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.


Neal said...


That is just the most amazing experience I have read about in a log time. How wonderful to feel taht kind of unconditional love and support! :)

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

It was an amazing experience... I love and am so grateful for my ward, and I am so grateful for these new friendships within my ward.

What was interesting to me, though, was that experiencing this kind of unconditional love and support from brothers and sisters who share my faith made me more aware of my own moral agency/responsibility.

A person (or people) loving you unconditionally doesn't remove the consequences of the choices you make. In fact, if anything, their unconditional love eliminates the possibility that you can shift the blame for the consequences of bad choices to anyone but yourself.

Unconditional love, on the other hand, creates a support network to help you repent and recover when you make a bad choice. And it gives you a team to cheer you on and rejoice with you when you make good choices. It's amazing feeling like you have a team cheering you on. Ultimately, you make the great choices in your life alone, but you don't have to be alone.

Justin said...

I loved reading about your experience at your neighbor's home, and the way they treated you and supported you. As time passes, I feel that more and more of these types of people and families are coming out of the woodwork.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Yes, I think so.

chedner said...

"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."

If it weren't for social/ethical taboo, this technology would either already be available or, at least, a lot closer to being available.

Scientists have successfully used skin cells to create human-induced pluripotent stem cells -- which have successfully been used to create heart cells.

With heart repair, though, there are an average of 1 billion cells needed to fix heart failure.

An ovum or spermatozoon is one cell.

The only theoretical hurdle is for two women having biological male offspring (since women don't carry a y chromosome).

But the biggest hurdle is, of course, social and ethical taboo.

... anyway, just a random observation.

Another random observation -- which, to be honest, I'm kind of considering if we end up having/adopting any newborns -- Breastfeeding Fathers

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Andrew: I was wondering if someone would call me on that. :)

The article on male breastfeeding is fascinating. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I particularly loved the Talmudic commentary on whether a man's ability to lactate is a sign of God's favor, or a curse...!!

JonJon said...

John, I love your articulation of how the questions change when we value same sex relationships. Instead of coming from a place of fear (how will being in a same sex relationship affect me and my relationship with the church and family and friends) we can move to place of asking how our unique situations can be used for good in the world. The question can then become how can I give back and contribute given my unique circumstances. The energy people expend having to defend their relationships (whether it's a same sex relationship or a mixed orientation marriage) can be better spent caring for those in need.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Energy better spent on caring for those in need.


MoHoHawaii said...

I get all this. My issue with both the recent LDS Living article and Josh Weed's blog post is that in both cases these guys are socially conservative therapists who make their living from counseling gay people who have "unwanted sexual attractions." This means that the accounts of their marriages aren't case studies. These stories can't be disentangled from marketing messages for the respective professional practices. It's a crucial detail that has been generally overlooked in all of the discussion, and it severely detracts from the usefulness of both accounts.

I absolutely support the principle of self-determination. These guys and their wives get to choose how to live their lives. I support their legal right to marry (do they support mine?) and encourage their efforts to build a life with the person they choose (do they return the favor?).

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

MHH - Do Ty Mansfield and Josh Weed support legal same-sex marriage? I don't know... I'm not aware that they've expressed themselves publicly on this issue. Ty's never said anything to me privately on this subject either. Perhaps someday I will ask Ty how he feels about this.

I agree, framing homosexuality in terms of "unwanted sexual attraction" is a bit troubling, especially when you're dealing with youth. If a youth is growing up in an extremely homophobic home and/or church setting, then what normal youth wouldn't consider his sexual orientation "unwanted"? Didn't almost all of us of our generation at some time feel that our sexual orientation was "unwanted"? Isn't the gay rights movement more or less built on a preponderance of human experience that has taught us that "unwanted" or not, it is what it is, and we are healthier, happier, and more whole accepting our whole selves? So framing this in terms of "unwanted" sexual attraction seems to be a clever way to make space for old, discredited therapies.

I have no idea how Ty and Josh approach their therapy practices. I have no idea, for instance, whether they encourage clients to explore all the relationship options available to gay individuals. I am aware of LDS therapists who have supported individuals -- when appropriate -- in ending a marriage, and exploring or entering into a same-sex relationship. I think a good therapist, as I understand therapy practice -- regardless of religious convictions or marital status -- works to help a client figure out what that client wants. They will respect and protect a client's freedom and self-determination, and will recognize when a particular course of action is not helping a client or is actively harming a client. So I don't want to say that Ty's or Josh's personal marital status should automatically disqualify them from working with gay youth, any more than somebody's single or same-sex-partnered status should disqualify anybody else. I'd be more interested in knowing what kind of therapists they are than what their marital status is.

I mean, after all, if I were inclined to become a therapist, I would probably be interested in the same field. And I'd think the same standards of professional responsibility would be required of me... I would be required to support my clients in achieving their goals, rather than imposing my own. And I'm sure a good number of people might be very distrustful of sending their teenagers to an openly gay therapist in a same-sex relationship to treat their kids with "unwanted" sexual attraction.

MoHoHawaii said...

I want to be clear. Like you, I also don't think Mansfield's or Weed's marital should be used as a litmus test of any kind. My point is that only that their personal stories can't be used as case studies in any ordinary sense. These stories are too intertwined with these guys' professional lives-- as a public figure on the Evergreen/North Star/LDS lecture circuit in one case and a socially conservative therapy practice in another.

Also, that bit about treating "unwanted sexual attraction" is a quote from Josh Weed's web site for his professional practice. Those are his words.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Yeah, I know the phrase "unwanted sexual attraction" is his words... I saw the site too.