Note: Just in case my title isn’t clear, I would like to state at the outset that I am not asking the question of whether I personally think that gays are fully human; rather, I am looking at elements of LDS teachings which I find particularly disturbing. Please read the post before getting out your pitchfork.
The issue of same-sex marriage currently dominates much of the discussion of homosexuality, both inside and outside the Church. This makes sense, of course, given that right now, the question of SSM has become the center of gravity of the political battles over gay rights. But despite the significance of the marriage question, I think that Latter-day Saints are still struggling with a much more basic issue: are gays even people to begin with?
This might sound overly dramatic, but hear me out. I’ve run into this issue again and again in asking challenging feminist questions of LDS doctrine. Too much of our liturgy and conversation leaves the question open: are women fully human in our own right, or do we exist as appendages for men, created in order to enable them to achieve exaltation? Yes, we are valued—but are we valued as people, or because of what we can do for men? The answer remains disturbingly ambiguous.
And where do gays fit into all of this? My first instinct is to say: nowhere at all. In the context of the Plan of Salvation, there is simply no place for gays. In a theological understanding of existence that is absolutely heteronormative, we’re an inexplicable aberration. This is why the very existence of homosexuals is particularly challenging for Latter-day Saints, and why, I think, the response of some is simply to assert that gays simply can’t exist. This is a notion which can be implicitly found in all kinds of literature encouraging gays to come back to their true heterosexual selves, and in Boyd K. Packer’s infamous—but I think, sincerely baffled—question: “Why would God do that to anyone?”1
But in recent years, one finds another narrative, one which has gained significant traction. In this paradigm, homosexuality is an affliction which may or may not be healed in this life, but will be overcome in the next if one endures to the end. This viewpoint at least acknowledges the existence of gays, and even tentatively gives us some kind of place: if nothing else, we are not without the possibility of ultimate redemption.
However, I am concerned that this narrative, in combination with other LDS teachings, describes gays in a way that questions our full humanity. There are variety of reads of what it means to be created in the image of God, but I think the general LDS take on it is something along the lines of, humans are children of God and can grow up to be like him; humans have a literally divine potential. Feminists, of course, have raised the question of whether women are truly in the image of a male God. And to that I add: are gays truly in the image of a heterosexual God?
[note: paragraph somewhat edited for clarity (I hope)]
Unfortunately, I do not think it is clear that in LDS doctrine this is the case. The radical LDS notion that humans are not qualitatively different from the divine becomes murkier when you have people who are seen as lacking something fundamental to divinity. In LDS theology, after all, it is not simply happenstance that God is heterosexual; it is core to who he is. Homosexuality, then, goes beyond being a burden to be borne in mortality, but represents an actual rift between divine and human. If what it means to be in the image of God is the ability to become like him–and in current LDS teachings, I would argue that this means being in a heterosexual relationship–then homosexuals are in the very least in an ambiguous position.
Yes, the current teaching is that this will be repaired in the hereafter. But this assertion is itself is troubling in that it arises from this view in which something very basic has gone wrong. And the doctrine of a next-life resolution to this is not without its problems. Not all gays, to say the least, are wildly enthusiastic about the possibility being “fixed” in the hereafter. One possible response, of course, is the paternalistic one: we simply don’t know what’s good for us. But I think this is especially problematic coming from an LDS perspective: first, because of the belief that people do have some basic, innate sense of right and wrong; and second, because of the emphasis on the importance of eternal families. To tell those who have opted for familial relationships here that they will be better off in the next life not only in getting a sexual reorientation, but also in losing their family—the thought, I have to say, makes reason stare.
This could be a very good reason, of course, to encourage gays not to form such relationships in the first place—precisely because they can’t last. (Though given our belief in a relational God, I have to note that I find this inability to form lasting intimate relationships yet another strike against gays being fully human in LDS doctrine.) It is a terrible choice: you can opt to give up hope of relationship in the here and now; or you can anticipate losing your partner in eternity.
Okay, it is indeed a hard choice, some might say, but it is worth pointing out that many choices in mortality are incredibly hard. Where I see a difference with this one is in being told that what is a righteous desire for everyone else, that is in fact, the most righteous desire, is deeply wrong for you. It is not simply about opting for celibacy, in other words; it also being asked to accept a narrative in which you are broken in such a way that something so basic to being human as a longing for an intimate sexual relationship with another human being—a longing which is not only validated but celebrated for others—is not only not an option for you, but a drive you should label as evil. You are asked to live in a state of ongoing self-alienation, to sacrifice not only relationship, but wholeness.
I would also note that a fundamental aspect of LDS teachings is that mortality matters, that we are exhorted to take it seriously. Even if all will be well in the eternities—and, I have to point out, we do not actually have a clear doctrinal basis for that assertion—the existence of second class citizens is a problem here and now. This is particularly so when it is not simply an aspect of our culture, but built into our theology.
But does the situation have to be this bleak? While I think it is important to raise hard questions about current teachings, my hope is that there are more encouraging possibilities in LDS theology.2
To be continued . . .