Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Gay Saints

The Book of Mormon describes a group of Lamanites who were converted to the Gospel, and who took a new name to describe themselves: the "Anti-Nephi-Lehis."  A Wikipedia entry "Anti-Nephi-Lehi" suggests that the word "Anti" is related to the Egyptian word "nty," meaning "he of, one of," implying that in taking this name, these Lamanites were formally affiliating themselves with the people of Nephi and reminding themselves of their Lehite heritage.  It also occurred to me that the word "Anti" sounds similar to "ante" -- meaning "before" or "prior to" -- and I wondered if the name might also emphasize the common heritage of Nephites and Lamanites, from a time before they had become two warring peoples.  In any event, whatever the name might mean, it is interesting to me how this story illustrates the importance and the power of naming oneself in order to make a statement about who we are and what kind of heritage we want to claim.

Last night I was thinking about the problem of naming for homosexual / gay / SSA Mormons.  How you choose to identify / name yourself is both a personal and political statement.  Using the terms "SSA" (same-sex attracted) tends to marginalize or minimize the sexual aspect of one's identity: it's just an attraction or maybe an affliction or a condition that does not form an essential part of one's identity.  Or, using the term "SSA" might merely reflect one's loyalty to the Church, since in recent years "SSA" has been the term of choice used by Church leaders to talk about same-sex-oriented sexuality.

Using the term "gay," on the other hand, tends to integrate the sexual aspect of one's identity into one's whole personality.  When we use the term "gay," we tend to emphasize that it's not just about sex, its about emotional and social and spiritual connections as well.  It also, significantly, rejects pathological labeling of our sexual orientation as a sickness or an affliction.  It emphasizes that our gayness or our straightness are part of the normal variation we find in nature, such as being red-headed or left-handed.  Using the term "gay" also, of course, can align us with political movements for "gay rights" and "gay freedom."  Using the term "queer," once an epithet, now aligns us even more emphatically with an identity-based political movement for recognition, rights and freedom.

How we name our religious identity also says something significant.  Lots of gay folks who at one point have had a significant connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may no longer claim the label "LDS" or "Mormon" at all.  They might claim the label "ex-Mormon" or they might not even go that far.  There are "disaffected" Mormons, "post-Mormons" (PoMos) who, to varying degrees acknowledge their historical ties to the LDS Church, but who also stress their current disaffiliation or their dissent from doctrines and practices of the Church, or their separation from the body / authority structure of the Church.

When I was a kid, the term "Mormon" was used as a synonym for "Latter-day Saint" or "member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."  Today that term has evolved, I think, to have a much broader significance.  I think now the term "Mormon" can mean anyone who includes themselves for whatever reason within a fairly broadly defined sphere of Mormon history or culture.  So the term "Mormon" could include ex-Mormons or people who identify as Mormons culturally, even if they don't embrace the totality of Mormon beliefs or practices.  Of course, as an adult, I've become aware that the Community of Christ and other churches tracing their roots back to the Restorationist movement led by Joseph Smith also claim the term "Mormon."

So now, "LDS" or "Latter-day Saint" is a label that identifies one more closely with the formal institution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The term "member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" identifies oneself completely with the institutional Church.

Since I started going back to Church in the fall of 2005, I have had to wrestle with identity issues.  My identification of myself as a "Mormon" was challenged by the editor of Sunstone magazine, when I submitted the piece, "A Gay Mormon's Testimony."  He pointed out that I was excommunicated, and that many people would challenge my right to identify as Mormon.  I pointed out that I believed in the central tenets of Mormonism.  I had a testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and I was trying to live by at least some of the principles taught by the Church.

I've sometimes used the term "believing Mormon" to describe myself, though I admit, that's not a turn of phrase that most "believing Mormons" themselves use (partly, I think, because Mormons think of their religion more as a way of life than a "belief" system).  It had the advantage of distinguishing me from folks who claim the "Mormon" label for cultural or historical reasons, but who rejected Mormon beliefs.

But the truth is, I'm not particularly a fan of the term "Mormon."  When I was a kid, Church leaders actually campaigned against it, scolding members of the Church who used the term, and urging them instead to proudly tell their non-Mormon friends and neighbors that they were "members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."  Now, the Church has built a whole identity campaign around the phrase "I'm a Mormon!"  So times, they are a-changin'.

So maybe I have a cultivated disdain for that word because of the officially espoused attitude toward it when I was growing up.  Or maybe -- and I think this is actually closer to the real reason I dislike the word Mormon -- it's because I dislike the particularism of the word.  The word Mormon identifies me with a particular historical and cultural configuration that I often feel conflicted about.  As I've written elsewhere, I "hate" Mormon culture.

I actually like the official name of the Church.  It identifies us as followers of Jesus Christ.  It places us in a more universal -- more cosmic, even -- context.  It also places us in the "latter days," asserting that we stand at a crucial moment in the unfolding of God's plan for the whole world.  And it identifies us as "saints."

The term "saint" is frequently misunderstood.  In common parlance a "saint" is someone who has achieved perfection or near perfection.  But those who are familiar with its usage in scripture understand that to be a saint is merely to be someone who -- perfect or not -- has been claimed as one of God's own.  Sainthood is achieved more by faith and by loyalty than perfection, per se

The story in Acts 10, as I've written elsewhere, really speaks to me as a gay man, because of that section where God warns Peter, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common."  It is God's claiming of us that makes us saints -- regardless of what other human beings do or say, what they believe about us or how they treat us.

If there were a label I could claim for myself without being too much misunderstood, it would be the label "Gay Saint."  I understand that label as identifying me by my faith, by my testimony, by my loyalty, by the desires of my heart; by my relationship with God; by my connection to that part of the history and the identity of the Church that is most meaningful to me; that also identifies me as gay; that acknowledges there are heterosexual saints and there are gay saints, and I am one of the latter.

That identification as a Gay Saint acknowledges a history of hatred, fear and exclusion; of present institutional barriers that forbid my full participation and inclusion; that condemn my love for my husband, that condemn the family we've created.  If it weren't for the barriers and the exclusion and the condemnation, there would be no need to call me anything but a Saint or a Latter-day Saint.

There's another passage in the Book of Mormon that speaks to the fact that labels are necessary only because of pride and divisiveness.  In 4 Nephi, after the Nephites and Lamanites all merged into one body, and created a Zion-like community, it says, "neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites."  I always used to laugh at that word.  "-Ites."  I don't any more.

I look forward to the day when there will be no Gay Saints or Straight Saints, only Saints.


Neal said...

Ahh! Labels, labels - there are so many labels!

I appreciate your mental exercise filtering out all these labels. I definitely think the 'gay' part is correct. I HATE the term 'SSA' and the almost certain companion phrase 'stuggling with'. The only people who struggle with it are straight people who don't have a clue what it means to be gay.

The 'saint' part is good, but I wonder if people would really understand that part of it? For most people I think 'saint' = Roman Catholic = someone you pray to for intercession, etc. I don't see it used much outside Catholic or LDS circles. But its certainly legitimate and historically/biblically accurate.

You're a better saint than most, John, regardless of your church 'status'. Whatever label you choose for yourself, its whats inside that counts, and I think that's all God cares about.

J G-W said...

One of my mom's favorite stories about me when I was a kid was about how at the age of four, I would speak Finnish to my American playmates. I grew up in a bi-lingual (Finnish-English) home, and apparently I preferred Finnish. My mom apparently said to me, "You need to speak English so your friends will understand." And I replied with a straight face, "Jos mä jatkan puhumaan suomea, he ymmärtävät." ("If I keep speaking Finnish, they'll understand.")

Maybe I haven't broken out of that mentality yet... But part of me says, let's claim the labels we want to claim, and eventually people will understand.

We need a movement of Gay Saints -- of LGBT people who will keep the faith. And if that's what we need, then we need a language that will help us envision what that movement looks like.

Anonymous said...

I also lament the use of "same sex attraction." I think it should be replaced by "same sex love."

alan said...

I don't think upper-level church leaders use "same-sex attraction" yet. I think they continue to use "same-gender attraction" perhaps because of the word "sex."

More bishops, though, I believe are okay using the term "gay," because more members use that term nowadays. The divide within Exodus (how the organization is renouncing reparative therapy, and okaying "gay" as a lifelong identifier) reflects the divide in the current Church as well, I think. The 2007(?) Ensign article in which Holland requests that a gay kid not identify as "gay," but rather as a "son of God," might soon be dated -- not because the latter is incorrect, but because "gay" has become an acceptable lifelong identifier.

I look forward to the day when there will be no Gay Saints or Straight Saints, only Saints.

Sure, but that's the same goal of the Holland article above: "We're not gay or straight...just Saints." Obviously there's an extra step needed in there.

J G-W said...

Alan - If I think I understand what you're saying, yes I agree about the desired end point. We're not there yet if homophobic attitudes and policies are still in place, and the term gay is elided as a form of denial.