Can You Be Both Mormon and Gay?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
June 13 2012 12:05 PM

Can You Be Both Mormon and Gay?

Why a religion notorious in the gay community might be “evolving.”

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Today, the LDS Church continues to proclaim that the “powers of procreation” are “sacred” and divinely ordained, and “are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.” Those words are from the church’s quasi-canonical pamphlet “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” first published in the mid-1990s—a period when publicly coming out as gay was not a viable option in the Mormon Church, according to Kendall Wilcox, an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker and former executive producer in Brigham Young University’s broadcasting department. (In 2011, Wilcox was fired from BYU a few months after publicly coming out.) Until recently, he says, Mormons “struggling with same-gender attraction”—sometimes compared to alcoholism or other addictive pathologies—had few options. The first step for many would be to seek counsel from their bishops, the lay pastors of local Mormon communities, who often encouraged these congregants to submit their concerns to prayer, and to be patient.

“The bishops, who were by in large well meaning, would say, ‘Just wait until you get married and you’ll enjoy the splendors of heterosexuality,’ ” explains Wilcox, who is working on a documentary about the experiences of LGBT people in the LDS Church. “The message from the bishops was, ‘We’re all inherently heterosexual.’ ” Since many of these young Mormons “were living by the law of chastity,” waiting until marriage often seemed to them a plausible strategy. Some of the men and women Wilcox has interviewed still thought they might be heterosexual right until they “actually tried to have sex” with their spouses. Most of the married gay Mormons he has met have had experiences very different from those of Josh Weed. Engaging in heterosexual sex, Wilcox told me, only proved to them “just how gay they actually were.”

Many of the people Wilcox has interviewed also endured “reparative therapy,” a practice that for many years was encouraged by Mormon leaders. These therapeutic regimes often involved not only psychoanalysis, but “aversion conditioning,” in which patients snapped themselves with a rubber band or received an electric shock when shown sexually explicit homosexual images, with the goal of replacing arousal with anxiety. “Evergreen International,” the therapy and educational organization established in the late 1980s to help stop “unwanted same-sex attractions” claims that it has never practiced aversion therapy. But BYU was conducting aversion conditioning experiments into the late 1970s. (See, e.g., “Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy,” a dissertation by Max Ford McBride submitted to BYU’s psychology department in 1976.)

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Many gay men and women left the church, of course: Wilcox describes a great “exodus” during the 1980s and 1990s stemming from the religion’s rigid stance on homosexuality and the sometimes abusive therapies LGBT people endured on the advice of local leaders. And these Mormons did not always leave on their own accord: Countless were shunned by their communities, by people who believed that homosexuality was a choice, and an immoral one.

This was the belief of Fred and Marilyn Matis, whose son, Stuart came out to them in 1999. Marilyn Matis explains that when Stuart confessed the secret he had been harboring for years, she was heartbroken. “I didn’t understand why he would do this to us,” Marilyn says. Within a year, Stuart did what too many LDS teens and adults have done after struggling with their sexuality, the constraints of LDS theology, and the expectations of their Mormon friends and family. On Feb. 25, 2000, Stuart drove to the Mormon meetinghouse in Los Altos, Calif. and took his own life.

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In the years following Stuart’s suicide—one of many among gay Mormons—the Matises have dedicated themselves to caring for Mormon men and women who, like their son, feel alienated and ashamed about their sexuality. “We’ve talked to hundreds of guys and gals from around the country about their issues. And our message is always ‘we love you and God loves you,’ ” Marilyn says. While the Matises insist that homosexuality is immoral, a position that Fred says “is cut in stone,” Fred also maintains that “there has been too much focus on the ‘cause’ and the ‘cure.’ We focus on the care.” “When our guys come to our house” in Lehi, Utah, Marilyn says, “I always hug them. They rarely get to experience physical affection because they’re so scared of it and they hate themselves so much.”

Over the past decade, the Matises have worked in California and in Utah not only to provide care and support for gay Mormons, but also to educate straight Mormons about “the truth of same-sex attraction,” Fred says. In this way, they are following one of their son’s dying pleas. In a letter published in BYU’s student newspaper just four days before he took his life, Stuart urged Mormons to “re-assess their homophobic feelings.” “We are not a threat to you or your families,” he wrote. “We are your sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors, co-workers and friends, and most importantly, we are all children of God.”

And the Matises say that they have witnessed a sea-change in Mormons’ attitudes in the years since Stuart’s death. “The members of the church are becoming so compassionate,” Marilyn says. “People have apologized to us for saying things that are hurtful. Once they’re educated about the issue and don’t think of it as a choice, then they treat them much better.” When, in October 2010, LDS apostle and prophet Boyd K. Packer declared that homosexuality was not “inborn” or “pre-set,” he was quickly refuted by another Mormon apostle, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who reiterated the church’s current teaching—that it doesn’t know the cause of homosexuality, and that the cause isn’t what matters most. “Many questions in life,” Uchtdorf said, “including some related to same-gender attractions must await a future answer, even in the next life. Until then, the truth is, God loves all his children.”