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.”

Josh Weed with his wife and children.
Josh Weed with his wife Lolly and their children

Photograph via joshweed.com

Last week, Josh Weed and his wife, Lolly, marked their 10-year anniversary by announcing together on Josh’s blog that he is gay. Josh works as a marriage and family therapist in Auburn, Wash. He and Lolly have three daughters, and claim to have a very successful marriage—one that includes, in their opinion, “a better sex life” than most heterosexual couples.

Josh remains, in his words, “very happily married to a woman” even though he has long identified as gay, because he also considers himself a “a devout and believing Mormon.” When Josh came out to his parents at the age of 13, his father served in the local stake presidency, meaning that he helped oversee several Mormon congregations. His parents nonetheless remained supportive of him—as did Lolly, who has been friends with Josh since the two were kids. Despite his homosexuality they have all agreed with his decision to stay true to the doctrines of Mormonism, including temple marriage, which can only be “between a man and a woman” and is “ordained of God” as one of the religion’s most sacred covenants. Weed says that this decision is an entirely satisfying one. “I am gay. I am Mormon. I am married to a woman. I am happy every single day.”

Since he published his 6,000-word coming-out post last week, Weed’s announcement has gone viral—it even got a vote of support from influential blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is himself both openly gay and Catholic. Yet Weed is hardly the first Mormon to declare himself both homosexual and happily married in a Mormon temple. Weed’s friend, Ty Mansfield, another Mormon father and husband—who also works as a family therapist—recently detailed his own experiences with what he calls “same-sex attraction” for the Mormon magazine LDS Living. After years of counseling focused on his depression and childhood insecurities—but not, Mansfield insists, on “reorientation” to heterosexuality—he “felt healthy and empowered enough that when I met my wife, it all came together.” Like Weed, Mansfield, who recently had his first child with his wife Danielle, does not identify as “straight.” “Why should I replace one socio-identity construct with another?” he asks. “My goal isn’t to be straight, but a man who is honoring my covenants and [has] a healthy relationship with my wife.” While Mansfield still experiences some attraction to other men, he says, “at some point you decide you’re going to commit to one person you love, just like mature straight men do. I don’t feel like I’m suppressing anything. I focus my energy into my marriage.”

Can you really be gay and Mormon? The answer depends, to some extent, on how you define both these identities. Sex outside of marriage—whatever the orientation—is considered sinful by Mormon theology, and the church has, of course, famously fought against legalizing same-sex marriage. Weed has chosen to abide by these dictates, in spite of what he refers to as his own natural attractions to “the guys … and unquestionably not the girls.” In the eyes of many, he has sacrificed his identity as a gay man to his Mormon identity. Others, however, like Andrew Sullivan, see it differently: If “some gays really want to marry women,” Sullivan writes, “and they are not deceiving anyone, it’s totally their choice—and their right not to be mocked for it.”

Until recently, many Mormons probably would have rejected the notion that you can define yourself as gay and still be a truly devout and fully committed member of the LDS Church. (The church even rejects the term “gay,” instead referring to those who “struggle with same-gender attraction.”) But LDS authorities appear to have accepted the decision by Weed, Mansfield, and others to follow that path. And that acceptance reflects a growing—though certainly uneasy—tolerance on the part of the Mormon Church. In the years since California’s Proposition 8, some members of the religion, upset that their church had become so closely associated with intolerance, have taken steps to advance what they consider a more “Christ-like” attitude toward gay men and women, Mormon and otherwise. And the LDS leadership has generally chosen not to tamp down these grassroots expressions of dissent as they might once have done.

Whether these steps will lead to a more fundamental change within official Mormon doctrine remains, of course, to be seen—and, for the moment, still appears unlikely. But for now, if only in small ways, a religion notorious for its role in the fight against gay rights seems to be “evolving.”

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Historically, the Mormon position on homosexuality is distinct from that of other Christian traditions—and perhaps even more resistant to change. For Mormons, human beings are literally, not metaphorically, the children of Heavenly Father. Connell O’Donovan, a scholar of Mormonism’s history with homosexuality, argues that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, “deified heterosexuality when he introduced the doctrine of a Father and Mother in Heaven—a divine, actively heterosexual couple paradigmatic of earthly sexual relationships.” Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, taught that God “created man, as we create our children; for there is no other process of creation in heaven, on the earth … or in all the eternities, that is, that were, or that ever will be.” Mormons believe that they can progress spiritually by marrying in the Mormon temple, where they are ritually sealed to their spouses, not just for time, but for eternity. It is through the monogamous, heterosexual family that Mormons reach the highest levels of heaven.

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.)

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.

* * *

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.”

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.

* * *

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.