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December 2015

#7 What exactly is meant by ‘change’ in the context of same-sex attraction?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

Similar to contrasting views of “choice,” discussion of “change” in relation to sexual orientation is challenging – especially given the aggressive way change has often been portrayed and pursued in the past.

Fighting, Fixing & Forcing. As demonstrated across many accounts, it has been common in the past to see same-sex attraction as something that can and should be “conquered,” “fixed” and “beat like an addition”:

  • This was something I was going to fix. I had all these plans in place, this game plan, and I was going to beat this….I saw it as an addiction. (VH-LWJ)
  • Maybe I’m broken and I just need to fix me…if I go to therapy enough and if I work hard enough, I will be like everybody else. (FB-JE)

As reflected here, some anticipate that their attraction to the same gender will eventually just go away – especially, for one man, “if they give that service and their whole heart to God and making sure they are bringing people into His fold then as a blessing He would take away that trial from them and from me. I went on my mission with that same intent thinking I would just serve as hard as I could and that if I kept praying it would just go away” (VH-JT). Others added:

  • I just kept thinking it’s going to go away. It’s going to go away. I’ve been praying, I’ve been faithful, I’m going on a mission, and I love being a missionary. It’s going to work out. And when I come back I’m going to want to date women so badly. And it’s just going to be great. (FB-ER)
  • I remember saying a prayer and saying, “If I join this Church and enter into the waters of baptism then I will never look back; I’ll never think about this again.” I was pretty certain that if I joined the Church then my feelings would go away. If I prayed hard enough and I thought hard enough about focusing on Christ and the gospel then I felt like these feelings would go away. (VH-WW)
  • I would pray to Heavenly Father to make it go away…I prayed and prayed and prayed to have my attractions to other men go away (VH-LJ)
  • I made a promise to God that, if He would heal me or fix me rather, that I would serve faithfully and do my best. I went out there believing whole heartedly that when I came home, or when I would come home, that these would be all taken care of and so I worked my butt off….I loved being a missionary, especially knowing that when I got home, this would all be gone. ​(VH -PMD)​

While some attempt to “fix” it through prayer or mission service or baptism, others attempt the same through therapy or marriage itself. Ultimately, as reflected in the last quote, some try making some kind of grand “bargain” with God:

  • I decided I was going to follow the Church plan and to go with the gospel and do everything perfectly. If I did everything perfectly I kind of made this bargain with God. I said, “Okay, if I do everything perfectly then please take this away…” I think it was for four months I did my home teaching the first of every month; I did my calling to every extent that I knew, and every little bit of living the gospel I did to a T – I read my scriptures every day, I prayed multiple times a day, I put forth the strongest effort I knew how…(VH-SB)
  • I tried to bargain with God and I said, “If I magnify my calling to the best that I can, will you please take this away from me? And if I read my scriptures every night and I become the best member that I can, will you please take this away from me?” (FB-BR)
  • I did a lot of praying, a lot of bartering with God. I said, “I will do this if you will take this away. I promise I will try to get married …I will serve and be a good person and all these things if you will just take this away. (VH-WW)

Out of this same mentality, daily practice comes to center around constant control and fighting:

  • I’ve tried to white knuckle it. I tried to resist or to just suppress my feelings for a very long time because those were bad. ‘You’re not supposed to feel that way; that is wrong.’ (VH-JO)
  • I felt like enduring to the end was just white-knuckle in horrible misery until the end. (VH-SB)
  • I worked at not feeling. At one point I had tried so hard to stop feeling the way I felt. (FB-L)
  • I have to fight every day…fighting through those attractions. (VH-JN)

Unsurprisingly, this kind of aggressive, controlling mentality leads to only growing despair and hopelessness:

  • Those were some of my darkest times …when I was on my knees every night praying that this would be taken from me. (FB-ST)
  • I didn’t know what else to do, because I had spent hours on my knees praying, begging God to fix me because I hated that about myself. (FB-JA)

As reflected here, self-condemnation grows out of this kind of mentality.  Rather than re-think the fundamental approach, some speak of their urgency and desire only increasing:  “My desperation grew to get fixed, for lack of a better word” (FB-BE)

The despair is compounded by discovering the attraction not “going away completely.”  As one man recounted, “I still felt I couldn’t shake the feelings of the attraction. There were boys in my ward that I was very attracted to…the feelings only got stronger” (VH-WW).

Out of the conflict between that and their religious convictions, some begin to reach dire conclusions about their lives:

  • I just felt exhausted, and I was ready to give up. I was ready to say, “You know what, I don’t know that I can do this.” (VH-SB)
  • I felt that it would have been better to not be alive (FB-L)
  • There was a day specifically I remember thinking, you know, it’d be better off if I died (FB-KE)

Some also spoke of reaching new conclusions about God: “I remember countless nights of just being on my knees, pleading and crying until I fell asleep, only to wake up the next morning knowing that it hadn’t been taken away from me and that left me feeling worthless because it’s like he wasn’t listening anymore” (FB-BR).

Tragically, some people never find a way out of this desperate and aggressive space. Understanding the suffering that leads some to take their lives represents rock-solid common ground that is a priority for everyone – especially learning how to prevent it in the future (see separate discussion here).

One step that many people now agree on is taking steps to move beyond the kind of aggressive and controlling approaches described above.

Stopping the Fighting, Fixing and Forcing. Something profound takes place when someone decides to simply stop this kind of aggressive fighting with themselves or their own feelings. As described by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, “we are going to be looking deeply into each moment with full acceptance and not trying to force ourselves to be different from how we are right now.”

Laying aside the different ways this self-acceptance unfolds, people almost universally experience the cessation-of-fighting as hugely relieving.  Compared to a past where one woman said, “I thought about dying and I thought about hurting all the time,” she described the effect of finding greater levels of acceptance: “and today I don’t. Today life is so beautiful. I look around and I see so much beauty and I’m so excited to be alive. I’m so excited for the next year of my life and twenty years of my life. And maybe even forty years of my life and I look forward to living. And that feels awesome. And anybody out there who wonders if life is worth living, it is…You matter” (FB-JE).

In what follows, different pathways people chart moving forward are reviewed, based on diverse personal accounts.  Each pathway builds on the basic acceptance just described.

  1. “It’s time to embrace this as my life…” For some, the pain and suffering of trying to aggressively control same-sex attraction leads to a complete acceptance of these feelings as who they are. One man said, “What changed was I reached a point where I didn’t want to struggle anymore. I wanted to let this inner part of me out and just be gay and see how that played out for me…I just wanted to be myself. I just wanted to try and find myself” (VH-JN).

As reflected here, acceptance for some people involves reaching a conclusion that these attractions reflect their fundamental self: “Just find you…you are perfect the way you are” (FB-JE)

After so much fixing, forcing and controlling, there is a predictable relief that arises simply from not expending so much energy in that resistance anymore. Given the psychological stress of this chronic in-fighting, cessation brings with it a calm of its own.

Recounting his experience of “praying and just begging for an answer or release from what I felt,” for instance, one man said, “and no answer ever came.”  He continued:  “And after a while I, I stopped denying” – recounting a process of breaking through to acceptance:  “I think the hardest part was admitting to myself initially what was going on – how I felt. Once that was over, once I finally said, ‘This is me,’ ‘This is who I am’…it got easier.” (FB-L)

When the anticipated change doesn’t happen, others reach a conclusion that nothing can or will ever change in the future:

  • I thought that I could still fix it, but it didn’t really resolve the problem that I had wanted it to resolve. I still felt gay, I wasn’t attracted to my companions per se, but I just, I came to this conclusion that it wasn’t going away (FB-KE)
  • That’s where I really decided that I was gay and…there wasn’t anything that was going to change (FB-NI)
  • I had a very, very difficult time and hit a very great depression and that’s when I had to confront these basic issues that I’m gay, that I’m attracted to men and the feelings are not going away, no matter what I do. (FB-DE)

This conclusion is generally accepted enough as to be largely taken for granted in conversation. For example, in a 2015 article entitled, “Evangelicals, the last gay marriage holdouts,” Jonathan Rausch described young people as increasingly accepting “that gay people cannot change who we are.”

Because most of public conversation elaborates this first approach, more space will be given to developing this second option.

2. “This is something I need to accept…” While rejecting the aggressive approach described earlier, others reach a different conclusion about what to do next. For some, their basic acceptance is followed not by accepting same-sex attraction as fundamental to identity, but instead, coming to work with these attractions in a more generous and gentle away.

This includes some limits on how far people decide this attraction should guide their future. As one man described it, “it is not trying so hard to get rid of these feelings, but accepting that they are there and owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay; that doesn’t have to determine everything about my future. And it doesn’t necessarily have to define who you are; those feelings aren’t all of you” (VH-BLH)

Leaving behind the patterns of forcing and fixing above, some describe a challenging journey to find a better approach. One man who had whole heartedly expected God to just take his attractions to men away, said: “I distinctly remember getting on my knees and I prayed and I said, ‘God, I’ve done my part, I’ve served, I’ve been faithful, I’m ready. Take it away.’ I waited and I waited and I thought, ‘I’m not feeling anything. I’m not feeling the feelings gone.’ But, I felt peace, and I remember distinctly thinking, ‘no, that’s not what I’m supposed to feel…’ I felt peace. I was confused by that and yet I was comforted.” ​(VH -PMD)​

He continued his description of a personal turning point:

I remember the Spirit coming and saying, “close your eyes, and just feel.” I closed my eyes and I thought, if the Savior were here, what would He be doing? In my mind’s eye, I saw Him and I saw Him walk—and He was there with us—and He didn’t take it away. He didn’t heal. He didn’t change everybody like I had always prayed for and hoped for. He was just there. He comforted and He understood. That was the single moment that I changed, that was the moment that I thought, “this is possible then.” ​(VH -PMD)​[1]

Others describe reaching similar conclusions:

  • It’s not about overcoming same sex attraction. It’s not about being healed from it. It’s about being healed through the process of coming to know yourself, coming to know the real you. (​VH-SMT)​
  • I spent so long praying that my same-sex attraction would be taken away and I’m learning that He is taking me where I want to be, not without my same-sex attraction, but with it. (VH-LWJ)

The challenge of accepting same-sex attraction as a part of one’s experience, while still seeking to live in alignment with deeper spiritual commitments is a practice that some people sought help with.

Speaking of his experience with therapy, support groups and weekend retreats, one man says, “I don’t really consider them reparative therapy because they didn’t seem there to fix me, or to change me, or make me straight. That wasn’t their intent in my judgment. Their intent was to help me realize the life that I wanted to live with no promises to what may or may not happen to my attraction. But they were empowering and that process of self-realization in going through counseling, and pursuing the help that I needed was incredibly empowering for me” (VH-SB)

This contrasts with the fix-and-force approach described earlier, with its focus on getting away from the feelings – which is still how some people experienced therapy – e.g., in one man’s words, a therapist “handed me material on how to overcome and essentially squash this part of myself…[and] just dismiss this side of me that was attracted to men” (FB-JE).

Given the contrasting views and experiences of Sexual-Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), the aim here is to represent nuances in how different approaches are seen and experienced.  Within a larger context dominated by aggressive psychological treatments generally, even a counselor explicitly not trying to “get rid” of the feelings can be misinterpreted. Speaking of his religious counselor, one man said:

His concern wasn’t getting rid of the same-sex attraction, it was helping me learn to deal with it, but I misunderstood all that, and somewhere in me I felt like I had to be done with the same-sex attraction before I could be a worthy missionary, and before I could be affective. As a result, my perfectionism in getting rid of the same-sex attraction and all that, and just becoming straight was the whole goal instead of learning from the trial. The perfectionism brought on depression, sadness, increased stress, and anxiety. It got to be so much that I was not functional…We probably spent a couple of hours a day in the apartment just for me to recuperate just from any of the emotions I was feeling. (VH-SF)

One man spoke of his therapist recommending, “I go to a weekend that was really life changing for me. It helped me to start recognizing the connections I needed with other men and how to get those connections met in a healthy way” (VH-DEC).

Out of different kinds of experience, some describe changing how they saw masculinity generally.  One man spoke of becoming “okay with embracing some of my masculine traits.”  He continued: “I guess I had a very negative view of males before; they seemed very aggressive, uncaring, and unspiritual. They helped me to see some of the positive things males have that females don’t and to embrace some of those qualities in myself….That helped me view myself more as a part of this world of men. I had always previously referred to men in the third person – them rather than us” (VH-JAJ).  Another said, “I had grown up thinking things that were taught to me and I just kind of accepted that I am not masculine. I have mannerisms, or my voice, or other things that I’m interested in, the activities I prefer doing – none of those things are masculine.” He added, “That was life changing and I began to realize different things about myself that I had never known before – including “learning that I was masculine for the first time and being able to accept myself.”

For this man, it led him to a place where he said, I “began to love myself. That was really something new for me” (VH-JO)

Rather than “squashing” the feminine parts of himself, this man described the opposite:  “I’ve been able to also to learn about how by rejecting my feminine side….or by feeling shame about my feminine side, so that part that is more sensitive or that part of me that likes to dance – by allowing that part of me to be there, and embrace it and be okay with it, I’ve been able to embrace the feminine in general and I have been able to establish better relationships with women. I realize that by rejecting the feminine in me I was rejecting the feminine as a whole. I was having difficulties in interacting with women” (VH-JO)

In particular, it was impactful for some men to experience a deeper, non-sexual intimacy with other men:

  • Ray treated me with a brand of kindness, respect, and love that I had rarely experienced. His gentle treatment was the key that unlocked the door to my heart, and caused a paradigm shift in my understanding of what it means to be a man. I felt a closeness with him that I’d never experienced before. This was what I needed! (VH-AH)
  • That was my first exposure knowing that you could love a man without being sexually involved with him. (VH-BLS)

Working with sexual attraction in new ways. Rather than anticipating (or seeking) the eradication of feelings, this effort is about helping people work with sexual attraction according to their deeper values:  “Same-sex attraction hasn’t vanished but sometimes I experience that it diminishes or that it is less. Whenever it is stronger I just have to remember to have my needs met; my need for manly connection, love, for being rested, and in tune with the spirit. I’ve learned to work on this in order to find peace and find calm. I’ve learned to be calm and more open about what I need and ask for it whenever I need it” (VH-JO)

While some talk about sexual attraction as a constant, some people do experience a natural fluidity of feelings over time, as the strength of attractions can change:  “There have always been moments where I have had that longing to be with somebody – they come and go” (VH-JT)

Different people experience different things that may impact their level of attraction.  Speaking of his own experience, one man said that when he “allowed pornography to creep in my life,” it impacted his feelings as well – “My attraction to men was much more present in my thoughts and the desire to act out physically increased” (VH-AH)

If not “taking anything away,” different people describe their experience losing themselves in service as having a powerful impact:

  • On my mission, I focused on serving the Lord and locking my heart. Same sex attraction rarely crossed my mind. Putting God first and relying on Him completely gave me the joy that I was looking for. I believe that having meaningful relationships with my mission companions and roommates also helped same sex attraction be less of an issue. As I sought to strengthen my brothers and sisters, I found that my own needs were fulfilled in serving. (VH-TL)
  • It was a wonderful spiritual experience and it was really wonderful for me to be able to serve other people and just be out there and not think about me. Throughout the whole time I actually never struggled with my sexuality. (FB-MA)
  • I had an amazing experience on my mission and I felt like a lot of my core needs were met. We had one common purpose to serve God and I felt an incredible amount of love from God and these other Elders and I just felt a connection with them. I did appreciate that I could just be myself and I felt like they had genuine love and concern for me and I for them (VH-JT)
  • I went on my mission and most of that time my same-sex attraction felt incredibly diminished.

In addition to losing oneself in service, the intimacy of close fellowship and brotherhood appears to help some live in alignment with their faith. Another mentioned a similar experience with a group of close roommates:

I wasn’t attracted to any of my roommates; it was gone. Looking back now I just had this group of guys who just thought I was amazing and I had never had that before; I had never had a group of guys who I thought they were just awesome and they thought the same about me too. During that time I realized as I looked back there was no hint of same-sex attraction. Really, it was one of the happiest times of my life. We had so much fun. They were just a good group of spiritual guys that I really connected with. (VH-DEC)

As emotional intimacy with other men is cultivated, some experience greater space to live in alignment with their faith.[2] Still others mentioned a similar experience from a growing intimacy and connection to God:

  • The more that I grew to know the love that Christ and Heavenly Father had for me, dealing with same-sex attraction became more and more easy; (VH-JN)
  • I never want to leave the Church anymore because I found out I am happy when I serve. I am happy when I get to go and serve others and lift others with my testimony. I can’t do that if I leave; I might be able to satisfy some craving, but as I immerse myself in the gospel a lot of the cravings go away. I just find myself being filled with satisfaction and happiness. (VH-RC)

Although the idea of individuals cultivating closer connections to those of the same gender may feel counterintuitive,[3] some people find it really helpful.

Another kind of change. Rather than trying to change attraction itself, these people came to focus on changing their relationship to God:  “I think a lot of the pressure came off when I made it more about aligning my life and my thoughts with what God wants me to do, and really figuring out what God wants me to do, as opposed to trying really hard to have these heterosexual feelings for Lindsay. Or just to get rid of it completely” (VH-BLH)

As a result, some talk about personal growth and an increase in faith through their experience of same-sex attraction.  One man reflected:  “In the book of John chapter nine people are asking Jesus Christ about this man that is blind. They ask whose fault is it, is it his fault? Is it his parents? And he says it is nobody’s fault but it is so that the works of God may be made manifest in him. I know that we have these trials so that we can see God working in our life, we can see the love He has for us. We can see miracles happen” (VH-LJ)

He added, “I have come to see my same-gender attraction as something that can really teach me. I‘ve learned so much because of it. My relationship with Heavenly Father has grown so much. I have become more charitable. I can accept other people’s differences, and I can see past one little part of them that might seem different” (VH-LJ)

Several described their experience of same-sex attraction as an opportunity to come closer to God[4]  One man described, “how much closer to the Savior I am because of my same-sex attraction. I thought, ‘Wow, I am actually pretty lucky; I am pretty grateful for it.’” (VH-JO).  Others added:

  • I know I have this for a reason….Most things that happen in my life that are hard, I just sort of push through it, I go and do it myself….Same-gender attraction has forced me down on my knees to ask for help. There is nothing else in my life that has made me turn to Heavenly Father for help like this. I have spent so much time on my knees; so much time in prayer trying to find guidance and peace. (VH-LJ)
  • I have been able to use same-sex attraction as a stepping stone, as a tool, and something that I could use to push my faith to my Heavenly Father and bring me true happiness. I don’t think I would have true happiness if it weren’t for same-sex attraction, and I believe that with all my heart. Every fiber of my happiness right now has come from me putting my faith in my Heavenly Father and knowing that He loves me. I have so much faith in Christ. He knows what you are going through and what I’m going through. He knows every pain that there is out there. Every struggle out there He has gone through. To me that lets me know that I can have faith in Him.(VH-JN)
  • So therein, same-sex attraction, far more than just being this trial or this burden to be borne, has been one of the biggest harbingers of blessings in my life that I have ever had because it has brought me closer to my Savior, my Heavenly Father, and brought me closer to all the loved ones around me than anything I thought possible. It has also made me work to a point where I feel so much love for myself and so much determination in what I want, and so much hope that I can achieve those things. (VH-SB)

Another concluded, “The power of the strength that I can get from Christ is more powerful than any mistake I could make. No matter what I do He is always willing to forgive me and bring me back. He wants me to come back, and He is not waiting for me to make a mistake; He wants me to do the right things, and He wants me to improve. To me that is the beautiful truth of the gospel.” (VH-SF)

One described “coming to a knowledge and really strong belief that I’m happier, and I’m happy because of same-gender attraction, not in spite of same-gender attraction” (VH-BLH)

Rather than having to wait for some happiness only in the future, these individuals describe what they have found in the moment:

  • I can be happy…He truly does want me to be happy and healthy in this; I can live according to the precepts of my religion and find a way to be whole and happy in this. (VH-LWJ)
  • Hope doesn’t look like an absence of same-sex attraction, the attainment of something like a career goal, the finishing of a degree, or a marriage. Hope and happiness can be had now. (VH-SB)

Even if they pursue this in different ways, this, in the end, may be a point everyone can agree on:  deep happiness and peace can and should be something to be enjoyed by people now.

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • Is moving away from an aggressive forcing, fixing and controlling approaching becoming an area of common ground between the LGBT and religious conservative communities?
  • Compared to your own perspective on “change,” how do you feel about others who see it differently?
  • Is any believe in “change” dangerous in the context of same-sex attraction – or is there an approach that can be welcomed for those who choose it?
  • Do you personally believe there is one primary path to happiness – or are there various ways people might seek and find it?

[1] In an interview with his wife, they recounted what happened next:

Those were difficult and yet faith filled days for us, for our relationship. I realized that all of those years of praying and hoping it would just go away, and praying that it would, that just wasn’t going to happen. God had a whole different plan for me. As I put my trust in Him, it’s opened up in ways that I could never describe, in words, not just peace anymore but faith, confidence, knowing who I am…discovering parts about myself that I didn’t know were there….Recognizing that I’m capable of far more than what I had limited my mindset to…That’s not been easy, and it’s a day to day thing, but my goodness, it’s awesome. I’ve seen miracles and I’ve felt joy and connection that I never dreamed was possible with my wife. I thought that was only meant to be in a homosexual relationship and that’s just not true for me. …it’s been one heck of an adventure. We have a beautiful daughter that I love to death that I never thought was possible. My future is awesome. I see myself continuing to develop into my own masculinity. I see my marriage as even more fulfilling than it has been, even though it has been remarkable. I see more children in the future. I see those spirits who are waiting to come down to my household. I see myself as a protector, as a father, as somebody committed to providing for them and teaching them the right ways. I see a brighter future than I’ve ever seen and ironically that’s through accepting these parts of myself that I thought were entirely unacceptable…That doesn’t mean living the gay lifestyle, that means taking the gifts that are in it…I know that God can do that. He’s done it with me and he will continue to do it. ​(VH -PMD)​

[2] These excerpts illustrate those who have this experience and perspective:

  • By allowing myself to pull away to go do a night of ultimate frisbee, work out with a friend, or do something like that I felt that I came back and that need for male companionship was met in a healthy way and I also felt more energy to come back to my wife. (VH-JAJ)
  • I went to this weekend that helped me understand a bit more of where these feelings come from and what I can do about them in order to keep my needs met; in order to relate to other men in healthier ways. This was a life changing event for me because I was able to understand more and I was able to have more perspective on what I needed to do in order to be happy. (VH-JO)
  • [SALLIE]: We can both tell when he hasn’t been to group, he only goes every other week, because he is in such a good place when he comes back from group that I’m like, you need to go spend some time with them.. go get some guy time because…GARRETT: There are still needs there that I need met…immediately I feel more masculine than I had, and stronger; intimacy becomes easier, not that it is difficult. (VH-GSF)

[3] One man’s wife admitted, “It was a little weird for me to be honest, because it was like, you are going to meet with guys who also like guys, and you all are going to get together, and get better? Or at least deal with this?…I was like, okay, sure go do that if you feel like it is going to help. It did; it was incredible.” Her husband added:”It felt so life changing. Even after the first…I remember walking taller after the first meeting. Walking out and feeling just so…I just felt…I didn’t feel alone anymore. I didn’t feel like I was the only one on the planet. There were all these other great guys that experienced the exact same things I did, some married, and some not….I still attend the men’s group, and it still feels like changing often where I just feel more whole than I ever have before; I feel more put together, and I just feel so much better.” His wife added, “Some of the best guys, in my opinion, that I have ever met; just really great men.” (VH-GSF)

His wife described a similar experience with a men’s weekend retreat:

He came to me and said, “I’m going to go to this men’s retreat.”…It was over a weekend…and I’m like, what? again, you want to go to this retreat with other men, and they all like men, and it is over night, I don’t understand this, and I was really nervous about it. All weekend I was super nervous about it. Anyway, so he goes to this weekend and he comes back and it was a completely different Garrett when he came back….He was so confident and he was like, “This is who I am, and I love who I am, and I can be who I am, and I can be happy.” Her husband added, “I wasn’t afraid anymore” (VH-GSF)

[4] I began to learn a lot of things about myself and Heavenly Father. One thing that really was a huge spiritual experience for me was I started to notice good attributes that I had and I started to realize that deep down I wanted righteous things. I wanted to protect people; I wanted to nurture them, I wanted to show them truth and to be able to help people and be a righteous example. I wanted to be a leader and I started making this list and I was like, “This is like Jesus Christ. All the attributes I yearn for, all the things I’m hoping to do. That is like the Savior.” I had never thought that before. I had heard people say they want to be Christ-like, I had sung that hymn before. This was the first time I had ever felt like that. It totally changed that aspect of how I saw myself. I thought, “I can’t be this creature that is worthy of loathing and the shame that I’ve carried around for all these years if really my intent is to be like Jesus Christ.” (VH-JO)

#6 What does it mean when someone accepts experiencing same-sex attraction or being gay?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.” – Margaret J. Wheatley

Within a larger world historically disapproving of same-sex relationships, it’s little wonder that “acceptance” has become an important focus – both as reflected in relation to surrounding friends and family, and in the internal experience of those who experience same-sex attraction.  In this latter, more personal sense, what exactly does acceptance mean?

Like all questions, this one does not live in a vacuum.  Moments such as the following interaction by a man with his father, illustrate some of the painful context surrounding this question: “he yelled at me…pulled me aside and he told me, ‘If I ever catch you acting or talking like a girl then I will beat you.’  It was a big turning point in my life….I started to hate myself…I wanted to get rid of it, and cure it. I hated that I had these attractions and I would hide it. I would lower my voice every chance I got in public and I would make sure I walked a certain way” (VH-JN)

As reflected here, it may be important to start talking about the opposite of self acceptance – including a fakeness and duplicity constantly projected onto the world:

  • I felt at times as if I had two lives, two parts of me – the public part that everybody saw, and the strange part that I didn’t know what to do with. But I lived with it; I was so afraid and ashamed of it that I kept it completely hidden. (VH-LWJ)
  • I was scared to death of letting anybody find out. I was scared that my parents would find out. I was scared that my friends would find out and so I hid them. I kept them all secret. I had a lot of shame…all kinds of shame about these feelings and I made certain that they would never be revealed to anybody. ​(VH -PMD)​

One man even worried that his church wouldn’t allow him to serve others if they knew about his feelings of same-sex attraction: “I was scared to death they weren’t going to let me go on my mission if I let anybody know that I had these feelings” (VH-DEC)

More than simply keeping it from those around them, individuals also spoke about trying to avoid and distract themselves from same-sex attraction – e.g., “ignoring my feelings of attraction to other guys” (FB-ME).  Others said:

  • I thoroughly ignored it and was really good at compartmentalizing and just pretending like it wasn’t there. I was aware of it in the back of my mind. It was a kind of thing I knew was in the background somewhere, and it was something that I just wanted to escape. (VH-SB)
  • I tried very hard to distract myself from all the feelings I was having….I tried to get into all these things so I wouldn’t have to think about my sexuality. (FB-AD)
  • I took on a lot of classes at school to busy my time and busy my mind. I was hiding and I was trying to cover up my emotions because I was too afraid of feeling them. ​(VH -PMD)​

For some, this avoidance was more aggressive than others, with one man saying, “I was really in denial.  Whatever that was it wasn’t homosexuality…I wasn’t gay!  I pushed them away, ignored them – thought about anything else.  Lots of shame – e.g., ‘Give me anything else!  Cancer, alcoholic – but not this!’ (VH-JTB).  Others described their past experience using forceful words like stuffing, pushing feeling away:  “I dealt with these feelings and I just stuffed them—I bottled them all up. I knew they were all there. Meanwhile, these feelings just stayed under the surface, quite a ways under” ​(VH -PMD)​; “I pushed my emotions aside, altogether ignoring them” (VH-AH)

Underlying this kind of fakeness and force, for many, was a strident resistance and hatred:  “You know, I just despised that part of me and I wanted it to go away so bad” (FB-KA). Another person said, “I tried so hard to not be attracted to guys. I knew that wasn’t normal. I never heard anything nice said about gay people. Every time I blew out birthday candles I wished to be attracted to girls, every time I threw a penny into a fountain at the mall, every time it was I made a wish – anything – that is what it was” (VH-LJ)

For some, this involved various actions designed to make the feeling go away forever:  “I went really crazy, really, really religious and thought that if I was just absolutely the perfect Mormon in every way that nobody could ever think that I was gay, and that it would just kind of go away” (FB-KA)

Unsurprisingly, these kinds of inner and outer actions were associated with sorrow and loneliness:

  • I remember many times sitting at the lunch table and just being so afraid—so afraid to be me—so afraid that I was going to be rejected….I was so alone. ​(VH -PMD)​
  • Middle school was really hard for me. I spent many nights in bed crying myself to sleep. I just was so confused; I felt so alone and I was terrified that someone would find out. I remember one night when I was thirteen I was laying on my bed and it was all dark. I finally admitted that I was attracted to guys and I whispered in the quietest whisper ever so that nobody else could possibly hear – I just whispered, “I am gay,” and I just sat there crying. (VH-LJ)

Before going on, it’s important to point out one enormous area of common ground in the comments above.  It seems more than ever, there is a striking consensus at how harmful and dangerous these kinds of forceful, aggressive and controlling approaches to sexuality have become – pressing people to feeling fake and broken, not to mention angry, fearful and depressed.

While there is agreement that this despairing place (and anything that leads people there) is harmful, there is a divergence on how exactly people arrive in this despair and what precisely is called for next.  In what follows, six different kinds of acceptance are identified based on people’s stories.[1]  Across accounts, individuals take very different approaches to acceptance,  with distinct implications that follow.

1. Acceptance of feelings[2] as being there, without needing to be forced away, fought or avoided. A first basic level of acceptance is people simply embracing the experience they are having – consistent with the mindfulness practice of ‘accepting things exactly as they are.’

One man described blessing the sacrament (an ordinance in Latter-day Saint worship),  when he noticed some attractive men.  A shaming voice in his head started up, “why have to do this again, why now?  No one else feels this!  You’re the only freak in congregation who feels this way…” He continued, “As I knelt down to say the prayer, another quiet voice said, ‘Jeff – what’s the problem?  So you have 20/20 vision, and there are beautiful people in ward…so what if you noticed?'”(VH-JTB)

“Experiences like this helped me overcome shame” (VH-JTB) the man continued. At this level of acceptance, the experience of feeling same-sex attraction is understood as not something to feel bad about:  “I know that same-sex attraction is not the end all problem that I used to think it was. I came to find out that as I met more people like me that it was perfectly possible to have a happy normal life; the shame that I had started to melt away as I met other people (VH-RC)

As reflected here, neither is this experience seen as something that is highly strange or unusual: “I’m not that much different from anybody else. I don’t have this completely weird alien thing that’s wrong with me” (VH-JO)

This also means individuals don’t have to fight or force a particular attraction away.

While people reach different evaluations about same-sex attraction, this kind of basic acceptance can become a relieving and de-burdening experience for many people:  “It was a huge burden off my shoulders [when I was] finally able to admit it to myself. I, I just I love life now. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Beyond the basic value of accepting experience, what exactly to make of the experience reflects meaningful differences – as explored later on.

2. Acceptance of sharing openly about feelings as potentially helpful. As reflected above, people often spend years not acknowledging these attractions to others as well:

  • I was happy on the outside – and I even fooled myself into thinking everything was okay…there was always hiding behind that happy face everyone expected I would put on. I said the things I knew I was supposed to say – but I didn’t believe a single word of what I was saying. (VH-JL)
  • As you get older and they start asking you about girls and who you think is cute or hot and I just remember having to make up stories about it – having to pretend like I understood what they were saying or I agreed with them. I just kind of went along with it because I knew if I said what I really felt that it would be completely different and completely awkward. So you put on a façade and pretend like everything is fine and I guess you get really good at it and keep your mouth shut. (VH-ML)
  • I had a lot of people that come up to me all the time and they say, “Jeff, you are the happiest person I know,” and I am thinking to myself, “You are talking to somebody who is actively thinking about killing himself.” I would say, “Okay, why am I the happiest person you know?” And they would say, “It’s because you’re always smiling.” I’m like, “If you only knew that the reason why I smile is so that you didn’t know how messed up I am.” (VH-JO)

Given this kind of a past, being able to simply talk openly about one’s feelings of attraction represents another significant de-burdening for many: “I remember just feeling a weight lift off my shoulders just being able to say that out loud” (FB-TY)

Putting some kind of language on it allows people to feel more honest: “But I’m so glad that I was actually able to tell her, no matter what manner was, because it’s out there now and it was the first time that I’ve actually been able to feel like I am one person and not two…not feeling like I am some person that I’m portraying to people and then the person who I think I really am on the inside” (FB-CH)

Although open sharing is another relief for many, how exactly to talk about same-sex attraction is another question of meaningful difference.  For instance, many in this moment of honesty adopt a language identifying with the gay community – “I am gay…I am bisexual…I am transgender.”  For others, this identification does not resonate, with a preference for describing their “same-sex attraction” as something they are primarily experiencing.

How exactly people understand “being gay” in relation to acceptance can also vary considerably across people.  For some, it clearly implies embracing this attraction as natural, healthy and fundamentally who they are (see #4-6 below).  Others who speak of “being gay” do not assume any of these things, instead simply reflecting the basic acceptance of experience and feelings (if not actions in line with the feelings, see also #7).

3. Acceptance as acknowledging God’s love. As reflected earlier, communication and assurance from God figures into a deeper level of acceptance for many: “For the first time in my life, I realized that God loved me just as I was, with those attractions and that it was okay. All the shame that was attached to them, I was able to let go of. It has been a great, wonderful blessing in my life, bringing me to the place where finally, I am at peace with me” ​(VH-DUL)​

One person said, “I needed to get this figured out – I fasted and prayed, and I asked, ‘if you’re even there, show me something – do you love me, care about me?  Does what I’m going through even matter to you?  I felt this amazing rush of energy…and knew He was there….I knew God lived’” (VH-JL).

Others added:

  • I can honestly say that I love myself, for the first time in my entire life. I can honestly tell you that I know that Heavenly Father loves me and that that doesn’t change. That me being a lesbian has nothing to do with how much he loves me, and how much he loves all of his children. (FB-AN)
  • I came to find out that God was okay with me being me; me being imperfect, and all my weaknesses, all my flaws; He was okay with all of it. He kept telling me that it was okay to be myself and I didn’t have to worry what other people thought about me and that when other people thought poorly of me they were missing out on an opportunity to learn from me. How other people thought about my situation did not have to define my life and my happiness did not have to be a function of how they treated me, of what they thought about me. I know that I am a child of God. I know that He loves me and I know that is what really matters. (VH-RC)

While feeling God’s love was another common catalyst for acceptance, what exactly it meant in practice is where meaningful difference emerged – with distinct interpretations of what these assurances mean, as touched on below.

4. Acceptance as embracing feelings as right, good, healthy and natural. Based on different, unique experiences, some people reach a point of accepting same-sex attraction as valid, healthy and good: “The thought that crossed my mind was, ‘maybe it is okay…’ As soon as that thought crossed my mind I felt an overwhelming feeling of love from God like I had never in my life felt before. It was one of the strongest feelings I’ve ever felt” (VH-LWJ)

Describing a conversation with a friend about same-sex attraction (his and others), another person said, “They’re perfect and they’re beautiful just as they are.’ And then I started to cry because I’m perfect and I’m beautiful just the way I am…it’s so nice to love and accept me. To not have to think about what I need to change. To not try to make myself fit in a box I never fit in” (FB-JE)

Others who may otherwise be accepting of experiencing same-sex attraction, do not feel right about embracing it at this level – as something natural and good.

5. Acceptance of feelings as who you are. Many also come to see and accept same-sex attraction as central to who they are:

  • I’m happy with who I am. I’m almost accepting of who I am. (FB-MA)
  • And that’s how I hope to proceed is authentic as possible as I embrace who I am in all parts of my identity. (FB-AN)

Others who accept the basic experience of same-sex attraction do not go on to identify with it as central to their fundamental identity (read here for more exploration of this contrast).

6. Acceptance of feelings as a challenging life experience. For others, the acceptance of feelings does not imply either that this is ultimately good or “who they are” fundamentally.  Instead, some speak of accepting this as a life challenge to face with grace: “The Spirit told me ‘Jeff, you need to own up to this as a part of you…’ In my prayer life, the spirit kept urging me to accept this as a part of me, a part of my journey, a part of my growth.  I never felt that God condemned this vulnerability – I never ever felt condemned by God.  But I certainly condemned myself” (VH-JTB)

As reflected in many accounts, there is a distinction between accepting feelings and clinging to/grasping after those feelings.  One man explained that it wasn’t a problem that he was attracted to other men – adding, “There is a problem when you fantasize further than that” (VH-JO). Jeff above also drew the line between feeling something and lusting (VH-JTB).

 Living Out Contrasting Visions of Acceptance.  As with the other questions considered in this series, depending on the interpretation and view of acceptance adopted, distinct implications follow. 

 Different ways to ‘live-out’ attraction.  Depending on the particular view of same-sex attraction, individuals pursue different ways of ‘living it out.’  For instance, once people embrace same-sex attraction as natural and healthy (and especially as who they are), they are likely to also accept the following and yielding to these feelings in actual life experience.  One person described reaching the point “that I’m actually being who I am in every facet of my life” (FB-CH).

By contrast, those who do not necessarily accept same-sex attraction as natural, healthy and who they are, may not feel comfortable living it out in the same way.  One man said, “I never pursued it in any form or aspect” (VH-LWJ).  Others, however, may however “live-out” their attraction in other unique ways – stopping short of pursuing romantic partners in their same sex.


Different social responses.  Given the charged atmosphere around, the particular narrative of acceptance also prompts unique social responses.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the extent to which those who accept feelings as healthy and who they are celebrated in larger culture (if not within religious conservative communities).

The larger trend is clearly towards celebrating and glorifying this kind of acceptance:

  • I’m in a place where I accept myself and accept my relationships, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about me (FB-L)
  • But what I’m really grateful for is that…I’ve embraced who I am. I’ve been living life as full as I can. And so I can look forward to the future with confidence that the individual I am as both gay and Mormon is an individual to be celebrated. And I celebrate myself and I have those that rally around me to help me do that. (FB-AN)

Anything short of embracing same-sex attraction fully is increasingly framed as dangerous and unhealthy – “It’s very important to me to live a genuine lifestyle. And I spent the first half my life, certainly forty years, pretending to be something that I’m not to please others. And well I know that my actions don’t always please everybody that’s a part of my life, I have to live the kind of life that will make me happy and bring me honest joy” (FB-BR).

From this vantage point, the alternative to full acceptance is varying levels of denial:  “that’s when I realized that I had to stay in denial or, or suffer I guess I wouldn’t even admit to myself because if admitted to myself then that meant it would be true I refused to admit it even in my head to myself ‘cause that would make it true” (FB-L).

From this perspective, the final version of acceptance described above wouldn’t even be accepted-as-a-kind-of-acceptance!

From another perspective, the #6 version of acceptance is both legitimate and crucial to preserve – allowing people who do not see same-sex attraction as fundamental to who they are to embrace a life in line with that conviction.

Rather than a downer, for many this can reflect some hope at being able to follow the path they value most:  “I may not be married and I may not have lived very long, but I know that by living the gospel of Jesus Christ I can be married, I can have a family, and I can have all the blessings that I have desired from the time that I was a little kid” (VH-RC)

Different decisions about family.  Depending on the perspective of acceptance taken, this may lead to very different decisions about family.

For instance, there are many accounts of people coming to accept same-sex attraction as “who they are” – who then decide to leave a spouse and children to pursue a same-sex relationship.

Those who accept same-sex attraction as a something they are experiencing – without a need for shame – may not feel the same press to leave their marriage and pursue a same-sex partner.  Even so, one man spoke of the new uncertainty that arose in his marriage as he accepted the basic experience of the attraction.  “I allowed myself to be a man attracted to men…[My wife] was there by my side working through it – of what does this mean, what does it mean for you, for us, for her, what does it mean for our children? What does that mean?” (VH-LWJ)

Obviously, there are major implications that stem from the particular view of “acceptance” adopted.  Making these levels – and their ensuing consequences – is the purpose of the foregoing.  As with all the essays, the aim is to help facilitate a more productive conversation – making authentic space for people to make choices best for them.

In summary, there is a remarkably large amount of common ground in (a) concern at the various levels of self-loathing and un-acceptance that are engendered within the gay/SSA communities and (b) appreciation for the value of a basic acceptance of the experience of attraction as something non-shameful and okay to talk about, as well as an acceptance of God’s love.  In that experience of God’s love, there is also a common (albeit clearly not universal) appreciation of people’s basic goodness – reviewed elsewhere.

What exactly to make of these basic assurances is something about which wide variation exists.

All in all, perhaps people on all sides can appreciate the courage and difficulty of life journeys as people explore these complex and life-changing questions.  As one person said, “really has been through this long, heart wrenching, heart breaking process that I have been able to find the courage within myself to pick up the pieces, and to put my heart back together” (FB-AN)

 Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • What does personal acceptance mean for you in the context of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
  • For the people you know who experience same-sex attraction or identify as gay, what does self-acceptance mean?
  • Is it a problem when the same terms (“acceptance”) are being used in our larger conversation, with widely different meanings?

 Notes:  [If you have other questions to add, accounts to include, or further clarifications to suggest, please post them below!]

[1] This list does not presume to be either comprehensive or complete; instead, it reflects my own best map of what I’ve seen in the larger discourse and individual narratives gathered.  Like all the other maps, I plan on continuing to revise with further input and examples; please send suggestions!

[2] The term “feelings” is used here as a generic short-hand for same-sex attraction.  While acknowledging that same-sex attraction goes well beyond affect and emotion (to include physiological/biological urges), the generic term is used to keep the focus on variations in acceptance – and not distract with the continued usage of terms (like “same-sex attraction”) that have become charged and controversial.

**I received this note from a close friend after reading this blog, describing her husband’s experience (with his permission), as someone who “has gone through several levels of acceptance throughout his life”:

At one time he fully accepted himself as “gay” and approached another male and was rejected, to now having almost no same-sex thoughts and using mindfulness to let the thoughts pass by…He never imagined that he would be married and have kids. He mourned the family he would never have. Then when he met me and told me his “secret”; my ability to love him unconditionally and truly accept him is part of what has changed his life.

I have also gone through varying stages of acceptance of his attractions and have grown from having some jealousy and resentment to full acceptance of all the parts of him. I love the part of him that makes him gentle, kind, and an amazing father. He is soft spoken and this has been a blessing to me, as he has never yelled at me. He has low testosterone but we have never wanted him to take hormones that might change his personality. He has great fashion and helps me find the best clothes that flatter me and it’s fun to shop with him. Many of the stereotypical “gay” traits are reasons why I love him. I fell in love with him BC he was safe and I’d never felt as safe with anyone else. His “gayness” was part of what I loved. He also tells me that I am the only female that he’s ever been attracted to and that he’s “too vain” to marry someone he wasn’t attracted to. I know that he values the covenants and promises we made together in the temple and I have never worried about him leaving me or having an affair. We see his thoughts as an earthly trait and something he can’t control or choose, but he can choose his behavior and how long he thinks about other men. He has honestly found that accepting the thoughts as “just thoughts” vs feeling shame and self-hate, he has less of them than ever.

Can we disagree about ‘who we are’…without becoming enemies?

I was invited by the editor of an international forum to write some reflections about the Mormon conversation in the wake of the recent LDS policy clarification. That abbreviated article published November 30, 2015 omitted some important details, motivating me to release the full version here – which has been elaborated upon as well.  Although the original title, “How Caitlyn Jenner Became a Hero and the Mormon Prophets, Villains” accurately captures, for me, a fascinating shift in the larger discourse, some helpful feedback helped me realize that this title unnecessarily distracted from the overriding invitation towards greater space for curiosity and understanding which drives my work.

A profound cultural sea change is happening right now – that much we can agree on. What exactly to make of that change is where the sparks start to fly.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the very-much-a-battleground state of Utah (and the associated Mormon diaspora), illustrated most recently by sharply disparate responses to a clarified policy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding congregants living in gay marriages and their resident children.

Members that used to unite with brothers and sisters in love for latter-day prophets now openly feud about whether hatred or cruelty is motivating what one person called “those despicable bigots who run the Mormon church.”

What changed? How do people move from one place to another so remarkably different? And what’s behind the larger conflict anyway?

I’m convinced that any one of these questions could invoke striking curiosity – pressing us (all) towards a potentially fascinating conversation…if only people (on both sides) weren’t so darn certain of everything!

“Something is broken,” one Mormon commentator writes, “so terribly, terribly broken and I think it’s time that we named that brokenness…My hope is that We as the church will find the strength, the voice, the power and the fearlessness to claim the church back from the Upper Rooms [of the Temple – i.e., where the prophets meet].” Or as another said less poetically about the recent decision, “This comes [not from God, but] from the raggedy old men that want to control everybody’s life.”

For many, this essential perspective is held without question – passed along as so patently true that it’s hardly treated like ‘a point of view’ anymore.

Something similar happens on the other side too (that’s my side, by the way) – where religious conservatives are prone to attribute this conflict almost entirely to ‘those angry gay activists’ hell bent on destroying religion out of hatred for ‘anything or anyone that opposes them.’

I don’t believe that. Neither do I believe Mormon prophets are finally showing their true colors as villains despicable enough to ‘take this out on the children!’[1]

And yet, aren’t we living in a day when we Americans (on all sides of the political spectrum) just love these kinds of simple, black-and-white explanations – especially those that identify a recognizable enemy, while reaffirming our own moral superiority?

From ‘those troublemaker Muslims’ to ‘those dangerous immigrants’ to ‘those hateful Mormons’ to ‘those godless gay activists,’ it’s become so much easier to simply place the blame on a deficient sub-class of human beings, rather than doing the hard work of exploring and growing in our understanding together of what really divides otherwise good-hearted people (doing their best with what they most deeply believe and see to be true).[2]

When it comes to the LGBT/religious conservative divide, in particular, our portrayals of ‘those other people’ have become increasingly stark and dramatic. On one hand, we insist the source of the conflict is people with not enough faith in their hearts. On the other hand, it’s people with not enough love in their hearts. On one side, people lament a stubborn refusal to accept dissent from a particular sexual orthodoxy; on the other, they lament a blind refusal to allow adjustments to a particular religious orthodoxy.

For me, at least, the problem with this dramatic dichotomy is that it just doesn’t add up – not on the most basic of empirical tests.  Over the last two decades, I’ve come to know (many) faithful, vibrant, loving people on all sides of this conversation.  If not boiling down to a fundamental contrast in innate goodness and badness, then what’s going on?

Welcome to Story Wars.  In a galaxy not far away – and pretty much front and center in all our lives – an endlessly fascinating, increasingly intense clash continues to unfold between profoundly conflicted narratives that shape life (for all of us).

For instance, central to both Mormonism and the gay rights movement are defining and formative pronouncements of core identity. For those in the LGBTQI community, for instance, sexual orientation is held to be a centrally defining feature of one’s identity.[3]

From this vantage point, it’s totally understandable why any sort of disagreement may be experienced as somehow a rejection of people themselves (rather than simply a rejection of how people see themselves).

And admittedly, if I believed Mormon leaders were actively seeking to encourage its membership to reject who people really were…heck, I would be angry too!

But I’m not.  Because that’s not what I personally see as happening at all.

There’s another identity story at play here…

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ relish what they call the “restored gospel” precisely for the new narrative it introduces about who we are and where we come from – a “re-storying” of life that we embrace as a true reflection of things as they are.

This includes a conception of God as not a vapor, or an essence or an immensity filling all space – but as a literal Father coupled with our glorious Mother – by whom we inherit a “divine potential” at the very deepest level of our own DNA.

No matter whatever else is faced or felt in life, the future possibilities of ‘growing up to be like Mom and Dad’ touch every aspect of life for the Mormon community.  That’s a large part of why we get married, enjoy children and family, and have an interest in sharing our convictions with the rest of the world. As one of our apostles has said, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”

Rather than mere abstractions, these competing identity narratives lead to very practical and real-life consequences – especially for Mormons:  Should I leave my marriage?  Should I step away from the Church? Where will I find my fullest, deepest happiness?

Depending on the narrative adopted as ‘reality,’ very different things follow.

Some Examples.  Over the last year, the individual formerly known as Bruce Jenner received major attention for transitioning from a gender identity of male to female.  Within the prevailing narrative of sexuality and identity, the decision to now identify as Caitlyn was widely celebrated, with those raising questions mostly seen as simply being unaccepting or unloving.

Needless to say, space for an open conversation has been scarce – including for people intimately involved in similar situations, and especially if they hold a different view of identity. For instance, one Mormon mother described watching her married daughter with children experience confusion about her gender, to the point where her daughter now believed that she was, in fact, male or transgender.

From one narrative, this daughter is responding naturally to the simple reality of her experience – and in the only way she could.  From the perspective of this mother who spent years raising this beloved child, however, she described a heavy heart in seeing her daughter “planning to cut off her body parts and take hormones which will forever change her features as well as her personality.”  From this vantage point, a mother describes her grief at “watching my daughter prepare to ‘disappear herself’ forever and I have been told that I must accept her choice.”

She adds, “I also never realized how devastating it is to have a child turn themselves into someone so completely unrecognizable inside and out, to the point that they cease to exist as the person the parent always knew and loved.”

The purpose here, by the way, is not to establish or try to confirm who ‘we really are.’[4] I’m satisfied living in a world where we disagree on that point – especially if we could make space for different conclusions and get curious about how these play out in our diverse experiences of sexuality, family and life itself.

In the case of this mother’s story, for instance, what might be seen by many as a disappointing lack of acceptance of ‘who her daughter really is,’ becomes from another perspective an understandable desire to hold on to ‘who her daughter really is.’

Without necessarily expecting to resolve this kind of a question, it seems to me that fairly acknowledging different ways such a situation might be framed could be an enormous step forward.  In wartime, of course, both side of a conflict are highly incentivized to do the opposite – characterizing the other side in terms largely unrecognizable to the ‘enemy.’[5]

Even if we cannot escape such philosophical conflicts, perhaps we can at least agree to describe the contrast of positions in a way different people find ‘fair enough’ and understandable?

As a final example, take this vignette from a Mormon-identifying parent who also now identifies as gay: “Today I finally sat down with my two active, Mormon children to explain the new policy to them.”  Both teens are active in the Church – and were unsettled at what the policy would mean for them – now or in the future.  She continued, “My daughter just cried and cried. I feel lost and unequipped to help them.”

So here’s the question, once more:  Is the sorrow expressed in this account (and the other one too), a result of: (a) the larger story encouraging people to identify as children of Divine Parents as fundamental to who they are (b) the larger story encouraging people to identify as LGBTQI as fundamental to who they are or (c) the clash between both?

As satisfying as it might temporarily feel to portray the other side as nothing more than heathens or haters, I think we can do far better than that.

Looking Forward. What if we got curious about the clash of stories – leaving ourselves open to the possibility that (1) no one has this all figured out (2) any one of us – myself included – could be totally wrong about something and (3) what we’re facing, most fundamentally, is not a contest between superior and deficient human beings – but instead, between otherwise good-hearted, thoughtful people with some pretty big philosophical differences?

To me, at least, this represents a more plausible explanation of the conflict than the relentless (and wearisome) attempts (on both sides of the political spectrum) to portray ‘those people’ as mean-spirited and malicious. As I’ve already said, rather than questioning or resisting or challenging people themselves (which is painfully and inescapably personal and divisive), this becomes squarely about questioning or resisting or challenging competing stories about people (which is still personal and challenging, but without provoking the same division).

And out of this very pivot point, I’m convinced another conversation could emerge entirely – focused not on simply who is loving (or not), faithful (or not) or hateful (or not) – but also what exactly it means to be hateful or faithful or loving, alongside meaningful differences in consider where happiness and suffering originate [6], different perspectives on the African-American civil rights analogy, and other fascinating distinctions in our definitions of choice and change.

And what is that conversation like?

It’s transformative  – and it’s intense.  Yes, it’s (sometimes) hard.  But it’s also (many times) crazy fun. And it’s (almost always) enriching, clarifying and complexity-expanding.

That doesn’t mean the stories just go away. But they can certainly evolve and mature in surprising ways, [7] as we find greater nuance and insight, as well as some new life-long friends.

We may never reach agreement or some final resolution (or even ‘respect’ for each others’ views, by the way, which has never been an expectation for these conversations).  But holding everything else constant, what if agreed to simply respect each other as people – as someone whose feelings and views were worth really hearing out and considering (if not necessarily being accepted as ‘valid’).

There’s plenty you can do, starting TODAY, to experience this for yourself.  But as long as you see this as exclusively a contest between the Dark Side and YOUR side…well, then all this stuff will feel either uninteresting or misguided or ‘dangerous.’

My message to those who insist on an emerging consensus where we can all agree to ‘accept people,’ is to not overlook the deeper Story War going on as well.  This narrative contrast, which nicely gives birth to our various ‘heroes’ and villains,’ is also something that I’ve argued revolves not simply around different levels of love, but very pointedly around different narratives of identity.

And that’s why I would say with confidence that my people can respect Caitlyn.  We can embrace her in every way a good neighbor might. [4]

But don’t be baffled or shocked if we resist fully accepting how Caitlyn sees herself – not as reflective of who she really, ‘fundamentally is.’[8]

That many of us simply cannot do…not without walking away from our own core Story about identity as well.



Notes:  Whether you loved or hated this, I would be curious and benefit from your candid responses. In the end, I’m just one person sharing my ideas for a more productive conversation – not pretending to have things ‘all figured out.’ All comments – unless you are selling testosterone-boosting supplements – will be posted…!

[1] In order to reach that conclusion about children and the prophets, someone has to ignore at least twenty profoundly important questions – reflecting meaningful disagreement on both the LDS handbook changes and gay rights overall. To be clear, I don’t believe this level of oversight is happening maliciously, but instead as a predictable outgrowth of our profound inattention to the many interpretive dimensions of this (potentially rich) conversation.

[2] David Blankenhorn calls this “achieving disagreement.” To speak of “good-hearted people,” by the way, is not to claim that everyone is somehow always good-hearted – since we all have our tendency to drift from that.  But one feature of generous dialogue is seeking to give disagreeing conversation partners the benefit of the doubt – assuming that they believe what they do, not out of a malicious heart – but instead out of sincerely held convictions that differ from our own.

[3] As detailed below, orthodox Mormons are equally insistent about their own fundamental identity. In both cases, this is one of the most sensitive and personal questions of all – impinging on our deepest views of ourselves.  This clash between identity narratives is both complex and extensive – spanning biological, sexual, emotional, interpretative and religious levels.  It is this nuance and complexity that pushed me to wonder – “well, maybe we should at least try having an open conversation about these differences?” For a more thorough review of the contrasts at these various levels, see this separate inquiry here:  The Disagreement at the Heart of the LGBT/Conservative Religion Conflict.

[4] If you believe that being transgender is reflective of who you or your spouse or son or daughter or brother or friend is, you will find me and millions of Mormons ready to welcome you as our beloved neighbor. One of my dearest neighbors identifies as transgender and consistently tells people how loved and welcomed he has been by our local community of Mormons – including in his occasional attendance at worship service. The central point in this essay is not to impugn any particular choice – but instead, to highlight the degree to which larger narratives shape and influence the experiences we all have and the conclusions we all reach.

The central aim here is not to convince people to see identity like I do – but instead, to persuade others to see the value of making space for an open exploration of different views of identity (and many other things).

[5] That’s certainly how many of us experience the conversation right now – replete with stark mischaracterizations, misrepresentations and selective emphases designed to bolster one’s position and raze the other.  It’s possible to disagree sharply and pointedly about lots of stuff, while exploring language that fairly characterizes these differences.  On the conservative side, as my friends know, I’m more than willing to hold people accountable when our rhetoric moves into demonizing territory.  In the other direction, I’m curious to ask progressive-leaning people the following. Based on your experience of Mormons you know, which of the following explanations of the recent policy decision to draw a line with gay marriage feels most ‘truthful’ to you:

  • Mormons acting in a way that violates their own scriptures versus simply violating a particular liberal interpretation of scripture?
  • Mormons becoming aggressive and hostile to gay families versus acting in line with another view of family in recent decisions?

[6] Some might wonder, why would we waste time talking when people are suffering? If these Mormon policies are harming people today, shouldn’t we just keep the focus on advocacy? Similar resistance and concern has arisen with climate change dialogue – the planet is burning up, and you want to talk?!  In both cases, my liberal dialogue colleagues and I are on the same page:  (1) Adversarial problem solving will only go so far in this conversation (2) These questions are significant and crucial enough to at least call for a two-sided, two-way exchange with competing interpretations on the table (for instance, these contrasting views on the Mormon policy) and (3) Suffering itself can be framed, interpreted in and narrated in profoundly different ways.

[7] My own understanding of identity has been challenged and even expanded somewhat in these conversations, without being fundamentally changed. On an institutional level, others have hopes of a more substantive expansion in the future. One friend I very much respect, Kendall Wilcox, who identifies as both gay and Mormon asked, “Why does the LDS plan of salvation have to be exclusively heteronormative? Yes, we believe in heavenly mother and father, but why could the narrative not be expanded to be more inclusive, without throwing out everything?  Could it not just be expanded?”  As I told him, yes, I’m open to that. We clearly don’t know everything about the next life – and like all Mormons, I am open to additional revelation. I’ve been touched by some efforts in the community to ask Mormon leaders to bring their heart’s questions to God. A fundamental shift in the Mormon identity story hasn’t happened yet – may never happen (depending on your point of view).  Perhaps we can work for a conversation that leaves it somewhat open – with a healthy space for both uncertainty and conviction on both sides?

My dialogue partner Jay Griffith articulated the space nicely in this way: “Some progressives would argue that the theology of divine parentage doesn’t need to preclude eternal mating of same sex individuals. And/or they will argue that the nuclear family was not central to Christ’s teachings. It is these very stories or narratives that I would also like us to be willing to be open to seeing with new eyes and ears. But that’s just where I am. I see revelation as organic and evolving, at least that is what the historical record and my own experience indicate. But our nature is to want things to be stable and certain, black and white. Clearly right and wrong. But if it were that easy, agency would be a moot point. As would our personal growth and exaltation.”

Again, I agree with Jay and Kendall in the point about making space for different narratives.  It’s primarily that space I’m advocating for (and seeing shrink by the day!)…If not at every level of the institutional church, can we at least leave open space for these possibilities and uncertainties – alongside equal space for contrasting convictions? I’ve experienced as much with Jay, Kendall, Tracy and many others, many times.

[8] That’s what has worked between Mormons and our Baptist friends (you know, the ones who think we’re going to hell because of what we believe about our identity as literal children of God with divine potential). Though I know my evangelical friends still harbor some fear for my soul, we’ve settled in this moment into a remarkably warm and mutually respecting space of love, sharing and affection…and open exploration of our core disagreements (lots of examples of this).  Although the differences are even greater, I believe this could work for religious conservative-identifying folks and their gay-identifying friends.

Perhaps, like Arthur often tells me, no such truce is possible – with inescapable Story War ahead of us. If so, then let’s at least agree to fight fair – acknowledging the irreconcilable interpretations at play, rather than yet more wearisome accusations of monstrosity.