Seven hundred fifty is the number, in a new survey of individuals identifying as both LGBT/SSA and Mormon, who reported having spiritual experiences in which they were reassured by their Heavenly Father that their gayness was a good and intrinsic part of who they are. This was 47% of a sample of 1600 respondents to an in-depth survey that covered information about early perceptions of sexual difference, sexual identity formation, efforts to cope with sexual orientation, and the role of faith in all of this. Preliminary findings from the survey were presented by John Dehlin and Bill Bradshaw at this year's Sunstone Symposium.
That number made me feel much less alone. I had a very powerful (and unexpected) experience of this nature in 1986 (as I've described in my spiritual autobiography). For many years, I was the only person I knew who had had such an experience. Gradually, over the years, I read of or encountered others who shared experiences of a similar nature. I've encountered these types of stories often enough to realize that they are not uncommon. Still, 47% out of a group of 1600 gay men and lesbians seemed like an astonishing number to me.
Any reckoning of the ultimate significance of this number, however, will need to account for the fact that 16% of survey respondents reported receiving spiritual confirmation that God rejected their homosexuality. The apparent conflict highlights the challenges of validating spiritual experiences and evaluating them in a broad context.
The other presented data I found interesting had to do with respondents' reported levels of happiness and quality of life. This is the first time I've seen the different relationship configurations of gay men and lesbians evaluated in this way. Single or celibate gay men and lesbians reported the least happiness. Gay men and lesbians in mixed orientation marriages reported the next lowest levels of happiness. Gay men and lesbians in some sort of committed relationship reported quality of life slightly less than healthy heterosexual married individuals. Gay men and lesbians who were legally married reported levels of happiness comparable to or even slightly higher than healthy, married heterosexuals.
What I thought noteworthy about this is the fact that while, on average, gay or lesbian individuals in mixed orientation marriages reported lower quality of life than gay or lesbian individuals in committed same-sex relationships or in same-sex marriages (or, for that matter, married heterosexual individuals), they were still happier than single/celibate gays and lesbians. This is logical, when one considers the fact that needs for human touch and companionship will be fulfilled even in a less than ideal marital relationship.
This data confirms the observation that the Church's recent emphasis on celibacy as the only acceptable option for gay and lesbian individuals is unlikely to deter individuals from entering into mixed orientation marriages. Since the Church's emphasis on singleness/celibacy for gays and lesbians effectively consigns them to the most stressful and unhappy life status, no one should wonder why, if gay individuals don't opt for a mixed orientation marriage, the vast majority eventually end up leaving the Church if a same-sex relationship is an option.
I think these data also beg the question: If singles (gay and straight) are the most unhappy of these demographic groups, how have we as a Church/society failed singles? These are the individuals that demand our most serious and immediate attention. What can we do to address this problem? Are our families, Churches and social groups configured in such a way as to create or exacerbate the unhappiness measured in this survey? And if so, what do we need to do to change that?
Finally, these data speak to the question of why legal relationship recognition in the form of full marriage equality matters. Based on the data that was presented, it's impossible to know conclusively why legally married same-sex couples reported higher levels of happiness than same-sex couples who were only in extra-legal committed relationships. Is it because commitment in the form of marriage offered a greater sense of security and stability in the relationship? Is it because gay couples who are legally married are more likely to live in states where society treats them as equals? Whatever the case, it seems to me that any commonwealth that claims to be concerned about the well being of all its citizens, needs to consider the impact that denying marriage rights will have on the health and well being of its gay citizens.
Parenthetically, it's worth considering the implications of this data about quality of life and happiness for religious beliefs about homosexuality. Religious opponents of same-sex relationships have always argued that a lifetime of diminished happiness is a small price to pay for exaltation in eternity. Regardless of what the data say, in other words, we still have to wrestle with larger questions about the meaning of suffering, and the relationship between holiness and happiness.
I think it's worth noting that I did experience an increase in personal happiness after I found and made a commitment to my life partner, Göran. However, I feel like my level of happiness in life increased even more dramatically after I opened myself up to wrestling with what my testimony of the Gospel and of the LDS Church meant to me as a gay man, and after I started attending Church and applying Gospel principles to my life. Our decision to get legally married and the personal satisfaction I've derived from getting married are connected to my faith. In other words, I am happy to the extent I am able to live a life of integrity and wholeness -- in my relationship with my husband, as well as in my relationship with God and with my community of faith.
None of the data presented by Bro. Dehlin and Bro. Bradshaw free us of the responsibility of wrestling with difficult questions. Data never just speak for themselves. All the same, it is helpful to have data. With or without the data, we still have to wrestle with the questions of meaning. But it is better to wrestle with these questions in the presence of good data, than with no data or bad data. I've personally wrestled with a lot of these questions, and I've for the most part found resolutions to the most troubling questions, and Bro. Dehlin's and Bro. Bradshaw's data offered me some helpful perspectives on my own experience.