been the work of the Spirit in me and not by my own force of will.
In this, I will echo the sentiment expressed by King Benjamin in the scripture that some things do feel as if they were inflicted upon me by God. That is because this thing I’m somehow minimizing by having such a bland name as “same-sex attraction” is far from an easy thing to bear and even harder to reconcile with a belief in the commandments that I must not do the things that seem so normal and natural to me.
Being as forthright as I can, it is not made easier for me by a steady stream of telling me that it is wrong with very few suggestions about what I can do about it. Neither is it made easier to bear by not feeling appreciated in my efforts by anyone but God. Those who think I’m deluded in my devotion to the teachings do not appreciate who I am and what I’ve chosen to do and those who think it is just a matter of deciding to obey don’t appreciate how difficult it is to do.
Though I sometimes feel sorry for myself, in all of this rancor, I feel most sorry for children and youth. Though I don’t share the feeling of the need for an angry tone, I do sympathize with the concern over children and young people and how they must feel in this debate. It seems like a divorce where two parents battle over custody of children and don’t stop to think how their bitterness may affect the most vulnerable among them.
In my youth, as I dealt with the fight between my behavior and my beliefs, I was fortunate to do it just between me and the Lord. I have a hard time imagining how I would have felt if I had been active in the Church and be subjected to hearing about the evils of my feelings without any clear statement that I was loved and desired in the Church or what I could do about it. I wrestled that out with God when I wasn’t going to church.
I am dismayed at the silence on the subject of same-sex attraction at the local level, as if children and youth would only hear about it if we were talking about it. If the Church has a message for the youth regarding same-sex attraction, wouldn’t it make sense to reach out to them about it at least as much as the rest of the world is talking to them about it? I am certain that silence is not golden in this case.
A book about a young Latter-day Saint who struggles with same-sex attraction really captured for me what it was like to deal with same-sex attraction as a Mormon teenager. No Going Back tells that story with such familiarity for me that it haunts me, yet its sales betray what to me is a shameful lack of interest by the Latter-day Saint community. Though not specifically intended for only Latter-day Saints, and if I’m being fair, does not even seem to have an agenda other than telling a story that resonates, it seems to be an example of the things in the category of, “Let’s not talk about this.”
As an adult, I have a hard time not feeling like people think I’m disgusting when they treat the subject of same-sex attraction as if it is, itself, too disgusting to discuss. How much more do young people who experience same-sex attraction feel that the silence about it means that they are disgusting?
If I could have my wish in all of the wrangling over these difficult issues, it would be that the adult world in all of its points of view, would carry on their disagreements like parents in an amicable divorce. I would take both sides of the nature/nurture question to task for caring more about being right than how their rhetoric affects young people. I would also rebuke anyone who lashes out with incivility and especially those who are intolerant in the name of intolerance.
If I could have God answer one prayer for you today, it would be that the next voice you hear would be loving, kind, tolerant, and respectful of differences.