Saturday, June 30, 2012

Far Between and Many Miles to Go

Kendall Wilcox is a gay Mormon who has been producing a documentary that asks the question: What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?  One of the most remarkable aspects of this documentary is its very open-ended approach to this question.  On the Far Between website, Kendall has posted dozens of interviews with gay and bisexual Mormons, each of whom is invited to answer the question, "What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?"  Kendall has gone out of his way to include folks with dramatically different perspectives, from individuals who have remained active in the LDS Church and have chosen to marry a member of the opposite sex, to those who have embraced their homosexuality and have definitively cut their ties to the Church, and many others in between.  And the results, as they are unfolding on the web site are incredibly moving and quite amazing.

Kendall's achievement so far is that much more remarkable, when you consider the difficulty of even finding the right language to ask the central question of the film.  Every element of that question is disputed.  Am I "homosexual" or "same-sex-attracted (SSA)" or "gay"?  Can I even be considered "Mormon" if I am excommunicated or have resigned from the Church?  Is a "Mormon" defined culturally, or in terms of the beliefs a person holds, or ecclesiastically in terms of membership status?  If you ask the question, "What does it mean to be gay and Mormon?" you will alienate a major segment of the community that Kendall was trying to reach, because they reject the term "gay."  If you ask the question, "What does it mean to be SSA and Mormon?" you alienate a different major segment.  So in the actual interviews, Kendall has opted for the question: "What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?" (using a term that almost no one relates to), with a follow-up clarification of "however you choose to define any part of that question."

One of the themes that emerges in almost all of the interviews is that that intersection of Mormon-ness (however defined) and homosexuality (however defined!) creates a profound emotional/social/spiritual crisis for those who find themselves there.  (I love that the Far Between logo consists of two barely intersecting circles!)  The stories are painful, precisely because -- at least at first -- it seems literally almost impossible to bring those things together.  The stories are moving because they demonstrate human resiliency in the ways individuals navigate this intersection.  Collectively, a very interesting picture begins to emerge as you see the myriad of different solutions to the problem of being homosexual/gay/SSA and Mormon that people find.

And for me, this speaks volumes to Kendall's achievement as the film's producer.  Kendall is both "homosexual" and "Mormon," so he has (one presumes) experienced something of the anguish that is so evident in the stories of the many folks he's interviewed.  Kendall himself is fairly open about the fact that the urgency of finding a very personal resolution to the contradictions is what drives this project.  This film is his way of going forward, his way of trying to figure out what to make of all this.  But I think Kendall's project will succeed where other similar projects have failed, because of the extraordinary patience with which Kendall pursues this.  He hasn't, as far as I can tell, leaped to any conclusions.  He's not pushing any sort of agenda, apart from bringing as many different voices as possible into the discussion.  His openness is his agenda.

I hope Ty Mansfield doesn't mind my sharing the fact that the evening before Kendall was scheduled to arrive at his home for an interview with him and his wife, I got an urgent call from him, asking me to tell him everything I knew about Kendall Wilcox.  He was understandably nervous about how his marriage might be portrayed in this kind of documentary.  There are risks involved in sharing, especially when you're not sure of the agenda of the person you're sharing with.  As far as I can tell from the interviews that have been posted, Kendall has done a good job of nurturing the kind of trust that is necessary for something like this to unfold.  Part I of his interview with Ty was posted here.

A film of this nature has the virtue of attracting anyone who wishes to be heard -- or the vice of attracting anyone who wants a soapbox or a bully pulpit.  Kendall has done a remarkable job of framing each story as "a" story, one angle, one perspective, on a multifaceted and complex problem.  So one senses that the film will not, in the end, validate any one path over another.  And therefore the final product has the potential of alienating many and pleasing none.  Though it also has the potential of illuminating the issues more profoundly than any other treatment of this subject before ever possibly could.  And that latter potential is worth all the risks of engaging in this kind of project.

I had a fuller appreciation of the risks and the potential of this project when yesterday I finally watched part II of Kendall's interview with Wilum.  I am now embarrassed to admit that it took me a long time to get around to actually listening to the interviews with Wilum, because one look at the images and I thought I knew everything I needed to know about him: "Angry gay ex-Mormon."  My prejudice couldn't have been more misleading.  Every assumption I made about him was completely wrong.  (Except the one about him being gay!)

Will folks look at this film project in its entirety, and do the same thing I did in relation to Wilum's interview?  Will people just assume they know everything they need to know about a film that asks a hotly contested question like "What does it mean to be both homosexual and Mormon?"  Many people most assuredly will...  But I think, assuming the project is successfully brought to completion, the end product will stand the test of time.

Part I of my own interview with Kendall was recently posted here.  The interview was conducted just after the closing devotional held at the Kirtland, OH Affirmation convention last September.  I was still feeling a bit buzzed from the spiritual high I had experienced that morning, first in the testimony meeting and then in the devotional that came right after.  I remember feeling a bit scattered during the interview itself, though actually seeing it, I look and sound less incoherent than I remember! 

Watching it now, seeing my story intersected with the very different stories of so many others, I am left both with a sense of gratitude and of vulnerability.  I have a greater appreciation of, and hopefulness about how all of our stories seem to be unfolding toward some wonderful ending.  And I'm not just talking about the ending of this film project!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Twin Cities Pride

I never really felt that I had any choice but to try to organize a Mormon contingent to march in Twin Cities Pride this year.  Three hundred fifty LDS marchers in Salt Lake City Pride on June 3, 2012 changed everything for me.  To me that event signaled something seismic in the Mormon collective consciousness.  And I knew I wanted to participate.  I couldn't be at Salt Lake Pride, but I knew I wanted to march in Pride as a Mormon, with other Mormons.

Minneapolis and St. Paul seemed like a really unlikely setting for something like this to happen.  The Minnesota religious landscape is dominated by Lutherans and Catholics.  Mormons are a tiny minority here, and LGBT Mormons a tiny minority within a tiny minority.  But ultimately, we had about thirty marchers, five of whom were gay or lesbian, and the rest of whom were straight supporters.

There were a number of miracles associated with the parade.  The first miracle -- for me -- had to do with who participated: entire families, including mom, dad and young children.  We had a "Primary" contingent within our contingent.  Adorable kids carrying signs like one memorable one adorned with a rainbow and the phrase, "I want to be like Jesus."  Miraculously, the kids made it through an hour of waiting and two hours of marching in the hot summer sun without the least bit of fussing.  It was a no tears march, at least for the kids.

One of the families marching with us included a gay family member.  Mom carried a sign that read: "I love my gay daughter and her girlfriend, and I'm a Mormon."  That sign melted a lot of hearts.  People ran up from the crowd to hug mom and thank her in person.  It was deeply moving to me to see the entire family rallying around this young woman.  A younger sister joined her mom in support by carrying a sign that said, "I love my lesbian sister."  Later, Mom told me tearily, "She was going to march in Pride anyway, on her own.  But when we heard that there was going to be a Mormon contingent, we realized we could all march as a family." I could barely find the words to express how moved I was by this show of support, but Mom countered, "We're her family.  It's our job to support her.  What really mattered to us was that she could see all these other people from our church out here to support her as well."

A sizable portion of our contingent included members of the young single adults ward.  I remember speaking to one of them in the weeks running up to the parade, and she commented how this just wasn't even an issue any more for her generation.  Two of them brought guitars with them to the parade so we could occupy ourselves as we walked by singing hymns like "Come, Come Ye Saints" and "The Spirit of God," and Primary songs like "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," "Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree," and "Families Can Be Together Forever."  The noise of the parade probably drowned out our singing for the vast majority of parade watchers, but it didn't matter.  Those hymns were for us.

Fellow Mormon bloggers Ren and Reuben were there. Ren got held up with a work crisis the night before, and had sent out a disconsolate message in the wee hours of the morning with the disappointing news that it was unlikely she could make it to the parade.  She showed up anyway, a bit bleary eyed for having only gotten about four hours of sleep, but ready to show her support.  She kept pinching me throughout the parade.  "This is just so you'll remember that this is real," she grinned.  It was real.  Though the reality of it didn't totally sink in until I got home a few hours ago.

We got a wonderful response from the crowd.  I knew we would.  Prior to the parade, I had received a glowing email from a member of the Pride committee.  She wrote: "I have had so many people tell me I'm nuts for loving LDS folks after what happened with Prop 8 in California, and I always confidently reply, 'Well, that may be... but that wasn't the LDS people I know and love because they wouldn't be a party to that sort of thing.'...  I'm not a particularly religious person, but I find it heart-warming that there are so many people of faith who get what God's love is purportedly about."

Minnesota Gay Pride attendees are notorious for giving a warm welcome to the groups that are least expected.  So members of conservative religious groups are especially loved.  As we were lining up before the parade, a crowd of "Minnesota Atheists" descended on us.  "Mormon Allies!" they shouted, "Can we get our picture taken with you?"  People would cheer as we passed.  "Mormons!"  I overheard a teenage girl shouting gleefully, "I love the Mormons!"

Some were a bit more skeptical.  My partner, who was marching with us carrying a sign that said, "I [heart] my Mormon husband" got a shout from an African American woman.  "I wanna talk to the Mormon brother."  She kept shouting it until I waved him over there.  She wanted to know what an African American could want to have to do with Mormons.  I guess she ultimately approved of him being there to support his spouse!

But there was a more painful story too.  Inspired by Marni Zollinger's sign in the Portland Mormon Pride contingent, Amelia N., a member of our contingent, decided that she too wanted to carry a sign reading, "Sorry We're Late."  An older man stepped forward out of the crowd to take a picture of her.  Then he approached her, wanting to say something.  He was gay, and had once been a member of the Church.  He told her "I was excommunicated three days after my lover died.  I love you people.  But get the f**k out."

Later, after the parade, as Amelia recounted this incident to other members of the contingent, there was a sense of heaviness, of sadness.  We all agreed.  As wonderful as it was to receive the cheers and the accolades, it was this heartbreaking story that reminded us most why we were there.

We were late.  Far too late.  And "sorry" just doesn't cut it.  Though we still felt we had no choice but to start doing the work.


Shortly before the parade began, our contingent gathered in a circle for a prayer.  I expressed a desire to be the voice.  "I don't usually get to pray with other Mormons," I said -- a consequence of being excommunicated.  Everyone present smiled and nodded approvingly.  So I prayed for safety, for protection from the heat of the sun, for the Spirit to be there with us to help us be an example and a source of hope.  Later Ren hugged me.  "I'm glad you prayed," she said, "It's about time."

Organizing for Pride was a spiritual experience for me.  I had my ups and downs with the whole thing.  There were days when I was ecstatic, and days when I was completely terrified and despondent.  At one of my low points, I heard Christ speaking directly to my mind and heart: "I'll be there."  That experience inspired my "Dear Faithful, Active Mormon Pride Participant" post.  It kept me buoyed up through the following ups and downs.  Whenever I felt discouraged, I remembered: I have an appointment with Christ that I have to keep.

There had been so much to do, so much "stuff" to be done, actually marching in Pride was finally a tender mercy, a grace.  There was nothing more left to do but to be.   To walk.  To sing.  I was so grateful for the hymns.  (Thank you, Ranell and Julia!!)  Sam, the other gay man in the contingent besides me and my husband, was effervescent.  "This is the most spiritual experience I've ever had outside of Church on a Sunday," he exclaimed.  To be there, surrounded by our straight brothers and sisters, the ones who were really willing to put themselves on the line for us, who were willing to risk the skepticism and disrepute that to march in gay Pride of course risks in Mormon circles, for us that was sheer gift.

One of our key organizers wasn't able to be there with us.  Just days before the parade she came down with what at first seemed like a cold, but progressed into something serious enough that she spent this morning in the emergency room.  She wore her "Mormon Allies" t-shirt to the doctor's office, and was following us avidly on Facebook as we posted pictures and quips from the parade.  I was so heartbroken she couldn't be there in body as well as spirit, but it was clear to me what a gift this was to her as well.

Amelia, who had helped with the transportation of parade props, gave me a ride home at the end of the day.  I turned to her to try to thank her, and I just couldn't hold it in any more.  I just broke down weeping.  "You don't know what this means me," I said.

It will take me a while to fully process everything.  It feels historic.  Part me says we'll look back decades from now, and remember 2012 as the year Mormons marched in Pride.  But right now, I just feel exhausted and incredibly grateful.

Thanks everyone, and good night!

Friday, June 22, 2012

On Walking Together

One day in my Religious Histories class, after I had spent some time discussing my faith as a Latter-day Saint, one of my students asked me which, in my understanding of faith, I felt weighed more heavily: adherence to principle or personal loyalty.

I thought it was a very insightful question.

Without hesitating, I replied: Personal loyalty.

As a young man, I almost certainly would have responded to this question very differently.  Maybe that's the definition of "idealism": to believe that adherence to principle must outweigh everything else, even interpersonal bonds or personal loyalty.

As I've matured, I've begun to realize that adherence to principle can only be righteous to the extent that our knowledge or our understanding of the principles in question is perfect.  And I've realized that I am far too imperfect, and my knowledge is too imperfect, to insist that my understanding of a principle is the understanding.  I have a great love of principle.  But I can't insist that others adhere to it as I understand it.  I've begun to realize that adherence to principle, in order to be righteous, must be viewed as a journey toward greater truth and greater understanding.  As we evolve in our understanding, and as we discipline ourselves (i.e., as we become more capable of adherence), our adherence to principle becomes more meaningful.

At the heart of my current understanding of faith is my very personal encounter with God.  As a result of my encounter(s) with God, I cannot think of God or my relationship with him in terms of abstract principles.  In fact, it feels disrespectful (sacrilegious?) to do so, having encountered and interacted with him as a real person.  God has communicated his love to me in very specific, very concrete, very personal terms; he has answered very specific questions; he has made very specific promises to me; and he has asked of me very specific things.  I have in turn made pledges of love, confessions, expressions of gratitude, promises.  And these interactions have not been a one time thing.  They're renewed on a regular basis -- potentially every time I get on my knees to pray.

God and I interact within history.  There are idiosyncrasies, peculiarities of the time and place in which I live that shape me as a person.  Even without the constraints of history, I am a unique individual.  God works with me, and responds to me individually and personally.  We have a mutual history, a past, present and future.

I can never make any sort of claim to know the mind of God beyond what I've learned from my interactions with him.  My interactions with God have taught me that God is far beyond my understanding.  I realize I am incapable of knowing the mind of God to the extent that I am not like him.  A major goal of my life's work is to become more like God, so that I can increase my capacity to absorb truth.

But in the meantime, my relationship with God must be grounded in trust and obedience.  I must trust that his knowledge and love are greater and more perfect than mine, and I am on occasion required to do things I don't completely understand based on trust.

(This is not, by the way, a blind trust.  It's a trust made possible by a personal history with God that has taught me he is trustworthy, that he truly loves me and sees further than I.

And, by the way, I don't expect that anybody take my word for anything in these matters.  My understanding of faith in terms of personal loyalty means I always refer people back to the Source: back to God.  If you have any question about any of this, don't talk to me about it.  Talk to God.  Get it from him.

That's my understanding of what missionary work is all about.  In popular parlance, we talk about missionaries converting people.  If that's what actually happens, then what we're talking about is a form of idolatry.  True missionaries refer people to God, and God does the converting.)

The most important thing I've learned from God is that everything I do in the world must be grounded in a very concrete, personal and specific love for myself and for my fellow beings.  My first and foremost obligation to you is to love you.

I'm not talking about the knuckleheaded kind of love in which I presume to know what's good for you better than you know yourself.  That's not love at all, that's just presumption and arrogance, though presumptuous, arrogant people go around calling this "love."  I'm not talking about the kind of love in which I see you as a means toward some end.  That's actually called objectification, and it's a form of abuse.  It's a sacrilege, it's a violation of the sanctity of the other.

I'm talking about the kind of love that involves the hard work of learning to understand you on your own terms; asking you questions and listening to your answers; interacting with you; knowing you.  All of this presumes that love is impossible outside the realm of personal relationships and personal loyalties.  Love requires a process of discovery.  Love is a journey.

I cannot love you unless I'm willing to stick with you for a significant amount of time.  So I have to make a commitment to you that transcends the typical vicissitudes of the normal human relationship.  My love for you means that, on occasion, I will have to be pissed off at you.  I will have to endure your imperfections.  But guess what?  It's mutual.  So you will, on occasion, be pissed off at me and will have to endure my imperfections.  Fortunately, outweighing the pissed off moments will be moments of delight as well, times when I am deeply grateful for you; when I learn and benefit from your strengths.  (And you from mine!)

We will, over time, learn deep gratitude and appreciation for each other. We will be delighted in each other's happiness.  We will hunger for some "greatest good" for the other.  We will honor the freedom and the choices of the other, because we will recognize that no "good" is meaningful without freedom.

This type of love requires a relinquishing, a letting go.  And this is why I must insist that in matters of faith and human relationships, personal loyalty must outweigh adherence to principle.  Adherence to principle over personal loyalty negates the learning process that is required for real love.  It requires efforts to achieve control that negate the freedom required by love.


There have been some discussions over on Main Street Plaza about Mormons marching in LGBT Pride parades.  Some have expressed concern about whether Mormons who march in Pride fully understand the LGBT community, whether they fully support the aspirations of most LGBT people for equality.  Some seem to want to require that Mormons pass some principles-based litmus test if they wish to march at Pride, or they shouldn't be welcome.

What I've realized from these discussions is that different people have different understandings of the nature and meaning of Pride.

Some see Pride as a declaration of principle.  They therefore insist that in order to participate in LGBT Pride, you need to line up with LGBT principles.

Some, however, (myself included) see Pride as an expression of community.  From this perspective, we would insist that LGBT Pride should include all who want to be in community with LGBT people.

I would argue that the principle-based definition of Pride is problematic, in that it assumes that all LGBT people have the same goals, needs and agenda, and that they all agree on what principles they stand for.  A quick glance at the list of groups that march in Pride should belie that assumption.  At Pride you find bars and sobriety groups.  You find atheist groups and religious groups.   You find all stripes of political candidates and political groups that any given marcher may support or not support.

I would argue that an assessment of that diversity of principle within the LGBT community forces us to boil the core principle of LGBT Pride down to the principle of loving and supporting LGBT people.  That's why, so often, you see people at Pride carrying signs that say things like: "I LOVE MY LESBIAN DAUGHTER." I think in a very real sense, that is ultimately what Pride is all about.

Now Mormons who have marched in Pride have been doing in essence exactly what other marchers are doing, when they hold up a sign that says "LDS [heart] LGBT."  They're essentially saying: Wherever this journey takes us, we're committed to you.  We're committed to loving you.  So I don't understand why the good folks at MSP have issues with faithful Mormons marching at Pride...  Unless they have issues with faithful Mormons.

As I've made my case that this is about love, relationship and community, not principle, Alan at MSP has protested: surely everyone marching at Pride must agree to at least one rock bottom, core principle: namely, that homosexuality is not a sin.  Surely we have the right to demand that people believe in that or adhere to that, or they can't march at Pride.

I would agree with Alan only in the sense that in order to enter into any sort of journey with me, you need to be willing to surrender your proclivity to judge, your hunger to prioritize your theology or your principles over your relationship with me.  If you can do that, then you can walk with me, both figuratively and literally.  If you cannot: if you must judge, if you must insist on principles over loyalty, then you cannot.  Even if you walk with me physically, you are not really with me in this journey.

And -- by the way -- this is a fundamental Christian principle.  The ideal of "judging not," of "forgiving debts" is deeply embedded in the teaching and life of Christ.  It's deeply embedded in the kind of love that Jesus taught.  So in asking members of my faith to do this, I am actually inviting them to live their faith more deeply and more fully.  I am asking them to become more Christ-like.

I disagree with Alan in the sense that we cannot present a theological requirement.  We can't say: You must believe X, Y or Z in order to march with me.

Or rather, we can say it, we can demand it, but to do so undermines the possibility for growth that comes through human relationships, through love.  When I demand theological conformity, I injure your conscience and mine.  When I invite relationship, I invite growth.

I would much rather march at Pride with someone who believes homosexuality is a sin, but who is willing to suspend judgment in order to learn to know me as a human being, than march at Pride with someone who knows homosexuality is not a sin, but who is uninterested in me as a human being, and who is willing to sacrifice his relationship with me for some abstract principle.  I am wary of such people, even if they claim to be "on my side."

I know some folks will think I'm fuzzy headed.  I'm a believer who says belief is not of ultimate importance.  I'm a theologian who says theology cannot save us.  I'm making a principled argument against principle.  But the longer I have wrestled with the great questions in life, the more I have come to the conclusion that while all these things -- belief, theology, principle -- have their place, they can never trump real, concrete embodied relationships between human beings.  The value of belief, of theology, of principle is to clear away the obstacles that prevent us from loving wholeheartedly.  The minute they cease to do that, I say toss 'em.

With Paul, I affirm: prophecy (principle) will cease.  But love endures forever.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How the Lord Moves the Church

I just finished reading again the account in Acts 10 of how the early Church changed it's policy to allow Gentiles to join the Church.

This story has become so familiar to me that I really had come to take each element of it for granted. But as I was reading it today, it dawned on me for the first time how convoluted and indirect the manner of receiving this revelation really was. And this is all the more astonishing, given the importance of the revelation that was received.

If I had never read this story before, and someone had asked me, "How would the Lord reveal to the Church that they should change their membership policy and allow Gentiles to join?" I might say, "Well, the Lord would probably appear to the Prophet -- or maybe send an angel if he wasn't going to appear himself -- and simply tell the Prophet that it was now time to allow Gentiles to be full-status members of the Church." And that is precisely what did not happen.

Here's how it actually unfolded:

Step 1) An angel appears to a righteous Gentile named Cornelius and tells him that the Lord is pleased with him, and that he should send messengers to go fetch some guy named Simon Peter, who lived with a tanner named Simon in the city of Joppa.

The way the story is worded, it's unclear whether Cornelius knew who Simon Peter was. Nor does the angel seem to be dropping any clues as to why Cornelius ought to fetch him. Though it is conceivable that Cornelius knew very well who he was, and had some idea why he was being fetched. A lot depends on the degree of contact we assume to have existed between Cornelius and the early Church, and whether or not we may assume that Cornelius had some desire to belong to the Church.

In any event, it's also interesting that Cornelius, not the prophet, is the first to receive a divine visitation.

Step 2) Peter has a "vision" on the rooftop. Now actually, the account says he "fell into a trance" (vs. 10). What Peter witnessed in a trance was very dream-like: a big canopy lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of unclean animals, and a voice saying "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." When Peter refuses the voice, on the grounds that he had "never eaten any thing that is common or unclean," the voice reprimanded him by saying "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." This happened three times.

Now, as revelations go, this one was pretty ambiguous. It was not clear at all to Peter what exactly the Lord was getting at here. The fact that it was not clear to Peter is attested by the fact he is still puzzling over the meaning of it when Cornelius' messengers arrive at the door.

Just before the messengers arrive, "the Spirit" tells Peter that three messengers are seeking him, and that he should go with them because they have been sent by the Lord.

So at this point, the only "revelation" that Peter has received is a highly symbolic, ambiguous and dream-like vision, and then a more direct command that Peter receives through the Spirit to go with three messengers who have come seeking him.

So far, Peter has not witnessed any divine beings. He's not received any manifestation more dramatic than what could have been a dream, followed by a spiritual prompting. Though, when they arrive, Cornelius' messengers inform Peter that the reason they were sent is because an angel appeared to their master. So Peter learns that an angel has appeared to Cornelius.

Step 3) When Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, Cornelius is gathered there with his entire family -- including, presumably, more distant kin and close friends. So clearly he's expecting something momentous. This is where it gets really interesting.

After his arrival, Peter explains "how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean." (Cornelius, as we know by now, is a devout and humble man, so he probably chose not to take offense at this statement that might otherwise have sounded patronizing at best.)

Now Peter is finally starting to make sense of his vision. He's finally seen the analogy between the commandment to eat the "unclean" animals, and the Spirit's prompting to travel with Gentile messengers to a Gentile household. But this understanding has come to him by a process of analogizing and reasoning, not as a result of revelation. Peter figures this part out on his own.

After Peter explains himself, Cornelius follows suit by telling Peter his story -- how the angel appeared to him and what it told him to do.

In Peter's mind, this is confirmation of what he's already started piecing together. He draws the conclusion, "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." So clearly, the fact that an angel appeared to Cornelius has made an impression on Peter, and it has provoked an insight: in God's eyes, the Gentiles are no different than he is. God accepts them -- the Gentiles -- on the same terms that he accepts anybody else, based on their love of him and their efforts to do good.

This insight was not a revelation. It was the product of human reason, a human being putting together and making sense of what -- until now -- had been seemingly mysterious divine hints and clues.

Had it ended here, of course, the encounter would not really have had any ultimate significance, however. There was one final piece of the puzzle that needed to fall into place.

Step 4) So now Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and all those who are gathered. And while he's preaching, the account tells us: "the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." What occurred was similar to what is described in Acts 2, to the outpouring of the Spirit that took place on the day of Pentecost. It says that Peter and his party witnessed them "speak with tongues, and magnify God," and they were "astonished."

At that point, Peter feels constrained to declare, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" And apparently, no one could forbid, because the account ends with Cornelius and everyone else present being baptized.

The form of that question has always intrigued me. Not: "Can we allow?" but "Can any man forbid?" It reminds me of the question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch two chapters earlier, in Acts 8: "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?"

By posing the question in this negative form: "Can any man forbid?" and "what doth hinder?" it is as if to say: "We do not have the right to prevent these from being baptized."

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is even more enlightening here, because it takes place chronologically before the conversion of Cornelius. And it helps us understand how and why it is that God reveals what he reveals to Peter in the way that he reveals it.

God had already been pouring his Spirit out on Gentiles long before Peter recognized it. The purpose of this "revelation" was not to initiate a new policy for the Church. It was to make the Church recognize what God had already initiated himself. That is why God told Peter: "What God hath (past tense) cleansed, that call not thou common."

Step 5) The events begun in chapter 10 don't actually find their resolution until Acts 15, at the Council of Jerusalem. Despite the outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius, and despite Peter's inability to "forbid water" that Cornelius and his household should be baptized, there was continuing controversy in the Church over how to accept Gentiles into the membership.

While Acts 10 presents a series of miraculous events (an angelic visitation; a vision followed by promptings of the Spirit; and a pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit), in Acts 15 there is none of that. There is just a good old fashioned debate. The Church as a whole has not yet accepted the reality manifested to Philip in the wilderness and in Caesarea to Peter. Peter does bear witness to these events, and ultimately persuades the gathered assembly to accept this new understanding of the Law.

In fact, interpretation of the Law is what this had been about all along. It is inaccurate to claim that Gentiles were categorically not permitted to join the Church prior to these events. Gentiles had always been able to join the Church, under condition that they submitted themselves to the Mosaic Law. Cornelius, had he wanted to join the Church prior to the events of Acts 10, could have done so all along without causing the least bit of fuss, simply by allowing himself to be circumcised, and by submitting to Jewish law. The debate at the Council of Jerusalem was not about relaxing a racial restriction on who could or could not be a member of the Church. It was about the Law. It had always been about the Law.

Why didn't the Lord just give Peter a straightforward revelation, announcing to him that the Law was no longer operative in the way he thought it was? I suspect it was because Peter would not have been able to accept such a revelation; it would have conflicted too strongly with a deeply ingrained bias that Peter had about the place of the Law in the life of the Church. The Lord realized that the only way for Peter to overcome this bias was to see for himself that what he assumed about the way in which the Lord worked was wrong. So the Lord didn't tell Peter, he showed him. First, abstractly in a vision about cleanness and uncleanness (and what we humans are not authorized to call "common" or "unclean"). Then, concretely in the bodies of Gentiles receiving an outpouring of the Spirit before his own eyes.

Peter finally understood that this was not about what he or any other man could approve or disapprove. It was about acknowledging a work that God had already begun:
Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.


So here's what I know. God has poured and is pouring his Spirit out on his gay and lesbian children. I have experienced it myself, and I've seen it in others. God has not abandoned us. He loves us, and he accepts the righteous offerings we make to him, and he has blessed us and will continue to bless us so long as we exercise faith.

Just as the Gentiles in Peter's time were not excluded by virtue of being Gentiles, it is not by virtue of our gayness that we are prevented from joining the Church today. Gay people are permitted to join the Church given present understandings, so long as we submit to the Law as interpreted by our heterosexual brothers and sisters. The question is not, can gay people be baptized, but can and should the Church place the onerous burden of life-long celibacy upon us as a prerequisite for baptism? Can man forbid water that we may be baptized?

Peter, at the Council of Jerusalem posed this question in relation to the Gentiles in terms that are eloquent enough for our day, for gay and lesbian Saints:
Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Club Nuance

I said that Josh Weed's post about his marriage to his wife was moving and sensitively written.

So is this post, written by a woman who was married to a gay man for 13 years.

If I take at face value what Josh himself has said about his own relationship, then I think there is no problem, no cognitive dissonance required, having these two understandings of love and marriage coexisting in the same universe.

It seems uncouth to me to point out that Ashley's experience is the majority experience in relation to mixed-orientation marriages. I don't like to emphasize that, because I understand how pointing that out may feel dis-spiriting to those who are in mixed-orientation marriages and are making them work. But it's a fact, and facts cannot in their nature be uncouth. We have to learn to adjust to them and incorporate them into our understanding of reality.

And unfortunately, there are far too many who have abused, are abusing, and will abuse stories like Josh Weed's... Who seem unwilling or unable to incorporate that fact about how this works for the majority into their understanding of reality, and who seem unwilling to hear stories like Ashley's. So, uncouth or not, it feels necessary to put it out there.

Josh did his due diligence, I think. He made some disclaimers in his own statement that might militate against people using his story to clobber over the head the vast majority of gay men and lesbians for whom attempting a similar path would end in tragedy and disaster (as it did for Ashley and Matt).

And yet, people are using Josh's story to that end just the same.

Some people (the majority maybe?) are tone-deaf to nuance.

I want to embrace both Ashley and Josh. From a perspective of true charity, to embrace them both is natural, not abnormal as this world would make it seem. In a universe based on charity, it is natural and human to say to both, "I love you. I hear you. Thank you. My life is richer for having heard you." I want to dwell in that universe.

I think it's worth pointing out that if my relationship with my husband were legally recognized and respected, as Josh's relationship with his wife is, we might all be closer to living in that kind of universe. If I could congratulate Josh on his happiness, without having to endure the taunts of people in our society who think I'm morally deficient and a threat to "the family" for loving a human being of the same sex, we would all be closer to living in that kind of universe. The Josh's, the Ashley's and the me's would all be closer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

On Moral Agency and Same-Sex Relationships

On Friday, a friend emailed me a link to Josh Weed's moving coming out post.

I guess I've spent enough time now forming friendships with Mormon gay men and lesbians in so-called "mixed orientation marriages" that the content of Josh's very personal and very sensitively written post didn't really come to me as big news or as a surprise. Anybody who's been following my blog regularly knows my views on the subject of gay men marrying straight women, or lesbians marrying straight men. Yes, I support people's right to choose these kinds of relationships, so long as both parties know well in advance what they're getting into. No, people don't (always) choose these kinds of relationships just because they feel "pressured" by the Church or society to marry. (Though that was certainly a phenomenon that Church leaders in recent years have been taking steps to remedy.) It goes deeper than wanting to conform socially. For many (most?) it goes to a profound desire (with which I empathize) to have and raise children of one's own. Finally, no, these relationships are not doomed to fail. Yes, there are challenges related to sexual compatibility, but the love between a gay spouse and his or her straight counterpart can be deep and genuine, and with work and commitment, sexual challenges in such a relationship can be transcended, and lasting (life-long) relationships can be forged.

And, no, just because some gay people choose to marry a straight spouse doesn't mean that it makes sense, is desirable or even possible for all gay people to make the same choice -- something that most people actually in mixed-orientation marriages (including Josh Weed) readily acknowledge.

I am just a bit concerned not about the relationships themselves, but about the way right wing religious people readily latch on to them for use as anti-same-sex-relationship propaganda. In order to do that, I think you have to over-simplify and distort and disregard a lot of what people actually in these relationships are saying about them. Given that we here in Minnesota and in other parts of the country are in the throes of a campaign to constitutionally ban same-sex couples from legally marrying, I am grateful when individuals in mixed-orientation marriages are willing to publicly express their support for my relationship with my husband, especially given how their relationships get used to suppress or ban or deny the validity of my relationship.

Increasingly, I'm seeing a consensus emerging among people -- both in more secular contexts, as well as within the context of the Church -- that these are choices individuals have to make for themselves. Each of us has the right and the obligation to make these very personal choices for ourselves, based on our knowledge of ourselves, based on our own knowledge of what we want and need out of life. And this growing support for individual freedom has deep, profoundly moral and spiritual ramifications.

Last night I was invited by a family in our ward to join them for Sunday dinner. The father wanted me to join them for dinner, specifically so we could talk about issues related to homosexuality and the Church. He was also interested in hearing my thoughts about the state marriage amendment, and about the Mormon contingent that is organizing to march in Twin Cities Pride this year for the very first time ever.

It's hard for me to adequately describe how the time we spent together that evening made me feel. First of all, let me say that the moment I walked through their front door, I felt something powerful. Entering their home was a kind of religious experience to me. I felt something intangible but powerful and real, like the presence of Christ there, just this incredibly warm, peaceful, unconditionally loving presence. Perhaps it is that the members of this family were just extremely kind and friendly and down-to-earth and welcoming. They made me feel instantly at home. Or perhaps there was something more to it. I've heard Church leaders occasionally talk about how a home can be a holy or a sacred place, if we consecrate it with prayer and love and devotion and respect for the priesthood. And if that is true, if that is possible and real, that definitely seemed like what I experienced last night.

As I got to know them better, it became clear to me that this was a family who are deeply committed both to the Gospel and to the Church. Our dinner conversation included faith-inspiring missionary stories. Mom shared some spiritual experiences she had had that bolstered her testimony of the reality of God and of his love for us. Dad talked knowledgeably about Church history, and about the importance of revelation in the life of the Church -- both collectively and individually. This was, it became very clear to me, a family deeply committed to the Church whose testimonies are founded on the bedrock of personal commitment and righteousness as well as personal spiritual experiences.

I don't mean to make them sound perfect. They, of course, have their own idiosyncrasies and imperfections. But they are imperfect in a delightfully perfect way! This was a family, it became clear to me, who, bottom line, just enjoyed spending time together. They love conversation! They love each other! And this love spills over to everyone they encounter. I was certainly the beneficiary of it last night. They were one of those salt-of-the-earth Mormon families we all in the Church know so well.

But what was also most powerful to me was how it became clear over the course of our dinner conversation that this faithful, salt-of-the-earth, testimony-bearing, devout Mormon family fully supported me and my husband being fully and legally married. Not only that, but they seemed to anticipate a time when my husband and I might even be sealed in the temple, and have our relationship recognized by the Church. They were very interested in participating in the Gay Pride march a week from Sunday -- their only concern with it was the conflict that the march's Sunday morning schedule creates for fulfilling their church callings. (Hear that, Pride Committee?! Any way we could try to schedule the march so as to create less of a conflict for people who have Sunday morning church commitments?)

I felt so profoundly, deeply personally supported as a full human being. As I told parts of my story, told about how I had almost committed suicide, told about my testimony and my deep love for the Church, and told about the pain of remaining excommunicated because of my deep love for my husband, a number of them had tears in their eyes. I felt a level of just basic human empathy and kindness and support -- from the whole family. I'm just not used to this yet -- being able to have this level of heart-to-heart conversation with active, faithful members of my ward -- and getting the kind of support that I got from them. It literally just produces a kind of weakness in the joints, a sense of being overwhelmed in the face of a kind of love and community I never, ever in all my decades of struggle thought I could ever experience. I don't know whether to laugh or weep for joy.

That experience has abided with me long since we finally, reluctantly, bade each other farewell at the end of a long evening of conversation. And it's also left me with a vision of a Church where, someday, somehow, there are no obstacles at all between me as an open gay man in a committed same-sex relationship, and full membership and participation and acceptance in the Church.

Now, contemplating such a possibility, it dawned on me. Imagine a Church where there are no penalties for being gay and in a same-sex relationship. Where no one views me with a jaundiced eye, no one treats me differently, where, if I want my relationship to be blessed by the Church or sealed in the temple, all I have to do is present myself and my husband just as anyone else would present themselves. Imagine such a Church.

Then the onus of figuring out the ethical, spiritual, and personal dimensions of choosing a same-sex relationship versus an opposite-sex relationship would be totally on me.

Would that make such a choice easier or harder? I don't know. But would it instead allow me to focus on the qualities of each type of relationship choice, the inherent limitations and opportunities presented by one type of a relationship versus another, rather than social pressures? Yes.

For example, in the best of all possible worlds, where gay people are not disadvantaged legally, socially or religiously for choosing same-sex relationships, procreation would still be much more complicated for same sex couples. At best procreation would require surrogacy of some sort. It could not (at least not with current technology) ever be a choice to have children who would be direct offspring of both partners in the relationship. Parenting would be easier than procreation, but again, only possible through foster care or adoption. This is just a basic reality of same-sex relationships. In a world where we are not disadvantaged for choosing same-sex relationships, we still could not change this fact.

Similarly, a gay person might consider whether it is not selfish to insist on procreating. Nature has not designed us to bond with a person of the opposite sex; it has not designed us in a way that that added glue of sexual attraction and bonding really works well for us in such relationships. Maybe nature did that for a reason. Maybe not every person is supposed to procreate. Maybe there is social and ecological advantage in gay people bonding -- in experiencing the joy and stability of having a committed, intimate relationship -- but not procreating. So the question we might focus on is how can I best be of service to society in some more general sense? Can we be adoptive parents? Can we find other ways to invest the time and energy not required for parenting in the service of others?

These are the kinds of questions we would/could/should be asking ourselves in connection with our relationship choices. Not: Will I be ostracized or viewed as a pariah for choosing a same-sex relationship? Or: Will I have benefits of social acceptance and legal recognition for choosing an opposite-sex relationship?

Within a faith context, such choices might be required as well. Within one widely accepted Mormon theological framework, we might say: Which do you prefer? To procreate for eternity? Or to serve? How can I best honor my eternal nature?

It was impressed upon me that such choices should never be taken lightly. It's not a choice I could ever take lightly. Not one that I in fact did take lightly.

I had to make choices around this very important part of my life in a context that was messy. A perfect decision might be made with infinite knowledge. But we always make choices with less than infinite -- sometimes woefully inadequate -- knowledge. Sometimes we have to go with our gut. And we have to choose, sometimes, in a political and social battlefield, with mines under our feet and cross-fire over our heads. I realize that there is no perfect, best of all possible worlds for making choices. Choices are always messy and complicated. And part of the joy of life is seeing what happens when we make them. And developing, through the challenges of making choices, a basic foundation of self-love and self-acceptance no matter what.

Still, this is one reason why, ultimately, we have a moral obligation to love one another unconditionally: because love provides us a foundation for making better choices. So I'm thankful to this wonderful family who shared an evening of dinner and food and love with me last night. And I pray for us as a Church to become more fully and truly loving and supportive of one another, whatever choices we face.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dear Faithful, Active Mormon Pride Participant

Congratulations! You've decided to march in LGBT Pride, in order to visibly express your love and support for your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.

As you probably know, suicide of LGBT youth is still a big problem throughout the country, but especially in places like Utah where Mormons are the majority. There's a lot of anti-gay violence and bullying throughout the country, and many of the perpetrators of this violence feel they have the blessing of religious people. So showing up and marching at Pride sends an important message that you stand with those GLBT folks who are bullied, isolated, and depressed, and who need friends and allies to help lift their spirits and defend them against the forces of misunderstanding and hate. You are sending a message to your LGBT brothers and sisters that you are there for them, that you love and support them, and you want to be there for them in whatever way you can be.

As you also probably know, many within your Church lack understanding of what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. By marching in Pride you are also sending a message to your brothers and sisters in the Church that you believe LGBT people are deserving of greater understanding and support. You are also being an example to them of people who take seriously their baptismal covenants to bear one another's burdens, to care for one another and become the kind of Church where all are of one heart and one mind, and dwell together in righteousness.

So you are doing a wonderful thing! Blessed are you!

Before you march, however, I feel a couple of disclaimers are in order. It's only fair to let you know, so you can count the cost ahead of time and decide whether this is really what you want to do.

First of all, in doing this you may experience alienation from some of your friends and family in the Church. Some of your brothers and sisters in faith won't understand what you're doing. They may accuse you of succumbing to the world, or of being disobedient, or of lacking faith.

Second of all, you may not be well received by everyone in the LGBT community. Many, many of course will be very grateful for your presence. But at least some will be skeptical, and may doubt your motives. Some might even accuse you of participating in a cheap political ploy to help the candidacy of a certain Mormon presidential candidate -- whether or not you plan to vote for that candidate!

Lots of people will, ironically, accuse you of bigotry, at the same time that others, ironically, will accuse you of being insufficiently zealous for your religion. So at times it will feel as if you just can't win, and you'll wonder why you even tried to do anything that might make a difference at all.

So, if that sounds like something you can't deal with, you may want to think twice about marching.

But, you also need to understand... Doing the right thing is never easy. In fact, often the more right a thing is, the more painful the consequences for doing it. People are really hurting, and they need someone like you to step forward and make a difference for them. A lot of evil goes unchecked in the world because it's just so inconvenient to take a stand. And if you know what the right thing is, can you really afford to live with the knowledge that you knew what you ought to do, but chose not to do it?

That leads to the third, final, and most important warning: This will change you. By marching in Pride, you may learn things about yourself and about others that will surprise you, things you took for granted that you won't be able to take for granted any more. Some things you learn may feel liberating. But other things may make you deeply uncomfortable. You may have to wrestle. You may have to make changes in your life.

You see, doing the right thing always leads to more and greater challenges. It always leads to more ethical dilemmas that you will have to wrestle with.

Not fair, you say? Well, life isn't fair. I ought to know.

The good news is, if you do still manage to make it to Pride, you get to grow more into the kind of person our Heavenly Father wants you to become. You'll make new friends. You'll experience the joy of seeing others encouraged and lifted up. You'll make a difference.

Trust me. It's worth it. For what it's worth, I'll be there, marching.

Hope to see you at Pride!

Yours truly,