#4 What exactly is meant in saying we ‘accept’ or ‘support’ or ‘affirm’ or ‘love’ or are ‘compassionate’?

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.”

“We are language beings…we are not the ones in charge of language; language is in charge of us..”[1]

It’s sometimes taken for granted in the LGBT religious/conservative conversation that we’re all on the same page about what the word “love” and its derivatives (acceptance, compassion, support, affirmation, etc.) really mean.

Are we?

On one level, there is substantial agreement regarding certain actions and situations as reflecting a clear absence of love, etc. – for instance, verbal insults or getting beaten up. On another level, however, there’s fascinating differences between other actions that different people might see as either loving or accepting or compassionate (or not).

First view. An especially common view of acceptance is represented in the following comments from men who identify as gay:

  • “’They’re perfect and they’re beautiful just as they are’ [this person said]. And then I started to cry because I’m perfect 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” (FB-JE)
  • “And it was like night and day to not be alone anymore and to realize that I was perfect the way I am. And I’ve prayed and I’ve asked God about that and I know that he loves me just the way I am.”

As reflected above, terms such as acceptance, love and compassion refer to a willingness to embrace another person completely and in their entirety – “just the way they are.”

More than simply “loving someone no matter what” or “loving someone wherever they are,” this first view underscores loving, accepting and supporting people as “whoever they see themselves as being.”  Support and inclusion, then, from this perspective, includes support and inclusion of others’ beliefs and actions.  Although not always made explicit, this is a crucial and unique characteristic in this first view of acceptance, et al.

Arthur recently captured this view in summarizing what our gay activist friend Tracy, appears to want from me:  “an acknowledgment and recognition of ‘gayness’ as being ‘100% OK’ (on every level–psychological, social, spiritual), and deserving of all the rights and privileges presently accruing to heterosexuality.”

Living out the first story.  If we adopt this first view, then our work becomes trying to offer this to others, while encouraging others to do the same (and pointing out when others fail at this ideal).

From this view of acceptance, the question is fairly black or white: Are you inclusive…or not?  Loving or not?  Accepting or not?  Supportive…or not?  Compassionate…or not?  Gay-affirming….or not?

One man acknowledged his perception “that there’s only two options of how they’re going to respond. They’re either going to be fine with it, or they’re going to hate you and they’re not going to be your friend” (FB-AN)

Those individuals or organizations fully reflecting this particular view receive the labels of terms “gay affirming” or “inclusive” or “accepting” or “supportive” or “compassionate,” while those who not, receive other labels, such as “non-inclusive” or “non-accepting” or “anti-gay.” For an individual or organization in the middle, depending on the direction they are going, they may also be framed as becoming “more loving, more inclusive and more accepting” (versus less in the other direction).

Individuals also speak of the personal pain and difficulty involved in seeking (and not receiving) this full approval they sought. One person spoke of “how much shame I was experiencing because they wouldn’t validate my experience or my identity” (FB-CR).  Another said, “I think that it’s hard because I want so badly to, um, just be accepted in the church and in the gospel and just with everyone. Sometimes it feels like I can’t be fully accepted.”  This person added, “It’s hard going to church, and knowing that…I can’t just be me. I have to filter what I say so that I don’t say the wrong thing. I’ve found a lot of peace in the gospel though. It’s hard for me to, um, to be a hundred percent me at church” (FB-MA)

Second view. There are other views, of course, regarding what it means to be accepting, loving and compassionate – including one that emphasizes these qualities as something you offer to people where they are, without necessarily accepting all they see themselves as being.  This second kind of support, love and acceptance may involve relishing and treasuring individuals – even if not embracing everything that they believe about themselves or all they want in their lives.

This is how many with same-sex attraction within religious conservative families report experiencing those around them.  One person spoke of initially believing “that people in the Church….would be absolutely be repulsed at the attractions I was experiencing…that they would withdraw and completely disown me; that they would be ashamed of me…. I believed a lot of those lies that people would reject me. People would be too ashamed of me to continue their relationship with me, that my parents or my brothers would be embarrassed by me, or that my friends would simply walk away from our friendships.”

He continued: “I have experienced nothing but support and love without exception from those I’ve turned to for support, even if they didn’t understand it. One of the biggest blessings of my life has been the realization that I have friends, family, and priesthood leaders who I can turn to for anything, and they will support me through anything.”

This man continues, “they love me unconditionally, and no matter what mistakes I’ve made, what poor choices, no matter if they don’t understand the things I’m going through they were willing to support me, walk with me, and learn with me as I went through this. I would not be where I’m at if it were not for the support of my family and friends.”

This sentence may seem to some a contradiction, since “unconditional love” is often held to mean a kind of blindness when it comes to apparent “mistakes.”  However, as reflected here, the awareness of “poor choices” is a salient feature in the experience of love this man receives – and something that confirms, despite this awareness, how much his family loves him. He went on to share a particular instance with his mother, illustrating this other approach to acceptance – which accepts the person, without accepting everything they believe:

One of the best things my mother ever said one day, and I was visiting them for the day, and she asked me to accompany her to the grocery store; we were talking about something else entirely, and all of a sudden she popped in with this non sequitur, “You know we’ll love you no matter what, right?” I said, “I think so, where does that come from?” She said, “We would you love you even if you decided to go and lead a gay lifestyle. We would still love and support you.” She was honest and acknowledged that this would be “really difficult for us” – but we will never stop loving you, and we will never not accept you for who you are.”

He continues, “It was the best thing she could have ever said to me I knew that my family was going to accept me no matter what choices I made. She said expressly, “We have a desire for you, and there is a lifestyle we want you to lead surely, but we will accept you no matter what” (VH-SB)

This account reflects the classic Christian idea that there are parts of ourselves that are not acceptable, and that we need to not embrace.  A similar assumption is reflected in the following recollection from a man sharing his same-sex attraction with his mother: “She responded well. She helped me to realize what I really did want and that I wasn’t going to be happy settling for something less than what I really wanted for myself. I decided to turn to my Heavenly Father and start looking at how I could live with this and still stay in the Church and keep with the gospel. I had had attractions to women in the past so that wasn’t totally impossible for me” (VH-DEC)

 Living out the second story. If we take the second view, then people seek to practice something distinct from the acceptance described earlier.  Rather than accepting people completely, in their entirety – this involves accepting and loving people genuinely (in their humanity, their fundamental wholeness, etc.) – but not necessarily in all they decide to do in their lives.

Support then, from this perspective, does not include support of others’ beliefs or actions necessarily. Neither does inclusion or acceptance.  Going further than that, from this perspective, may potentially be harmful.  Indeed, by encouraging someone’s beliefs or actions not in alignment with God’s will, religious conservatives may fear instantiating and cementing an identity that is not fundamental to who someone is eternally.

Debates over excommunication reflect this difference in opinion.  As reflected in another church community, the experience of those who are cut off can feel painful and hard to understand. This kind of a decision can affirm, one person said, “just how hated we are as a people in most of this country.”

And yet, the contrasting narratives described above had a significant role in determining what is ultimately determined to be loving or hateful.  To illustrate, watch this video – noticing the different ways the Church’s response may be interpreted from these two views.  From one perspective, the Church is simply “not being accepting and loving.” And from another perspective, the Church is sending the right message – namely, that what these men did leaving wives and getting married together is not right in God’s eyes.  From that vantage point, at least, it would be unloving not to send that message clearly.

To restate the question – does love mean we embrace what others want or believe?  While some insist that ‘Yes, that’s the essence of love’ – what about when you see those desires as harming someone?

Of course, this goes deeper than just differences in belief to the variation in how we see identity, explored earlier.  Referring to this same distinction explored here, Arthur writes, “On one hand, the obvious question it raises in my mind is ‘what sort of love can embrace discrimination against others – the deliberate prevention of their fulfillment as human beings?’ On the other, ‘what sort of love can deliberately prevent the fulfillment of their temporal and eternal destiny as human beings?’”

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • So what does “acceptance” or “support” or “love” mean to you in the context of the LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
  • Do you believe someone could disagree in meaningful ways about what these terms mean, while still being thoughtful?
  • What does it mean when the same terms are being used in our larger conversation, with widely different meanings?


[1] Thomas Schwandt, Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, (2007, p. xxix).

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