Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

If you don't walk as most people do

Waiting on the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage has got me thinking about how my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has influenced my opinions on the matter. I grew up Mormon in the most Mormon county in the most Mormon state in the U.S., though my experiences in "Happy Valley" were more varied than you might expect.

I went to high school and on a mission with the son of the single largest donor to Yes on 8, Alan Ashton, co-founder of WordPerfect, who single handedly gave a million dollars to the California proposition to ban gay marriage. Every Halloween we would trick-or-treat Bruce Bastian, the other co-founder of WordPerfect, who is openly gay and gave a million dollars to No on 8 (and who also handed out king-size candy bars). My mission president Kevin Hamilton, now a general authority, was the LDS public affairs director in California during Prop. 8 and wrote the unofficial response to criticism of Mormon activism on the issue (called colloquially the Hamilton Letter). I've attended church with Mitch Mayne, the openly gay executive secretary in my cousin's ward in San Francisco. My uncle John was gay and died of AIDs. I participated in Boy Scouts as a youth and currently serve as a scoutmaster in Fairbanks where several boys in our stake have come out over the last few years. Finally the LDS church's position on homosexuality, summarized in the quasi-canonized The Family: A Proclamation to the World was central to my father leaving the church when I was 13.

When I was in San Francisco last December for a science conference I met up with my first and longest friend (coincidentally also the child of a WordPerfect executive) and a conversation we had changed the way I view Mormonism and homosexuality. Nora and I have known each other since we were three. She left the church when her parents divorced soon after mine did, and several years later discovered that she was lesbian. She now feels that the church is a patriarchal and homophobic institution unwieldy to social reason and change, which of course gives us plenty to talk about as I am a fully practicing and believing Mormon. We were talking about the overall effect of Mormon teachings on its adherents' views towards homosexuality. Do church teachings and culture result in a net increase or decrease in peace, love, tolerance, and acceptance of gays and lesbians. Going into that conversation I think we both assumed that the answer was no. 

We started talking statistics and soon found that they was shockingly little data on LGBT social and mental well-being (the Wikipedia article on Lord Voldemort is three times as long as the article on LGBT suicide). While it is broadly held that suicide among LGBT youth is shockingly common (several times the national average ) there is no data suggesting that gay Mormon youth are more likely to attempt suicide than gay non-Mormon youths (Mitch Mayne has a thoughtful article on the subject of Mormon gay suicide). After twenty minutes or so of discussing generalities we started talking about individuals, particularly me. I am a Mormon, but I feel no separation from or judgement of my gay and lesbian friends. Is my acceptance of gays and lesbians in spite of or because of my interactions with the church? That's when one of my favorite church children's songs came into my mind, I'll walk with you:

If you don’t walk as most people do, Some people walk away from you, But I won’t! I won’t!
If you don’t talk as most people do, Some people talk and laugh at you, But I won’t! I won’t!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you. That’s how I’ll show my love for you.

Five years old, I remembered sitting in my tiny orange primary chair singing that song and feeling resonance and rightness course through my body (feelings that I now recognize as The Spirit or Holy Ghost). I committed to befriend not bully those who are different. I didn't know at the time that the song was written by Carol Lynn Pearson, about her husband who left her for a man and who she took back and cared for as he died of AIDS. I do now and understand more why its message had such a profound impact. That divine truth of non-judgmental kindness towards all was reinforced by hundreds of Sunday school lessons, discussions on campouts, and interviews with leaders. That is not just a tertiary plot that you can find if you look for it in scripture, that is the theme of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the central point of the Book of Mormon.

The teachings I received in Sunday school and since encouraged me to be more peaceful and accepting. I believe that children exposed to such teachings are less likely to bully, mock, or denigrate gay or lesbian classmates, or anyone who differs, by choice, environment, or genetic disposition. I was taught that acting on homosexual feelings was sinful, though it wasn't emphasized as more grievous than other sexual transgression (such as heterosexual sex outside of marriage), and the distinction was always made that homosexual feelings or orientation were not sin, only following those feelings.

I am not saying that the influence of the church is wholly positive and uplifting towards gays and lesbians. Mormonism consists of the doctrine (principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and other scripture), church institutions (leaders, organizations, programs), and Mormon culture (predominant attitudes of members, physical community, and personalities). There are clearly large failings in church institutions and culture, though thankfully efforts are being made to welcome gay and lesbians within and outside the church as evidenced by the recent launch of www.mormonsandgays.org. I do believe, however that several aspects of church operations and culture have long encouraged broader thinking, acceptance, and love.

First, while the church can seem ideologically homogeneous from the outside, my experience has been that it provides a precious forum for meaningful interactions with people more different from yourself than you would have almost anywhere else. We seek out like-minded friends and we work with people in our same socio-economic bracket (plus open conversation and exchange of values is unfortunately frowned upon in some professional circles). Church is where I sit between professors, plumbers, high school teachers, free spirits from deep in the boreal forest, unemployed, doctors, and basketball players. Church is when I can openly discuss my civil and spiritual values with those brothers and sisters. Being involved in each others' lives makes us less likely to hate and fear. This diversity of opinion is evidence in the multitude of views held by gay and straight members of the church on homosexuality. I have gay friends still active in the church and fully supporting the church’s positions, still active in the church but holding that the church is mistaken on this issue, not active in the church but still believing in the restored gospel as taught by the church, not active in the church and not believing it is true. I have straight friends in all of those same categories. Many believe the church will eventually accept gay marriage and many do not, but interacting with the other side makes you less likely to assume someone is an idiot for thinking differently than you.

Along a similar vein, it is difficult to serve an LDS mission and not return with a broader and humbler worldview. As a missionary you serve so intensely and care so deeply for all the people in your area, not just those who are or may become members of the church. That love fosters empathy, tolerance, and respect. There are certainly a few snide, proud, or mean-spirited missionaries but the majority I have met and served with are wide-eyed and sincere.

Last, from church headquarters to the deacon's quorum at Salcha Branch, the church operates in councils. Decisions are made and goals are set by groups of people in open discussion. The process of counseling with other members of the church tempers and moderates views. The network of councils and committees in the church creates a safety network to temper the extreme views of any one participant. Bad decisions are still made and insensitive policies put forth, but I have seen surprising wisdom, patience, and love come from the councils I have interacted with.

Nora didn't agree with many of my positions, but she listened and I listened to hers. I have several friends whose experiences are very different than mine, who feel that the institutions of the church treated them severely and abusively. My experiences don’t invalidate theirs. Every ward (congregation) is different and even within the same ward, individual background and temperament will elicit different behavior from the involved parties. But my experience isn't invalidated either. I simply put my thesis and experience forward, that the church has influenced me and many others to be more loving, accepting, and non-judgmental.

As far as the supreme court ruling is concerned, I do not believe there are constitutional grounds to deny gay couples the right to marry and I hope they so rule. I don't believe that allowing same-sex couples to marry is a threat to heterosexual marriage or that it will increase the incidence of homosexuality. The civil rights associated with marriage should be available to all couples, following the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I don't think that people who hope for the opposite ruling are evil, homophobic, or uninformed. Any effort to portray a viewpoint in such a way to prevent or discourage someone holding a different viewpoint to engage with or listen to that viewpoint is a misguided effort. We should all do more listening and less judging.

We Mormons have our own history with "non-traditional" marriage. In the late 19th century the church's practice of polygamy was the national scandal. Acts of congress and appeals to the constitution ensued, very similar to those of the current struggle with gay marriage. We believed then that consensual sexual and marital practices, however nonconforming or imaginative, were protected by the First Amendment. Some of the Mormon reticence towards allowing civil same-sex marriage may be rooted in lessons learned or scars from the tumultuous battle and defeat with the federal government over plural marriage rights. In any case, I believe the ending of Mormon polygamy was inspired (along with being politically expedient) and am grateful it ended in 1890. The point is, whether one considers the practice of homosexuality immoral or no, I have not yet heard a cogent constitutional argument justifying why same-sex couples shouldn't be able to marry.

On the question of gay couples adopting children, I think there are legitimate questions to be raised about optimum environments for children. While these questions aren't necessarily any more complex than eligibility criteria adoption agencies wrestle with currently in regards to selecting heterosexual couples for adoption, much of the research on gay parents is politically charged (on both sides) and there is much we still don't know. Elder Oaks (one of the 12 apostles) brought up this question in a respectful way in last year's October Conference when he quoted a New York Times article (Gay Parents and the Marriage Debate) about how we do not yet know the implications of same-sex parents for adopted children, that this is a social experiment. We are talking about redefining human institutions that have been in place for many millennia and caution is merited.

I'm reminded of Nephi’s interview with an angel in 1 Nephi chapter 11When the angel asks him "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" Nephi responds, "I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." I think this is one of our doctrines we most often set aside, focusing on how much we know. We identify ourselves as the church with answers, and while we do have detailed explanations for many of life’s puzzles, we should never forget that we are to live by faith (not knowledge) in a world of uncertainty. This scripture has certainly comforted me as I have struggled with the Church’s position towards gay marriage and homosexuality in general. I do not know how this issue will eventually be sorted, whether the church will one day acknowledge and accept homosexual marriage or not. I do however know that God loves all his children, LGBT and even me. I learned that in Sunday school.


  1. I really appreciate your thoughts, Ben, and I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for writing this. By the way, this is your cousin Ben F. It appears that my gmail account is stuck with an old alias I gave it for another blog, hence the cryptic "JUAMI 2012" name. Oh well.

  2. Very thoughtfully written, I have thought about this for a very long time. Hard subject. But then I remind myself, that I just need to love all, that doesn't mean I have to agree with all people, on all subjects. I just need to love all. Thank you!!! Send this out into the world!

  3. JUAMI 2012: Ben F, as in my brother?

    Ben A-- I really liked this post, especially this:

    " I don't think that people who hope for the opposite ruling are evil, homophobic, or uninformed. Any effort to portray a viewpoint in such a way to prevent or discourage someone holding a different viewpoint to engage with or listen to that viewpoint is a misguided effort. We should all do more listening and less judging."

    I hope that the Supreme court will rule against gay marriage, and I think there are legitimate constitutional arguments against gay marriage, but I definitely don't think that either side should demonize or try to silence the other. No matter how frustrating the dialogue sometimes gets.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It's powerfully written and thought provoking. It also improved the way I view attending Church, what interesting localized think tanks Church meetings can be for us.

  5. Thanks Ben, I enjoy these words.

  6. Ben, Very well said. This is Jacob Callister, a friend of Rachel's. This very honest and well-formulated discussion is spot on for my experience and perspective. I have asked myself the same questions: Did I somehow evade being properly programmed in my Mormon upbringing, or did my sense of tolerance and acceptance emerge from countless lessons and experiences about loving my neighbor and being Christlike? (in spite of any cultural sideshow that might have threatened that perspective). I have great respect and love for my LBGT family and friends and, like you, I wish we could all be more at peace with not having all of the answers. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  7. Ben, You seem to be more at peace on this subject than I am. I have more of an "agree to disagree" view on this subject. As always, I love to read your eloquent thoughts.

  8. Good to hear your words Ben! - Tim Yarborough

  9. Thanks for all your input friends!

  10. Ben, watching the results over the course of the day for the Sluicebox 100 and sitting here in awe of your fortitude (a good word here, I think), I also am in awe of your careful and fair and even open thinking.
    This is a thoughtful essay, especially as you lay out the ways your church training, at its best, develops your sense of kindness and tolerance and love.
    Having said that, I'd like to weigh in on the side of justice: it seems to me simply wrong or unjust to treat people differently in the law. You make that point as well.
    And I trust, over the long run, the church will come to that conclusion for gays and lesbians as it eventually did for people of color. That trust comes from the teachings at the core that you so nicely celebrate.

  11. Thanks for this Ben. I haven't read a lot of thoughtful articulate ruminations on homosexuality from active LDS and this has been on my mind a lot. So glad you shared.

  12. It was wonderful to see you and your family in Fairbanks this week. I appreciate our conversations always. This is thoughtful, well written and expresses many of my same thoughts as a left leaning, practicing LDS straight woman. Hope many will read it.