Can You Be Both Mormon and Gay?
Why a religion notorious in the gay community might be “evolving.”
This past March, at a BYU-sanctioned panel discussion, “Everything you wanted to know about being gay at BYU but were too afraid to ask,” three students shared—with an overflow crowd of their peers—their experiences trying to navigate life at the religion’s flagship university as gay Mormons. A month later, gay BYU students participated in the anti-bullying campaign, “It Gets Better.” Just this week, the Deseret News, a newspaper owned and operated by the LDS Church, published an editorial denouncing the bullying of gay teens.
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For Wilcox, this growing tolerance is a good thing, but still far short of the change the church needs. Days after Boyd K. Packer’s controversial remarks, the head of LDS Public Affairs said that, no matter what causes some members of the church to experience same-sex attraction, “their struggle is our struggle.” This belief, that gays must lead lives of “always struggling,” remains a serious problem for the church, Wilcox says. Gay Mormons are left “in perpetual state of victimhood of sin. Sure we’re all in need of the atoning power of Jesus Christ. But just because I’m gay doesn’t mean that I need Christ’s saving grace more than a straight Mormon. God loves me just the way I am.”
Wilcox, who is currently celibate, is not alone in finding something fundamentally missing in the church’s current position on members with same-sex attraction. After all, the LDS Church itself teaches that the most sacred duty of a Latter-day Saint is to create a loving, monogamous, and fruitful family. How can gay Mormons truly be Mormon if they are denied the experience of a committed partnership, one in which, through adoption and other means, children can be raised in the church?
Some Mormon intellectuals are trying to answer just that question. Last year, Taylor Petrey, a straight Mormon and Harvard-trained theologian, published an essay in the Mormon journal Dialogue entitled “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.” Without advocating for a change in official church doctrine, Petrey argued that Mormons should “think less about the types of sex that people are having, and more about the types of relationships that people are building.” That shift in focus would allow the LDS Church to understand consensual, homosexual sex taking place in monogamous relationships the same way it understands the sex being had by straight married couples. According to Petrey, such a reorientation would allow church leaders “to adopt the same standard that they hold for heterosexual couples, that the relationship as a whole is the primary point of religious attention, not the details of sexual practices performed in such a relationship.”
Neither Petrey nor Wilcox expects such a change in thinking to happen anytime soon. Unlike the 1978 revelation that allowed black Latter-day Saints full participation in the Mormon Church, the kinds of reforms required to make gay Mormons full and equal members of the Latter-day Saint community radically change the way Mormons think of their (explicitly male, implicitly heterosexual) “Heavenly Father.”
There are some ways, however, that the experience of gay Mormons now parallels that of black Mormons before 1978. Many black Mormons who found their spiritual home in the LDS Church before they could receive the priesthood have spoken of taking the problem directly to God. They prayed and asked Heavenly Father if, in fact, they were innately “tainted” by their African ancestry, as their new religion had long taught, and were therefore not fully welcome in His Latter-day community. Wilcox says that many gay Mormons are doing the same thing. “They are giving themselves permission to bring their sexuality to God. They’re changing their prayers from ‘Please, please take this away from me’ to ‘God, are you OK with me being gay?’ And the answer that God gives back is ‘Yes!’ ”
A small but growing number of straight Mormons appear to agree with that answer. Earlier this month, thousands of gay rights activists were joined by new allies as they marched through downtown Salt Lake City in the 29th annual Utah Pride Parade, passing just two blocks south of Temple Square, the international headquarters of the LDS Church. An estimated 300 Mormons—many skipping church to participate, and dressed in their Sunday best—marched at the front of the procession, holding rainbow-adorned signs, including some that read “LDS loves LGBT.” The other parade participants, many in more colorful costumes, as well as the crowds lining the parade route, loved the Mormons right back. “I think it’s amazing,” said Holly Nelson, a 38-year-old lesbian from nearby Murray, Utah, who was brought to tears when the Mormons marched past her. “It’s been so hard to be in Utah knowing the Mormon church is against the gay community.”
Erika Munson, a mother of five and the founder of “Mormons Building Bridges,” organized the Mormons’ participation in the parade, hoping to show that Mormonism isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—against the gay community. “The church,” she said, “teaches that ‘Jesus walks away from none.’ Period. We’re marching to live up to that promise.”
Max Perry Mueller is a Ph.D. candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard and associate editor of the online journal Religion & Politics.