Elder David Bednar, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was recently asked a question about “homosexual Mormons.” As part of his explanation for why he’d prefer re-framing the question, Elder Bednar answered “We are not defined by sexual attractions. We are not defined by sexual behaviors. We are sons and daughters of God.” He went on to suggest that self-identifying oneself as homosexual was an “inaccurate label” and not descriptive of one’s fundamental, eternal identity from the perspective of Mormon doctrine (thus, in this sense, there were no “homosexual Mormons”).
The public response to these comments has been predictably withering– and no surprise: Elder Bednar couldn’t have picked a more socially/politically incorrect thing to say – not if he had been personally coached by Donald Trump himself: “Hey – I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to build a wall between the Mormon Faithful and all these pesky gay activists. And mark my words, we’re going to make the Pride Center pay for it!!”
No, Elder Bednar chose to share something even less popular than the Rumored Wall: “From a Mormon perspective, this is not who you really, fundamentally are….”
Say what?! The idea that sexual orientation is yet another basic category that centrally defines human identity has become so taken for granted that people hardly think of it as a perspective or ‘way of thinking’ anymore. It’s simply reality.
Little surprise, then, that it feels more than a little disconcerting and unsettling to have this directly questioned. As one progressive-leaning friend shared with me recently, “How would you feel if someone came to you and raised questions about whether you are really heterosexual…wouldn’t that be weird?”
It definitely would. And it definitely helps me understand how comments like Elder Bednar’s are experienced by people whom I know and love.
I’ve been writing about similar identity-related questions and have experienced for myself how sensitive and personal the associated language is. And compared to other ways of making the same point, I agree that Elder Bednar’s delivery and tone were not super helpful. [On this note, I think Kendall Wilcox is basically right about a greater level of empathy that we can all have for the lived experience of those outside of our community norms. Surely, this is something we can all develop more and more?] 
None of this, however, changes the core philosophical disagreements that would still remain in terms of the centrality of sexual orientation (or gender) to ultimate, eternal identity. For me, at least, this flare-up over Elder Bednar’s words underscores even more the degree to which these philosophical differences set us up for very different experiences in-real-life.
For instance, if I believed what my progressive friends do about identity in relation to sexuality, emotions and the body, yes – I totally get why Elder Bednar’s comment would be (especially) frustrating to hear. As one mother wrote after watching the video, “Neither one of us found it helpful that a straight man was proclaiming the non-existence of my son.”
For a mother who has come to see her son’s core identity as centered (to some degree) around sexual orientation, how could Elder Bednar’s comments not feel grating and even harsh?
That doesn’t mean, however, that his teaching isn’t true. And if we all come into the presence of God one day and find out that it was, in fact, true, then you can’t blame someone like Elder Bednar for deciding it’s important enough to share even if it’s hard for people to hear. Think of it: if you personally believed (really believed) that we are sons and daughters of God, and that because of that, everyone has the potential of ‘becoming like Mom and Dad’…wouldn’t it make sense that you’d want to protect and highlight the pathway that makes that possible?
And if others start to be persuaded that they are, in fact, fundamentally different in their core nature – this, in a way that doesn’t allow them to follow the path to ‘become like Mom and Dad,’ wouldn’t it make sense that you’d want to respond to that?
This is tough stuff – and something just begging for a serious, thoughtful conversation. My primary concern is not that the differences exist – but that we’re hardly even talking about them! In lieu of the hard work of inquiring into our actual disagreements, it’s become a whole lot easier in American society to turn our dissonance into various insults about the character, sincerity or intelligence of those who don’t see the world the way we do. Hence, after one person lamented Elder Bednar’s “ego and hubris” online, social media friends piled on:
- The lack of compassion astounds me and makes me sick. They’re awful, awful people.
- Plain old arrogance.
- He’s a serpent, a slick and calculating man, bent on destruction of anything contrary to his contorted and distorted world view.
- I know he’s not a Christ-like person.
- I am so sorry that bigots like this can actually claim to “speak for God!!!!!”….sigh #notafanofmormonbigots
- I couldn’t have imagined in this day and age that Bednar could not only be so insensitive and cruel but so very out of touch with reality.
- Bednar is a dinosaur… Hope he and others go extinct soon!
More than one person insinuated that Elder Bednar’s intention behind the commentary was literally to help encourage people to either take their lives or leave the Church – “those jerks trying to just purge the church of gays”/ “This sounds more like their goal/endpoint, whether by suicide, excommunication, or those who finally choose to leave.”
Listen – as I’ve pointed out, it’s not hard to understand why people are angry. What’s admittedly harder for me to understand is why (we) Americans have become so completely willing to let our darkest emotions to shape, control and yes, drive our public discussions about so many important things.
Like no event in recent memory, the psychology of anger and how it shapes our views of reality itself has been on horrific display in the current U.S. presidential race. Rather than logical beings that make choices dictated by pure reason, it turns out that human beings most often grab onto stories, beliefs and interpretations that fit whatever they most deeply feel. And if that’s anger – well then gosh darn it…let’s build that freaking wall!!
As easy as it might be to recognize the role of anger in national politics, it’s much easier to overlook its influence on the things we care about more personally…which makes me curious to ask: What role is anger playing in the current LGBT/religious conservative conversation?
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. My own answer: a big one (and bigger than we realize).
Just look around! How many productive, heart-felt LGBT/religious conservative conversations have you seen recently about the many profound differences at play in how we see the body, choice, sexuality, identity and God? One of the best designed attempts to help that happen recently, the Circling the Wagons conference, was attended by a paltry 100 people (deserved at least 1,000!)
By contrast, the average American reportedly spends up to 40 minutes/day on Facebook, surrounding themselves with plenty of people to confirm what they already believe (sprinkled with just enough silly comments from ‘those other people’ to confirm their moral inferiority). No wonder many of my religious conservative friends are convinced that progressive individuals questioning their commitment to the church ‘just don’t have enough faith in God’ – while many of my liberal-leaning friends seem to take it for granted that conservatives ‘just don’t love people enough.’
And here’s the thing: Am I exaggerating at all? Don’t most of us actually believe that about each other?….as if this whole complex conversation could somehow be boiled down to measurable differences in love or faith (#ilovegaymormons vs. #Ifollowtheprophets).
And that’s why it really pains me to see us completely overlook fundamental differences in how we see identity (and how that appears to influence pretty much everything else) – instead preoccupying ourselves with ever-more-effective ways of portraying each other in night-marish ways. As summarized above, knee-jerk reactions to recent comments from Mormon leadership continue metastasizing online – each portraying “Bednar” and company as Secretly Hateful or Mere Aggressors – e.g., “fighting who people are” and “trying to erase them from their communities” – accompanied by hashtags like: #I exist & #Queermormonsexist….
And of course, we conservatives are plenty happy to reciprocate by reminding ourselves how much ‘those liberals’ or gay activists and for sure Obama himself are (knowingly) trying to destroy American – and lying about their intentions while they’re at it!!
Can anyone else see the madness in this all?…the way it not only forces us into endless mud-slinging, but also totally ignores both what people actually believe (and the powerful, rich conversation we could be having together)? 
Like a broken record, I’ve been doing what I can to point out the ways in which fundamental differences in narratives seem to undergird this whole conversation. With the help of a diverse (and disagreeing) team of thoughtful writers – identifying as Mormon and non-Mormon, LGBT and same-sex attracted, liberal and conservative – we’re preparing broader, more refined and accessible resources for release later this year.
But why go to all this trouble?
Because our relationships and our community are worth it. And because the truth is worth it. (And because we don’t stand a chance of holding on to much of either if our conversation stays in the mud-pit).
In sharp contrast, as both progressive and conservative friends in the dialogue world would attest, this kind of a generous, attentive conversation can take away fear and resentment in remarkable ways – ushering in life-long friendships that can change our lives.
Although I’ve personally found this a refreshing and life-changing practice, I’m okay if others don’t. I’m no longer surprised when the latest rant on Facebook elicits hundreds of shares, while something like this hardly registers on people’s radars. After all, the “terms of the dominant conversation” are typically quite advantageous to those with cultural power (e.g., the current conversation sure makes us religious conservatives look dumb!). And why would anyone want to abandon such a strategically advantageous battle position?
Because it’s dishonest. It’s a distorted and inaccurate reflection of actual disagreements. And it’s hurting people.
Stories have consequences. Rather than just “tell stories,” we live them – every day. Rather than mere semantics, I’m absolutely convinced there are life-and-death consequences to how (and whether) we talk about this stuff, not only for whether people hold on to their family or faith community, but whether they hold on to life itself.
So what could be done differently? While a lot could be said about that, I would boil it down to a single question: Can we start having honest conversations about our actual disagreements, rather than what we perceive or think or stereotype as the disagreements?
By actual disagreements, I mean language-describing-those-disagreements that both sides would sign off on – “yeah, I think that captures it.” As the current conversation stands, hugely important issues are being framed in a way that almost universally overlooks nuance and portrays one side or the other (most often religious conservatives) in a profoundly unflattering way. Here are just a few examples:
- Rather than talking about the complex ways that choice is involved in identity development (for all of us) and how we (all) work with body sensations and emotions in different ways, conservatives continue to be portrayed as naively (and ridiculously) believing that people in the gay community are somehow “choosing” to feel same-sex attraction (I’ve never personally met any conservative who actually believes that, by the way…).
- Instead of acknowledging how scientific understanding about the role of the brain and body in sexual experience (like all human experience) continues to evolve with different interpretations at play, regularly we conservatives hear someone else lamenting how much we are simply “ignoring the scientific conclusions” (for example).
- Rather than at least acknowledging those who experience same-sex attraction and find fulfilling marriage relationships with opposite sex partners, many continue insisting that religious conservative individuals who experience same-sex attraction have only two options before them: celibacy or same-sex partnership.
- Rather than exploring very different meanings of love, support, compassion (and hate), religious conservatives are portrayed over and over as simply “less loving” and “more hateful,” as well as less concerned about rights, justice, freedom, equality, etc. etc.
Am I sounding defensive yet? Let me finish. (:
Please tell me how someone would ever want to have a conversation with THAT cartoonish image – e.g., someone who dislikes equality, freedom and justice; relishes a chance to control, judge and hate people and denies science just for kicks?! (Answer: we don’t talk with that silly person).
But here’s the real point: What if that portrayal is simply not true, my progressive friends? What if that is your story of conservatives that you happen to be putting on top of us – and one that effectively brings to a halt any possibility of thoughtful conversation together?
And yes – let’s talk about when conservatives do the same thing. Although dominant cultural narratives now lean decidedly progressive (hence my emphasis on these conversational correctives above), we conservatives have also framed the conversation in similar self-serving ways now and in the past:
- Rather than acknowledging the happiness that people outside of our normative faith practices can and do experience (e.g., same-sex couples or people who have stepped away from our own faith community), we insist on portraying them as secretly desperate and despairing – e.g., ‘they just can’t be happy.’
- Rather than acknowledging real, piercing questions that faithful, good-hearted people struggle within our faith communities, we too often paint them as ‘just not close enough to God’ or ‘not showing enough faith.’
- Rather than appreciating the love and commitment that many gay couples demonstrate, we sometimes insist (or insinuate) that something else (like lust or demons) motivates these couples – and certainly not ‘real love.’
- Instead of acknowledging real contextual, social and biological influences on behavior , we too often insist that human beings are free agents who can ‘just choose’ with relative ease to go another direction (even while most people’s experiences show otherwise – highlighting an abundant need for grace for any movement to happen in our lives).
- And lastly, rather than acknowledging ways our own faith community may have fallen short in empathy or compassion or understanding at different points and periods (no, I’m not talking about Prop 8 or Mormon policy), we can too often insist on a tight apologist narrative that defends the faith-at-all-costs.
And again: Tell me how someone would ever want to have a conversation with THAT cartoonish image – e.g., someone who hates God, has no faith, is driven by lust and anger and remains just-too-lazy to choose the right thing, all while secretly despairing inside but proclaiming their happiness nonetheless? (Answer: we don’t and won’t talk with that silly person).
In all these ways and more, we conservatives should also be held accountable for times when we throw our weight around or misrepresent the positions of our critics.
What then, if we agreed to something radical: representing each others’ views in a way recognizable to those who hold them? And while we’re at it, maybe we can let each other tell our own stories? (yes, including gay-identifying and non-gay identifying individuals who experience same-sex attraction).
To be sure, that wouldn’t mean we needed to agree with each others’ stories or validate them – or frankly, even respect them. What it would mean is that we agree to respect each other on a fundamental level (more fundamental than life philosophy or stories). Maybe, just maybe – that would allow us to have a legitimate conversation about what those philosophical differences are – actually hearing them, actually exploring them, actually comparing them, and then making choices on what feels right based on that.
By contrast, what happens when we make decisions based on the pseudo-conversations we usually have? People feel pressured and manipulated into making hard choices they may not otherwise make – choices sometimes contrary to their deepest faith convictions (and yes, sometimes contrary to current, deeply felt sexual feelings).
If those are choices someone is going to earnestly make, they at least deserve to make it with enough space to completely hear out their options…that, at least, is my argument here.
But what do you think? Crazy idea? Or pretty sensible? I’m interested in your response.
Bottom line: Instead of rallying people to our causes by depicting competing positions in a way literally un-recognizable to those who hold them, how about insisting on a principled public discourse that allows people to choose among fairly described alternatives? Rather than advancing a conversation that inadvertently presses people away from what they used to love and believe, what do you think about insisting – together – on a conversation that allows people to choose freely (and in the light of day) between options-as-we-ourselves-would-describe them?
With hearts and lives and happiness at stake, the least we can do is have a fair, honest conversation.
The beautiful people involved (yes, on both sides!) deserve no less.
 Even the most articulate and careful delivery of the doctrine Elder Bednar taught would and will likely engender some of the same dissonance and push-back. Furthermore, as Kendall often points out, empathy is not the same as philosophical agreement. And my empathy for the lived experience of same-sex attraction (and identifying with it as fundamental to my identity), doesn’t change the profound disagreements that exist when it comes to identity.
 All of this, of course, generates lots of attention – while completely overlooking the actual disagreements at hand. Even one harsh critic of the church pointed out his words are being taken out of context and framed as more dismissive than they were intended.
 How cool is it that people can disagree so profoundly, and still love each other so much?! I’ve had several people tell me that dialogue (with ‘those people’ that used to drive them nuts) actually reduced their depression symptoms… So can you blame me for being a little pumped?
 Both sides could end up saying something like: “You believe that about identity…and obviously, I don’t. I think that’s harmful and inaccurate – while you probably feel the same about my views.”
 So many interesting questions to take up!! Among other things, this would allow us to get to all the honest and good and interesting questions in the space between us. Who is anyone to presume to define another? My lesbian-identifying friend Tracy brought this up in our dialogue – ‘why would ancient writers in a book have more authority to speak about my life than I do?’ I think it’s a great question – and the kind that deserves more space. And in the religious conservation about identity, it seems to me there are interesting differences in what it means to “be a son and daughter of God” – and especially what that means for our divine potential in the future. Can we talk about that too?