6/26/2020 0 Comments
A Modern Mormon Gay Experience: Symbolic Violence Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
In late February, Brigham Young University changed a long-standing policy that restricted same-sex relationships among its students. In the past, any romantic same-sex behavior was punishable by academic probation, or in extreme cases, expulsion. The change itself was relatively minor: a removal of certain wording in the honor code of conduct. This change would have been a historic one for the university, and for the LDS Church, which owns BYU. However, only two weeks later, administrative officials forced BYU to completely reverse their decision; it was as if it had never happened in the first place.
In the recent past, BYU students struggling to come to terms with their queer identities risked so much by coming out in an extremely homophobic LDS environment: losing their families and friends, their church community, and alienation or potential excommunication from the church. Students who privately came to LDS leaders for help were recommended to enroll in electro-conversion therapy which not only caused physical pain, but also brought shame and embarassment.
Today, the Church is more open to the idea of same-sex couples within its wards; however, it publicly forbids same-sex behavior and refuses to accept gay marriage. It denies its LGBTQ members a chance to be eternally sealed in the temple as a family, deeming their act of legal marriage to be “a serious transgression.” Gay thoughts are tolerated, as long as you “turn it off, like a light switch” before you ever act on those feelings.
Growing up gay in the Mormon Church, I was introduced to a set of moral standards that conflicted violently with my identity, though I was only beginning to understand what it all meant. I have a distinct memory of the Church’s teachings I learned when I was young, and the importance that marriage held among all of us from a very young age. The subtext that I picked up from this, and that stuck with me even after conflicts within my own family caused me to go to church less and less, was that love between a man and a woman was all there was. When I began having gay thoughts in middle school, I didn’t really know what was happening to me, only that it felt wrong. Anxious and ashamed, I figured the only way to cope was to go back to church. To repent.
This spurred a period in my life of devotion to God and the Church, but also caused me to feel a despair that was fed and strengthened by the gay thoughts that wouldn’t leave me. Instead of feeling Christ’s love, I felt like a failure, unworthy. I pushed myself to have faith, but it cracked under the burden of the incongruity between the supposed universal love of Christ and the views of LDS leaders.
So I stopped going, and broke off my ties with my friends and family within the Church, and never really explained why.
On the internet, I saw queer people represented for the first time in my life. On YouTube I followed Tyler Oakley and other gay vloggers, learned of the breadth of the LGBTQ community on Tumblr, and even saw vague reflections of myself in movies like G.B.F. or The Book of Mormon Musical bootleg I streamed. I coveted every single shitty, poorly written gay stereotype I saw in the media. What else could I do? That’s all I had.
It’s hard to describe how my shame stuck with me even through this transition. Eventually I began to develop a new understanding of how gay people were expected to be, and ultimately felt incapable of fitting the gay male stereotypes that I saw online or in the media. Either way, along my journey to find out how I fit in with the LGBTQ community, I’m forced to carry a weight left by the LDS Church and its homophobic teachings.
Altogether, my experience as a Mormon gay isn’t necessarily a new or uncommon one. Others like me have faced similar dilemmas surrounding their identity, resulting in an inner conflict that is painful to face. The views of the Church and the decision to continue the discrimination against its LGBTQ members is, in essence, an act of symbolic violence towards our community. By teaching young people that there is a line between relationships that are “right” and “wrong,” love and tolerance won’t be enough to protect them from the feeling of alienation and stress that they may endure as a queer youth. Young LGBTQ people are already at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide than their conterparts. By upholding the rhetoric that it does, the Mormon Church argues that queer folks deserve to suffer unfulfilling relationships, marriages, and sex in order to be accepted by God. By prohibiting same-sex marriage, and encouraging all members to enter a heterosexual marriage regardless of their sexual orientation, they place this undue burden on both members of the relationship, leading to more stress and unhappiness.
What does this suffering teach members of the Church about their faith? Why is my sexual orientation a trial to be overcome? Why is my worth in the eyes of God contingent on a part of my identity that I haven’t chosen?
The Church still has a long way to go if it actually wishes to welcome LGBTQ members into its congregations. The change we’ve seen at BYU is an indication that there are many who do indeed accept the lives and relationships of queer members. In the past, the Church has reversed its stance on major issues like polygamy, women’s ability to serve, and allowing the participation of people of color. The homophobia of the church today is a remnant of prejudice and misunderstandings from decades past, and the Church has the capacity to correct its doctrine to be more accepting. It is also important to note that the Church maintains even stricter guidelines for members who are transgender, and it is necessary that we stand together in order to change the policies that harm the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Considering the openness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to incorporate people of diverse cultures and traditions into its community, it’s a shame that they are stuck within such backward policies. It’s a shame that so many students and Church members have been subject to such a painful crisis in identity. I wish we could be celebrating a bigger win for the LGBTQ community at BYU. Change is so long overdue.
"'It’s up to you,’ the professor was telling the class, ‘to write the tragedies. We don’t have enough good Mormon tragedy.’ …
'I could write such a tragedy,’ I replied mentally, ‘but no Mormon would be willing to read it. They don’t want to know about any part of reality, any suffering, that challenges their souls to explore. All they want is safety—saying that the church is true is the end of all discussion.’”
--Suffering Into Truth, “Anna Hurston.” From “Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation” by Ron Schow, Wayne Schow, & Marybeth Raynes. 1991.
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