Church Discourse on Homosexuality

In April 1971, President Spencer W. Kimball quoted some of the shocking proposals he had recently encountered. One unnamed church, he discovered, had “approved recommendation that homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offense. …” These are ugly voices, he warned.1

In a news conference in January 2015, the LDS church announced that it was “publicly favoring laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.”2

It’s been an interesting few decades.

I was curious about how things have changed, so I looked at conference talks and articles in church publications between the 1970s and today to get a feel for how discourse about homosexuality has developed over the years, and what the prominent themes are.

One thing that’s been toned down over the years is the language of abomination. Said Bruce R. McConkie in 1980, “Crime, immorality, abortions, and homosexual abominations are fast becoming the norm of life among the wicked and ungodly. The world will soon be as corrupt as it was in the days of Noah.”3 President Kimball pulled no punches. “The unholy transgression of homosexuality is either rapidly growing or tolerance is giving it wider publicity,” he noted.4 In 1990, Boyd K. Packer was still using the language of perversion: “Illicit or perverted conduct leads without exception to disappointment, suffering, to tragedy.”5

Such language has faded away, and rather than issue blanket condemnations of homosexuality, recent decades have emphasized the distinction between inclinations and actions. An oft-cited 1991 First Presidency statement explained that ““there is a distinction between [1] immoral thoughts and feelings and [2] participating in either immoral heterosexual or any homosexual behavior.”6 In citing this in a 1995 Ensign article, Dallin H. Oaks proposes that even immoral thoughts require repentance: “Although immoral thoughts are less serious than immoral behavior, such thoughts also need to be resisted and repented of because we know that “our thoughts will also condemn us.'” But the distinction is important. Thoughts and feelings “should be resisted and redirected”, he explains, but are different from the serious sin of homosexual behavior.7

In general, however, there is little discussion of thoughts—the important distinction is between inclinations and behavior. Jeffrey R. Holland emphasizes, “let me make it clear that attractions alone, troublesome as they may be, do not make one unworthy.”8 The 2007 pamphlet “God Loveth His Children” states, “Many people with same-gender attractions have strong testimonies of the gospel and, therefore, do not act on those attractions. Attractions alone do not make you unworthy.” And in the 2007 Oaks & Wickman interview, Oaks explains, “The distinction between feelings or inclinations on the one hand, and behavior on the other hand, is very clear. It’s no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression.”9 As mormonsandgays.org says, “Same-sex attraction itself is not a sin, but yielding to it is.”

A point that comes up repeatedly is that those with same-sex attraction should not frame their struggles as unique ones. After all, everyone has temptations and urges that they have to resist. “Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times, says President Hinckley.10 Boyd K. Packer similarly points out, “All of us are subject to feelings and impulses.”11 “The struggles of those who are troubled by same-sex attraction are not unique,” says Elder Oaks. “There are many kinds of temptations, sexual and otherwise. The duty to resist sin applies to all of them.12 It is repeatedly pointed out that there is one law of chastity for everyone. “If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the Church, then they are subject to the discipline of the Church, just as others are,” says President Hinckley.13

Elder Oaks elaborates:

One person may have feelings that draw him toward gambling, but unlike those who only dabble, he becomes a compulsive gambler. Another person may have a taste for tobacco and a susceptibility to its addiction. Still another may have an unusual attraction to alcohol and the vulnerability to be readily propelled into alcoholism. Other examples may include a hot temper, a contentious manner, a covetous attitude, and so on.14

Homosexuality is thus seen as comparable to an urge to gamble and drink alcohol. It is often viewed through the lens of addiction. President Kimball warned, “The Lord condemns and forbids this practice with a vigor equal to his condemnation of adultery and other such sex acts. And the Church will excommunicate as readily any unrepentant addict.”15 In a 1993 conference talk, Spencer J. Condie relates a typical story, about a good man who, “through a series of unfortunate events in his early youth, he was introduced to homosexuality, and gradually he became a prisoner of this addictive behavior.”16 This framework essentially reduces homosexuality to sexual impulses which must be resisted. Interestingly, “God Loveth His Children” pamphlet takes a somewhat broader view, noting that “same-gender attractions include deep emotional, social, and physical feelings.” And mormonsandgays.org clearly states that “attraction to those of the same sex, however, should not be viewed as a disease or illness.”

What are the causes of homosexuality? President Kimball infamously proposed that masturbation can lead to it.17 Elder Packer warned about boys playing around, that a moment of “idle foolishness” for a young man can “can misdirect his normal desires and pervert him not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well.”18 This idea is explicitly refuted by “God Loveth His Children”:

Some people have been abused during the early years of life or have engaged in sexual experimentation at a young age. If this has happened to you, please understand that abuse by others or youthful experiences should not create a present sense of guilt, unworthiness, or rejection by God or His Church. Innocent mischief early in life does not predispose a youth toward same-gender attraction as an adult.

Perhaps the issue that church leaders have been most emphatic about is that homosexuality is not inborn. For President Kimball, “This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God, and does he think God to be “that way”?19 Scientific evidence is sometimes cited in support of this—in his 1995 article, Elder Oaks attempts “to refute the claim of some that scientific discoveries demonstrate that avowed homosexuals and lesbians were ‘born that way.'”20 President James E. Faust raises a practical concern: “If practiced by all adults, these lifestyles would mean the end of the human family.”21

But the ultimate argument is a theological one. “There is some widely accepted theory extant that homosexuality is inherited . . . if it were so, it would frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness,” says Pres. Faust.22 Elder Oaks similarly argues, “No, we do not accept the fact that conditions that prevent people from attaining their eternal destiny were born into them without any ability to control. That is contrary to the Plan of Salvation, and it is contrary to the justice and mercy of God.”23

Some, however, are less forceful in asserting causes. “As for why you feel as you do, I can’t answer that question. A number of factors may be involved, and they can be as different as people are different,” says Elder Holland.24 And mormonsandgays.org observes, “No one fully knows the root causes of same-sex attraction. Each experience is different. Latter-day Saints recognize the enormous complexity of this matter. We simply don’t have all the answers.”

Significantly, the desires themselves are not necessarily portrayed as a choice. “Though homosexual attraction may not result from conscious choices,” comments A. Dean Byrd, the assistant commissioner of LDS Family Services, in a 1999 Ensign article, “the divine gift of agency does provide us with choices in responding to such attraction.”25 In an article in the 2004 Ensign, an anonymous gay author notes that “Ours is often a hidden conflict for fear of being seen as “deviants” who have chosen these attractions. For most Latter-day Saints who struggle with this challenge, nothing could be further from the truth.”26 According to mormonsandgays.org, “Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.”

The question that underlies the “born that way?” debate is that of the possibility of change. Earlier statements assert that yes, this can be changed. President Kimball writes, “Again, contrary to the belief and statement of many people, this sin, like fornication, is overcomable and forgivable, but again, only upon a deep and abiding repentance, which means total abandonment and complete transformation of thought and act.”27 Narratives of change are held up as examples. In his 1993 conference talk, Spender J. Condie relates the story of a friend who was sucked into homosexual behavior but managed to leave it behind after reading the Book of Mormon and joining the church. “Within a relatively short time,” he concludes, the friend “married a lovely young woman, and they are the parents of several beautiful children.”28 Byrd asks, “Can individuals diminish homosexual attraction and make changes in their lives? Yes. There is substantial evidence, both historical and current, to indicate this is the case.”29

This has somewhat shifted over the years, and now the prevailing sentiment is that some can overcome homosexual tendencies in this life, but not everyone. According to Elder Holland, “Through the exercise of faith, individual effort, and reliance upon the power of the Atonement, some may resolve same-gender attraction in mortality and marry. Others, however, may never be free of same-gender attraction in this life.”30 “God Loveth His Children” states that “while many Latter-day Saints, through individual effort, the exercise of faith, and reliance upon the enabling power of the Atonement, overcome same-gender attraction in mortality, others may not be free of this challenge in this life.”

But, it is taught, the challenge will be for this life only. “We believe that with an eternal perspective, a person’s attraction to the same sex can be addressed and borne as a mortal test. It should not be viewed as a permanent condition,” says mormonsandgays.org. According to Elder Oaks, “same-gender attraction did not exist in the pre-earth life and neither will it exist in the next life. It is a circumstance that for whatever reason or reasons seems to apply right now in mortality, in this nano-second of our eternal existence.” For this reason, “in the eternal perspective, same-gender activity will only bring sorrow and grief and the loss of eternal opportunities.”31

What about marriage? In April 1987, President Hinckley put a damper on that option, stating “Marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices, which first should clearly be overcome with a firm and fixed determination never to slip to such practices again.”32 It’s worth noting here, however, that marriage is still an option, if one can first overcome one’s inclinations. Byrd warns against marriage as a cure, but also says, “When homosexual difficulties have been fully resolved, heterosexual feelings can emerge, which may lead to happy, eternal marriage relationships.” 33 In the 2007 interview, Elder Oaks said that marriage could be okay for “persons who have cleansed themselves of any transgression and who have shown their ability to deal with these feelings or inclinations and put them in the background, and feel a great attraction for a daughter of God.”34 Elder Holland, however, sounds more cautious:

Recognize that marriage is not an all-purpose solution. Same-gender attractions run deep, and trying to force a heterosexual relationship is not likely to change them. We are all thrilled when some who struggle with these feelings are able to marry, raise children, and achieve family happiness. But other attempts have resulted in broken hearts and broken homes.35

Church leaders have encouraged the narrative of homosexuality as “a struggle with same-sex attraction,” and discouraged the use of “gay” and “lesbian.” “You serve yourself poorly,” says Elder Holland, “when you identify yourself primarily by your sexual feelings. That isn’t your only characteristic, so don’t give it disproportionate attention.”36  Elder Oaks emphasizes in his 1995 article that “the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons.”37 This is re-iterated in the 2007 interview: “I think it’s important for you to understand that homosexuality, which you’ve spoken of, is not a noun that describes a condition. It’s an adjective that describes feelings or behavior.”38 Yet in 2012, the church put up a website at the URL mormonsandgays.org— perhaps simply because of the difficulty of using mormonsandthosewhostrugglewithsamesexattraction.org—or perhaps as a small concession to those who do use “gay” as a noun.

What advice is given to family and friends? The general gist is to express love combined with insistence on the church’s standards. Byrd proposes “While maintaining a loving concern for the person, reiterate the Lord’s position that homosexual relations are sinful, and don’t lose sight of this gospel truth.”39 This can be a tricky balancing act. Elder Holland: “But love for a family member does not extend to condoning unrighteous behavior. Your children are welcome to stay in your home, of course, but you have every right to exclude from your dwelling any behavior that offends the Spirit of the Lord.”40 And Elder Oaks (in)famously said in the 2007 interview: “I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.””41

Condemnations of homosexuality have been tempered by expressions of love. Elder Quentin L. Cook says, “As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”42 Speaking of those who experience same-sex attraction, President Hinckley says, “We love them love them as sons and daughters of God.”43 “You are a son or daughter of God, and our hearts reach out to you in warmth and affection, ” says the “God Loveth His Children” pamphlet. Elder Oaks asserts, “Our doctrines obviously condemn those who engage in so-called “gay bashing”—physical or verbal attacks on persons thought to be involved in homosexual or lesbian behavior.”44 In 2010, the church put out a statement rejecting the efforts of the Human Rights Campaign, but also condemning bullying:

We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.  Such actions simply have no place in our society.”45

It also emphasized that while the church maintains that only sexual activity between husband and wife is legitimate, “that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness.”46 According to mormonsandgays.org, “With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.” And in the January 2015 news conference, Sister Marriott stated,

His heart reaches out to all of His children equally and He expects us to treat each other with love and fairness. There’s ample evidence in the life of Jesus Christ to demonstrate that He stood firm for living the laws of God, yet reached out to those who had been marginalized even though He was criticized for doing so. Racial minorities, women, the elderly, people with physical or mental disabilities, and those with unpopular occupations all found empathy from the Savior of mankind.

Additionally, those who experience same-sex attraction are said to be welcome at church as long as they don’t act on their attractions. “If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church,” says President Hinckley.47 “Church leaders are sometimes asked whether there is any place in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for persons with homosexual or lesbian susceptibilities or feelings. Of course there is,” says Elder Oaks.48 As long as their inclinations are “kept under control, or, if yielded to are appropriately repented of,” a person with homosexual inclinations “is eligible to do anything in the Church that can be done by any member of the Church who is single.”49

 

Off-the-cuff observations:

–There have been a lot of positive shifts. It’s nice to see more on love, and less on abomination. The statements about the importance of love and kindness seem like a valuable resource.

–Expressions of love are good, but they mean less if you’re sending mixed signals. The problem is that the primary message to gays is that some of your most basic desires, ones that in your heterosexual peers are worthy and even essential, are wrong. That’s such a loud message that it can be hard to hear much else. (Kind of like saying, “women are equal” while sending all kinds of institutional messages that women are second-class.)

–At the same time, I wouldn’t want to downplay the importance of expressions of love, especially on a local level.

–The “welcome at church” notion comes with the caveat that you have to be following church standards, but I know of several places where those in partnerships have also been welcomed at church. I hope this trend continues.

–One striking shift is from certainty to uncertainty. From saying, we know all this about it, to saying, we actually don’t know much. That’s refreshing.

–A problem with emphasizing that change is hard work is the implication that those who can’t change just didn’t work hard enough. It’s a welcome move to say that at least for some, it just isn’t possible. (A future question might be whether it’s even desirable. Even in the context of LDS doctrine, I think there are possibilities.)

–This idea that families can love while maintaining a certain distance is a problem. If families genuinely accept their gay children, they shouldn’t worry about being seen in public with them. And if they don’t feel they can genuinely accept them—that’s a problem.

–It would be great if the mormonsandgays website meant that we can now use “gay” as an noun. And it was pretty amazing at the recent press conference for a church spokesperson to say LGBT.

–The assumption that homosexuals are male occasionally shines through. For example, in the Oaks & Wickman interview, there’s discussion of whether a person should marry a daughter of God, without any thought given to the possibility that the person in question might be female.

–What’s up with the not unique thing? Gays aren’t unique in having struggles, or in having to be celibate. What does that actually have to do with anything? Can we look at the merits of the situation without worrying about whether it’s unique? Just because others are in a situation where they can’t marry, for example, doesn’t automatically mean that it’s justifiable to require that of gays.

–Asserting that there’s one law of chastity for everyone simply isn’t telling the whole story. There are very different expectations for homosexuals and heterosexuals, and it would be nice to see that acknowledged more.

–We need to move away from the addiction model. Framing it that way reduces it to being just about sexual acts, as opposed to a complex desire for relationship. It’s simply not the same as an urge to gamble, or a hot temper.

  1. Spencer W. Kimball, Conference, April 1971 []
  2. Neil Marriott, News Conference,  Jan 27, 2015 []
  3. Bruce R. McConkie, Conference, Oct 1980 []
  4. Spencer W. Kimball, “President Kimball Speaks Out on Morality,” Ensign, Nov 1980 []
  5. Boyd K. Packer, Conference, Oct 1990 []
  6. Letter of the First Presidency, 14 November 1991 []
  7. Dallin H. Oaks, “Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, April 1995 []
  8. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Helping Those Who Struggle With Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 2007 []
  9. Interview with Dallin H. Oaks and Lance B. Wickman, 2007 []
  10. Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference, 1998 []
  11. Boyd K. Packer, Conference, October 1990 []
  12. Oaks, 1995 []
  13. Hinckley, 1998 []
  14. Oaks, 1995 []
  15. Kimball, 1980 []
  16. Spencer J. Condie, Conference, Oct 1993 []
  17. Kimball, 1980 []
  18. Boyd K. Packer, “To Young Men Only” []
  19. Kimball, 1980 []
  20. Oaks, 1995 []
  21. James E. Faust, “Serving the Lord and Resisting the Devil,” Ensign, September 1995 []
  22. Faust, 1995 []
  23. Interview with Oaks & Wickman, 2007 []
  24. Holland, 2007 []
  25. A. Dean Byrd, “When a Loved One Struggles with Same-Sex Attraction,” Ensign, Sep 1999 []
  26. name withheld, Ensign, Sep 2004 []
  27. Spencer W. Kimball, “A Letter to a Friend”, 1971 []
  28. Condie, 1993 []
  29. Byrd, 1999 []
  30. Holland, 2007 []
  31. Interview with Oaks & Wickman, 2007 []
  32. Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference, April 1987 []
  33. Byrd, 1999 []
  34. Oaks & Wickman interview, 2007 []
  35. Holland, 2007 []
  36. Holland, 2007 []
  37. Oaks, 1995 []
  38. Oaks & Wickman inteview 2007 []
  39. Byrd, 1999 []
  40. Holland, 2007 []
  41. Oaks & Wickman interview, 2007 []
  42. On the mormonsandgays.org website []
  43. Hinckley, Oct 1998 []
  44. Oaks, 1995 []
  45. News Release October 12, 2010 []
  46. News Release October 12, 2010 []
  47. Hinckley, 1998 []
  48. Oaks, 1995 []
  49. Oaks & Wickman interview, 2007 []

8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Wow, Lynnette! This is outstanding! One of your concluding points that particularly struck me was this:

    “Expressions of love are good, but they mean less if you’re sending mixed signals.”

    I think this is so very true. Recently I heard a stake leader give a horrifyingly anti-gay talk, which he apparently thought was excused by saying at the beginning and the end that we should still love gay people and nothing he said should be taken as hatred. Like you said, though, the nastiness totally drowned out these little fine print disclaimers. He was clearly taking his cues from general-level leadership.




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  2. Very nice post, Lynnette. A few thoughts.

    1. Pretty impressive how much the rhetoric and even some policy has changed over 40-50 years. That seems hopeful but makes me wonder…

    2. Why are current statements made with so much certainty? Given our history, shouldn’t we expect more change? And if so, how about a bit more humility and a bit less certainty by the apostles making current statements?

    3. Elder Oaks’ recent statements are so off-putting to me as a follower of Jesus. I believe in his good intent, but it makes me wonder if Elder Oaks has ever had a peer or a superior who was gay (and out of the closet). Seems unlikely, and it seems that it will be decades before even a minority of the GAs will have had uncloseted gay peers or superiors. I think such interactions would have to happen before they become GAs, because afterwards they would not consider any non-GAs to be their peers in the Church, and afterwards they would be unlikely to maintain peers outside of the Church because mostly they would be working with Church members. And until these men are in situations where they truly have to listen to gay people because they are their peers, I don’t anticipate much substantive change.




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  3. I think that http://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/6-9.htm really causes problems when people try to reflect on the issues.

    What that misses is that Paul is condemning married heterosexuals who are engaging in a variety of acts as a form of birth control and prostitution, much like http://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/5-1.htm reflects the Corinthian practice of resorting to those past menopause. So what they see is the “be not deceived” part of the scripture and not the rest — and many are familiar with historic communities where the issues arise in the context of polysexual activity.

    The second thread that causes problems is that often the language used by a man who has left his wife for someone much younger is very similar as that used by others. That creates semantic contamination — and in the context of talking to men who are probably more than three standard deviations from the norm in terms of their ability to engage in self denial and delayed gratification.

    As a result, and in the context of contemporary culture (recognizing that the Church is currently “contemporary” to 1950s blue collar American culture) the attitudes are not surprising.

    I also think there is a little too much inductive logic going on. But that comment is for another day.

    It should be interesting to see what the next ten years bring.




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  4. Nicely written. I would also add that sexual attraction seems to sometimes exist on a kind of spectrum (I’m probably not stating this well), and that some men, for example, who identify as gay are bisexual, or at least somewhat attracted to both genders. When I read Elder Holland’s words, I think that it may be easier for people like that to find a member of the opposite sex with whom they can have a fulfilling marriage than it would be for someone who is exclusively attracted to the same gender, for example. They would just have a broader field than I do (as a straight male) of “people I am attracted to whom I should not lust after since I’m married.”

    The complexities of the human libido and heart don’t lend themselves well to black and white definitions.




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