By Averyl Dietering
It’s been about three weeks since I met with my bishop and sat numbly in his office while he told me I can’t take the sacrament because I have a girlfriend. Yes, I know it was silly for me to have even the slightest hope of remaining worthy to take the sacrament while I, a woman and lifelong Mormon, have a girlfriend. Like many LGBTQIA members, I’ve read the Church’s stance on homosexuality dozens and dozens of times: “The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is” (mormonsandgays.org). I was raised to see same-sex relationships as wrong and wicked. I’ve been told time and time again that the only temple worthy union is between a woman and a man.
Yet the official stance didn’t fit with my understanding of loving Heavenly Parents and an inclusive Plan of Happiness. Why was I raised to want an eternal companion and family above all else, then told that my “special mission” was to remain celibate for life? Why did my Church criticize the Catholic Church for asking their priests and nuns to be celibate, using the argument that “it is not good for man [or woman] to be alone” (Moses 3:18, Abraham 5:14), and then tell me that celibacy was my only option if I wanted to remain a worthy member? These questions swirled in my mind as my bishop forbade me to take LDS communion. I tried to maintain my composure. Maybe, I thought, he simply misunderstood:
“So, you’re saying that even if my girlfriend and I were to only hold hands with each other—no hugging, cuddling, kissing, or anything else—then the simple fact that I was pursuing this relationship with her would mean that I was breaking the law of chastity?”
“Yes. As a woman, if you are actively pursuing a relationship with another woman then you are breaking the law of chastity.”
I felt my heart sink. Here was a man whom I had trusted with my secrets. I had told him that I am queer and have a girlfriend. For the most part, he was understanding. I asked him tough questions about the Church’s stance on gay marriage, and I was surprised that instead of calling me to repentance for questioning, he had agreed with many of my beliefs. It was for these reasons that I was even more hurt by his assertion that I was unworthy to take the sacrament, even if my girlfriend and I kept the law of chastity that is given to heterosexual members.
At this point I need to take a break in my narrative to explain my goals for this post. First, I hope to share an authentic, heartfelt experience about what it’s like to be a gay Mormon in love. Second, I will address the difference between the gay law of chastity and the straight law of chastity. It’s often fruitless to make a case for whether or not the LDS Church can abide gay marriage or not—either you believe it can or you believe it can’t. It’s not my intent to change your mind. Instead, I want to simply share my experience as a fellow human, and hope that it can open a useful space for conversation and introspection. Regarding the second goal, I believe it’s high time we admit that there is a huge difference between the law of chastity that we expect straight members to follow and the law of chastity we expect gay members to follow. As I will explain later, they are not the same and they are not equally difficult to follow. For this reason, I will refer to the two separate laws of chastity as the gay law and the straight law.
Back to the scene in my bishop’s office. I could feel my heart sinking as he told me I had to break up with my girlfriend in order to be worthy to take the sacrament. I had entered his office so full of hope; for about a year and a half I had guilted myself out of taking the sacrament because I was ashamed of my homosexual feelings, desires, and actions. Through prayer, study, introspection, and clinical counseling, I had begun to escape my self-hatred and accept myself as a queer daughter of God. I began to see my sexuality as a blessing, and my relationship with my girlfriend as wholesome and healing. I’d had great hope that if I discussed my emotional and spiritual journey with my bishop, he would encourage me to take the sacrament again so I could have the added strength that came from weekly renewing my baptismal covenants.
“Would you like to take the sacrament?” my bishop asked.
I didn’t know how to answer such a question. Did he honestly think I was enjoying the burden of not taking the sacrament? Was he trying to use the ordinance as a bargaining chip to make me break up with my girlfriend? Or did he really not understand how much his little question meant to me?
“Not anymore,” I muttered. I didn’t see his response, because I had to leave before the weight of his question crushed me. I thanked him for his time and began to walk out, but he stopped me and asked if we could meet again and talk. I tried to focus on his question, but I couldn’t. My life, my belief in a benevolent God, and my trust in sympathetic church leaders was caving in, and I had to escape.
There’s a quiet little alleyway behind the church that’s just private enough for a desperate young woman to call her girlfriend without fear of anyone overhearing. I called my girlfriend (for the sake of the story we’ll call her Helena) and sobbed while she tried to convince me that I was still a worthy and loved daughter of God. I sure didn’t feel like I was.
As I left the alleyway and made my way home, I remember walking along some of the very busy streets that I live by and thinking about how simple it would be to step out into the traffic: not only could I escape a homophobic culture that forced me to choose between my faith and my love, but I might even be able to rid myself of my sexuality. After all, many Mormons—my mother included—tell me that they believe homosexuality is only a trial of this life, and that just as God takes away our defects when we die, he would take away my homosexual desires and replace them with heterosexuality. I’m sure they thought they were comforting me by assuring me that my trial was temporary. But like many gay Mormons, hearing that I could get rid of my homosexuality by killing myself only made suicide look more appealing.
Miraculously, my despair only lasted for a couple days. I somehow refrained from throwing myself headlong into traffic for long enough to realize that if I was going to continue along my path as a Mormon who refused to choose between her religion and her girlfriend, I needed more support than going to counseling once a month and complaining to Helena over the phone whenever I was upset. As wonderful as Helena and my counselor are, I couldn’t maintain my spiritual, emotional, and mental health if I only had two other people to talk to. Luckily, I remembered hearing about Wendy Montgomery, a gay rights activist who also happened to be a Mormon. In a moment of extreme boldness (or awkwardness, really) I contacted her on Facebook and sent her a long message about my situation. I wish I could spend the rest of this post talking about how Sister Montgomery took me under her wing and showed me a welcoming world of loving Mormon members who are also LGBTQIA allies. But, like a Book of Mormon prophet, I don’t have room to share “even an hundredth part” of the hope, love, and reassurance that these Mormon allies bring to my life. I will say this: if you are a gay Mormon or ally and you need a community who will accept you and love you for who you are, trust me. There are people who would love to help you.
I’d like to say that this is my happy ending. After all, it’s great to not be dead and to have found a community of allies. But is that really a happy ending? I’m still afraid of being public with my sexuality and my relationship for fear of very probable retaliation. I still am afraid to speak up when my family members fume about Satan and his minions fighting against “traditional” marriage. And I am still forbidden from taking the sacrament because I refuse to live by the irrationally strict gay law of chastity.
My experience with the gay law of chastity has led me to some very dark places. My heart aches every time I think of another gay brother or sister who seriously considers leaving the Church or killing themselves because they cannot live up to its impossible demands. The LDS Church says that they welcome and love gay members, but given the current gay law of chastity, this only seems to be lip service. If we really want to show gay members that we love them and respect them as fellow children of God, we need to consider the following:
1) The gay law of chastity isn’t clearly explained. Think about it. How many lessons and talks have you heard on the straight law of chastity? How many articles have been printed in the New Era and Ensign to help members understand the purpose and requirements of the straight law of chastity? Now ask yourself how many times you’ve had a lesson on the gay law of chastity. Really, the only information we have about the gay law of chastity is what is at mormonsandgays.org—“The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is”—and the section on homosexual behavior in the Church Handbook: “If members feel same-gender attraction but do not engage in any homosexual behavior, leaders should support and encourage them in their resolve to live the law of chastity and to control unrighteous thoughts.”
This may seem to be clear-cut, but is actually quite confusing. How is a gay member supposed to separate their sexuality from the rest of their identity? What if a gay young man decides he likes to bake cupcakes, dance ballet, wear pretty bracelets, and otherwise deviate from twentieth-century Western masculine gender roles? According to the gay law of chastity, if these behaviors are a result of his homosexuality, then he is breaking the law of chastity. What if my sexuality plays a role in the way I walk and carry my body? Again, just by moving my body I would be breaking the law of chastity because I was acting on my sexuality. Do we realize how absurd it is to ask someone to not act on their sexuality? Essentially, we are telling gay Mormons that if they can’t pass for straight, if they can’t completely mask the gay, they are unchaste. Furthermore, we are also implying to all members that sexuality is a button that can be turned on and off, or a part of our mind that we can cut out and kill if it doesn’t act the way the Church wants it to. This view of repressing homosexuality is dangerous because it encourages members to see their sexualities as evil or problematic instead of natural and healthy. By teaching our gay members that their sexuality is a bad thing that should be ignored or destroyed completely, we reinforce unhealthy views of sexuality and damage the sexualities of all members.
2) It isn’t universally enforced. In some regions and countries, bishops tend to be a bit more lenient in their interpretation of the gay law of chastity, and are kind enough to give the same law of chastity to all of their ward members, whether they are gay or straight, male or female, rich or poor. Therefore, if an activity would not be against the law of chastity for a heterosexual member (such as holding hands with their significant other), then it would not be against the law of chastity for a homosexual member either. Luckily, my girlfriend lives in one of these regions. However, there are other places in which bishops—like mine—take a stricter approach to interpreting the gay law of chastity, and make it their responsibility to determine whether or not a gay member is “acting on it.” Does it make sense that my personal worthiness as a gay Mormon depends on geographical location? This would be akin to saying that it some geographical regions, YSA bishops encourage dating, while in other regions YSA bishops discourage and penalize it. This is an alarming inconsistency, and surely cannot be a strength to the Church or reassuring to its members.
3) Statistically, the majority of gay Mormons choose not to follow it. This argument is a bit more tenuous than my others because there have been so few reliable, academic studies of the gay Mormon population. I only know of one academic study of gay Mormons: “Exploration of Experiences and Psychological Health of Same-sex Attracted Latter-day Saints” conducted by William Bradshaw, Ph.D. (BYU), Renee Galliher, Ph.D. (USU), John P. Dehlin, M.S. (USU), and Katie Peterson, M.S. (USU). (If you know of any more academic studies of gay Mormons, please let me know about them in the comments.) According to this 2011 study, only 32% of gay Mormons surveyed were celibate, and of those 32%, only 14% were celibate by choice. Some might be tempted to look at these statistics and assume that gay members are just more sexually deviant than straight members. But this viewpoint leads us to judgment, not understanding. If a commandment has an 86% failure rate, then maybe we need to revise the commandment, not chastise gay members for not being “righteous enough.” After all, in Mark 2:27 Jesus teaches that “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Likewise, Heavenly Father didn’t create a huge list of commandments and then say to himself, “Gee, it’d be great to create some sort of creature that could obey all these.” Rather, He created us—His children—first, and then created commandments that we could all follow, and could improve us and help us grow: “but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able” (1 Cor. 10:13). If a commandment has only a 14% success rate, then it does not seem to fall under the category of commandments that everyone can follow and that can help us grow.
4) The gay law of chastity operates on a dangerous all-or-nothing mentality. Many bishops use a slide as a metaphor for teaching the straight law of chastity. The slide metaphor conveys two concepts: first, that there are different levels of physical affection; second, the further you go, the more likely you are to break the straight law of chastity. Part of the wisdom of the straight law of chastity is that it allows unmarried people to show healthy affection in ways that strengthen relationships and let off a bit of sexual steam (let’s be honest). In addition, the straight law of chastity points to marriage as the fulfillment of sexual desires, which is one reason why so many single Mormons are motivated to refrain from sexual relations before marriage. This is a concept that’s missing from the gay law of chastity, because it ensures that gay members have NO hope of fulfilling sexual relationships. In fact, the best metaphor for the gay law of chastity would be a large pit: all levels of affection are breaking the gay law of chastity. If holding hands or flirting brings just as much condemnation as committing adultery or fornication, then there is little incentive for a gay Mormon holding hands with his boyfriend to refrain from premarital sex (besides, I’ve been told that sex is a lot more fun than just holding hands). Surely we don’t mean to teach our gay members that for them, holding hands with someone of the same sex is on the same level as adultery or premarital sex.
5) It’s a double standard, and is not equivalent to the straight law of chastity. For the majority of straight Mormons, the straight law of chastity provides guidelines from dating to courtship to marriage. If used correctly and reasonably, it can help foster healthy relationships, assist in building beneficial companionships, and possibly build a foundation for raising children. On the other hand, the gay law of chastity leads to none of this. In fact, many gay members trying to live the gay law of chastity find themselves in a catch-22: they avoid building friendships and relationships with those of the same sex because they are afraid of falling in love with them, and they avoid building friendships and relationships with those of the opposite sex because they don’t want to lead them on. (Obviously building friendships and relationships is more complicated than this, but this is the general trend that I’ve seen.) Because of this, the gay law of chastity tends to lead to isolation instead of companionship or connectedness. It simply isn’t fair that Mormons of one sexuality are allowed to follow a law that encourages them to love and guides them to fulfilling relationships, while Mormons of other sexualities must follow a law that tells them their love is wrong and leads them away from fulfilling relationships. Furthermore, how can we be sure that the way our culture constructs sexuality (the homo-hetero continuum) reflects the way God has constructed our divine natures?
Something must be done about the gay law of chastity. At the least, we need more guidance from the Church—official guidance explaining how and why the gay law of chastity should be correctly and uniformly followed, so that personal worthiness no longer depends on geographical location. But how do we get this guidance?
The Church listens to its members. If enough members speak up about an issue, it’s only a matter of time before they address that issue. Too few members are willing to speak up about LGBTQIA issues. It is our responsibility to be vocal about the injustice facing our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, to facilitate conversations about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and to ask our bishops and stake presidents about why the gay law of chastity is so different from the straight law of chastity. We can’t change the way the Church operates, but we can start the conversation. We can show our Church leaders that our LGBTQIA members are just as worthy of love as any other member.
Sexuality is a fraught issue. Hawaii has just legalized gay marriage, with Illinois likely to follow. These changes come to the great consternation of social conservatives and many Mormons. The rhetoric surrounding the issue is often religious on one side, human rights on the other, with few attempts to bridge the two. Let’s build that bridge now. Let’s bring the conversation home to our own playing field—to our religion, our beliefs, our rights, our homes, our brothers and sisters.