Saturday, December 15, 2012

The new site: more paint, less corner

I first heard of (Published 6 December) from my friend in Washington, DC. Commentary on Facebook and elsewhere  buzzed over the subsequent week.

I made a point, however, of avoiding the reviews. Initially, I want to evaluate it myself before I read others' analysis.

I will organize my analysis thus:

1. Content2. Conclusions

1. Content
Before we get into the statements from Elders Oaks and Christofferson, let's address some text on the landing page:

"The Church’s approach to this issue stands apart from society in many ways.
Perhaps. Certainly, many other religious components of society take a very similar approach; society is far from  monolithic on this issue. This appeal to the common Us v. "the world" (e.g. the world would have you drink; We think differently) fails for the same three reasons. (1) the world has no consensus on almost any issue, (2) Us is part of "the world," and (3) frequently, components of the world take a similar approach.
And that’s alright. Reasonable people can and do differ.
Seems a fair, disarming statement. 10 points for Gryffindor.

From a public relations perspective it would be easier for the Church to simply accept homosexual behavior.
That may be true. Accepting homosexual behavior would not be costless: the flip-flopper penalty would be significant. However, on balance, the credibility tax it currently pays is far higher.  
That we cannot do, for God’s law is not ours to change.
I'm not convinced. There is absolutely scriptural precedent for wrestling with the Lord to change His dictates (e.g. the OT king who bargained for life extension, or the prophet who negotiated amnesty "for the sake of 10"). Certainly, at least, we have some influence on the timing of God's pronouncements, if not their content: else what would be the use in praying? Has the lesson of Jehovah's "what do you propose" invitation to the Brother of Jared been lost on us?
Now, I would agree that seeking revelatory guidance would be an appropriate precedent to accepting homosexual behavior. However, to perpetuate the idea that God's prophets and people are no more than relay points of top-down pronouncements is, I believe, discouraging of the very moral development we were placed here to pursue.

There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right. But what is changing — and what needs to change — is to help Church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully when they encounter same-sex attraction in their own families, among other Church members, or elsewhere."
Now that I agree with. Far too many Church members fail to respond sensitively and thoughtfully when encountering gay people in their communities. Church leaders themselves bear some of the responsibility of that failing: but nonetheless, the failure can and should be mitigated by Church members in their local interactions.

Same gender attraction presents many issues and questions in society at large. Much has been written (including by E. Oaks) about the choice of terms here: alternatives included homosexual behavior, homosexuality, homosexual orientation, and same sex attraction. I'll table this debate (which I tackle in my book, Homosexuality: a Straight BYU Student's Perspective) though to address other portions. 

These include what causes it, whether it is subject to change in kind or degree, and whether, or the extent of which, laws like marriage should accommodate it. Our discussion is limited to two related questions we sometimes hear in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What does our doctrine teach us about how family members and church members should treat one another when one of their members is struggling with some of these issues, and how can we help members of the church who struggle with same-gender attractions, but want to remain active and fully engaged in the church?
I've always appreciated Elder Oaks's structured, scope-defined addresses. Good work.

Much has also been written on describing homosexual individuals as "struggling." In LDS discourse, struggling is typically a euphemism for failing, and is always negative. Many homosexual individuals bristle at this: "do you 'struggle' with your heterosexuality?" they might ask.
Those who do not consider themselves broken are not in the market for a fix.

Only a conclusion that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones (or that a heterosexual orientation is superior to a homosexual one) would unerringly couple the word struggle with same gender attraction.

This same topic was discussed with all of the general authorities of the church in April of 2012.
Oh, the money I would have paid to listen in on that. Was it really a discussion? How many people weighed in?
We will not discuss any of the multitude of other issues and questions. There is so much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God. What we do know is that the doctrine of the church, that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married, has not changed and is not changing.
A consistent stance, to be sure. Except for the fact the standard used to be between a man and several women, but we'll give a pass on that for now.

Backing away from certainty on the multitude of other issues and questions (e.g. cause and cure) is a refreshing change, and only about a decade or so old. I compiled a list of over 60 statements from church leaders over the past 7 decades on the causes of homosexuality: retreating from claiming to know the answers to those other issues is a change, but a welcome one and one that leaves space for future pronouncements. 

But what is changing and what needs to change is to help our own members and families understand how to deal with same gender attraction.
Amen, as mentioned above.

Elder Christofferson:

What is the purpose of this website?

We’re not endeavoring here to try to cover the waterfront and address every issue that could be, and needs to be, addressed in different settings relating to same-sex attraction. But the idea is to open us, all of us, to greater understanding. And you’ll hear stories, experiences from quite a diversity of people and backgrounds and perceptions. They’re genuine, they’re real, they’re authentic. And while you see some saying “this didn’t work” and “this did” and a progression in life, we feel that this can only lead to greater sensitivity and better understanding, and that’s what we’re about. Our only real hope in addressing these very sensitive and difficult issues is that we are civil and listen to one another and try to understand.
A worthy aim, to be sure.

You’ll see in these experiences that some people state what you could call the position of the Church – it coincides perfectly – and others not. But again they’re all very authentic, and as we listen to one other and strive to understand, things can only get better.
One of the things I like about what you see on this website is that people have hope.
Some have not always had hope, and they talk about how they keep hope in their lives, or bring it back if it’s been lost. To me one of the key things, one of the key messages that comes from these experiences, as well as from the teachings of the Church, is that we approach it all with patience, but remembering that the person who’s really striving, has the Savior in his or her life, has the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, has hope, has happiness, can live in a happy, hopeful way.
Certainly happy, hopeful approaches to life are preferable to despairing ones. Gryffindor is scoring points so far.

What audience is the Church trying to reach?

We may not be talking about large numbers. In fact, we’re probably not.
Ugh. How many does it take to make a large number? Using a conservative 3% estimate, 209 million people in the world are gay or lesbian, as are about a half million Mormons. There are on average about 14 per LDS congregation. But, every soul matters. Everyone is important. The Savior made that plain when he told the parable of leaving the 90 and 9 and going after the 1.
It's a bit more like leaving the 90 and 5 to go after the 5, once you throw in the bisexuals outside one standard deviation, but I get your point. In addition to the sakes of the 5 sheep, the institution's credibility is also at stake: getting marriage, family, and sexual morality right is hardly on the periphery of LDS practice. These matters are central to our theology.
And I believe it’s important, it’s crucial, frankly, if we’re going to be followers of Jesus Christ as we profess and strive to be, that we do minister to each other, every one, without exception.
I'm behind that. That ethic leads me (and many others) to embrace same-sex marriage both in and outside the Church, but at the least we agree on principle.

In another sense, though, the audience is universal. We’re not here dealing with therapy issues and individual treatments and things of that kind. What we’re talking about is how we relate to one another, how we preserve hope and understanding and love, and struggle together in some cases really. I mean, we’re giving meaning to struggle in the sense that we help each other through our challenges.
I suppose the same could be said by a prison warden to his prisoners who yearn to be free. Certainly we all want to help each other through our challenges: but if we are responsible for unnecessarily inflicting the very burden we offer help to lift, the offer risks appearing rather hollow.
This is a challenge, and all of us can understand that and can be empathetic about that because we all have a challenge.
Again, that is not necessarily true, as evidenced by the myriad gays (both in and out of the church) that do not perceive their sexual orientation as a challenge.
I heard it expressed once, someone said: “We all have a horse to tame.” And so same-sex attraction may be one, and something else with someone else.
Ugh again. The implications are that 1) homosexual orientation is somehow wild, unproductive, or useless, 2) homosexual orientation is tameable or can somehow be muffled or redirected into productive activity, and 3) those with homosexual orientation should try to muffle or redirect their orientation.
#1: Homosexual orientation is no more nor less useful than heterosexual orientation, and can be extremely valuable when it is applied in non-oppressive ways to build loving, romantic, erotic, and mutual-caretaking, consensual human relationships.
#2: Homosexual orientation, like heterosexual orientation, is for most people difficult if not impossible to redirect (e.g. towards another sex). It also, as a general rule, fiercely resists attempts to muffle.

#3: There are significant dangers to attempting to destroy or redirecting one's sexual orientation. Additionally, homosexual orientation opens up the potential for relationships of incredible value, e.g. with a beloved spouse, and are not of themselves undesirable.

But we can all appreciate, I think, that each of us face challenges in life, and this is a way for us to help each of us understand better a particular one that may not be so well known or a common experience.
Are we truly open to understanding the experience of homosexual orientation when we insist it is undesirable and a challenge to struggle with?

Is the Church softening its position regarding same sex attraction?

There shouldn’t be a perception or an expectation that the Church’s doctrines or position have changed or are changing. It’s simply not true, and we want youth and all people to understand that.
I disagree. I mapped out statements by Church leaders over the past 7 decades in exquisite detail in my book, and the Church's position has absolutely changed. For instance, Church leaders expounded the causes of homosexuality. Now, Elder Oaks and President Hinckley claim that we do not know the causes of homosexuality. That, my friend, is a distinct and documented change. 
The doctrines that relate to human sexuality and gender are really central to our theology. And marriage between a man and a woman, and the families that come from those marriages – that’s all central to God’s plan and to the opportunities that He offers to us, here and hereafter.
Now this is fun. I wrote an entire book (Breaking the Patriarch Grip: an argument for governance equality through sacred disobedience) about this theology based on outward appearances. Did we learn nothing from our gross error about race? All are alike unto God, my friends: male and female, black and white, bond and free. As with race, we have no objective test to discern who is in  and who is out. Sex, rather than being a binary, is a spectrum (a fact the postgender future will increasingly highlight). The assertion that each human body is embodies either male or female is all well and good: but we have no way to discern whether that is the case nor which sexed spirit inhabits a particular tabernacle.

Church members and leaders, like most people, rely on an Outward Appearance Test to bifurcate humanity. Not only does this approach assume (without merit) a correlation between physical and spiritual sex, it is (1) inconsistent (not everyone agrees by looking whether a person is male or female), (2) arbitrarily relies on the length of a person's genital tubercle, and (3) failes to account for intersexed persons (such as the reader of this post. Did you know, men, that you used to be both sexes, have ovarian tissue in your testicles, and at one point were on the default path to femalehood? And women, you too were bisexed at one point, have testicular tissue in your ovaries, and may in fact have an XY genotype?).

Church leaders' continued insistence on using the categories of male and female to restrict its governance and marriage practices will increasingly vitiate LDS credibility as more and more people abandon pre-critical notions of sex.

So homosexual behavior is contrary to those doctrines – has been, always will be – and can never be anything but transgression.
Elder C clearly oversteps his authority here. God retains the ability to change doctrine, and has exercised that right on numerous occasions in the past. An apostle in 2012 does not have the power to bind his successors, nor God himself, perpetually into the future.

Also, as mentioned above and detailed in my
Why Mormonism Can Abide Gay Marriage presentation, the absence of a test for discerning spiritual sex allows us to frankly embrace a position towards marriage that is blind to the man-made category of biological sex.

Additionally, exactly what would Elder C classify as homosexual behavior, out of this list?

  • Getting up early to make breakfast for your partner, even though you hate early mornings
  • Staying home from work, even though there's an important deliverable, because your partner is sick
  • Having sex with your partner
  • Sending your partner flowers at work
  • Scrubbing the toilet, even though it's not your favorite, because you know your partner likes things clean
  • Waiting at the halfway mark with a "Go Christy" sign at her marathon
I humbly submit that all are homosexual behaviors, just as their equivalents are all heterosexual behaviors. To "lustify" or reduce one's romantic orientation to genital contact is akin to equating marriage as nothing more than the sum of sexual interactions between the spouses. This failure to grasp the value of homosexual behavior is the most glaring flaw in Elder C's talk. Romantic homosexual relationships, like romantic heterosexual relationships, add incredible value to the lives of the gay people who constitute them and to society generally.

It’s something that deprives people of those highest expectations and possibilities that God has for us.
For a number of reasons, articulated in my Why Mormonism Can Abide Gay Marriage presentation, I simply disagree with this conclusion.
That being said, it’s important to remember a few things that people don’t always understand or remember. And that is that homosexual behavior is not the unforgiveable sin. The atonement and repentance can bring full forgiveness there, and peace. And secondly, I’d say though we don’t know everything we know enough to be able to say that same-sex attraction in and of itself is not a sin.
It is merciful to point that out; no doubt that one message alone will reduce much unneeded suffering. 
The feeling, the desire is not classified the same as homosexual behavior itself. And the third point I would mention is that when people have those desires and same-sex attractions, our attitude is “stay with us.” I think that’s what God is saying “Stay with me.” And that’s what we want to say in the Church: “Stay with us.” Let’s work together on this and find friendship and commonality and brotherhood and sisterhood, here more than anywhere. It’s important that there be love, and that there be hope. Love is not to say acceptance or endorsement, but it is to say inclusion and not ostracism. We want to be with you and work together.
A positive and constructive message.

Are there restrictions on Church participation?

Someone who is adhering to the norm of chastity, someone who is following the covenants and the standards, teachings of the gospel of Christ, though they may be dealing with same-sex attraction really there’s no reason they cannot be fully participative, that they can’t be a full-fledged member of the Church and hold callings and speak and enter the temple and serve there, and all the other opportunities and blessings that can come from Church membership will be available to them.
Good stuff.
There are examples of this among Church members, there are multiple examples. And though no one would say that it’s always easy, all of us are endeavoring to maintain those norms and keep our covenants, and we’re all in the same boat, in the same company, in that regard. So, I say there are many, relatively speaking, who are finding that success in their lives and that happiness.

Should one be actively working to overcome same-sex attraction or just coping with it?

What a presumptuous question. There is a third and for most, superior option: neither. It’s difficult to say because each case is different, each person is different. Their circumstances will vary.
True, but the variance is bounded. The majority of gays and lesbians don't find success in overcoming SSA, and many do not find fulfillment in coping with it, at least to the extent that means refraining from same-sex dating and romantic relationships, or entering opposite-sex romantic relationships.

You’ll see in some of these vignettes experiences that are recounted that people have found a diminishing of that same-sex attraction, almost to the point of vanishing, and others not at all.
Okay, but again if you're going to say there are multiple camps, might it not be appropriate to hint as to the size of those camps? As between to the two you indentify, one has a population far disproportionate to the other.  

We don’t counsel people that heterosexual marriage is a panacea.
Thank Allah. Although some of your predecessors taught that very thing.
You’ll see in some of these experiences that are related on this site that it has been a successful experience in a few cases, or some have expressed the success they’ve found in marriage and in raising a family and in the joy and all that has filled out and blessed their lives as a consequence. But that, we know, is not always true.
:) Again, "not always" belies the more realistic statistic of "usually not." Additionally, Elder C does not even mention the option of marriage and raising a family in a same-sex relationship, an option, it turns out, many homosexuals prefer.
It’s not always successful. Sometimes it’s been even disastrous. So, we think it’s something that each person can evaluate and they can discuss, both with priesthood leaders and family and others, and make decisions. If the existence of a range of outcomes (e.g. successful to disastrous) of a particular option justifies individuals counseling with others and deciding, they why not apply that same logic to same-sex marriage? The outcomes of same-sex marriages similarly vary from successful to disastrous (though I suspect, as rated by the spouses themselves, same-sex marriages will come in as being, on average, less disastrous that mixed-orientation opposite-sex ones).But we simply don’t take a uniform position of saying “yes” always or “no” always.
! Then do the same thing for same-sex marriage!

One thing we want to stress is that this is but one aspect of any person’s life, and it need not become the consuming aspect of his or her life.
Is your marriage, Elder C, merely "one aspect" of your life? The nexus between one's sexual orientation and one's romantic partner is not a loose one. For those that centrally value their romantic relationship, sexual orientation is not a tangential matter.
One thing that’s always important is to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real, that they are authentic, that we don’t deny that someone feels a certain way. We take the reality where it is, and we go from there.
That's progressive language right there: relative to past apostolic dialogue on homosexuality.
And we want people to feel that they have a home here, that we have much, much more in common than anything that’s different about us.

Some of the experiences that are related there talk about that in this website. And I believe it is crucial that we always continue to feel that, to express that, to acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings and circumstances, and go from there.

History aside, what counsel can you provide to those who are afraid to approach their local leaders?

I can understand that there could have been a legitimate concern about the kind of reception one might find from a local priesthood leader in the past. But I’m convinced that today that there are so much more help and resources available to a bishop or a local priesthood leader. There’s greater understanding, there’s greater appreciation of the issues and how to help. We are training bishops; they have resources that they haven’t had in the past, that we haven’t been able to make available. There are resources online, there are resources in print. There’s just greater experience over time that has developed and accumulated. So, again, I say it’s really one of the very best first steps for one to take.

Describe the ideal setting for discussing this important issue?

Initial reactions are critical. And the inclination, the temptation that people have often is anger or rejection. Sometimes it’s simply denial, on both sides of the question, whatever it may be.
I think he's right on both scores.
And it’s important to have enough self control to lay all that aside and to have a little patience, and to begin to talk and begin to listen and begin to try to understand better.
I affirm.
We lose nothing by spending time together, by trying to understand, even where there’s not agreement on a course to follow at the moment or how to respond or how to react. We don’t have to do everything today. We don’t have to resolve everything in a month or a week or a year. These things are questions of resolution over time and accommodation over time and seeking the will of the Lord over time and guided by him over time. So, I hope we will give ourselves the time and have the patience to listen and understand and not insist on everything being resolved within a certain framework of time.
Seems wise enough.

Why doesn’t the Church just let people be?

This is a gospel of change. Jesus Christ is asking every one of us to change, and to become better and to progress and to follow in his footsteps. His ultimate commandment is that we become as He is and as His father.
Trouble! The immediate thought here is that Elohim is straight, so I have to become straight as well. Now, Elohim may have a thousand wives as well, but that doesn't mean a woman should look to wed an already married man, nor that a married man should nurture a non-monogamous orientation and try to marry a thousand wives right now. Elohim may have all his limbs, but that doesn't mean an amputee needs to take immediate action.
Sure, there is room to mature in our moral development: but none of our spirits are broken because of a present aspect of our bodies.
And none of us are at that point. None of us have things, are free of things that we don’t need to change in our lives and to improve.
The context of this message is homosexual orientation. To suggest the need to change implies that gay people can change, and that they should change, their orientation to be like God's. Both implications cause more harm than help.  
And the standard is always the gospel of Jesus Christ. And every one of us has to measure up to that standard because that’s where our ultimate happiness is going to be found. That’s where our ultimate freedom is going to come. And God being just and loving all of His Children is going to help everyone who wants to progress toward that ideal, whatever they may need to do in their lives to do that.
Again, without further clarification and given that the entire rest of this message addresses same-gender attraction, and that the identified timetable is this life, the promise that a just God will help gay people become straight is flat-out false. If that were true, the gates of despair would not be littered with the lives of thousands of gay Mormons that have broken themselves on that promise.

2. Conclusions

The website is progressive in many ways, especially in its acknowledgement of homosexual orientation and the insistence that Church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully to LGBT people.

What Elders Oaks and Christofferson fail to do, however, is create space for that thoughtful and sensitive response to include affirmation of same-sex marriage. They fail to identify the (1) value and (2) equivalence of same-sex romantic relationships relative to opposite-sex ones. They fail to articulate a test for discerning spiritual sex, a categorization they rely on for their moral conclusions. Glaringly, if their advice was taken, a half-million Mormons would either choose (1) lifelong celibacy or (2) risky mixed-orientation rather than (3) pursuing healthy same-sex romantic relationships. That these same leaders encourage the pursuit of healthy romantic relationships between straight opposite-sexed persons evidences a grave inequality.

Using words like "always will be" and "can never be anything but" transgression paints future leaders into a corner they can only escape by paying a heavy credibility tax (similar to that still being paid on the race and polygamy issues). In the meantime, the price of that increasingly untenable and unpopular position is the continued opportunity cost of gay mormons' same-sex relationships at the least, and additional unnecessary struggle and rejection at worst.

My conclusion in a phrase? More paint, less corner.

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