Relations between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not at an impasse following inflammatory remarks by LDS President of the Council of the Twelve Boyd K. Packer, the church’s second-highest leader, during the LDS General Conference on Oct. 3. At least that’s the way leaders on both sides of the issue are playing the controversy.
“While we disagree with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) on many fundamentals, we also share some common ground,” read a statement the church issued in response to a petition submitted by the national LGBT association calling for Packer to take back his hurtful words, and a protest at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. “We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different—whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.”
Brandie Balkan, executive director of LGBT civil rights organization Equality Utah strikes a similar tone, explaining to New West, “Many religious organizations are currently struggling with their stance on homosexuality, while at the same time maintaining Christ’s message of love, respect and compassion for all. I think it’s critically important to hear messages about love, inclusion, respect and compassion from religious leaders.”
That’s not the response one might expect from the head of a group whose orientation Packer characterized as an “impure and unnatural” addiction and whose desire for marriage equality he labeled as “a law against nature.” So why obey the church’s “call for civility”?
The short answer is that the front lines for this culture war run through families. Brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers can end up on opposite sides of the issue.
“Mike” (not his real name) describes himself as a “gay ex-Mormon living with HIV” in Salt Lake City. He gave New West an example of how convoluted the situation could get, referring to a man he knows as a father “of several missionary sons in the conservative stronghold of Utah County” who is also, he says, a “nonpracticing homosexual who takes his commitments to wife, family and church very seriously (and is) pained by the church’s slow acknowledgment that their current stance is unworkable.”
It would be hard to envy the person Mike describes, but presumably he has someone to whom he can relate his troubles. The protest and the HRC petition spoke to the plight of children and teenagers in the church who are just beginning to realize how different they are from their friends and family, and what that difference might mean for their future, even in the afterlife.
Mike’s comment about his “nonpracticing” homosexual friend is illustrative of the issue’s complexity. Packer does not seem to be aware of any such complications. He told his audience, “Some argue that attraction…is pre-set and cannot be overcome. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”
It’s a given that a few thousand young members of the church are asking themselves that question right now. And the answers they’ll get from their parents, their friends, their brothers and sisters, their bishops and other church leaders will probably not jibe with the reality they are experiencing, namely that, no matter how fervently they pray, no matter how much they deny their feelings, they will remain 1.) attracted to the same sex or 2.) attracted to members of both sexes, or even worse 3.) deeply dissatisfied with the gender they were born into.
Lisa Diamond, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah who has studied and written extensively about gender issues, has an explanation for why such prayers go unanswered.
“I can tell you with certainty that although individuals can choose their specific sexual partners and they can choose the labels they apply to their sexuality,” says Diamond, “the orientation of their desires is not chosen. This is the scientific consensus.
“Even individuals who have undergone ‘reparative therapy’ to change their sexual orientation, and who report ‘success’ typically say things like ‘well, I still have the attractions, but I’ve learned some great strategies for coping with them, distracting myself from them and re-invigorating my emotional bond with my spouse…’
“In other words,” Diamond concludes, “their orientation hasn’t changed but their way of thinking about it and coping with it has.”
Diamond’s views match closely with those of the American Psychological Association (APA), which reports:
Contrary to the claims of sexual orientation change effort practitioners and advocates, through a systematic review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature the APA’s task force concluded that efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm.
What options does that leave for the poor child who finds herself attracted to her best friend in a manner the church would find inappropriate, and whose prayers that it not be so have not been answered? Church doctrine makes it clear members will not be cast into a lesser tier of the afterlife simply because of “wicked” feelings. For that to happen, they would have to act on them. That might not sound like much to ask if one feels like committing theft, rape or murder. However, to prohibit oneself from engaging in consensual “relations” with the kind of person to whom one is naturally attracted takes a lot of faith. More faith, it turns out, than many LGBT church members can sustain.
The aforementioned “sexual orientation change effort practitioners” claim to have the solution. Their methods vary from counseling to electric shock aversion therapy but their success rates are low. Those with higher rates, says Diamond, whose own work has been misinterpreted to support “mutable” theories of sexuality, generally redefine “success” as avoiding sex with someone of the same gender, even if the attraction remains.
There are other options for young LGBT church members, of course. One is to leave the church. The other is to commit suicide. Reliable statistics from reputable studies about the prevalence of this last “solution” among the youth LGBT population are hard to find. However, it seems unlikely that speeches such as Packer’s would give young men and women who have accepted their homosexual orientation as part of their identity any hope that “it gets better.”
This isn’t the first controversy raised by Boyd Packer’s personal views and interpretation of Mormon doctrine. In the year before blacks were allowed to hold the priesthood in the church (1978), he gave a speech arguing against interracial marriage. He made similar claims about the “choice” of sexual orientation in an earlier talk, “To the One,” while also insinuating, as in his recent speech, that children could be enticed into becoming homosexual.
Those claims, as well as similar assertions by Mormon Social Services and further claims by the same that parents could “cause” their children to become homosexual, were questioned in a 1999 letter to Packer by former LDS Bishop David Eccles Hardy, whose own son had struggled with same-sex attraction and had attempted suicide before leaving the church, with his father’s blessing.
Hardy wanted to know where Packer’s insights about choice and homosexual “selfishness” came from, and when Packer himself chose to become a heterosexual. Packer’s explanation for his beliefs is that God would not be so cruel as to show his children the way to salvation while preventing them from choosing it. That rationale leaves homosexual or bisexual former members wondering if a.) God actually is a capricious deity, b..) God exists at all or c) Packer, and similarly-minded leaders of the LDS Church don’t know the mind of God as well as they claim.
It’s easy to see how Packer’s beliefs could be reinforced within a religious community. Congregations don’t hear the testimonies of lesbian or gay former members who left the church because God did not answer their heartfelt prayers. They would be more likely to hear about, or even come to know, gays whose great faith kept has kept them celibate, or even in a conventional marriage.
The LDS Church’s response to the HRC petition, with its indictment of the sort of invective vocabulary Packer himself employed, may be a sign that it is ready to take a more nuanced and sensitive approach on the issue. Mike believes the disconnect is “indicative of an institution in flux.”
“On the one hand,” he says, “BYU is publishing papers finally conceding that fact many of already knew: homosexuality is not a conscious choice and cannot be changed. The other hand includes people such as Brother Packer…who have no interest in educating themselves with new knowledge shedding additional light on this complex issue.”
In fact, while the church fought for the passage of Proposition 8, which briefly established that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” before being overturned and then reinstated, it also supported Salt Lake City’s anti-discrimination laws granting “common-sense rights that should be available to everyone.”
Some might quibble it’s not possible for any government entity to “grant” a right. The point, however, is that there are many in the church who believe in church doctrine—which isn’t synonymous with Packer’s interpretation—but don’t want to inflict the same suffering on minorities as was once meted out to its members, and its prophet.