Monday, June 29, 2015

Works of Darkness

The news about the verdict in Ferguson, et al. v. JONAH, et al. was eclipsed somewhat last week by the news about the Supreme Court ruling on marriage. But I think it was equally important, if not more important.

At stake is the question of what, precisely, homosexuality is. Namely, is it a natural human variation like skin color or height? Or is it a disease that ought to be cured or contained? Or to pose this in theological terms: Did God make me gay? Or is my gayness a consequence of the Fall? These are philosophical and theological questions that few, it seems to me, are qualified to answer definitively. I had a discussion about this with an actual philosopher (I happen to know a few) and he, very reasonably I think, pointed out we probably can't know the answer to that question. Philosophers are famous for telling us what we can't know. But this question, all the same, is at the heart of our society's Big Debate about homosexuality. And that might explain somewhat the vehemence of feelings on both sides, because we are debating something that has real-life consequences and requires real-life decisions, that hinges on our answer to a question that is extremely difficult to settle.

The American democratic system, I think, errs on the side of protecting human agency. That's what our constitution and Bill of Rights are for. We enumerate the powers of government and then we reserve the rest to the people. It also errs on the side of equality. Our constitutional system eschews treating individuals differentially -- even when our social norms and customs incline us to do so in relation to race, gender, sexuality, etc. American history could be viewed as a struggle to implement these constitutional principles of freedom and equality against inegalitarian cultural norms and values. So I think Americans who are undecided about the larger philosophical questions have ultimately embraced same-sex marriage on the basis of a commitment to these constitutional norms of freedom and equality. I think many Americans are able to set aside their personal beliefs (or doubts) about what homosexuality is, in favor of letting individuals decide for themselves and keeping the system neutral. In other words: "Against Gay Marriage? Then Don't Have One." That's an eminently American solution to this problem.

It gets a little more sticky when it comes to therapies geared toward changing sexual orientation. The JONAH case ultimately boiled down to a question of consumer fraud. You can't advertise that you are able to change somebody's sexual orientation, and then take lots of money from people and fail to deliver. The case really was not about the rightness or wrongness of so-called "reparative" therapies. It was about being really honest about what bill of goods you're actually selling under that rubric. Though people have very strong feelings about the rightness or wrongness of reparative therapies in se that stem back to our opinions on this extremely-difficult-to-answer question about the nature of homosexuality. But the American system, I think, will tend toward answering this problem as well by saying people should have the freedom to seek reparative therapy if they want, or forego it if they want. That's the reasoning undergirding the California law that bans reparative therapies for minors. Essentially they're saying minors need to be protected because they don't have full freedom under the law, but once you're an adult you can choose this if you want. I think it will be very hard in the U.S. to ban reparative therapies for adults.

That having been said, there's some rather inconvenient testimony that came up in the trial, that would seem to bear on questions about the nature and etiology of homosexuality. You can read unofficial transcripts on-line if you want, to suss out the gory details yourselves (if you're inclined to read many hundreds of pages). What it boils down to for me is guys who are determined, at all costs, to overcome their homosexuality, who end up getting naked with other guys, touching themselves naked in front of other guys, getting massaged by other guys and/or holding or cuddling each other in various settings and in various stages of dress. I've been willing to observe a polite silence about all this kind of stuff, which has been a kind of open secret for years, partly because I wasn't sure it was actually true. I think the trial transcripts have settled the question of whether this stuff actually happens. And the trial has also, I think, settled the question of whether this stuff actually helps people become straight. And most people with two pennies worth of sense would say of course not. But in court we had the benefit of expert testimony that that's not legitimate therapy.

What this looks like to me is guys who are desperate for physical contact with men, who are willing to accept it if you call it therapy, and if you tell yourself that it's all in the name of helping cure you of some psychological problem that stems from not having a healthy relationship with your father. (Reality check: most gay men I know, myself included, have had very normal relationships with their fathers. And I know totally straight men who've had awful relationships with their fathers. And another aspect of this therapy that I find disturbing is its emphasis on parent-blaming, which includes, for instance, beating parents in effigy.)

I understand the yearning for physical touch with someone you feel attracted to. I'm inclined to view it as a very good, important part of human biological programming that serves the eminently good purpose of creating cohesion in intimate relationships that provide the building blocks for social order. And same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships have contributed and always will contribute to that social order, which is why what the Supreme Court did this past week is very important.

I empathize with individuals who are desperate for that physical touch, but who feel conflicted about it. I've been in that place. It's a very lonely, frightening place. And I don't want to add burdens to those who are still in that lonely, frightening place.

A line needs to be drawn at lying and secrecy about these so-called therapy practices. Silence about this serves no one. It just contributes to the aura of shame that is so stifling and deadly to gay men (or men with "same-sex attraction" -- whatever you want to call this). I think there's a reason the scriptures (and specifically the Book of Mormon) have harsh words for so-called "works of darkness." Secrecy enables fallacious claims about what this therapy does and does not do. It's not curing anybody of homosexuality, that much seems clear. And if it's not, then it looks like just plain, old-fashioned homosexual behavior. That's why there's been so much secrecy about it. The secrecy has also served as a foil for the hypocrisy of fighting same-sex marriage and condemning gay men and lesbians who are being open and honest about their need for intimacy and relationships and who are seeking to meet those needs in an honest and socially responsible way. It's high time that kind of hypocrisy end too.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Marriage? Not Quite Yet

Yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down bans on marriage of gay couples across the country was welcome news to me and my husband, still on vacation in Europe after the Affirmation conference in London last weekend. After spending a few days in northern Germany visiting friends, we are back in London just in time for Pride. Happy coincidence... I expect to see many Londoners today celebrating this happy news for their gay, lesbian and bi brothers and sisters across the pond.

In fact, we are noticing that Pride in London seems to be a city-wide celebration, as it was when we experienced Pride in Stockholm a few years ago. When we arrived in Liverpool Station late last night on our return from Bremen, there was a huge banner welcoming the LGBT community to London. We're seeing rainbow colors and posters celebrating LGBT equality all over the city. It feels wonderful to be in a place where straight people seem to consider the well-being of their LGBT brothers and sisters, friends, family and neighbors as something they need to both support and celebrate. We are all interconnected, aren't we? Doesn't misfortune that affects any one of us in some sense affect all of us? When one rejoices, shouldn't we all rejoice? This is a profound spiritual principle.

It is apropos this principle of interconnectedness that I'm reflecting on the Supreme Court ruling and the responses to it.

The announcement of the ruling of course (no surprises here) inspired protest as well as celebration. Political and religious leaders, citizens and laity alike have expressed their opinion that the ruling is not constitutional. They insist that laws and court rulings cannot make marriage, ordained by God, what it is not. A number of the states most affected by the ruling (states where bans on same-sex marriage were still in place) still have majorities of citizens who are opposed to same-sex marriage. There's still a lot of rhetoric flying about "freedom of religion," which makes me wonder -- since this ruling does not affect religious communities' ability to self-determine what, within their faith context, constitutes marriage -- if we will see a backlash in the form of discrimination (formal or informal) against same-sex couples, especially in regions of the country that are still bitterly opposed to any form of recognition of gay relationships.

I agree there is, indeed, a sense in which marriage cannot be legislated, though my understanding of that sense is likely different from my conservative brothers and sisters who still oppose my right to be "married" to the man I have shared my life with for almost 23 years.

Marriage has always been a kind of coming together of the entire community to publicly recognize (and hold accountable, and celebrate) a couple's desire to create family. Marriage is like money. It is only good to the extent that people put their faith in it. Let's imagine a town in the U.S. where the majority of residents and business owners believe that the American dollar is worthless. The U.S. dollar is legal tender whether they believe it has value or not -- that's the law. But nobody in town will accept U.S. dollars. Instead, they've set up some local system of barter. So anybody arriving from out of town will find it impossible to buy goods or services with the U.S. cash or credit they carry in their pockets. As a gay American, I still face the reality that while recognition of my marriage is now the law of the land, a significant minority of Americans -- and in many locales, majorities! -- do not recognize it.

This isn't a new situation for Americans. Formal legal equality for black citizens in the U.S. has existed since 1870, when the 15th Amendment was passed. And of course, the U.S. has been a paradise of equality for blacks ever since, right? And the answer of course is not at all. Equality, in a very real sense, is not equality until it becomes tender that is not just legal, but that is accepted by our entire society.

Utopian pipe dreams, right? Have Americans ever achieved that kind of unanimity in their love and care for one another? Not really. But that doesn't prevent that this kind of community is an ideal expressed in our highest religious yearnings. In my own Mormon faith, we call it "Zion." Other religious have other words for it. "Heaven" maybe?

My church issued a statement reaffirming (in case anybody doubted) that this Supreme Court ruling has no effect on the Church's teachings and practices in relation to marriage -- which exclude me and my husband.

For me, this poses a profoundly spiritual problem, a problem that cannot by fixed by court rulings. As a believing Mormon, my highest yearnings include fellowship with God that includes bonds of family that endure in eternity. You indeed can't legislate that.

I wouldn't be where I am today with my husband if I didn't have some profound sense of God having called me into that relationship, and God blessing that relationship. But I live with a series of broken connections, with, at best, a sense that my Church's understanding of my role and place within the Church and in the span of eternity remains incomplete. So the Supreme Court ruling is good; it is important; it is even, in some sense, profound. But for me it is at best one small step in what is yet a very, very long journey, a journey in the scope of which the entire history of the United States is a very small thing.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Being Found

Talk given at the Affirmation conference in London, UK, Saturday, June 20, 2015

I often hear LGBT folks talk about “reconciling” our sexuality with our faith. What do people mean when they say that? Do they mean finding a way to be OK with being lesbian or gay or bi and a person of faith? Do they mean finding a way to be OK with having a same-sex relationship and being a person of faith? Does it mean we adapt our faith to suit our life choices? Or do we adapt our life choices to conform to our faith? Or is it some combination of both?

As I've matured, my concept of what faith is has changed. As a young adult, my faith consisted of a set of very clearly defined doctrines along with a set of very clearly defined rules. I knew exactly what it was, and I knew it had been bequeathed to me more or less directly from God. I wasn't aware of how every time someone taught me a Gospel principle, even if they taught it to me correctly, I was interpreting what they taught based on my own assumptions.

The other day, my husband and I were at the British museum. I saw a glass case full of a bunch of statues. The statues had been found in Cyprus buried in a pit, each with a unique, though very similar, inscription. One inscription, for example, said, “These statues are dedicated by Batshalom, daughter of Marzyhai, son of Eshmounadon, for her grandchildren... to fulfill the vow of their father Marzyhai... to the god Reshef Mikal. May the God bless them.” The pit had been full of statutes, each with their own inscriptions, presumably tossed into it over the course of centuries by many different people. The name of the god to whom these statues were dedicated changed, but the practice remained the same.

It struck me that, on the one hand, this represented a certain piety and devotion. They believed in God. They sought God's blessings. They made offered a sacrifice – in this case a statue – as a token of their desire to please God. Were the prayers of these people that much different from my own daily prayers for God's blessings on me and my family? Were they any less pious?

At the same time, it struck me as presumptuous and even superstitious. How would God be pleased by a statue being tossed into a pit? What kind of god were they praying to? Who is Reshef Mikal? Apparently, according to one scholar, he was a god of “smiting,” often portrayed as armed and menacing, his name meaning flame, lightning, heat, pestilence or inflammation; redoubtable, awesome, terrifying or fearsome; a great god, a god of the sky, an everlasting god; a lord of arrows and pest. Were their ideas about God any more superstitious or presumptuous or idolatrous than mine?

As I have matured, I have grown in my yearning for an authentic relationship with God, not with a god of my understanding or suppositions or presumptions, not a god I could serve by making up some sort of offering intended to appease or bribe or please him, but a real, living God, who might ask difficult and unexpected things of me if I seek him “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of [my] sins” (2 Nephi 31:13).

While we were in the British Museum, I saw a bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and next to it a bust of his male lover Antinous. I was intrigued by the inscription under Antinous' bust: “Antinous was Hadrian's lover. He was in his mid teens (the normal Roman marrying age) when he met the emperor in the 120s AD. After his Mysterious death in the Nile in AD 130, Hadrian publicly mourned him. He erected shrines and statues of him as youth, man and even as a god – the Greek Dionysos or the Egyptian Osiris.”

I am intrigued by this evidence of a committed gay relationship in ancient times. At one time, I might have considered this story as a kind of validation of my own relationship with my husband, as proof of the existence of homosexuality in all cultures and periods of history, as evidence of tenderness and devotion among individuals who love each other in this way. But of course it is not a validation. Even though Hadrian is considered one of the “five good emperors,” and his relationship with Antinous appears to have been free from corruption or abuse – it seems to have been truly loving – Hadrian was no more nor less a sinner than I, not more nor less capable of being mistaken about something truly important than I. No one else's life can serve as a validation or justification for the choices I make in my life.

There have been points in my life when I have felt truly lost, when everything I thought I knew seemed to be turned upside down; when all of the fixed points in my life no longer seemed fixed; when I didn't know who to turn to or where to go or how to proceed. There was a point in my life where I genuinely, honestly felt angry at God. It was in that moment of anger and pain and darkness of the soul that God reached me – in a way that I knew it was real, and I knew it was God. When people ask me how I knew, I could try to describe the experience. But I think the best thing to say is to confine myself to the statement that God spoke to me in a way that I knew it and I could not deny it. And God spoke to me insistently and persistently, demanding my attention and demanding a decision. I could choose to do what the Spirit was guiding me to do – which in this case was to start attending the LDS Church again after 19 years away from it – and as long as I listened to the Spirit and continued to follow it, I would continue to hear and to have the Spirit with me. Or I could ignore it and dismiss it, and the Spirit would depart from me. It was my choice, but I knew what I needed to do.

This moment of grace in my life, when God spoke to me, is the starting point for me. Everything comes back to this. In the last ten years of my life's journey since then, I have learned important things.

First, I couldn't take it for granted that there was a way of reconciling my sexuality and my faith. I realized that faith, if it was anything worth having, was all encompassing. It could demand anything and everything of me. It is about taking up our cross and following the example of a Savior who taught that if we seek to save our lives we will lose them, a Savior who did not withhold his own life, to join disciples who gave their lives in order to follow him. Perhaps my sexuality can't be reconciled with my discipleship. I can't know at the outset of the path. I should be prepared to cut off a hand if it offends... A metaphor for avoiding actions that would alienate me from God. I should be prepared to pluck out an eye if it offends... A metaphor for changing my perspective, my point of view, if my view of God is distorted. There is no reconciliation with anything that turns me off of the path toward God. That has had to be my starting point.

But from that starting point I understand that I can't know in advance what those offending things will be. I can't assume that just because some leader has said something, or even because many leaders have repeated that something, because everybody thinks a certain way, or because a scripture says something that strikes me a certain way, I should take any of that at face value. There's a discernment process that is life-long that needs to take place within the context of my relationship with God, within the context of discipleship to Christ.

I could talk about my relationship with my husband and my relationship with the Church. But in talking about these things I couldn't talk about any sort of resolution or reconciliation. I am blessed in both relationships. I love my husband more now and am more happy in our love now than ever before in my life. It is a blessed relationship. We have found so much joy in raising a foster son, and watching him mature to adulthood and find his way in life. My family is a blessing from God and is blessed by God and I thank God for them. I have a testimony of the Church. I believe in the restoration of the priesthood and I believe our leaders are called by God. I've had profound experiences with that, and I can't deny it. I've met with an apostle of the Lord and counseled about my situation, and he has counseled me to continue to do what I am doing, and he's laid his hands on me and blessed me to continue to follow the Holy Spirit in my life and to fulfill my life's calling. My stake and ward leaders and the members of my ward have been a blessing to me. They love my husband Göran and they respect our relationship and they have never said or done anything to detract from it or to discourage us.

But I remain excommunicated from the Church, so that conflict in my life remains unresolved. There are different ways the seeming contradictions between the blessedness of my family life and my testimony of the Church could be reconciled. For example, my father is utterly convinced that the prophet will inevitably receive a revelation that would permit relationships like mine and Göran's to be sealed in the temple and become part of the great chain of families that connect all the families of the earth. My dad has a testimony of that. And many indicators in my life and many personal experiences point in that direction. But those types of reconciliation are contingent, they are uncertain, until such a revelation has been received. So I live my life in a kind of limbo at the moment.

On Wednesday, Göran and I drove down to Mont Saint-Michel in France, and we hiked up to the abbey there. And in the main sanctuary of the abbey, I saw an ancient bas relief portraying Christ's descent into “limbo” during the time between his death on the cross and his resurrection. I meditated deeply on that image, which portrays Christ fending off demons as he stretches his hand out to lift up souls who are buried and crushed under fallen rocks and beams. I think many of us LGBT folks are crushed by broken cultural expectations and religious beliefs and are by oppressed by political campaigns motivated by animus and misunderstanding. And we're still waiting for Christ to rescue us from that.

But I don't feel hopeless about the lack of resolution or that “limbo.” During a hike around downtown Caen during our trip to France it was cold and damp and cloudy almost all evening. But just as we reached the Church of St. Pierre – the oldest Church in Caen, whose original structure was built by the Normans – the sun came out and covered the entire Church with golden light. It was beautiful. And that sunshine is very much like the Spirit in my life, which continuously breaks through the dark clouds and fills me with light and joy so long as I am willing to follow it.

There was a point in my journey where I felt a sense of dread because I worried that God might ask me to give up my relationship with my husband, which is the greatest source of joy in my life. And when I prayed to God and when I put that on the altar, what God told me is that I needed to focus on anger and on learning to forgive the individuals or the groups of people who had hurt me, including the two bishops whose handling of my situation in 1986 sent me on the downward spiral that almost led to my suicide. I needed to focus on learning to put others before myself, and my relationship with my husband was the context where I had opportunities every day of our life together to practice that. I needed to learn discipline by living the Word of Wisdom and studying the scriptures daily and observing the Law of the Fast (which includes using my material means to help the poor). There were so many things in my life that needed work, so many ways I could improve myself. And I needed to focus on those things, before I worried about finding some ultimate resolution around issues related to my gayness and my faith as a Latter-day Saint.

I believe that resolution is known to the Lord and I believe it is coming, and I believe it will be glorious. And until then, I continue without resolution, one step at a time, trusting the Lord to lead me where he needs me to go.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.