“It is not a slight thing, gentlemen, [for] a man to say what he is, or what he believes himself to be; for that supreme word of man, that single expression which he utters of and upon himself is decisive. It lays down the basis upon which all judgment of him is to be formed. From that moment all the acts of his life must correspond to the answer given by him.” – Henri-Dominique Lacordaire
“That’s it! This is the last straw…our family of five is done with this church!”
Both within Mormonism and across other religious denominations, this kind of a declaration has become more common as the LGBT-Religious Conservative conflict has grown.
As the gay rights movement expands, why are more people feeling compelled to step away from religious conservative communities?
Virtually everywhere you look, it’s not hard to find at least one explanation, typically focused on characteristics of the religious communities themselves – e.g., ‘that belief, that policy, that practice makes me feel unsafe and unwelcome.’ While still acknowledging disagreements that exist about what it means to “accept” or be compassionate, most people I know would acknowledge there are ways for religious communities to improve in the compassion and kindness shown to those outside of the conventional definition of “believer.”
The vast majority of commentary on those stepping away from religious communities emphasizes this point, however, with remarkably little attention to other possible contributors. For instance, dramatic shifts have happened in the larger American context surrounding religious beliefs and practices, raising interesting questions on the role of rapid cultural changes in how religious conservative communities are perceived and experienced. Can we talk about that too?
Shining a light on the relationship between larger cultural narratives and the specific, judgments and decisions reached on these personal matters is a second personal motivation for this writing effort.
The Power of Narrative. I first cued into the power of personal narratives and interpretations several years ago during research exploring conflicting narratives of depression treatment – with particular attention on: (1) how various narratives were adopted over time and (2) how those distinct stories played out practically in shaping diverging trajectories of depression treatment.
Most intriguing to me were moments in which a new narrative of depression appeared to be “galvanized” or cemented in place for any given individual. Against the backdrop of urgent emotional pain, most often this moment revolved around a friend or family member urging someone to “get help.” Almost always, that led to meeting with a physician where a new narrative of emotional pain was often received alongside the prescription itself. That moment is often recounted as a turning point – what another research team called the “profoundly influential occasion of individuals first hearing” about this biomedical narrative of depression.
This same group goes on to describe how this encounter leads participants to question previous knowledge, and engage in an “ongoing process of revision to accommodate new information,” ultimately “reformulating a new explanatory model,” which, at times “completely substitutes” for their previous understanding. All subsequent experience comes to be interpreted out of this depression narrative.
The resulting consequences could not be more dramatic. In addition to shaping whatever treatment pathways are pursued (or not), multiple accounts confirmed uniquely poignant implications for how people see their own selfhood. After receiving a particular diagnosis, one woman remarked: “You feel like you lose yourself, almost. Like a part of you dies when you‘re diagnosed….like a grieving period realizing that the person that was faking it for so long–she wasn’t real.” She continued, “and she kind of did die and that we had to reinvent and restructure this new being, almost…Giving her the tools and the revenues, making sure she had insurance all the time…it‘s hard…[You] do feel a detachment from everything you thought you were when this becomes where you‘re at.”
I came away from this research deeply persuaded that narratives shape our lives in virtually every imaginable way – both subtly and powerfully – and in ways we are hardly aware. If this is true of health narratives, could it apply to sexuality narratives as well? In hopes of further opening this conversation space, I offer the patterns below as another perspective on narrative forces potentially involved in compelling individuals to step away from religious conservative communities.
Adopting a New Sexuality Story. Once again, my attention goes to moments where a new narrative appears to be “galvanized” or cemented in place. Early in life, of course, most people haven’t adopted any formalized narrative to associate with personal experience – sexual or otherwise. Speaking of her early kindergarten experience prior to “recognizing her sexuality,” one woman writes, “I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it meant. I had no idea what homosexuality was, what being gay or lesbian was and so [I just thought] it was just thoughts and attractions” (FB-H). Another person said, “I remember being about ten years old and not really ever knowing what gay means, what that even meant” (FB-CO)
Most accounts reflect an early challenge and confusion as people make sense of their own experience within a larger culture that seems to clash at every turn:
- I decided that I wanted that [membership in the Church of Jesus Christ], but I was still so conflicted and still experiencing the attractions so intensely. I wasn’t sure that I could lead a life that was in full faith with the gospel of Jesus Christ as I knew it. So I felt very torn between these two desires. One to stay faithful to the beliefs I very much held and were very much my own, and then to fulfill these attractions and desires I was having. That was a very tough dichotomy to try to justify. I felt torn in two and I was embarrassed by the conflict as well. (VH-SB)
- Because I had a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and had now come to terms with my sexual orientation I felt a genuine conflict. It was as if I were being physically pulled between two conflicting worlds; I literally felt torn. (VH-AH)
At some point in most accounts, a turning point happens as people are introduced to a new narrative of what it means to experience homosexual attraction. One person said, “I went to therapy and I started talking to friends….and figuring out what the gay community was like – figuring out what it meant for me to be gay” (FB-CH). Another person spoke of “finding out there is a word for my experience – ‘transgender’” – while another recounted: “I grew and matured and realized what it meant to be gay. And it wasn’t until I was reading a book one day about a gay person in my Grandma’s bathroom…And I sat there and I read it and I realized I was what that book was talking about. And that was the first time that I had actually admitted to myself that I was gay” (FB-KA)
Most often, of course, this declaration is not experienced as anything other than a simple reflection of reality – “finally figuring out who I am” – and certainly not a narrative being adopted. Regardless of one’s experience, a central assumption here is that we (all of us, any of us) cannot help but adopt some kind of narrative – whether the more dominant sexuality narrative or one more in line with religious conservative teaching on sex. From a narrative perspective, that’s what we all end up doing.
Given that, I share these as a few examples of how people begin to adopt a new narrative about themselves – and ultimately start seeing all other experiences out of that same lens. Just as with health narratives, the implications of a new sexuality narrative can be profound.
Consequences of a New Story
1. A Whole New World. At some point, individuals often announce to family members their new understanding of self. This moment is often transformative for people involved, and one in which an entirely new narrative can be galvanized throughout the family. The impact can be profound. Describing her son’s “coming out,” one mother writes, “I had to re-examine everything I had previously thought and at times thought I knew with certainty to be true. It upended my notions of truth, happiness, obedience, loyalty, and in fact all that I held dear, including my perception of the character of God. And I, for a long moment, wondered if I would be able to stay [in my faith]…All of my beliefs have been upended and rearranged.”
For both individuals and families, the entire landscape in life can shift. As one person put it: “All [previous] teaching about my identity…was WRONG! I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was” (FB-KA)
Accompanying this new narrative is a whole new world of language and terms – “homophobia,” “heterosexism” and “ally,” for instance. Most often, these are adopted as part of one’s new reality, as a participant in a new-found “civil rights movement.”
2. New Dilemmas & Dramatic Shifts. As part of this transition, one person described being at a crossroads, “do I need to walk away from my wife and kids?” A mother similarly recounted what she experienced as a challenging dilemma between loyalties to her son and her faith: “When my son came out to our family as gay eight years ago, my hurdle towards a major crisis of faith began…There is nothing like seeing a precious child in despair over the knowledge that the plan of happiness he had been taught to strive for, which included the opportunity for temple marriage and parenthood, the plan that is the bedrock of our theology, would be impossible for him to attain as his authentic self.”
While conflict may have existed for decades, one’s lived experience may come to feel even more impossible at this point. As reflected in comments above, wrenching shifts can come to feel almost inevitable – including for family members. Referring to his religious conservative family, one LGBT-identifying man said, “I don’t think it’s been easy for them. I think that they’ve had a dream for me ever since before I was born of things I would have. And they’ve had, you know, a short time to reconsider and change their dreams for me and that’s obviously hard for any parent. And I’ve had a lot longer to deal with it than they have” (FB-RU).
Another man described telling his family about now identifying as gay. Although he experienced this as just “new honesty about his true identity,” for his family, it represented walking away everything he had been taught to value – a mission, marriage, the Church itself: “When that happened, the whole world sort of came crashing down, not only for me but for them, and I didn’t realize until a couple years ago that they didn’t know how it to deal with what I was going through any better than I did at the time” (FB-BE)
3. Impossible Futures. Ultimately, these conflicts can be experienced as paradoxical and impossible to reconcile – as one described it, “a sharp, painful dilemma with the contrast in teaching about the church” (FB-CH). After coming to identify as gay, one man spoke of the challenge of having “two conflicting identities.” He continued, “Because of the irreconcilability I spent a lot of my life before coming out especially in a depressed state kind of like trying to achieve an unobtainable task. I realized why people get depressed and suicidal because you’re constantly trying to resolve something that’s unresolvable. It’s frustrating to always have to defend kind of my existence, or my being” (FB-TI).
For some, this seeming impossible and inescapable dilemma leads to strong consideration of suicide. Referring to his hopes of a conventional marriage, one man reflected, “There was this wonderful thing God was offering me, and I didn’t understand why He was offering it to me if it was so obviously unobtainable. I really started thinking about suicide, and I started thinking about it a lot” (VH-JO). Another added, “It’s hard to even go day by day. Not knowing how you’re going to reconcile this about yourself, how you going to create a life that is happy in any way” (FB-H).
Whereas this kind of confusion and despair is typically taken to be evidence of the harm ensuing from religious conservative teaching, it’s also reasonable to look at the conflict between religious conservative and LGBT progressive views of sexuality as driving many of the difficulties.
Illustrating this possibility, a third individual commented that unfortunately all these messages he had been getting that “this is just who you are and you just need to be yourself and be gay” highlighted as contributing to his desire to kill himself – specifically “not knowing that there were other options.” This led him to excruciating (and seemingly unresolvable pain): “I figured if I couldn’t have the life I wanted, and the life I could have from what I read wasn’t conducive to the gospel and the things that were important then my only option was to kill myself” (VH-DEC).
4. Painful Separations. While suicidal thoughts are the most desperate and troubling experience associated with these changing/clashing narratives, others are more subtle. For instance, this clash in narratives may also create a feeling of being out-of-place in one’s religious community:
- I feel like I can’t express who I am and be who I am, being in the church…I feel like an outcast and I feel like I don’t know if that’s my home anymore I hope we can realize that there are many like us, many, and we’re all just trying to find our place and our home in the church because we love the gospel and we love the teachings but we’re not quite sure if that’s our home (FB-SH).
- And that’s hard, not knowing where I belong. Not feeling like I belong in Church because they don’t have me because I have the feelings – and don’t belong in community, because don’t act on them. It’s Where do I belong? I don’t belong anywhere. It’s really hard – it’s lonely at times (FB-ME).
Naturally, then, it’s only sensible to consider walking away from this all. As one man summarized:
It was a really difficult time for me because with that coming out I felt like…I had to leave behind a church that was important to me and had really been a grounding force in my life. Also, I figured there were friends I would have to leave behind because there is no way they could ever accept this in me. There were hopes and dreams I had of having a family and having a wife that I was going to have to leave behind It was a very scary thing… feeling like my life was about to change and that I would have to leave my life behind and start a whole new life. (VH-DEC)
Another man hinted at the impact on family relationships as he more fully adopted this new self-narrative: “I fully started using the word gay. And I talked to [my wife] and told her that I was unhappy and things weren’t going great that I really needed to kind of figure this side of myself out or that I was just going to live an unhappy life and be depressed. Um. I was going to be a terrible father and a terrible husband, etc.” (FB-CH).
Discussion. Separations. Despair over impossible dilemmas. Wrenching shifts. What is behind these challenging experiences? Most often, once again, these are all explained as the inevitable result of conflict between religious narratives and the reality of who people are.
Rather than a clash between “religious narrative” and “reality,” I’m making the case here that what we’re really observing is a conflict between at least two narratives of sexuality, identity and selfhood.
While plenty of critical attention goes to the real-life impact of religious belief, doctrine and narrative, remarkably little corresponding attention is given to sexuality narratives. Indeed, the dominant narrative of sexuality has become so pervasive and unquestioned that we hardly think about it as a narrative.
The philosopher Gramsci once argued that when a narrative has become all-powerful (“hegemonic”) enough, it renders other options “unthinkable.” Once this happens, the influence of a particular narrative goes virtually undetected. That’s precisely why I’m interested in surfacing narratives – so we can actually have a conversation about their influence!
In this case, once an entirely new sexual self-narrative has been adopted, I’ve argued that one’s past experience – including religious aspects of that experience such as doctrine, practice and history – comes to be interpreted out of that new narrative. And from those lenses, no doubt, religious conservatism starts to look pretty awful indeed.
Pressure Points. What happens next is what most concerns me, however. Without any other viable way to make sense of these challenges, the entire conversation is forced into a very tight spot – pressing family members towards an either-or, black and white decision reflecting stark options on either side: Do I embrace my loved one or my faith? The Church or my child?
Individuals likewise come face to face with seemingly impossible dilemmas and similarly stark options: Will you step away from the Church (in order to “embrace who you are”) or to stay in the Church (and thus “deny who you really are”).
As cognitive dissonance grows and the wrestle deepens, people’s hearts are pulled towards competing values of “civil rights, freedom, justice and acceptance” and what they used to love about their faith tradition.
And that’s when it happens: ‘I can’t be a part of this.’
DONE. And GONE.
Just like that, many have stepped away, seeing the religious traditions they used to cherish as now shockingly narrow and bigoted – this despite, in some cases, many years of positive association.
Very often, these major decisions – shall I leave my faith? shall I leave my spouse? – seem to be undertaken without any significant (explicit) awareness of the competing narratives involved – or even of the fact that one is choosing to adopt one narrative or another.
Instead, people are just “accepting reality” and “who I am” and “who he is…” It’s much easier to believe that, of course – then consider meaningful differences in interpretation at play…
That is what I’m trying to change. In the absence of such awareness, I believe we ALL become prisoners of our stories – unable to imagine any other existence except the narrative in which we swim (and this includes active Mormons!)
With that awareness, however, I believe we could all come to a new level of consciousness about what feels right and best (and true) in our lives….(making fully informed and conscious choice more accessible for each of us).
Raising Awareness, Multiplying Freedom. In the end, this is what dialogue is about: possibilities, options and freedom.
In the foregoing, I’ve argued that the narrative forces surrounding gay rights exert powerful leverage – essentially functioning like a lever to “shoe-horn” people out of Church.
The shoe-horn metaphor is very deliberate – as a representation of one object acting on another. That’s what I see happening in this conversation. Rather than a thoughtful choice between narratives of identity, sexuality, relationships and eternity, the current terms of the conversation exert considerable pressure upon the actors involved – e.g., Do I accept the reality of this person’s identity…or not?
Subsequently, most people appear to adopt a narrative without either realizing it is a narrative (or that, once again, that there’s any another viable way to make sense of the situation). The possibility of another viable way of making sense of one’s sexuality, one’s identity and one’s faith is simply not considered seriously.
What would it mean to insist on that possibility for people? Surely many would reach the same decisions…but almost certainly with less grief, suffering and stress (and perhaps with more ultimate clarity and conviction as well).
That’s another one of the aims of dialogue: space for awareness and exploration.
Rather than simply focused on “finding peace” together and reducing conflict, dialogue practice often increases conflict in the here and now…all in the name of finding more insight together eventually. It’s about finding clarity – about what we believe and what we feel right….and then making enough space to follow it.
And that, it seems, is something we might all agree upon?
 At times, individual accounts of coming to a conviction about their sexuality sound remarkably similar to how Mormons often speak of the gradual process of finding a testimony or witness of faith: “I don’t know when I really knew for sure when I was attracted to other girls. There wasn’t one specific moment where…I didn’t have an ‘Aha!’ moment” (VH-KK)
 The power of this declaration is no surprise to those in the gay community. A simple declaration of the “truth about oneself” presented as having the power to influence the world around: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”