Two weeks ago, Meridian Magazine ran an article by JeaNette Smith entitled “Can You Help Your Children Choose Heterosexuality?” The article and the ensuing backlash, underscore the difficulty of living up to the challenge of “foster[ing] a climate of goodwill and determination to understand.”[i]
It is difficult to maintain a discussion about the Church’s teachings on same-sex attraction for at least three reasons. The first is that human sexuality is a complex topic about which no one (including the Church) has all of the answers.[ii] As a result, uncertainty, ambiguity, and misunderstanding are hard to avoid. The second is that this is a very painful issue for many people. This leads to understandably high degrees of concern and protectiveness. The third reason is that there are real conflicts between the Church’s teachings and the world’s understanding of this issue. Because marriage and sex and procreation are “central to God’s plan and to the opportunities that He offers to us, here and hereafter,”[iii] the Church cannot abdicate its responsibility to maintain its teachings on these issues despite these conflicts. The challenge is to convey those teachings in an atmosphere of love, understanding, and hope.
This challenge is as difficult as it is important. There are those who believe that some of the Church’s positions are intrinsically unkind or unfair, and no amount of changing tone, emphasis, or context can obviate that fact. Smith’s article hit on a couple of those beliefs, and that explains a great deal of the negative reaction the article provoked. I do not endeavor to defend every word of Smith’s article (not least because I disagree with some of what she wrote), but on these two issues she was essentially correct.
The first has to do with the role of choice in sexual behavior. The idea that people’s sexuality is innate and immutable became the defining rhetoric of same-sex marriage proponents in the years leading to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. “Born This Way” was the title of a Lady Ga Ga song that proclaimed “No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life / … / I’m beautiful in my way / ‘Cause God makes no mistakes.” Later on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Grammy-nominated “Same Love” supplanted Lady Ga Ga’s track as the unofficial anthem of same-sex marriage proponents. The song attacked “The right wing conservatives [who] think it’s a decision” and the chorus proclaimed “I can’t change / Even if I tried / Even if I wanted to.”
For Smith to contradict such an important aspect of the gay rights community was bound to provoke controversy, but there were two problems with the reaction. First, Smith was addressing not the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ community, but only the subset for whom sexuality is somewhat mutable. (Unfortunately this was perhaps not clear enough in the article.) Second, the idea that sexuality is mutable for many people—including aspects of sexuality related to inclination, behavior, and identity—is not a right-wing conservative innovation.
Back in January 2014 (about a year and a half after “Same Love” was released), Brandon Ambrosino wrote an article for the New Republic with the simple headline: “I Wasn’t Born This Way. I Choose to Be Gay.” Ambrosino addressed “Same Love” directly, writing:
But the chorus bugs me. By its logic, none of us has any control over our sexual identities. We are what we are, and there’s not a…thing we can do about that, so let’s just stop trying to change. That’s wrong. It’s time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word “choice,” and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy.
More recently, an article on Medium by Spencer R. Scott emphasized the danger of treating sexuality as immutable to the bisexual community in particular: “Beyond ‘Born This Way’ – When Homosexuality is a Choice.” Scott, who is bisexual, critiqued the idea of grounding gay rights on the notion of immutable and innate sexuality as “pseudo-tolerance.” He explained:
… the reason why America was so receptive to its message: because it allows for a moral cop-out… “Born This Way” allows people the loophole of begrudging equality on the pretext that gay people have no other choice… In my mind the ultimate goal of gay rights is for people to see homosexuality or any sexuality (or lack thereof) as a completely equal alternative free of the condescension implied by support conditional on the idea that none of the “better” options were available.
According to Scott, the idea of immutable and innate sexuality is particularly pernicious when it comes to the bisexual community. If same-sex relationships are accepted on the basis that lesbians and gays have no other choice, then bisexuals (who can have same-sex or different-sex relationships) are exempted from this “pseudo-tolerance.”
So it is not reasonable to attack Smith merely because she referred to mutable sexuality, although it is very interesting to observe that the same people who decry simplistic, binary gender categories are so invested in simplistic, binary categories for sexuality. Furthermore, it is not reasonable to attack Smith for saying that all homosexuals choose to be gay because that is simply not what she said.
In any case, the concept of choice is integral to the Church’s moral teachings. Even for those for whom same-sex attraction truly is innate and immutable (and neither I, nor Smith, nor the Church deny that this is the case for many people), there is still the fundamental distinction between the attraction (which is not a sin) and acting on the attraction (which is).[iv] This distinction between inclination and identity on the one hand and behavior on the other hand remains a source of conflict between the Church’s position and the rhetoric of many within the gay rights community.
The second critique many had of Smith’s article relates to another conflict between the Church’s teachings and the world’s view. According to scripture, the first commandment given by God to Adam and Eve was to have children.[v] The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that this commandment “remains in force,” and that “Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.” These are not incidental beliefs. As Elder Christofferson has stated:
The doctrines that relate to human sexuality and gender are really central to our theology. And marriage between a man and a woman, and the families that come from those marriages – that’s all central to God’s plan and to the opportunities that He offers to us, here and hereafter. [vi]
Given the importance of marriage and procreation in the Plan of Happiness, Smith’s desire to help those for whom this is a viable option to make that choice makes sense, and is compatible with the Church’s official position. That position holds that opposite-sex marriage is not “a panacea,”[vii] but that—when the question of whether one should seek to overcome same-sex attraction or cope with it arises—“we simply don’t take a uniform position of saying ‘yes’ always or ‘no’ always.”[viii] In other words, Smith’s goal of helping some but not all within the LGBTQ community to work towards opposite-sex marriages is compatible with the Church’s position, although if she said that every member of the LGBTQ community should attempt this she would then be contradicting the Church’s position. (But she did not say that.)
The idea that procreative marriages are an integral part of the Plan of Salvation is the most difficult teaching to reconcile with a message of love, understanding, and hope. It certainly seems as though the elevation of a family with biological children and their parents living together as an ideal conveys anything but love, understanding, or hope to those who face great and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to achieving that goal. This includes members of the LGBTQ community, of course, but also those who struggle with infertility or who face other trials. This ideal also seems to devalue other kinds of families, such as single-parent families or those that include adopted children.
This was evident in one prominent rebuttal of Smith’s piece. In an article for Rational Faith called “Helping our Children be Themselves,” for example, Dr. Kristy Money used the word “kind” or “kindness” five times in her penultimate paragraph.
But it is important to understand that good and sincere people can have legitimate differences over what constitutes true kindness. In fact, it is even possible for terrible things to be done in the name of kindness, as the controversial subject of Bodily Integrity Disorders illustrates. One recent case is that of Jewel Shuping, who has been fascinated with blindness since she was a little girl. “By the time I was six I remember that thinking about being blind made me feel comfortable,” she is quoted as saying in one article. Eventually, Shuping found help. A psychologist decided that the kind thing to do would be to place numbing drops in her eyes and follow those up with drain cleaner. The damage was permanent, and so Shuping’s dream was realized. She is now truly blind. “I really feel this is the way I was supposed to be born,” she told interviewers.
Bodily Integrity Disorder is an extreme case, but there is another case that illustrates how complicated the idea of kindness can be. Doubtless you have seen various videos of Deaf babies in doctor’s offices when their new cochlear implants are activated. (In case you have not, here are six different examples of babies or toddlers hearing the mothers’ voices for the first time: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) These are passed around on Facebook because they are heartwarming tear-jerkers. We see joy. We see happiness. We see love. We see a cure. We certainly see kindness.
But for many in the Deaf community, these same videos display intolerance and bigotry. Aurora Moon wrote an article for Daily Kos explaining both sides of this controversy, beginning with the Deaf side: “It’s not so much that we are truly against Cochlear Implants as we are against people seeing us as something that needs to be fixed.” Moon’s version is actually quite moderate, however. As Katherine A. Jankowski writes in Deaf Empowerment: Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric:
So strong is the sentiment that cochlear implants are destructive to Deaf children, that parallels have been drawn to the Nazi regime. British scholar Paddy Ladd calls implants “the Final Solution” (Solomon 1994, 65). Deaf activist MJ Bienvenu explains, “Like the Nazis, they [hearing parents and doctors] seem to enjoy experimenting on little children” (Solomon 1994, 65).
So, you—as a hearing person—watch those videos and cry tears of joy. A Deaf person could as easily watch the same video and cry tears of rage and despair. Which reaction is truly kind? To deny that the inability to hear is a challenge or to accept that it is a genuine trial and work to mitigate it, even if some people will never be cured?
To observe that there are some people who miss out on important aspects of our mortal life in no way diminishes their dignity or value as individuals. The idea that our worth depends on what we can accomplish in this life is anathema to the spirit of Christianity. All of us will miss out on important things, sometimes because of our choices and sometimes for reasons we cannot control. None of us will live the perfect life, but all of us are loved and valued equally by our Creator.
The particular challenges presented by same-sex attraction or by infertility or by any other obstacle which makes procreative marriage difficult or impossible are just one particular example of the kinds of challenges we all face, to a greater or lesser degree, in our lives. Elder Christofferson said,
This is a challenge, and all of us can understand that and can be empathetic about that because we all have a challenge. I heard it expressed once, someone said: “We all have a horse to tame.” And so same-sex attraction may be one, and something else with someone else. But we can all appreciate, I think, that each of us face challenges in life, and this is a way for us to help each of us understand better a particular one that may not be so well known or a common experience.[ix]
When people face obstacles in this life, it is not a kindness to deny the reality of those obstacles. The Atonement gives hope that challenges will be overcome; not hope that challenges can be redefined out of existence. The kindness of Christ is not found in saying that all is well, but in saying that all will be well.
In much the same way, the emphasis on the ideal of a biological family does not denigrate other kinds of families. Adoption, when it is for the sake of a child who for any reason cannot or should not grow up with his or her biological parents, is a noble and beautiful way to give a child the best that can be given. But the reality, according to research aggregated by David M. Brodzsinsky in “Long-term Outcomes in Adoption,” is that while “adopted children fare much better than those youngsters who are reared in institutional environments or in foster care,” adopted children “are more vulnerable to various emotional, behavioral, and academic problems than their nonadopted peers living in intact homes with their biological parents.”
If you know that adopted children will face greater difficulties than other children who are lucky enough to be able to remain with their biological parents, then pretending otherwise is not kindness. It is cheap denialism. It costs the holder of the belief nothing, but it endangers adopted children with deprivation of the additional support that they may need over and above what nonadopted children will need. If you don’t know that fact and have espoused the view that adopted and nonadopted children have equivalent experiences without bothering to research it, then you should ask yourself if your assumption is an expression of genuine kindness or of ideological convenience.
Ultimately, the problem that the Church faces in promulgating its teachings on sexual ethics and the centrality of the family is the same as the general problem faced by all Christianity: you have to teach the Fall for the Atonement to make any sense. The Gospel is the news that, through Jesus Christ, we can be saved. But this is only good news to those who already accept that we’re in a position from which we require saving. Imagine, for example, trying to convince someone who did not know they were mortal about the good news of Christ’s resurrection. First, you would have to convince them that they were going to die one day. You can imagine that this message would not come across as being full of love, understanding, and hope.
I do not expect this article to convince those who disagree with the Church’s positions on sexual morality and the family to suddenly accept them. But one does not have to accept those positions to see that—when taken in context with the Church’s additional teachings—these positions do not entail the denigration of adopted families, homosexuals, or anybody else. They truly are compatible with love, understanding, and hope, but not in isolation or when considered piecemeal. The messages that we are all mortal or that we are all sinners is also not full of love, understanding, or hope until you hear how the story ends.
[ii] “There is so much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God.” – Elder Dallin H. Oaks (mormonsandgays.org)
[iii] Elder D. Todd Christofferson (mormonsandgays.org)
[v] Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply…”
[vii] Elder Christofferson (mormonsandgays.org)
[viii] Elder Christofferson (mormonsandgays.org)