Saturday, May 31, 2014

Intimacy and Human Need

Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune sponsored a live on-line discussion with a panel consisting of Kendall Wilcox, Ty Mansfield, and Karen Penman (the mother of a transgender son).

The talk was too short to get into any depth discussing key issues, but there was one statement by Ty that I've been thinking a lot about since. I'm paraphrasing here, so you can go to the link above if you want to listen to the full statement in context. Ty said that "intimacy" is a "human need," but "sex" is an "appetite." This statement was made in the context of a larger discussion about health and happiness and sexuality. The implication, I think, was that people do not need sex in order to be healthy and happy. But they do need intimacy.

If I had been a member of the panel, I would have asked Ty what exactly he means by intimacy. I would also have asked him exactly how it is that adults are supposed to meet needs for intimacy outside of the kind of partnership or companionship we generally understand marriage to be. Family is the social unit through which individuals in our society (and as far as I can tell, individuals in any society) experience intimacy.

Friendship can and does meet needs for intimacy. But the scope and the depth of friendship is necessarily limited. Unless we're talking about the kind of friendship that spouses have with each other. Friends can and do provide intimacy that can't always be provided by a spouse. But as I have experienced it, friendship is a kind of supplemental intimacy. It doesn't really work as a primary source of intimacy. In order for intimacy needs to be adequately met for most people, intimacy needs to be something you come home to.

I'm trying to imagine, for instance, how, if the Church prescribes celibacy for an entire class of people (namely, gay people), what, concretely, will the Church do to ensure that those individuals' needs for intimacy will be met. Would families in the Church be willing to adopt celibate gays? Invite them into their intimate family life as family?

The Book of James springs to mind:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. (James 2: 15-17)
Doesn't the Church in essence say to its gay brothers and sisters, its gay sons and daughters, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled" notwithstanding it does not give us those things which are needful?

Now, that is not the only thing I found troubling about this statement. I found it equally troubling to hear sexuality reduced to an appetite. And I found it puzzling to suggest that just because sex is "an appetite," we can therefore dismiss the notion that human beings have a legitimate need for sex. After all, when someone uses the word "appetite," my mind generally goes to the subject of food. But as we know (as the Book of James reminds us), human beings can't be healthy without food. If sex can be dispensed with in a way that food cannot, then I would not describe sex as "an appetite."

But lets go back to Ty's statement. It seems to me that what he was saying is that intimacy is a need while sex is an unneeded want. Ty wants to divorce, at all costs, sexuality from intimacy.

But that, to me, seems to be the primary way in which sexuality is distorted in our culture. Sex is distorted in our culture primarily by being commodified. Pimps and prostitutes literally sell sex. Pornography is another form of commodified sex. And movies and fashion magazines and underarm deodorant commercials all commodify sex in varying degrees. And the mentality that allows sex to be commodified in any way at all is the mentality that says sex and intimacy are two different things. Banishing sexuality from intimacy makes sexual promiscuity inevitable. It demands sexual promiscuity.

The institution of marriage is the primary bulwark against the commodification of sex. Paul acknowledged this in the negative statement that "it is better to marry than to burn" (1 Corinthians 7:9). But God acknowledged it in the positive statement that "it is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). What marriage qua social practice teaches is that sexuality is best practiced within the framework of committed intimacy. What marriage teaches is that sexuality without intimacy becomes meaningless. And meaningless sex is the kind most susceptible to be commodified.

I must take issue with Ty by suggesting that sexuality is a necessary form of intimacy. Sexuality -- which includes the very important component of attraction -- drives human beings toward intimacy. Sexuality creates family. It creates family only secondarily through the production of offspring that comes about when sperm and ova unite. It creates family primarily by creating the stable social bonds that form the framework for social care-giving. Two individuals form a family through the bond of sexual intimacy, and that family unit, in turn, is empowered through the emotional and social needs that intimacy meets to care for children (including foster and adoptive children), for aging parents, and, more generically, for the neighbor, the needy other. The bond created through sexual intimacy pre-dates the production of children, and it continues long after children are grown and gone and forming families of their own, and it always, with or without children, is a key building block of society.

Divorcing sex and intimacy makes no sense in any reasonable analysis of human sex drives and how those drives relate to human sociality. Or, divorcing sex and intimacy makes sense only as a form of special pleading necessitated by homophobia. It is necessitated by the denial of the social and intimacy needs of gay individuals. (As is the denial that gay individuals actually exist. But I assure you, we do exist.)

American sociality will continue to be distorted so long as we deny the reality of human sexual diversity, and as long as we refuse to see the ways in which different kinds of sexuality, and the different kinds of family that diverse sexuality produces, actually create flexibility and strength within our social systems. Strong, stable, celebrated gay families, in other words, will make our society stronger and more adaptable and more flexible. And perhaps the celebration of same-sex sexual intimacy within the bounds of marriage can even strike a blow against the commodification of sex that is one of the primary banes of our civilization.

Some of the most profoundly spiritual moments of my life have been moments of physical intimacy with my husband. How could the communion of tenderness, intimacy, vulnerability and physical joy not be profoundly spiritual? I have experienced those moments as a blessing from God, and I have felt God blessing those moments, blessing that communion. Out of that blessing comes gratitude, and profound desire to give back, to make the world a better place.

It is in those moments of transcendence that that kind of intimacy allows that I understand the divine purpose behind sexuality, and I understand that, yes, human beings need the full spectrum of intimacy for which God has designed us.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Is My Story?

I've been participating lately in a "Circle of Empathy," a practice whose goal is to "[help] LGBTQ/SSA and straight Mormons manage sexual/gender/relgious conflicts." This is actually the second time I've participated in a "Circle of Empathy." It's been a powerful thing. The practice involves bringing together a small group of people (10 maximum), who then think out loud together, answering a series of questions that are ordered and structured in a way that is intended to help participants find greater clarity.

The first question is "What is your story?" Working with that question last night (and thinking about our discussion of that question) gave me greater awareness of how my understanding of the basic underlying narrative of my life his changed at crucial turning points.

Here's a story of my "stories"!

Circa 1971. "I am a child of God, and all I need to do in life is follow all the commandments God has given me so I can live happily together with my family and with God for all eternity."

I remember once asking my dad, "If eternity is forever and ever and ever, won't things get boring up there?" I also at times remember feeling overwhelmed with a sense of everything I needed to do to achieve eternal bliss. I remember going for walks in my neighborhood going over the list of all the commandments I could remember, and doing a personal inventory of my success in following them. This remained my basic narrative until some time toward the end of my mission, though a "twist" was introduced sometime circa 1977 when I realized, at about the age of 14, that I was "homosexual" and that that made the job of following all the commandments a bit more complicated than I had hoped or expected.

Summer 1982. "I grew up a good little Mormon boy, and served a mission for the Lord, and that mission taught me that what the Lord expects of me more than anything else to is love others."

The strain of trying to "be perfect" during my mission had taught me some painful lessons. Most of my mission, companions resented my perfectionism. I wanted to get up one hour earlier for scripture study, tract one hour later, believing that that extra hour would be the hour when the Lord would bless us with that "golden investigator." I gradually learned the hard way that compassion is more important than rules.

Early summer 1986. "I am a massive failure, and this is the end of my story."

So, this was the part when all my most cherished hopes and dreams for my life seemed to have shattered. All my obedience and all my love, and I was still more homosexual than ever. And the proof of my complete failure was that my bishop had taken away my temple recommend, had denied me a ward clerk calling, and told me I needed to stop taking the sacrament until I had been masturbation free for 3 months. (And when I'd asked him how I was supposed to do that, his response was, "Get married as soon as possible." Which at that point I knew was impossible.) That was the summer I almost ended my life.

August 1986. "I spent my whole life trying to be perfect, but I didn't realize that all this time, what I had thought was most imperfect about me (my homosexuality) was an intrinsic and beautiful part of me, from 'my inmost parts,' and that God cherished me as I am. God has given me a vision for my family and for my future, and if I trust in him everything will work out for the best."

This new narrative of my life became possible as a result a series of experiences I had in which God spoke to me and reassured me, and included a vision of Heaven and clear guidance from God that I needed to leave the Church for at least a time. This remained my basic narrative for most of the following twenty years of my life. A few years later I came out publicly and became a gay rights activist at the University of Minnesota. A few years after that I met my husband Göran.

At one point, my story was published in volume 3 of The Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance (1997), by Lavina Fielding Anderson and Janice Merrill Allred. That narrative of my life ended with these sentences, "God has freed me in two ways in the last decade of my life: God freed me of the Mormon Church, and God freed me to come out of the closet and accept myself as a gay man. Thanks be to God, I can breathe again."

That narrative carried me a long way, but it started to fray at the edges circa 2003 as I began to wrestle with the sense that things were not progressing in my life as I had hoped. My spiritual and prayer life had declined, and I felt distant from God, even occasionally doubting that God existed. But if God didn't exist, that narrative that had guided my life for almost twenty years didn't make much sense any more. Doubt was creating a new narrative: "Life on planet earth is amazing and beautiful, but also terrifying and painful, and I am part of that stream of life. But is everything destined for the void after all?" I found myself wrestling with a lot of anger in my life.

September 2005. "All the challenges of my life -- coming to love myself, wrestling with faith, meeting my husband and building a family with him -- were preparation for a unique role God has for me in building Zion."

Like the basic narrative of my life that I created in August 1986, this new narrative was also the result of a series of spiritual experiences that also culminated in a vision of Christ. Both of these narratives came into being after a period of doubt or wrestling, which taught me that doubt probably actually has purgative value in God's scheme of things. It may well be a necessary precursor to faith that helps us clear cobwebs and junk away that we've accumulated along the way and that are no longer serving us.

So this new narrative has been my basic narrative for most of the last 7-8 years of my life, bringing me almost to the present. Early on, this narrative included a renewal of my testimony of the truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my sense that the Church was Zion in embryo, and that part of my calling was to gather with the Saints and work in my part of the vineyard to build Zion. It has also included a growing sense of awe as I have come to encounter more and more gay and lesbian Mormons who fully embrace themselves as gay, but who also have strong testimonies of the Gospel. Another source of awe is the growing numbers of Church members and leaders at every level who are starting to wrestle with the traditional views of homosexuality that have caused so many like me so much pain and suicide. When I started attending the LDS Church in the fall of 2005, I thought I was the crazy, only one, but it turns out that there were lots of us that God has been calling, one by one, out of the woodwork. And I'm in awe as I see what I can only describe as a "gay Mormon revival." Not the only step in the process of God's purifying us and polishing us to become a more Zion-like people, but an important step nonetheless.

May 2014(?). "All the challenges of my life have been to teach me about the supremacy of God, that we are utterly dependent on him for all that we have and are, and if I am to be a profitable servant I need to forgive myself as well as others, and accept everything life has to offer with child-like awe and confidence."

It feels like the last two years of my life have been another kind of purgative process. This time purging not by doubt, but by challenges. It began with my bike accident and severe head trauma (leading to brain surgery in September 2012), and then continued with a seemingly endless train of health challenges and family crises. I won't (and can't) detail them all here. It's left me humbled. It's shined a spotlight on my personal weaknesses and failings in ways that have sometimes felt overwhelming. But I've also never had the sense that God hasn't been by my side every step of the way. I've never felt so grateful, joyful or hopeful. I've never had a clearer sense of my place in eternity, nor a better sense of "where I've come from, why I'm here, and where I'm going."

Maybe it's too early to know if that's a whole new narrative, or just a deeper element in the narrative that preceded it. Sometimes it takes us a while to reconstruct new narratives. But this narrative shift feels real. It's discernible. In a way, if my circa 2003 and my September 2005 narratives were analogous to my early summer 1986 and August 1986 narratives, this newly emergent narrative of my life is reminiscent of the narrative I discerned after the end of my mission in summer 1982. Which kind of makes sense, since much of my sense of my narrative since September 2005 has been about a new sense of mission in life.