What follows is a summary of some remarks I made when asked to describe the three new Church statements on homosexuality for an LDS group in Seattle this past weekend.
For almost 20 years the Church has been moving gradually to a different position on some fundamental issues related to homosexuality. Same gender attraction, sometimes labeled SGA, is the favored Church term with reference to homosexuality. These gradual changes in Church position have culminated in three new statements on SGA which have been issued within the past 14 months. All three of the statements had important input at the level of the apostles. Elder Oaks issued one jointly with Elder Wickman in August 2006. The second statement was a pamphlet which came from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in July 2007. Elder Holland wrote an article for the Ensign just this month, October 2007. All three statements are on the Church web site in prominent locations. They all appear to have been orchestrated as part of a new Church position.
These statements collectively introduce seven new concepts with respect to this issue. After I provide a bit of background information I will discuss these seven concepts.
The Oaks/Wickman interview appears to be written mainly for LDS parents. It answers questions about how parents should respond when they have a member of the family dealing with this issue.
The pamphlet called "God Loveth His Children" was mailed to all bishops and other leaders throughout the Church. It is an official Church statement with the official Church "Intellectual Reserve" copyright. It was reportedly issued as a joint statement from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and is marked as having been approved in April, 2007. It replaces an earlier Church pamphlet issued in 1992. This means it has been 15 years since the brethren issued their last joint statement. The 1992 pamphlet was called "Understanding and Helping Those Who Have Homosexual Problems" and directed to ecclesiastical leaders. Even the previous title indicates the mind set in 1992. Then it was called a "problem." The new statement has the much more neutral title about God's love and although it was mailed to leaders the first few lines clarify that it is directed to those "...who are troubled with same gender attraction and sometimes feel discouraged but sincerely desire to live a life pleasing to our Father in Heaven." In short, this pamphlet is directed to those persons with SGA still within the fold. Recently, I was at a meeting in Salt Lake City on SGA to train about 20 LDS leaders. Two emeritus general authorities, one a physician, were present. It was announced there that 80% of those dealing with this issue are reported by LDS Family Services to be leaving the Church. Considerable effort is directed in the pamphlet to those in their teens who are experiencing SGA and who are still responding to the authority of Church leaders. They are being asked to continue keeping their faith in the Church.
Elder Holland's article appears to be directed to family members and friends who are urged to assist those with SGA and is partly designed to help members become aware of the new pamphlet.
So in summary, the materials are for parents, for those still within the fold especially young people, and for leaders and members generally. There is little attention in these materials given to those outside the fold or to those who are dealing with SGA inside a heterosexual marriage.
What follows is a summary of the seven important changes.
1. SGA is a core characteristic of persons
The interview by Elder Oaks and Wickman provides the most background information and is the longest of the three statements. It, for the first time, acknowledges that "..one's gender orientation is certainly a core characteristic of any person..." I would label this reference to SGA as a "core characteristic" the most important of what I consider to be the seven major adjustments in the new Church position. There is also a plea in all three of the documents to the person to not allow this to become the only characteristic they focus on. Elder Holland says to a young man whose story is told within the Ensign article "...that isn't your only characteristic, so don't give it undue attention."
Certainly this marks major progress for leaders to recognize that gender orientation IS a core characteristic of persons. Even if there are other important characteristics, those in the Church dealing with SGA certainly echo the sentiment that this part of life cannot be totally hidden away and ignored and Church leaders seem to recognize this also as they are now dealing with it much more openly and forthrightly.
2. The Church has no position on nature and nurture and SGA
The Oaks Wickman interview also states that the Church has no official position on nature or nature or whether people are born gay. Elder Oaks said, …..“The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions—those are things the Church doesn’t have a position on.” This I see as the second improvement in Church position. In 1999, Dean Byrd, at that time an employee of LDS Family Services, was able to place an article in the Ensign. He stated therein that people are not born gay. Byrd continues to stress this in a review recently placed on the FAIR web site, but the new Church position abandons the claims laid out by Byrd in that article eight years ago which he continues to promote. Byrd, however, is no longer at LDS Family Services and Elder Holland is now writing on this subject for the Ensign instead of Byrd.
President Hinckley first indicated this improvement when he was asked in late 2004 by Larry King if gays are “born that way?” President Hinckley said, “I don’t know. I’m not an expert on these things. I don’t pretend to be an expert on these things.” Elder Holland in his Ensign article says to a young man with SGA “…the cause of your feelings, we may never know in this life.” Elder Wickman says "Why somebody has a same-gender attraction… who can say?"
The 1992 pamphlet on p. 1 suggests experiences with a parent or an older person or from youth may cause SGA, but then on p. 2 says there is no agreement "about the causes of such problems." Also, in 1992 on p. 3 the pamphlet says there is no "conclusive evidence that anyone is born with a homosexual orientation." One is left with the impression that you weren't born this way and that a parent might have caused it, although we don't know for sure. I believe the new statements move us further away from environmental causes and closer to... maybe a person is "born that way" in the case of SGA . For example, this is from p. 10 of the pamphlet "Do not blame anyone--not yourself, not your parents, not God--for problems not fully understood in this life." Abuse early in life or youthful experimentation are specifically mentioned as not needing to cause any present sense of guilt or unworthiness. It says the following very emphatically..."Innocent mischief early in life does not predispose a youth toward same gender attraction as an adult." This is in contrast to earlier statements all through the 60s, 70s, and 80s by Church authorities in which they said those with SGA are "not born this way" There is not one single reference to that phrase in any of these statements. The old Church position used to be "you weren't born that way." The new position seems to be well, "you may have been born that way, but you can still control it." Elder Oaks says "we do not accept the fact that conditions that prevent people from attaining their eternal destiny were born into them without any ability to control."
3. Attractions alone do not make you unworthy
In the 1992 pamphlet on p. 1 it says that regardless of the cause, SGA thoughts and feelings "...can and should be overcome." Now, no such promise is made. In fact, the new pamphlet says "Attractions alone do not make you unworthy." Elder Holland says something similar, namely "If you do not act on temptations, you have not transgressed." So instead of saying the feelings can be "overcome" he says a person may have to "simply endure" them. This is the third major difference I would underscore as compared to the earlier 1992 guide.
The Church actually began turning the corner on the distinction between "thoughts and feelings" as contrasted with "behavior" in the Church Handbook of 1989. In the prior 1982 handbook it had said "Homosexuality" was "grounds for Church court action" but the 1989 handbook changed the reference to such discipline being needed for homosexuality to it being needed in the case of "homosexual relations" and by November 1991 the First Presidency issued a statement in which they made a distinction between "immoral thoughts and feelings" and participating in "any homosexual behavior." Note, however, they were still referring to such feelings as immoral in contrast to the assurances in the new statements. The 1992 official pamphlet said such thoughts and feelings "can be overcome." "This can be achieved through faith in God, sincere repentance, and persistent effort," as noted on p. 1. The 1992 pamphlet on p. 4 directs Church leaders and suggests a response to the Church member who says "I cannot change my sexual orientation." The Church leader in 1992 and until now presumably was to tell the member "Change is possible."
4. Therapy no longer is being promised as a cure all for SGA
Elders Oaks and Wickman took a very neutral position on therapy. The new pamphlet and both of the other statements now make it clear that change may NOT be possible. Elder Wickman says, "Case studies I believe have shown that in some cases there has been progress made in helping someone to change that orientation; in other cases not." In the pamphlet it says it is often helpful to seek guidance from professional counselors, but immediately in the next paragraph it urges that members not become dependent on others for strength and suggests following "true principles" taught by bishops and seeking the influence of the Lord.. The article by Elder Holland doesn't even mention therapy nor LDS Family Services. This is in marked contrast to the 1992 statement wherein Church leaders are asked to contact this agency and given the contact information.
5. Marriage is not a cure all for SGA
The fourth difference I want to reference is a more defined clarity with respect to marriage by those with SGA. In 1987 President Hinckley first began to move the Church away from the endorsement of marriage for those who are gay. He said "Marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices which first should clearly be overcome with a firm and fixed determination never to slip to such practices again." This statement, was a start, but couched as it was in terms of therapy, it was not much of a deterrent to the major demand felt by Mormons with SGA because in Mormonism marriage is viewed as necessary in order to gain eternal life. The 1992 pamphlet contributed to this somewhat ambivalent situation because it said in the last paragraph, "members can overcome these problems" and "In some cases heterosexual feelings emerge leading to happy, eternal marriage relationships." Fortunately, nowhere in the new statements does anyone promise "heterosexual feelings." Elder Holland says quite the opposite. To parents of one with SGA he counsels, "recognize that marriage is not an all purpose solution." He goes on, "Same gender attractions run deep, and trying to force a heterosexual relationship is not likely to change them." He admits that while some have married and achieve happiness, other attempts have led to broken hearts and broken homes. Elder Oaks in 2006 addressed the issue with improved clarity by moving away from the 1992 ideas and suggesting what can be seen as five steps that might lead someone with SGA to marry. He said this, "We are sometimes asked about whether marriage is a remedy for these feelings that we have been talking about. President Hinckley, faced with the fact that apparently some had believed it to be a remedy, and perhaps that some Church leaders had even counseled marriage as the remedy for these feelings, made this statement: 'Marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices.' ” Elder Oaks goes on, "To me that means that we are not going to stand still to put at risk daughters of God who would enter into such marriages under false pretenses or under a cloud unknown to them. Persons who have this kind of challenge that they cannot control could not enter marriage in good faith. On the other hand, persons who have cleansed themselves of any transgression and who have shown their ability to deal with these feelings or inclinations and put them in the background, and feel a great attraction for a daughter of God and therefore desire to enter marriage and have children and enjoy the blessings of eternity — that’s a situation when marriage would be appropriate." In summary, it seems to me that the Brethren have achieved a good balance here. Those who are bisexual may do ok in marriage and should not be told they cannot marry. It may even be difficult for a young unmarried person with no sexual experience to know just what intensity or level of SGA might be present. Elder Oaks therefore suggests 1) disclosure to the intended spouse, 2) an ability to control behavior, 3) cleansing from any transgression, 4) being able to put the feelings in the background and have a great opposite gender attraction (which to me suggests some level of bisexuality), and 5) a desire for marriage.
"The "God Loveth His Children" pamphlet notes that "In some circumstances a person defers marriage because he or she is not presently attracted to a member of the opposite gender." Elder Oaks and Wickman freely admit the requirement here is celibacy but the pamphlet never uses the word celibacy and instead calls this a deferment.
The question to Elder Oaks was this " If a young man thinks he’s gay, what we’re really saying to him is that there is simply no other way to go but to be celibate for the rest of his life if he doesn’t feel any attraction to women?
ELDER OAKS said: "That is exactly the same thing we say to the many members who don’t have the opportunity to marry. We expect celibacy of any person that is not married."
6. Church callings are not denied to those with SGA
One implication which emerges now that it is clear attractions "do not make someone unworthy" is that Church callings should not be withheld just because SGA is felt by a person. This is the sixth item on my list and it was mentioned by Elder Holland. Also Elder Wickman said the following: "merely having inclinations does not disqualify one for any aspect of Church participation or membership, except possibly marriage as has already been talked about. But even that, in the fullness of life as we understand it through the doctrines of the restored gospel, eventually can become possible." This last statement apparently has reference to the next life.
7. SGA will be fixed in the next life
Difference number seven is an interesting new teaching (or doctrine?) which has emerged in the past 2-3 years as the Brethren have started to note that "change may not be possible" and openly talked about celibacy and deferment of marriage. There was no sign of this doctrine in the 1992 statement, but now that "change in orientation" is not being promised, there is a new promise. For those who cannot marry and as the pamphlet says "may not be free of this challenge in this life" it says "our bodies, feelings and desires will be perfected in the next life so that every one of God's children may find joy in a family consisting of a husband, a wife, and children." Elder Oaks and Wickman also mention this new doctrine and several of the Brethren mentioned this as part of the recent PBS documentary special interviews. So far as I know, these are the first such statements to promise all of this will be fixed in the next life. It appears that now there is no promise that "individual effort, faith and the atonement" will fix homosexuality in this life, the promise of healing has been "deferred" 70 or 80 years and into the next life. Those who were promised a cure in 1992 and it never occurred will have to decide how much faith they have in this new promise of cure in eternity. The Church has always taught that the same spirit we have when we leave this life will possess our bodies in the next life, so if healing does not occur here, then one may wonder. On the other hand, our teachings have promised that in the next life "not a hair of the head will be lost" and all things will be returned to a proper and perfect frame.
This is certainly an interesting new development in the new teachings about SGA.
In addition to these seven items, there are, what I would call, two troubling dimensions of these new materials.
First, there is an almost complete silence with reference to anyone who has stepped away from the Church or entered into same gender marriage except to register objections to such marriages which was done in the Oaks/Wickman interview. It certainly makes sense that the Church would want to reinforce their message with those who are still listening. But since it is estimated by LDS Family Services that 80% with SGA are leaving the Church, this means a lot of families are being affected by this issue and are receiving little to guide them. There are also many individuals who have given great service to the Church and who would give more, but they are being excluded because they cannot accept a life of sexual abstinence and are either in or looking to be in a same gender relationship. There is almost no welcome mat of any kind being extended to those in such relationships. I know of some such couples who have been asked to not come to Church but there are a few such couples who are going. There is one sentence in the pamphlet, however, which offers a small olive branch to these persons. It says, "No one is, or ever could be, excluded from the circle of God's love or the extended arms of His Church for we are all his beloved sons and daughters."
Second, there are several references which suggest gay people should try to hide their feelings and that they are not free to associate with others like them. The pamphlet says "One...adverse influence is obsession with or concentration on same gender thoughts and feelings. It is not helpful to flaunt homosexual tendencies or make them the subject of unnecessary observations or discussion. It is better to choose as friends those who do not publicly display their homosexual feelings." Some affected by SGA have wanted to live with roommates or considered living in sexually abstinent relationships when both experience SGA. This last quote from the pamphlet seems to close the door on that as a possibility although the next sentences open the door a bit . "Association with those of the same gender is natural and desirable, so long as you set wise boundaries to avoid improper and unhealthy emotional dependency, which may eventually result in physical and sexual intimacy. There is moral risk in having so close a relationship with one friend of the same gender that it may lead to vices the Lord has condemned. Our most important relationships are with our own families because our ties to them can be eternal." Do you think it would make sense for single heterosexuals to be given counsel that they should not have friends of the opposite gender and instead put their primary focus on associations with their family? I can tell you these comments are creating concern among those with SGA who are trying to remain faithful in the Church by associating with and supporting others like them, but in these words some feel they are being told not to do so.
In conclusion, I see at least seven really important new developments within this new Church approach on SGA as found in these three coordinated statements. I also find a few concerns which I hope can be addressed in the future.