Monday, April 30, 2012

It Just Got (slightly) Worse

I wish Dan Savage, the man behind the "It Gets Better" campaign had not done this.

The worst part was not his referring to parts of the Bible as "bullshit" in front of an assembly full of high school students. The worst part was mocking those who got up to leave the auditorium as Christian pansy-asses, while those remaining in the auditorium laughed at them.

I've never really been a Dan Savage fan. One of the main reasons I don't read his "Savage Love" column (apart from the sexual crudity) is the way he seems to delight in using a national forum to ridicule people who disagree with him. When I learned that he was the one who helped launch the "It Gets Better" campaign, I thought, "Really? Now Dan Savage is against bullying?" I had to give him props... But still, coming from him it was only slightly less surprising than if it had come from Rush Limbaugh.

Unfortunately, a whole generation of high school students don't know that side of Dan Savage. Or I should say, didn't know that side of him until now. To many high school students, Dan Savage had become something of a hero, defending the defenseless and standing up for a kinder, gentler high school experience, where bullying and bullies could be a thing of the past. That is, until he used his "bully pulpit" (pun intended) to humiliate a minority of students who didn't like the way he was talking about the Bible.

This is a big step back for the It Gets Better campaign.


It could be an opportunity to teach a really important object lesson.

If I were Dan Savage, I'd issue a great big apology that went something like this:

I just learned something really important about the nature of bullying. What I learned is that people bully not necessarily because they're homophobic, but because they have power and they don't know how to use it... Because they feel insecure and they want to look cool in front of others... I had a position of power speaking to you in that auditorium. Everyone was looking to me, and listening to what I had to say, and that gave me a lot of power. And I used that power to make you feel isolated and ridiculous, to make you look foolish in front of your classmates. And that's the opposite of what I wanted to teach you. What I did was wrong and it was not cool. So I apologize. I hope this can be a lesson to all of us that if we want our schools and our communities and our country to be a safer place, we need to look deep within ourselves, and work more at listening to each other and being concerned about each other's feelings.

I'll be surprised if he issues that kind of an apology. But then, Dan Savage has surprised me at least once before.


Post Script

Looks like Dan Savage did publish an apology on his blog. You can read it for yourselves and see how effective you think it is. To me, it still seems a bit defensive, and I think he does end up sort of calling the students who walked out hypocrites. (After apologizing for calling them "pansy-assed".)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Yoga Instructor

Last week, my yoga instructor told us at the beginning of class:
When you move into a posture that makes you want to jump off your mat and run out of the room screaming, but instead of running, you just stay with it and breathe, that's when your yoga practice really begins.

It was an amazing way to start class, because I could really relate to the notion of moving into a posture that makes me want to run away screaming. Those moments are usually when I give up, when I drop to my knees panting and take a drink of water. But here was my instructor telling me that if I stop at just that moment, I'm not even really giving myself a chance to start practicing yoga.

Her words really opened up a new realization for me. Everything leading up to that moment -- all the other postures, the breathing, the concentration -- is preparation. When the moment comes that I want to flee or give up, that's the moment I've been waiting and preparing for. That's when I get to experience what yoga is all about.

It changed my whole attitude toward my practice. I found myself actually looking forward to that moment in my practice I usually dread, because that would be the moment when yoga could actually happen.

Later in the class, she had us do an inversion, a variation of a shoulder stand I had found extremely difficult to maintain. She encouraged us stay in this posture for several minutes, and this time, instead of giving up thirty seconds into the posture as I would have on previous occasions, I stayed with it for several minutes, allowing that inversion to transform the way I look at the world long after it had finally ended.


In my American Religious Histories class this semester, I feel kind of like my yoga instructor must feel. I've had numerous students throughout the quarter tell me that my class has been one of the most challenging classes they've ever taken, that it's really stretched them. Different students have found different parts of the class challenging. Some struggled with the section on Evangelicalism. Some struggled with the section on Mormonism. This past week, a student told me that she had really wrestled with the readings on Islam.

My approach to the course is to teach each unit in such a way that my students can come to understand why adherents of the religion I'm teaching would want to embrace that religion. In order to do that, I have had to engage with the different religions I teach in an intimate way, to find what it is about each religion that speaks to me, that engages me, that teaches me.

When I ask students to engage imaginatively with a religion that is alien to them, when I ask them to try to see what it is in that religion that might appeal to someone else, what might make somebody a believer in that religion, I am in essence telling my students to assume a new posture, to take an inversion, to look at the world upside down from the way they're used to looking at the world. When they do that, sometimes they feel discomfort.

But if they stick with it, that's when "yoga" begins.


The word "yoga" comes from a Sanskrit word that's related to the English word for "yoke," as in, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). The word "yoga" also means "union." The goal of yoga is to "yoke" or "bind" or "unite" ourselves with the divine; though in the process, we are also uniting or integrating different aspects of the self, finding harmony or union between the physical and the spiritual, between the higher and the lower selves, the inner and outer selves, between what we truly are on the inside with that which we wish to project outward to others.

So it is amazing to me to learn that the process of integration, of unification, of uniting with the Divine can be achieved by assuming a difficult posture, and sticking with it and breathing, and allowing it to teach us what it has to teach us. I have experienced the truth of this in my yoga class, in my religious history class, and in the Church.

Instead of dreading and running away from the discomfort we all experience around the issue of homosexuality in the Church, we can see this challenge as an opportunity for yoga to really begin, as an opportunity to begin to achieve true union within ourselves, with others, and ultimately with God.

Heterosexual Saints may have to face discomfort as they deal with the fact that gay Saints have a different experience of the world than they do; that our experiences don't fit with what they assume about sexuality and sexual morality and about God's creation in us.

Gay Saints have to deal with their own discomfort upon realizing that their experience is different from what they were raised to think "normal" experience is supposed to be. And then, as they come to terms with this, as they "come out" and begin to integrate their personalities -- as they make their souls by integrating the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of themselves -- they have to deal with the discomfort of their fellow, heterosexual Saints.

Yoga does not begin until we stick with each other. If we drive out those we feel uncomfortable with, we fail. If we flee, if we run away, we fail. We succeed when we stick it out. When we breathe, when we listen, when we learn what being in relationship with others can teach us, especially when those others make us uncomfortable.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does Same-Sex Marriage Decouple Child-Rearing from Marriage?

If you think about it, child-rearing was decoupled from sex (and by extension from marriage), the moment human beings figured out that sex leads to conception. Methods of contraception are historically documented to have been known and practiced for many millennia -- as far back as recorded history goes. For all of recorded human history, in other words, child-bearing and rearing has been essentially voluntary.

That being the case, the question is, Why do people choose to have children?

Sociologists and historians have studied this. Historians of the family have noted that as societies have transitioned from a predominantly rural, agricultural economy to an urban, industrial economy, fertility has dropped dramatically. Farming families use children as part of their labor force. On the farm, kids help produce family wealth from a relatively young age -- as soon as kids are physically capable of walking and carrying things. In advanced industrial societies, by contrast, kids are no longer a source of wealth. They are, rather, extra mouths to feed and a drain on family resources. Over the life of their offspring, parents invest substantial resources raising children to adulthood ($1 million per child, according to one recent study!), only to have their kids leave the nest and become independent just as they become capable of producing income!

That being the case, sociologists have asked the question, "Why do people have children at all?" Wouldn't it be most economically advantageous to have no children? Fertility has not significantly decreased in the United States since the 1920s -- right around the time that a majority of Americans became city dwellers. What that suggests is that Americans continue to choose to have children because of the spiritual and emotional fulfillment they bring and the relationships that child-rearing and family create. People have children because children are a social and a spiritual good -- even when they are no longer an economic good.

In other words, Americans have children because Americans value children. The authors of the particular study I referenced above found Americans have children because they agree with the statement, "It's better for a person to have a child than to go through life childless." One proof of the power of this social attitude is in the large numbers of infertile heterosexual couples and gay and lesbian couples who choose to become parents -- who indeed go out of their way to become parents.

One way to translate this into real, concrete terms for the sake of the same-sex marriage debate is to simply ask the question: "Why would you choose or why did you choose to have kids?"

And: "Is your motivation for having kids in any way influenced or affected by the ability of same-sex couples to be legally married?"

When I think about the reasons my parents had kids, or why my siblings have had kids, or why my friends have had kids, or why Göran and I became foster parents, thank goodness it has not been for mercenary or egotistical reasons. Whatever reasons we may initially choose to become a parent, however, the vicissitudes of child-rearing are a kind of refiner's fire that teaches us to transcend our initial reasons and limitations!

In the past year, I observed a painful situation that I'm sure others of you have observed as well: a female family member who got pregnant out of wedlock. When that situation arises, it's always kind of a crisis. The immediate question is, How are we going to care for this kid? Yes, families pose the question with the pronoun we. Immediately, grandparents and uncles and aunts start to take stock of extended family resources, because we understand what it takes to care for a child.

In our society, abortion is an option. What was interesting to me was watching the discernment process of this family member. She had a very scary decision to make. She had to choose. And it was a powerful thing to see her ultimately choose to make room in her life for this child -- even though she knew that the father could never be a part of the equation.

Those of us who have been blessed to parent -- whether we have parented our own biological children or someone else's -- have learned through experience what a powerful, joyful experience parenting is. Yes, it's often painful. Every parent experiences both the pain and the joy of caring for individuals who -- from the moment they are born -- have their own unique perspective on the world, and who make choices, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Parenting is joy, but it is also heartache. And yet, we choose to do it, because ultimately it is joy.

Bottom line, what I've observed, is that people choose to rear children for the same reason they choose to get married: for love.

So this naturally poses a further question for me -- especially having witnessed a family member struggle with the challenge of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Children are far more likely to be safe and protected in a society and in families where marriage is valued. Where marriage is seen as the appropriate context for sexual activity. I have witnessed -- in my own life and others' lives -- how loving pair-bondings create emotional, economic, and, yes, spiritual stability. When people make commitments to one another, society as a whole benefits because each member of society is better cared for.

A society with lots of stable pair-bonds is a society that can more effectively respond to crises -- including the crisis of an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, or the unexpected death of a parent or parents. A society with lots of stable pair-bonds is a society that has economic and social resources and flexibility to care for kids -- including kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks -- as birth parents, as adoptive/foster parents, or as part of a support network that helps single moms.

Of course we have a vested interest in avoiding single-mom type situations, if we at all can!

So it seems to me that society has a strong interest -- for the sake of caring for kids -- in promoting marriage as a value. If gay and lesbian couples want to marry, here's why society should encourage them to marry: because we want to send a message that marriage is the appropriate context for intimate love. Because we want to send a message that mutual giving, sacrifice and commitment are good things. Because we want individuals to find fulfillment and stability.

Because we value children, and we value people, and we want to foster a care-giving society.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Feeling the Spirit... Teaching Islam

This year, for the first time, I've incorporated a unit on American Islam into my course on American religious history. In preparing to do this over the course of the last few years, I have really enjoyed studying Islam, and learning more about the history of Islam in America. I have been surprised to learn how rich and diverse the American Muslim community is, how old and well established it is, and how much American Muslims have contributed not just to American civic life, but also to Islamic thought throughout the world. I also have great respect for the courage it must have taken for many American Muslims to reach out to their neighbors in the wake of 9/11, in spite of the fear and hostility that arose in its wake. I'm very proud to live in the first U.S. congressional district ever to elect a Muslim to Congress. Keith Ellison has served our district with distinction.

There's an Islamic community center not far from where I live in South Minneapolis, that for a while was working with some local Christian churches to sponsor a series of potluck dinners. It was an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to meet and get to know each other. Göran and I attended two or three of these potlucks.

I remember asking a number of Muslims if they believed in the Holy Spirit. Some of them did not understand what I meant by that, so I had to explain the person, role and mission of the Holy Spirit. It was explained to me that, no, Muslims had no teachings about this. Over time, however, I have learned that devout Muslims do talk about the inner peace and the joy that comes from surrendering one's life to Allah.

Last night in class, we discussed Muslim teaching about God. Muslims are very careful to emphasize that no human constructs can even begin to approach God. We must be careful never to mistake our ideas about God for the reality of God -- lest our ideas, our "images," of God become idols. However, Muslims love to talk about God's attributes of mercy and love, and about all the ways in which God reaches out to us in order to draw us into the path of justice and compassion. We spoke of how, for Muslims, the first obligation human beings have toward God is simply to express gratitude for the goodness of creation, for all the gifts that God has given us. I am grateful. As I spoke of these things with my students, I did feel the peace and the joy that I usually associate with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Post-Technology World

In the dream I had last night, the world had changed. There was no more Internet, no phone systems. Long distance travel was very limited. Automobile and air flight existed, but was extremely rare. Local transportation was all by foot, bicycle or handcart. In order to preserve social cohesion, society had been completely reorganized around hierarchical, person-to-person networks, which made word-of-mouth communication more effective. There were local team leaders, who communicated with group leaders, and so on, up a chain of communication to some level of national and world leadership. We were all waiting for word to move to Zion.

Göran and I had slowly been traveling westward. We were in some western town in some place like Colorado. We had made our way there by foot travel, over a fairly long period of time. I was a trusted government official. People looked to me to help keep them informed about what was happening outside of the local community and region. There was a woman we knew there from our days singing in the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir.

There was general anxiety about the fact that we no longer had the conveniences that modern technology had once provided. We were all living in a society on the edge, so efficient use of resources and a high level of social cohesion and coordination were absolutely necessary in order to maintain order, and ensure everybody's survival. Life felt precarious. But in a sense, it also felt good and right. People loved each other. They treasured family and relationships, and took care of each other. Since all of our communication was person-to-person and face-to-face, our relationships with each other were more real, more true and substantive.

Göran and I were permitted to make a trip to Finland. We actually brought a delegation with us that included friends and family members from Göran's side of the family in Memphis. We went to eastern Finland, where we were going to stay with my cousin Kalevi and his wife Anja. Most people in that part of Finland had never seen or encountered people of African descent, so my arrival with Göran and members of his family aroused considerable excitement and curiosity. Members of Göran's family were regally dressed, and made quite an impression. Kalevi and Anja seemed a bit nervous – uncomfortable even – but they were still hospitable.

Kalevi and Anja had once had a small dog – a dachshund. But for some reason, they had been unable to care for it, and had given it to some neighbors who lived across the street. The dachshund had had a litter, and so the neighbors had another little dachshund like it. As we arrived at Kalevi and Anja's house, I saw the dogs standing on the pitched roof of the neighbor's house across the street. The dogs were brown, but tinged with a kind of turquoise or aquamarine color – I had never seen dogs like that before. They started barking excitedly when they saw us. I could tell that the dog that had once belonged to Kalevi and Anja missed them. The neighbors came out of their front door to greet us, and the little dogs, in the meantime, had run from the roof into a gabled window, down some stairs inside the house and then out the front door. From there, they ran excitedly toward us, barking as they ran. When Kalevi saw the dogs, he seemed to panic. He quickly ran into the house and closed the door behind him. Anja had a wistful look on her face.

I realized that Kalevi really missed his dog, and it was too emotional for him to have to deal with it, and that is why he had run inside, before it could get close enough to greet him.


This was one of those dreams that felt revelatory to me. At first, as I was still waking up, it felt prophetic to me. I wondered if it was possible that we soon could -- in my lifetime -- live in a world without things like the Internet, telephones, or various forms of high-speed travel. It's imaginable... Just imagine a post-petroleum-based economy, and it doesn't seem completely beyond the realm of possibility.

What was fascinating to me, though, was that my dream version of such a world wasn't a dystopia, it wasn't a post-apocalyptic nightmare. There was anxiety, there was a sense of the precariousness of life, but in many ways it was a richer, fuller, more satisfying, more human world, in which human needs were met and human problems solved through face-to-face, personal relationships. We had figured out how to feed people, how to clothe and shelter and care for everybody, how to maintain social cohesion and government, basically using stone age technology!

As idyllic as the literal possibility of a world without the Internet sounds, as I shook the previous night's sleep out of my head, I thought more about the really preposterous dream elements, such me being a trusted government official in Colorado, leading a Memphis delegation to North Karelia with my husband, and my Finnish cousin's inability to deal with his emotions about the bluish-green dachshund he'd given away to his neighbor. And it dawned on me that maybe I ought to look at the dream a bit more metaphorically.

This dream I realized was about communication and human relationships. Living in a world with no Internet, no telephones, no cars and no planes, in dream language, I realized, is about a major breakdown in communication. Communication was a theme in my Spaceship Humanity dream, too. Though in that case, I felt it was about a specific communication challenge for me and, more broadly, for gay Mormons. In this dream, the breakdown in communication is global in scope. It's about a general inability on the part of human beings in general to communicate with each other in a truly satisfying way.

And in this dream, I see myself and my husband Göran playing a role in bringing people together. In the past when I've dreamed about traveling out West, it has had to do with making a deeper connection with my faith. So it seems likely to me that our traveling on foot to Colorado might have to do with me building bridges within the Church. Of course, in my dreams, Memphis symbolizes Göran's "home country," and North Karelia (Finland) symbolizes my "motherland." So it was clear to me that this dream was also about Göran and I playing a bridge-building role within our families.

The dream was also about successfully navigating the emotional complexities involved in bridge-building. Without getting too Freudian about the potential significance in my dream of a male family member showing anxiety in the presence of a blue "wiener dog," I think the dogs represented most broadly the power of emotions. Their blue-green color could symbolize spirituality and vitality. The fact that they had been banished to a neighboring house, only to loyally return, and the emotional conflicts created by their return, is suggestive of the challenge of mastering and integrating one's emotions.

My cousin's discomfort with his emotions made it difficult for him to receive our "delegation." His inability to extend hospitality had to do with fears and anxieties that were very much his own, that originated from within himself. It had nothing to do with his guests (though, in my dream, cultural difference was a factor in their reception). A successful bridge-builder will recognize this and take it into account in his or her interactions with others.


My dream reflected a role that Göran and I have played in reality on significant occaions in our families. When there are breakdowns in communication, when family members don't want to talk to each other, we have often been the only ones that everyone talks to; we've been the go-betweens.

I do think there is something to be said for the notion that gay and lesbian folks are "natural" bridge-builders. Like many social "outsiders," by virtue of the fact that there's no unambiguous place for us in the public culture, we are forced to live in two worlds. We are forced to be "bilingual," because the native tongue of the love and affection that comes naturally to us isn't permitted or isn't understood by the majority. We have to speak, instead, the language of the dominant culture. We learn to speak that language in ways that are polyvalent, that are susceptible to multiple meanings and interpretations. We had to do this to survive.

This is, I think, why gay folks gravitate toward callings and professions that benefit from this kind of psychic multilingualism: the arts, language and linguistics, teaching, social service, diplomacy, politics, religion... Our gifts come in most useful when there is a collapse of social cohesion and order, or when there are breakdowns in communication.

When we are healthy, grounded, and strong, we contribute indispensable gifts to our communities and our families. It's hard for us to do this effectively when we are suicidally depressed or socially isolated. So homophobia deprives our communities and families of much needed social resources. On the other hand, when we are allowed to care for each other and love and nurture each other in loving relationships, we can play important roles in solving the problems that the whole human race has faced in crises past, and that it will face in crises future...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Buyers and Merchants Will Not Enter the Place of My Father

I've been reading the Gospel of Thomas lately. I love this text! It's become part of my "standard works," and I read it along with the other four canonical gospels. Arguably, it predates all of them. Scholars think it is at least as old as the oldest parts of the New Testament -- the oldest parts of the Gospel of Mark, and the Pauline Epistles. Thomas was a "sayings" gospel. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Thomas doesn't have a storyline to follow. It's just a collection of "sayings" of Jesus, recorded in seemingly random (and sometimes repetitive) fashion. Scholars think that the gospels of Matthew and Luke used another "sayings" gospel as a common source. That "sayings" gospel -- called "Q" by the scholars -- has been lost. But it seems likely that "sayings" gospels like Thomas and "Q" were the earliest written accounts of the ministry of Jesus.

A number of the sayings in Thomas are immediately recognizable as sayings that have been recorded in the canonical gospels. Others are similar to the canonical sayings, but with a bit of a different twist.

For example, in Thomas 64, we find a version of the parable of the wedding feast (compare Luke 14:16-24 and Matthew 22:1-10). In the Thomas version, the master sends his servants out to issue invitations to come to a banquet. In turn, each of the invited makes excuses, but all of the excuses in the Thomas version are a bit more mercenary: "Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight"; "I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day"; "I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent." As in the canonical versions of this story, the master then sends his servants to collect guests from among the poor in the streets. But then Jesus interjects the rather blunt moral: "Buyers and merchants will not enter the place of my Father."

The Thomas version contains a much more unambiguous condemnation of materialism and capitalism. Jesus here seems to be saying that people who are too concerned with wealth and material goods will simply be too distracted to pay attention to what is really important. They will simply miss or disregard the invitation to enter into God's kingdom. The Gospel of Thomas also includes two other parables that should be familiar to readers of the canonical gospels: the parable of the rich man who invested his wealth in building storehouses for all his produce and wealth, but then died the very next day (Thomas 63; Luke 12:16-20); and the parable of the merchant who sold all his wealth so that he could buy a single pearl (Thomas 76; Matthew 13:45-46). Both of these parables are about wealthy men, but in the first case, the man invests his wealth in building storehouses for his wealth, while in the second case, he gives up all his wealth for the "pearl". Both, again, are morality tales warning against the dangers of distracting wealth. It is better to give it all up for the sake of the pearl of the gospel.

But this morning it occurred to me that there is another layer of meaning in Thomas' story of the wedding feast than just a condemnation of materialism. "Buyers and merchants" are people who are obsessed with favorable exchange. They give only so that they can get in return; and they are usually trying to get more than they give, to play the vicissitudes of the market to maximum personal advantage. Much of Jesus' teaching promotes the opposite moral. Followers of Jesus should give without expectation of return or reward:

Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.... For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:30-36, emphasis is mine)

This willingness to give away without hope of receiving is linked in this teaching recorded in Luke with the qualities of mercy and kindness that God displays toward us. Even though the Luke account of this saying of Jesus includes the rubric "your reward shall be great," clearly the ethical thrust of this saying is that it is not for a reward that we should behave in such a manner, but to be "children of God." If God behaves in such a manner, then so should we, if we are his "children."

If we wish to be like Christ, and like our Father in Heaven, we should give, unconditionally, without expectation of return.

We should give up our expectations.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spaceship Humanity

Monday night I had a dream that the human race was living on an alien planet. It was sort of like Mars – the land was orange, the sky was orange, and it was very arid. We were building a giant spaceship to return home to earth.

The spaceship was enormous. It was so big, it was impossible to actually see the entire ship from the planet's surface, where we were working on it. We were assigned to work on the spaceship by family teams. Göran and I were part of my father's team.

Göran and I were at the site – the portion of the spaceship – that our team was assigned to. I saw signs of sabotage. Somebody had poured some greenish black, sticky, oil-like substance into some of the machinery of the spaceship. It looked like it was acidic, like it was eating up and destroying the machinery, and like it would stick to and burn anybody who tried to touch it, so I avoided touching it. I tried pointing out the sabotage to some of my other co-workers. Some laughed it off, and thought it was nothing, but some were concerned, and thought we should bring it to the attention of our supervisor.

We were living in apartments – everyone had temporary worker housing. I wanted to talk to my dad, so I went to my parents' apartment. My sister was there living with them. It was the middle of the night. I entered the front door, and their security system started to beep. I needed to punch in a code, or else the security system would alert the police. I knew the code – Dad had given it to me. But it was dark in his apartment, and I was having trouble entering it because I couldn't see the keypad. I tried entering the code a few times, but the system kept beeping. I hadn't wanted to turn on the light because I hadn't wanted to wake up the whole family, but finally realized I had too, or everyone would be disturbed when the security alarm started sounding. I turned on the light, and saw that the keypad had somehow gotten unplugged from the system, and that's why my efforts to enter the code hadn't been received into the system. I plugged it in, and reentered the code.


I've been thinking the last few days about the meaning of life. Last night, while I was doing a bit of Internet browsing, I came across a debate between Marvin Olasky and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens laid out his case fairly eloquently. It was, in a word, that if God exists, he is the worst totalitarian despot that could possibly exist -- watching our every move and our every thought, and punishing us for the least nonconformity. Every atrocity in human history can be blamed on God's self-appointed messengers, who claim to speak for God in order to aggrandize themselves. But the good news, says Hitchens, is that the messengers are liars, because if they were telling the truth, that God actually does exist, there would no possibility, no hope of true human freedom or happiness -- only abject slavery for all eternity. (Hitchens' image of God bears such a striking resemblance to the kind of God that, in the Mormon reckoning, Satan would have been, had he gotten his way in the Council of Heaven!) Hitchens didn't bother me, but it did get me thinking about how we find meaning in life. Why is it that some of us find such tremendous comfort in the notion of God, and others seem revolted by it?

I've also been running into lots of, for lack of a better term, anti-gay stuff spouted by religious folks. I know I'm kind of a sucker for reading it. Part of me thinks, "OK, I need to know what these folks are saying, so I can respond to it intelligently." Especially, since I'm ear-deep in the anti-amendment campaign. But this stuff wears me down. It all boils down to the reasons why these folks think I'm broken or my family doesn't deserve recognition. So part of me realizes, maybe, to be healthy, I need to not read that stuff. I already know all this stuff. No need to be reminded. At least I've confirmed that, no, they don't really have anything new or insightful to say.

And then, I was sort of fishing around on this site, about the documentary Kendall Wilcox is putting together on gay Mormons. There's a lot of really great, incredible stuff on there. Very uplifting and encouraging and hopeful stuff.

I had a moment, though, of some old junk coming up when I listened to the interview with Ty and Danielle Mansfield. What I realized is that in my early 20s (back in the early 80s), I was seriously wounded by the messages I got about how the only appropriate path for me was marriage to a woman. By my junior year, I was suffocating... It was factor in the spiral of depression that almost led me to commit suicide in the summer of 1986. This was also why, after I resigned from the Church, I actually considered the possibility of a life of celibacy as a kind of liberation! In the LDS Church, that certainly wasn't considered an option back then. That culture of pressure to marry was just really, really painful for me as I came to terms with my gayness.

I understand what kind of path Ty is on. He hasn't been reckless in this. He's been open and honest and transparent. I don't think -- at least I've never heard him say or even imply -- that anybody else ought to follow the particular path he's chosen. I have tremendous respect for the way he's working out his salvation, and I'm genuinely happy for him having found a truly wonderful, blessed marriage.

Still, there are voices in my head that say things like: "See, he can do it? What's wrong with you?" And that brings me back to a kind of despair that's always threatened to derail me. This is my shit, not Ty's shit, and I own it. The only reason I mention it on my blog is because I think this is something that a lot of other gay folks in and out of the Church struggle with, and it has resulted in a fair amount of on-line venom directed at Ty and Danielle, when they deserve, instead, our love and support.


My dream -- about getting off an arid, alien planet -- I think, was the Spirit's answer to all these questions, fermenting in my brain.

Realization number 1. We're all in the same boat. And there's no hope of any kind of individual salvation that involves leaving others behind. There are no individual ships, no luxury cruisers for the privileged. In my dream, if you want to go home, you contribute to bringing everybody home.

Realization number 2. I'm expected to contribute. I have a role to play in that salvation, which is really about establishing the rule of love, the "higher law" of the gospel. I have a role to play that requires me to stop feeling sorry for myself -- "Oh, woe is me! Why is life so unfair?" Learning real love, real patience, and real humility is not easy. It requires the death of the ego. It requires us to listen and be silent. To concentrate. It's a message God's been transmitting to us for millennia, and we for the most part still just haven't gotten it. And this life is my chance -- wherever I stand in life -- to work at it, to try to get it.

In my dream, the spaceship we were building to bring humanity home was huge... It was so large it stretched off far beyond the horizon. All I could see of it was my small corner, the part of it I was supposed to be working on. That didn't mean I could afford not to do my part on it.

Realization number 3. There is opposition. There are opponents, there are saboteurs. The true saboteurs are not necessarily those who disagree with me about certain issues. They are, rather, those who are so trapped in ego that they can't see any way to deal with the world except through contention and a supremacy game. There are lots of folks on both sides of any "issue" who fall into that category. At one time or another, most of us have fallen into this category. In my dream, this kind of contention was represented by the sticky, acidic poison saboteurs had poured into the machinery of our spaceship. I knew that I could not even touch the stuff, without it sticking to me and burning me, so I left it alone, and decided to let our "supervisor" deal with it.

I imagine that the "supervisor" in question in my dream was the Lord. That's who I report this stuff to, any way. I give it to the Lord and let him take care of it.

Realization number 4. In my work of salvation, I am part of a "team." My team is my family. It includes Göran. Göran and I, as a team, are part of a larger team that includes my extended family, and that was represented in my dream by my parents.

God does not require any of us to do this work alone.

Realization number 5. Because there is opposition, because there are saboteurs, there is security, there are safeguards. This was represented in my dream by the security system in my father's house, that was designed to alert the police and alert my family of dangerous intruders. Since I was not an intruder, I had been given a code that would allow me to pass through the security system and enter my father's house. However, like any humanly administered security system, it is possible for there to be false alarms. In my dream, I had a rightful place in my father's house, but I wasn't able to enter my code because the keypad had been accidentally disconnected. By turning on the light, I was able to see what the problem was, reconnect the keypad, and then enter the code and have it received.

In my dream, I had worried about turning the lights on, because I didn't want to disturb my sleeping family. Isn't that often how it is in the Church? Aren't we often afraid to "shed new light" on a problem, because we're afraid that to do so will be perceived as disruptive? Don't we often just continue to fumble about in the dark, rather than to "make a fuss"?

But then I realized, it would be far more disruptive to let a false alarm be sounded. So I turned on the light, and sure enough, in the light I was able to perceive the true source of the problem -- not that I didn't have a valid code, not that I didn't belong in my father's house -- but a connection problem. In other words, a communication problem. The security system was simply not receiving my data. Isn't that in fact the primary problem that gay and lesbian folks in the Church have had? We've been transmitting data, we've been trying to tell our stories to Church members and leaders, but the data just hasn't been received yet. We need to stop fumbling about in the dark, turn on the lights and find some way to make that connection. I think, maybe, that connection is starting to be made.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Where We've Come From

This documentary, "The Homosexuals," by Mike Wallace, is a kind of time capsule. I can't help but marvel how different the world was in 1967. (I was four years old!) There are still reverberations in our culture of the debates over homosexuality that were taking place then, forty five years ago.

1967 was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. African American activists were transforming the way Americans thought about human rights. Ordinary people like Rosa Parks and "the Little Rock Nine" and the sanitation workers in Memphis inspired people from all walks of life to stand up and try to make a difference. Still, at that moment in history, it took incredible intestinal fortitude and faith for gay men and lesbians to dare to suggest that maybe they, too, should be treated with dignity.

The psychological theories featured so prominently in the documentary, supposedly explaining homosexuality, are now almost universally rejected. Charles Socarides is featured announcing to a classroom that homosexuality is "a disease that has reached almost epidemic proportions." Then there was the cultural commentator bemoaning how the "homosexual mafia" had a stranglehold on American arts and fashion (!!!), insisting that gays were insinuating their "deep hostility toward women" into American culture. Then there was Gore Vidal, pronouncing the institution of marriage "absurd" and "obsolete." The spokesmen (no women in this documentary) from the Mattachine Society seemed well adjusted and reasonable, if a bit anxious to prove themselves "normal."

What also intrigued me were the Protestant and Catholic religious leaders who acknowledged that culturally based revulsion against homosexuals was contrary to the Christian faith. They seemed oblivious to the possibility that that culture of revulsion colored their own theological views of the subject.

Then there were the self-loathing homosexuals. It seems so obvious now, so self-evident, that so much of what, in 1967, was perceived as "disease" or "mental illness," was actually the result of extreme social isolation, self-loathing and terror. It took incredible strength and courage even to begin to challenge that. And we are so much better off today. I'm so glad we don't live in that world any more.

It didn't just "get better" on its own. It got better because people were willing to stand up, even in the face of extreme ridicule and hatred. The documentary includes clips of gay rights protesters, dressed in suits and ties, carrying signs, and picketing quietly and with dignity, while passers by ridicule them as fit for the loony bin. It's impossible to come away from this documentary without a profound sense of just how extreme and how pervasive the hatred of homosexuals once was in our culture. We owe that generation a LOT.

(Mike Wallace deserves props too for taking on this topic at a time when to do so might have aroused a lot of hostility!)

Worth a watch, if only to remind ourselves how far we've come (and how far we have yet to go).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom, Part 2

Isn't there some risk that the Church would be forced in some way to recognize or perform same-sex marriages?

No. Not so long as the First Amendment is in force.

Haven't churches in Canada been fined for preaching against homosexuality? Couldn't that happen here if same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S.?

Canada does not have an absolute constitutional guarantee of free speech as the U.S. does. The First Amendment completely protects freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice in the United States. No church (or individual) in the U.S. could ever be censured for teaching that homosexuality is wrong, or for refusing to marry or ordain a gay person without repealing the First Amendment first.

For example, the LDS Church did not allow blacks to be ordained to the priesthood or to be married in the temple until 1978. Despite the fact that Federal and State law prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, the Church was never required to change its policy and ordain blacks or marry blacks in the temple. The same would be true in relation to same-sex marriage.

Haven't religious agencies been forced to close down for refusing to give children up for adoption to gay couples?

Social service agencies, including religious agencies, that accept government funding, are generally required to abide by any antidiscrimination statutes in the jurisdiction where they provide services. For this reason, many religious social service agencies and educational institutions refuse state funding. So long as Church social service agencies do not accept state funding, they would never be required to provide services to gay or lesbian couples, including, for instance, placing children for adoption in homes led by gay couples, or offering marriage counseling to gay and lesbian couples.

Catholic Charities in Massachusetts was accepting state funding, and was told that they could not discriminate against gay couples seeking to adopt kids. Catholic Charities had the choice of refusing state funding, if they wished to continue their practice of declining to place kids with gay couples. Instead, they closed down operations in Massachusetts.

Haven't wedding professionals been fined for refusing to provide services for gay and lesbian weddings?

Individuals and Churches who provide public accommodations (such as renting church facilities to the general public) could be held liable for refusing to provide those accommodations to gay individuals on the same basis that they would provide them to anybody else. But discrimination in the area of public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation is already against the law in Minnesota. Legalizing (or banning!) same-sex marriage would have no effect on this law as it already stands in our books.

A New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph a lesbian wedding was fined $6000 for violating the state's antidiscrimination law. The photographer was found guilty because she was found to be offering a "public accommodation," and the state antidiscrimination law forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations. However, same-sex marriage is not legal or recognized in New Mexico. So it is misleading to imply that this antidiscrimination case was a result of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom

Here's why banning same-sex marriage will not protect religious freedom:

* Conscience cannot be coerced.

* Respect for religious institutions is undermined by legislating morality.

* Those of us who are working for marriage equality are doing so because we want to protect our families and those we love. Denying us the ability to do that will diminish religious freedom and freedom of conscience, not enhance it.

Religious Freedom and Freedom of Conscience
At least some of the founders of the American Republic saw freedom of religion as the foundational freedom upon which all other freedoms are based. Why? Because, they argued, no person is truly free unless they are free in the exercise of their conscience.

Opponents of same sex marriage are motivated by a concern for morality. But moral behavior is not lastingly instilled through coercion. Moral behavior is best promulgated when moral values have been internalized, when they are freely accepted and chosen. Efforts to coerce proper behavior -- even when the ends are morally right -- produce rebellion and resistance. Denying people choices does not make them moral, and efforts to coerce morality usually produce the opposite of the ends desired.

If same-sex marriage is morally wrong, then it should be possible to convince people that it is wrong by presenting information and reasoned arguments. Amendments of the type being proposed in Minnesota have been passed in 29 other states. Despite this fact, support for same-sex marriage continues to rise nationwide. That should suggest that if opponents of same-sex marriage believe it to be morally wrong, passing laws against it is not helping them to make their case to the American people.

The power of the state should be used to police and punish those forms of behavior that are truly anti-social. Public safety is protected by laws against theft, murder, and sexual violence, for example. But our common life is not enhanced and safety and freedom are not increased by using the law to promote the values of one social group over another.

In the case of same-sex marriage, individuals seeking legal protections granted to heterosexual couples does not in any way detract from the rights of others. No one's rights are proscribed by same-sex marriage. Using the law to disadvantage a particular social group, however, does undermine the principles of freedom and equality that help ensure the safety of all people within a democratic society.

Churches opposed to same-sex marriage will not be forced to perform or solemnize such marriages. But churches that support same-sex marriage are currently being prevented from solemnizing unions they believe in.

How and Why Respect for Religious Institutions Flourishes
In the U.S. Constitution, religious freedom is protected in two ways. The first way was also the way considered most radical at the time the first amendment was passed: by banning any establishment of religion by the government. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Americans erected "a wall of separation between church and state."

In the 18th century, this was a radical move. At that time, all European nations and most American colonies had official state churches. One of the reigning assumptions among Europeans and among Euro-Americans was the notion that man was essentially fallen and evil in his nature, and that without the restraining, coercive power of the state to enforce religion and morality, society would fall into chaos. When the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed banning any religious establishment in America, many contemporaries predicted that America would soon descend into a state of irreligion and chaos.

That prediction could not have failed more spectacularly. Not only did America fail to become irreligious, it became steadily more and more religious until the present day, when the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world (as measured by church attendance and financial giving to religious institutions). The vast majority of Americans (on the order of 90%) believe in God, and something like 60% are active members of churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

Compare this to Europe, where states clung to religious establishments until the last century. In many western European nations, disbelief is in the range of 30-50%, and active participation in churches on the order of 5-10%. State promotion of religion -- who'd a thunk it? -- produced mass disaffection from religion. While the American disestablishment has allowed religion to flourish.

The founders took a gamble on a radical notion: that minimal government restriction of human moral behavior was best. Americans from time to time have lost faith in that notion, and have made a variety of attempts to legislate morality. For example, the nineteenth century concern about alcohol abuse culminated in the passage, in 1919, of the prohibition amendment. The prohibition of alcohol did not result in the reduction of alcoholism and its attendant evils. It did succeed in driving the sales and consumption of alcohol underground, giving a boost to organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s. Americans finally recognized the folly of legislating morality in this way, and ultimately repealed the prohibition amendment in 1933.

Prohibition had another unintended and unfortunate consequence. It made the religious groups that backed prohibition look puritanical and repressive in the eyes of many Americans, undermining respect for religion.

One of the major concerns expressed by opponents of same-sex marriage is that if same-sex marriage is legalized, those who do not believe in same-sex marriage will come to be viewed as "bigoted" and will perhaps even be persecuted or oppressed for their beliefs.

Americans have always lived in a pluralistic society with great diversity of beliefs and values. Having a difference of belief doesn't necessarily mean intolerance of or disrespect for others who don't share our beliefs or values. In fact, the greatness of American civilization has been in its promotion of respect for those who are different from us. Having some groups in American society who have differing views on the morality of same-sex sexuality and relationships is nothing new. It's not the first time Americans have had to learn to live together with differing beliefs and values.

Bigotry raises its ugly head when one group of people abandons the values of tolerance and respect, and begins to look down on another group of people because their values or beliefs are different. While America has always been a land of great diversity, and respect for difference has been held up as a virtue, we have also struggled with intolerance, and various forms of religious and racial hatred. Bigotry has been a problem in our country.

Religious folks who oppose same-sex relationships worry that they will be labeled as bigots, but at the same time they are trying to pass very controversial laws that would ban same-sex relationships. Is it possible to point out the contradiction, without being accused of name-calling?

If people who disagree with the notion that same-sex couples should be able to form loving, committed unions with each other were willing to respect the rights and choices of others, and replace efforts to legally ban same-sex relationships with open, respectful conversation about this issue, how would that change the social dynamic? Is it possible that it would enhance respect for their views? Could it increase the likelihood that folks will see their moral position as principled rather than as self-interested and repressive? Mutually respectful difference is the American way, and I trust that we have a wealth of social and cultural resources to create that kind of diverse, yet unified society, e pluribus unum.

While it is true that American freedom has produced a society with great love and respect for religion and religious institutions, we've seen in recent decades a decline in religiosity among the generation of Americans that has been born since the 1970s. Recent polls have suggested that 25-30% of the twenty-something generation says they have no religion, representing a dramatic increase in unbelief over previous generations. My own experience with twenty-somethings suggests that they are not unconcerned about moral values or even about faith. Many who have rejected religion are still vitally interested in matters of faith, and are engaged in lively discussions and debates about it. But they are disillusioned by decades of religious right attempts to enforce what they perceive as a narrowly defined set of religious beliefs and values on the American public at large.

If we value faith and religious values in America, we need to uphold freedom. That is what has made religion great in the past, and what will allow it to thrive in the future.

Religious Freedom and Respect in a Pluralistic Society
I am working for same-sex marriage not because I want to deprive anybody of rights. I am working for same-sex marriage because I love my husband, and because we love our son, and I want to be able to protect and care for my family just the same as anybody else wants to care for and protect theirs.

I ask people to consider what they are doing in passing an amendment of the sort that is being proposed in Minnesota. Will it really uphold and protect religious freedom? Or does it risk doing the opposite? Will it really protect families? Or will it just disadvantage mine?

If you can try to put yourself in my shoes, and in the shoes of others in my situation, I promise I want to try to put myself in yours. Please, let's talk about what our real concerns are, without stereotyping the other. Is there any way we can move forward in a way that unites us rather than divides us, that creates a state of full of haves, rather than a state of haves and have nots?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Zero-Sum Marriage

In Andrew's post on the BYU-based "It Gets Better Video," Andrew provided a link to an anti-gay white paper arguing for why gay couples and families should be excluded from marriage. Andrew asked me to read and comment on it.

I generally try not to respond to these kinds of arguments. I do read them and try to understand them. I want to understand why some people are so threatened by marriage equality for gay people. The sound bites and arguments I've encountered in the media have never made any sense to me. I guess I've yet to understand how it is that my love and commitment to my husband takes anything away from anyone else -- much less committed married, heterosexual couples.

I grew up in a culture that despised homosexuality, that saw it as "abomination," as "gross immorality," as a sin that, in its seriousness, is "second only to murder." I was taught that it would be better for me to come home in a casket, than to come home with a same-sex partner. As I was coming out, I had to listen to people constantly comparing the kind of love I experienced as being on a par with incest, rape, and bestiality. In the world I grew up in, the more "compassionate" view of homosexuality was that it was a sickness or a disability. It was an "affliction" that I would have to suffer with for the rest of my life. True love, I was told, was not something I was capable of. The notion that gay couples could be committed to each other, that they could love each other with the same kind of devotion that straight people loved each other was ridiculed. The idea that gay people could be married was viewed as arrant nonsense.

And yet, in spite of this culture, I somehow managed to find love, to find a man with whom I could build a common life grounded on a commitment that has lasted coming on 19 years. We have shared that life -- the stability and love that has grown out of that commitment -- with a son. And nothing would make us happier than to be able to share that life with more children. So if we could build that kind of a foundation for our lives in spite of the extreme prejudice and outright hate directed toward homosexuals in our culture, to me it seems incomprehensible that heterosexual relationships and heterosexual family could be completely undermined and destroyed just because same-sex relationships are tolerated and respected. Is heterosexuality really that fragile? Will family and civilization really disintegrate unless we live in a completely hetero-supremacist culture?

Given my experience, it seemed to me that these kinds of arguments -- arguments that gay families literally pose a "threat to civilization," and that they will completely undermine traditional family -- as the last resort of homophobes, as a last ditch effort to keep gays in their place by posing as victims. Even though it has always in fact been heterosexual society that has made life intolerable for gays, that has attacked and undermined our attempts to form viable families, now we were being told it was the other way around. We were actually destroying their families, merely by trying to survive and carve out a niche of respect and love for ourselves.

At the heart of the argument of the the article Andrew referred me to is the concept parodied in Monty Python's "every sperm is sacred" song. Because a sperm is needed in order to fertilize an ovum, they would have us believe, it must be nature's intention for every single human being to be coitally paired with a member of the opposite sex. Homosexuality can ipso facto only manifest a form of moral degeneracy, or, at best, a pitiable kind of disability that disqualifies homosexuals from the benefits of marriage. They claim to be making an argument purely grounded in natural law. But they dismiss as irrelevant the mounting evidence that homosexuality is part of nature's design, that it is universal among higher mammalian species, and that it is sustained in the human population through biological mechanisms that do not require homosexuals to reproduce.

To suggest that homosexuality is part of nature's (or even, by extension, God's) design, is not necessarily to make the case that homosexual relationships should be protected by the institution of marriage. Except that the authors of this article clearly state more than once that the monogamously, lifelong, committed pair-bonding even of non-reproductive individuals is an inherent good. They describe sexual pair-bonding as "inherently valuable relationships that... organically extend two people's union along the bodily dimension of their being" (p. 275).

That being the case, if you accept the evidence that homosexuality is part of the natural design of higher mammalian species, if you consider the likelihood that human survival appears to be enhanced by the regular occurrence in every generation of a certain small but significant percentage of non-reproducing individuals, then there is no reason why homosexual relationships that uphold socially valuable norms shouldn't be sanctioned and blessed. Gay couples can be social role models of love, stability and commitment for straight couples. They can also, as adoptive couples, provide stable, loving homes for kids who -- through a variety of unfortunate circumstances -- end up without homes. But they can play these socially valuable roles effectively only if they are incorporated into the moral fabric of society that is represented by the institution of marriage.

The authors of this article claim to be concerned about moral values. But they also insist, at the core of their argument, that the suffering caused by discrimination against homosexuals and homosexual couples is necessary for some greater good. This should be a flag of warning. It has never boded well when societies openly embrace the notion that certain of its members are expendable, that their needs and their humanity must be sacrificed on the altar of some higher purpose.

The authors of this article, as marriage equality opponents frequently do, justified the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage with citations of promiscuity and sexual libertarianism among gays. Ironically, their whole argument about the protection of marriage hinges on the notion that broadly held social norms have an impact on how people behave in their private lives. Yet, they failed to consider the possibility that it is much more difficult for gays to embrace monogamy as long as they are not offered the kind of stake in society that marriage offers. Nor did they consider the effect on marriage of creating one standard of socially supported love and commitment for one class of human beings, and another, inferior standard for another class of human beings.

We're not talking about a redefinition of marriage. A marriage is, has always been, and will always be a mutual promise to take and to cherish, to be true in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, a promise to love and to honor all the days of one's life. That's all I ask for me and my husband.

The authors of this article claim that allowing gays to marry will "decouple" marriage from child-rearing. But the unwillingness of heterosexual couples to have children is not related to gays taking wedding vows. It is related to selfishness. Gays partaking in the institution of marriage will not change the fact that marriage provides the ideal context for the rearing of children. And it does so not because there is something magical about the fertilization of a gamete. There are enough terrible heterosexual parents in the world (and enough excellent homosexual parents) to prove that point. Marriage lays the ground-work for child-rearing, because it creates a context of commitment, mutual giving and self-sacrifice.

In my experience, it was the stability and confidence that a loving, committed relationship gave me and Göran, that allowed us to contemplate becoming parents. And in turn, becoming parents changed our lives in every way imaginable for the better. I couldn't understand why heterosexual parents, similarly situated, wouldn't take advantage of the joys of parenthood, just because my husband and I are allowed to marry and enabled to do the same. Allowing gays to marry will invite them into the fullness of married family life, with everything that means socially and morally, not decouple marriage from child-rearing. If straight couples are too selfish to do the same, I suggest the fault lies elsewhere than among gays who wish to make similar commitments.

Marriage is not a zero-sum good. It's not as if there's only so much of it to go around, as if more for gays means there's less for straights. To the contrary, it seems to me that marriage is just the type of social good that is diminished in a society where we deliberately create haves and have nots. It is the type of social good whose value is enhanced in its universal availability to all who are willing to make the promises and accept the responsibilities.

All I ask is the opportunity to do just that. If I try and fail, I lose out. But if I succeed, everyone is enriched.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Unexpected Testimonies

Last night we had the latest in our monthly gay Mormon get-togethers. Seven of us gathered together at the home of one member of the group, and we put together an amazing taco bar. The only slightly awkward moment was just before we started eating. Someone new to the group, D., asked, "Will we say a prayer?" We took a quick poll to see if everyone in the group was OK with that. They were. So the person hosting offered a beautiful prayer, directed to "Our Heavenly Parents," giving thanks for everything that had conspired to bring us this food: the laborers in the fields, the sun, the rain, the earth, the hands that brought it to our table.

Over food we shared stories. We talked about family. Since there was a new person, there were lots of questions about coming out, and about reactions of Mormon family members to being gay, and experiences at BYU, and so on. The usual gay Mormon stuff.

At one point, a member of the group, J., shared an experience. This individual has sort of dropped out of activity in the Church. He feels very conflicted about his membership in the Church. One of his co-workers had approached him earlier that day, and had asked him: "You're a Mormon, right? So what do you think about that John Smith guy? Was he crazy, or a liar?" J. hadn't known how to answer that question. He actually stood there, sort of deer-in-headlights stunned for a minute or two. A customer interrupted their conversation long enough for him to think about it a bit. As he recounted the story to us, he realized that he really wasn't sure what he believed about Joseph Smith. It was a painful question for him. When the co-worker returned and they resumed their conversation, he replied to the effect that it just wasn't as simple as chalking Joseph Smith's career up to fraud or psychosis. "You still believe!" his co-worker taunted him. To J.'s chagrin, he realized that perhaps he did. He realized that voluntarily or not, he had just born a kind of testimony.

As one member of the group later put it, by virtue of being gay, our relationships with the Church are necessarily complicated. Her response to the story was to ask: Does this guy believe in the reality of "spiritual phenomena"? (Those were her words.) J. said, "No, this guy's an atheist." "Well then," she replied, "I guess in his mind Joseph Smith could only be one of those two things -- crazy or a liar." She expressed that she had questions and doubts about the Joseph Smith story. Maybe it didn't happen exactly the way we think it did, but perhaps there was something real in it too.

I shared my own journey with the Prophet Joseph Smith. I said that a major turning point for me was reading Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. As I read her account of the martyrdom of the prophet, she described that moment when Joseph had crossed the Mississippi, and was getting ready to flee to points west. Knowing full well that he would probably not get out alive if he turned himself in, he did precisely that. He went back, and was taken to Carthage. When I began reading Brodie's book, it was at a point in my life where I took for granted that Joseph Smith must have been a fraud. But that part of his story worked its way into my brain. It bothered me. That was not, I was forced to conclude, the behavior of a fraud. The deeper I looked into the life of Joseph Smith, the more I saw ways in which his life had been marked and shaped by the divine. Joseph Smith was a deeply flawed man in significant ways, yes. But he was also a prophet of God.

Our story-sharing and conversation was heartfelt and real. People expressed doubt freely, people asked questions, people shared faith. It was one of the coolest conversations I've ever had. One member of the group who's been gathering with us is not Mormon. He was asked if he felt awkward listening in on such a very Mormon conversation, and he said something to the effect of, "No, not really. It's about faith. It's about stuff that we all have to deal with, one way or another."

After we broke up for the evening, I gave a member of the group, S., a ride home. He was curious about my yoga practice. I had mentioned earlier that my experience with yoga was very spiritual, and he wanted to know more about that. "How is yoga spiritual for you? Do you pray while you're doing yoga? What is it like for you?" I told him that I usually arrive at yoga practice early, and I often pray before class starts; and that I sometimes have had the experience of receiving revelation during yoga practice. I explained that one of the purposes of yoga is to help calm the mind and heart, to clear the mind of those inner voices, that constant chatter that goes on in our brains, and to open up and listen. That's why, I think, I often receive revelation while practicing yoga: because it helps put me in a posture of listening. Yoga also teaches you patience and endurance, and it teaches you to face stress and adversity with calm and strength.

I said I was grateful for all of these gifts which yoga gives me. But I told him it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that gave me understanding of who God is, and who I am, and the nature of my relationship to God. Without that, the rest could not be as meaningful to me. The gospel means everything to me.

I've been thinking a lot about President Monson's talk at the Sunday morning session of conference the last day or two. I shared some of it with the group. I loved that he used words like: "learning through experience," "thinking," "choosing," "striving," "seeking," and "finding."

D. talked about our intentions: how we can make mistakes along the way, but if our intentions are right, we'll always get back on track. "Maybe the branch in the path," he said, "is the path."


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How to Be a Saint

I have a testimony of the Church. That testimony has been reaffirmed and strengthened countless times over the past six years as I have attended Church meetings, as I've interacted with Church members and leaders, as I've studied the scriptures and prayed, and as I've tried the best I can to apply the teachings I've received through the Church.

My testimony has come to me through spiritual witnesses, occasions when I've experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in a most powerful and undeniable way. In these situations, it was more than "just a feeling." It was more than just an emotional reaction to a particular situation. I've felt the Spirit many times, in diverse situations. My feelings or emotions in these situations have varied. Before the Spirit's presence has been manifested to me, my emotional states have ranged from happy to sad, from content to angry, from confident to fearful. My emotional state has sometimes been intense, sometimes not so intense, sometimes just very calm and open. The Spirit does always reassure and give me a sense of peace. I often weep in its presence. But my emotional state, I've realized, is not the trigger for the Spirit, and it is not the Spirit. When the Spirit is there, it's a distinct presence. It's unique and it's powerful. When the Spirit is present, it is always proof to me of the objective reality and existence of God. It's something I observe as clearly and distinctly as I observe anything in life. And on numerous occasions, the Spirit has told me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true Church of Jesus Christ, and that I need to stay close to it.

My testimony of the Church is also based on the blessings I've experienced, the increased strength, peace and joy I've experienced in my life as a result of my affiliation with the Church, and as a result of applying the principles and teachings I've received there. I can honestly look back over the past six years of my life and say that I have become a more loving, more peaceful, more centered and more happy person. And I can see exactly how this is a direct outcome of my willingness to apply gospel principles in my life.

I never would have done these things, if I hadn't received a spiritual witness that the Church was true. So I can honestly say that I count my testimony of the Gospel as my dearest treasure. I also find myself being able to tap into a seemingly endless reserve of strength and patience because I know that God is real, and because I know that the physical, material world that we live in, that we see and touch, is not all that there is. There is far, far more. What we experience in this world is only the smallest part of reality. And I know that what we haven't seen, what we haven't experienced or touched, is far greater and more beautiful and filled with infinitely more joy and glory than what we have seen, experienced and touched. So my testimony gives me a great sense of optimism. Thanks to God and Christ, all will end well, if we just trust.

Because I have a testimony of the Church, I have a profound desire to be a member of the Church, to be able to participate fully in all the life and ordinances of the Church. It's painful to me not to do that. But I trust that the time will come when the current barriers to my membership will be removed, and that will be a glorious day! The Spirit has reassured me on numerous occasions that when all is said and done, I will not be disadvantaged in the least because of my present circumstances, which are beyond my control. And I am learning to trust those reassurances.

The purpose of the Church is to make Saints out of us. "Saint" is just a word that means "holy." And "holy" means that which is peculiar to God. To be a Saint is to belong to God, to live in the way God would have us live.

In order to enter the Kingdom of God, we need the saving ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. But after we receive those saving ordinances, we need to become perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and we need to endure to the end. Compared to those latter tasks, the ordinances are a simple thing. Baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost takes just a few minutes. But perfecting ourselves and enduring to the end takes a life time.

I am often sad that I can't be a member of the Church. But I've realized that just because I can't be a member of the Church doesn't mean I can't make good use of my time here on earth. I can still work on perfecting myself. If I do that, the rest will sort itself out in due time. On the other hand, if I don't work at perfecting myself, if I squander my time here on earth thinking, "Oh, there's nothing I can do, because the Church won't baptize me," when the time does come that I can be baptized, how sorrowful I will be that I didn't take advantage of every opportunity for growth that I could have! The vast majority of people who have lived and died on this earth, lived and died without being baptized. They will be judged based on what kinds of lives they lived, based on the opportunities that they had. And so will I!

I've also sometimes had mixed feelings about attending priesthood meeting, because I don't currently hold the priesthood. At first, when I first started attending Church, I wasn't even sure I would be allowed to attend priesthood meeting. But my Elder's Quorum president, Bro. S., insisted on my coming to priesthood meeting with him. He moved out of our ward many years ago, but I actually tear up even now as I remember him, and how grateful I am to him. In my early days coming back to Church, he, more than anyone else, made me feel loved, needed and welcome at Church, and at priesthood meeting.

I've learned over time that the central principle underlying priesthood is service. Whether or not we are actually ordained to the priesthood, we can all find ways to serve. For me, in my situation, service is my priesthood. And striving to live worthily will heighten and increase my capacity for service. So now I never feel hesitant about attending priesthood meeting, because teaching us to serve and be worthy is what priesthood meeting is all about.


General Conference was a double blessing for me. First of all, it was an opportunity to gather with other Saints and to feel the Spirit present. I can't adequately describe how moving this was for me. I rarely feel so safe, loved, protected and happy as I did this past weekend, attending conference. It was like being at home, but better. Like being in my heavenly home. That's how it felt to me. So just being there was a blessing.

But the messages of conference were profoundly encouraging to me. They were all about the things we can concretely do to become more perfect, to be more like our Heavenly Parents. It was a school on How to Be a Saint. There wasn't a single talk I heard that I didn't see directly how it could apply to me, and how I could use the principles discussed to become a better person:

From Donald L. Hallstrom of the Quorum of the Seventy: It's possible to be active in the Church, but less active in the Gospel! [That was encouraging to me, because I realized even if I can't be "active in the Church," I can still be active in the Gospel!] The things of the Gospel are less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are the most important! We can become more active in the Gospel through personal prayer, through reverence in relation to the Sacrament, and attending Church in the right spirit, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to be our teacher.

From Paul E. Koelliker of the Quorum of the Seventy: Awakening the desire to know is how we open ourselves to the Spirit! The Spirit works in particular patterns, so that we won't be deceived. And that pattern is: Love and enduring to the end. "By this shall men know ye are my disciples, that ye have love one to another."

From Dallin H. Oaks: I was delighted to see Elder Oaks present Roman Catholic orders and Protestant missionaries as examples of sacrificial service to God that Latter-day Saints could learn from!

From Henry B. Eyring: It takes time to build a foundation of faith that can endure. He emphasized the importance of personal integrity. And he reminded us that the Lord "showed himself not unto men until they had faith in him."

From Robert D. Hales: The sacrament helps us "come to ourselves" and "remember who we are."

From Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Seventy: "We shall reap if we faint not." [Boy, do I need that reminder.] All things which are good lead to Christ, and invite and entice to do good continually. I was also grateful for his use of D&C 20:37, a scripture that I've memorized to help me prepare for baptism.

From Quentin L. Cook: Have the courage to refrain from judging others!

During his talk, I remembered how, when I was most angry, God spoke love to me, and welcomed me back. God blesses us even when we are not worthy to be blessed!

From Richard G. Scott: This whole talk was incredible, about receiving revelation and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. He began by explaining that in order to receive revelation, the Lord expects us to ask. He talked about the importance of being careful not to do things that drive the Spirit away. He talked about how we can be more attentive to revelations that we receive at night, in our dreams. He spoke about the importance of writing down the revelations that we receive. Recording the impressions and revelations we receive from the Lord will show the Lord that we value such things, and regard them as sacred! He spoke about the importance of humility as a prerequisite for receiving revelation. He reminded us that divine guidance does not take away our agency, and that communication with our Heavenly Father is not a trivial matter.

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf: Patience makes perfect.

The moment we judge, we condemn ourselves. Refusing to forgive is a grievous sin. Forgiving ALL men includes forgiving ourselves. “We simply have to stop judging others.” "Heaven is filled with those who have this in common: they forgive, and they are forgiven." (Have I ever mentioned before how much I LOVE President Uchtdorf?? Seriously, I could be the president of the Minnesota chapter of his fan club.)

From President Thomas S. Monson: The priesthood is a commission to serve. “I love and cherish the noble word ‘duty,’ and all that that implies.”

I loved his discussion of the plan of salvation in the 4th session. We passed through a veil of forgetfulness so that this life would be a time of trial and testing. He emphasized the importance of learning through experience, learning good from evil, and learning that our acts have consequences. Agency involves thinking, choosing and achieving. Blessings are earned from a lifetime of striving, seeking, and finding.

From Julie B. Beck: I thought this was a truly remarkable talk about the Relief Society. She emphasized that the Relief Society is not just a program, it is a divinely ordained part of the Church.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Conference Teaching on the Family

At the beginning of the opening talk of the first session of General Conference, Boyd K. Packer recounted a mission experience involving a young family who had just experienced the death of an infant. Their grief over the loss of their child had been exacerbated when they were told by their pastor, a Roman Catholic priest, that because their child had died unbaptized, it was going to hell.

What interested me most about this narrative, however, was Elder Packer's evaluation of the role played by the priest in this heart-breaking situation. He did not condemn the man, but concluded rather that this was "the best he had to offer" given his limited knowledge of the plan of salvation.

Human hearts naturally recoil from the thought that God could condemn an innocent baby to hell. And human hearts also naturally recoil from the seeming cruelty of a priest reaffirming such a doctrine to grieving parents. Even without modern-day revelation that contradicts such a teaching, thinking people reject such a doctrine as incompatible with the justice and mercy of a loving God.

Similarly, human hearts recoil from the Church's present day teachings about homosexuality. Those who know gay people and love them, those who have observed us and our relationships and our families up close, recoil from the seeming cruelty of telling us that all families but ours can be sealed and united in love for eternity, of telling us that our only hope for eternity is to "remain separately and singly" (D&C 132:17) for our entire lives, without the joys and comforts and sustaining strength of intimate love and companionship. Even without modern-day revelation to contradict such a teaching, thinking people reject such a doctrine as incompatible with the justice and mercy of a loving God.

I can't condemn the Church for what it has taught and done on this score. Church leaders are acting according to their best lights. This is "the best they have to offer" gay people and our families in our current state of knowledge of the plan of salvation.


Nevertheless, I find myself strengthened, uplifted and edified by Church teaching on the family. I have applied it to my own family, and have experienced a more profound, pure and joyful family life as a result.

Church teachings about the family emphasize that the family is both the primary means to exaltation, and the end of exaltation. Without a loving spouse to support us and sustain us through life, life and faith become much more difficult. Relationships with spouse and children teach us about the nature of divine love. Problem-solving in the family helps us hone the tools we need to solve problems in every aspect of our lives, as our family relationships teach us patience, kindness, selflessness, long-suffering and hope. And familial love that is purified through the trials and tribulations of mortality is the pattern of the divine love that will exalt us in eternity. I've found that all of these principles apply to my relationship with my husband and our son, no less than they apply to any temple-sealed heterosexual family.

The Spirit reassures me that the love between me and my husband will be crowned in eternity, even if we don't understand how that can be possible in our current state of knowledge of the plan of salvation. The Spirit says: Hang in there. Stay true, loving, and faithful to your spouse, and don't be discouraged. All will work out in the end. So I found myself deeply comforted by the teachings that were carried to my heart by the Spirit over the past weekend:

From Boyd K. Packer: The first responsibility of couples is to one another, then to their children. The bond between spouses is the primary bond in the family. "Family time is sacred time, and should be protected and respected."

From David S. Baxter, of the Quorum of the Seventy: Single parents will receive compensatory blessings to help them as they work to care for their children. There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Those who are not single parents should look into their hearts, to discern what more we can do to support single-parent families without judgment.

From Henry B. Eyring: Love your spouse, and put your spouse's interests before your own. Enlist the entire family to love each other. Lead your family "in the Lord's way," when discipline is needed. (He clarified that the "Lord's way" is spelled out in D&C 121, through persuasion and love rather than through compulsion.) Salvation is a "family affair."

From Russell M. Nelson: The family is the most important social unit, in time and in eternity. [Family is important to us here and now, not just in some promised, unspecified eternal future beyond death!!] He spoke -- and this point I related to very personally and poignantly -- of how the "deepest longings of the human soul" are related to "the natural yearning for endless association with beloved members of one's family."

I can't imagine eternity holding any joy for me, without Göran there to share it with me.

From President Thomas S. Monson: Discern what is important and what is trivial, and focus on what is most important. Family, friends and the Gospel are what is most important!

From M. Russell Ballard: There is no genuine happiness separate and apart from the home. The greatest threats to the family are growing materialism, secularism, and the gap between rich and poor. The most important cause of our lifetime is our families. Put everything you do outside the home in subjection to what you do in the home. (Just as Elder Packer emphasized,) marriage comes first, then family. No career can bring as much fulfillment as rearing a family. [I couldn't help but feel this applies as much to men as to women, though he seemed to be directing his comment to women.] "The Church is the scaffolding with which we build eternal families." [In other words, the Church must never detract from our families, but is intended to help us nourish and build our families!]

From Larry Y. Wilson of the Quorum of the Seventy: In raising their children, parents must remember that any time we try to compel -- even if we are seeking to compel righteous behavior! -- we are acting unrighteously. We cannot force our children to do the right thing. Compulsion builds resentment. Constant criticism or the withholding of approval or love is contrary to the Lord's way of raising children. Compulsion will cripple our children morally, incite them to rebellion, and cause a loss of trust in God's love.

I couldn't help but wonder about the ways in which religious people are trying to "compel" righteousness or to withhold love or approval by passing laws and amendments to ban same-sex marriage. Are they behaving in a manner that will inspire people to want to come to the Church and seek God's love there?


There was an offhand, generalized comment or two about the ominous forces in "the world" that are trying to undermine the family. I couldn't help but wonder if some Church members listening to these comments might assume them to be referring to the efforts of gay families to fend off legislative attacks on our families, or to secure legal recognition and legal protections that will strengthen our families. Of course, extending the legal protections of marriage to gay and lesbian couples won't take anything away from or undermine heterosexual couples, and does not constitute an "attack" on the family in any sense of that word. I was grateful that, in the one instance where a General Authority (M. Russell Ballard) spelled out precisely what in "the world" is threatening families, he enumerated things that are a threat to all our families, gay and straight: materialism, loss of faith, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Though D. Todd Christofferson's talk about "how our doctrine is established" did not speak directly to the challenges related to homosexuality and gay families, I couldn't help but wonder, as he discussed, by way of example, the manner in which the Church received revelation and doctrine about the place of the Gentiles in the plan of salvation. I was particularly moved by his quotation of Peter, speaking to the Council of Jerusalem, when he reminded the gathered leadership of the Church that, in pouring out his Spirit, "God put no difference between us (Jewish saints) and them (Gentiles)." He continued: "Why put a yoke on them which neither we nor they are able to bear?" Why indeed? No heterosexual Saint would willingly accept the yoke of life-long celibacy that the Church currently imposes on its gay Saints. I am praying for the time when the leaders of the Church will seek understanding and revelation about the situation of our Heavenly Father's gay children with the same urgency that Peter sought understanding and revelation about the status of Gentiles in his day.

In the meantime, the talk that hit closest to home for me, in relation to my family, was the talk I first mentioned by Boyd K. Packer. His talk reaffirmed the fundamental goodness of the basic human yearning for love. And I was deeply comforted by his reassurance that "in the eternal scheme of things, all righteous yearnings will be fulfilled."

Monday, April 2, 2012

Taking Notes in General Conference

With the marvels of modern Internet technology, I could just watch General Conference at home on my laptop or desktop computer. That's what a lot of my friends in the ward do. I suppose, especially if you have young children, that's a lot less complicated. Of course, when I was a kid, back in the prehistoric days of no Internet, the only way we could take in General Conference was at the local ward meeting house, where it was broadcast (sound only!) over the P.A. system of the chapel. So General Conference was still necessarily a time when the Saints had to leave their homes and gather together as a body if they wanted to receive the counsel of the Prophet, apostles, and other general authorities. Maybe it's just nostalgia on my part, but I feel like it's just not General Conference unless I gather at my ward meeting house with other members of my ward to listen.

Our ward has a great tradition of hosting a potluck in between the Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon sessions. I contributed some Finnish rutabaga casserole on Saturday. This year, one of my dear friends in the ward made an apple pie just for me. It was baked in a small, personal-sized pie dish, and delivered to me while I eating! I love my ward! (I put on a few extra pounds this weekend!)

I confess I'm an avid note taker at General Conference. Being present and listening with other members of my ward, I notice that I'm not the only one. Lots of folks are there with their journals or other kinds of notebooks, scribbling away as they listen. I especially take notes whenever I hear something that speaks with poignancy to my personal situation, or that gives me some deeper insight into a particular problem or question I'm wrestling with. Occasionally, I get revelation at General Conference, and then I write that down too (in brackets, so I can distinguish those notes from the other notes I take).

I don't know why, but this past General Conference I was aware of an especially poignant sense of gratitude I was feeling for General Conference itself -- just for the fact that we have General Conference. I was especially grateful for the peculiar, sweet, peaceful feeling I get just being there. I realized that conference is not just about the intellectual knowledge that we get from the words spoken and that can be eagerly jotted down (though we get that, and that's important).

When Elder Russell M. Ballard shared some of his insights from the Book of Mormon in the Sunday afternoon session, he sort of summed it up for me when he used the analogy of facing the door of our tents in a particular direction. He talked about how Lot and his family had the doors of their tents facing toward Sodom, and he contrasted this with the Nephites who, when they came to hear the address of King Benjamin, faced the doors of their tents toward the prophet. I realized that attending conference (whether we do it from the comfort of our Internet-equipped home, or whether we do it in a ward meeting house), is about choosing which way we want to face the doors of our tents.

I do want to be a better person. I want to be more faithful, more patient, more disciplined, more loving. So I want to be in a place where I will receive reminders to try harder to be all those things. I want to be in a place where I will feel the Spirit driving those reminders home, deep into my heart, teaching me these truths in ways more profound than mere words.

I realized that I might go to Conference without taking a single note. Perhaps I should try that some time. Perhaps I should try just being there, just listening and taking it in, and trusting that the act of just being there at the appointed time and place, and taking the time to listen, will have the desired effect.

There were moments when the Spirit was so strong, the only thing that could be written was written only in my heart.