Back in June, Max Perry Mueller asked in Slate whether one could really be both gay and Mormon, concluding that the “answer depends, to some extent, on how you define both these identities.” Gay sex is expressly forbidden by the LDS Church. But if you’re comfortable with a definition of gay that does not include having sex with someone of the same gender, you can plausibly be a devout gay Mormon. That doctrinal wiggle-room is one of the reasons Mueller cited for signs of change in the attitude of the church—which played a famously crucial role in passing Prop 8 in California—toward homosexuality.
Today, the LDS Church launched a new website, mormonsandgays.org, which, according to a press release, aims “to encourage understanding and civil conversation about same-sex attraction.” The site presents itself as a “collection of conversations”—with LDS leaders, Mormons “who are attracted to people of the same sex,” and the loved ones of such Mormons (“who are dealing with the effects of same-sex attraction in their own lives”).
Among the videos on the site is one featuring the Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks, titled “What Needs to Change.” Oaks says that “what needs to change is to help our own members and families understand how to deal with same-gender attraction.” While that sentence doesn’t quite parse grammatically, the message seems to be: Don’t throw your children out of the house because they’re gay. Do teach them, though, not to have gay sex. The “doctrine of the church, that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married,” Oaks says, “has not changed and is not changing.”
Those who pay attention to verb tenses may notice that Oaks does not say that Mormon doctrine will not change. On one level, this is simply good Mormonism: The LDS Church believes in continual revelation through a living prophet, so no apostle can declare with certainty that something will never change. And the new website, which is hardly a celebration of gay pride, is also a savvy bit of public relations: Brad Kramer, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who studies contemporary Mormonism (and who is Mormon himself), called the site “an example of the curious space where PR and doctrinal shift intersect and subtly cooperate.”
But it’s hard not to see some real change in the comments as well. Consider that in 1995, Oaks wrote that “erotic feelings toward a person of the same sex are irregular”—or that in 2006, he made a highly defensive statement about the “unrelenting pressure from advocates of that lifestyle to accept as normal what is not normal.” In contrast, today’s statement emphasizes uncertainty and compassion. And even the url for the site, while probably reflecting the church’s knack for SEO, reflects a significant change in the terminology the church uses. As one blogger put it this morning: “Even the fact that in their official statement they have used the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to refer to members with same-sex attraction, I think, is huge.”