Q. Is one of these men bisexual?
Better A. It depends on how you define it.
Bisexuality is an extremely problematic label, simply because it has never been defined. Nobody (and I mean NOBODY) can define bisexuality because there is no consensus on what it means. It is generally understood to refer to a person who can be sexually attracted to both males and females. However, sexuality is very complex and this simple definition is not only useless but is harmful, because of the mis-understandings it creates.
For the purpose of this essay I am going to attempt to avoid the word bisexual by dividing people with any same-sex attraction into 2 broad categories:
Group A: Those who can succeed in a Mixed-Orientation Marriage (MOM)
Group B: Those who can’t
It might be argued that most people in group A are at least partly ‘bisexual’, and the people in group B are ‘totally gay’. Those simplistic labels don’t allow for the complexities involved, and so I will try to talk about Group A or Group B.
Until very recently, most people in group A who were Mormons remained fairly invisible and married people of the opposite gender. These people also had an easier time staying in the church. Many of them found themselves to be Bishops, Stake Presidents, General Authorities and even Apostles. The people in this group ended up having a huge impact on how the church viewed homosexuality.
Meanwhile the people in Group B had a different experience. Many of them knew early on that they couldn’t maintain a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM) and chose either celibacy or same-sex relationships. Others entered MOM’s but these invariably failed. These people did not find themselves in leadership roles in the church because single people are never given high callings, and openly gay people have generally been extruded. The reasons that they couldn’t enter or maintain MOM’s surely was closely correlated to the sum of their (sexual) attraction to the same gender and their aversion to the opposite gender. (It should also be pointed out that attraction/aversion will also be variable in various realms of relationships including emotional bonding, physical intimacy, etc.)
It is impossible to know how many people fit in group A or group B, but it is reasonable to guess that among men, 5% of the population fits into each of these groups. I am only going to talk about the men right now because women have long been excluded from policy and decision making within Mormonism.
So let’s think about how each group is impacting the place of homosexuals in the church. Historically, the men in group B have had virtually no impact in Mormonism, simply because they are all marginalized or extruded, and are virtually never in leadership roles. Men who remain celibate and single are virtually never extended leadership callings, and marriage is a requirement for Bishops, Stake Presidents, and General Authorities. Divorced men are similarly excluded from leadership and influence, and openly gay men and women even more so.
Meanwhile the men in group A, which I estimate as 1 in 20 Mormon men, blended into every level of Mormon hierarchy. This means that every stake likely had at least one bishop or high councilor who had same-sex attraction (and maintained a successful marriage).
These Group A men had lived a particular experience. They had felt same-sex attractions and may have had homosexual encounters. However, they were in a position to choose a straight life-style, and they did so. The men in group B didn’t have that possibility. Many of them tried to by getting married, but these marriages ended in failure and substantial damage.
Although the men in Group A were discreet about their histories of same-sex attraction, they were most certainly drawn to the issue whenever it came up. They certainly agreed that it was a choice, since that had been their experience. They also were very likely to be more homophobic than their peers who had never had same-sex attraction (this is actually well supported by research).
It is therefore highly likely that throughout the history of the church, there have been men serving in the quorum of the 12 who have experienced same-gender attraction, who have exercised the choice to get married, who have had successful marriages, and who likely have taken an extremely homophobic posture as a mechanism of self defense in that conflicted position. And it is highly likely that these men have had a huge impact on the policies impacting all homosexuals within the church (much to the misfortune of those in Group B, who didn’t have a voice).
You can easily imagine one of these men in Group A serving as a Bishop. It is obvious that he would counsel any person reporting same-gender attraction to do exactly what he did–make a choice and get married. You can easily imagine the Group A person on the high council attending a church court where somebody is being excommunicated for homosexual relationships. You can imagine a Stake President who also is in Group A addressing the Aaronic Priesthood in the stake. The outcomes are decent for the Group A people in their congregations, and terrible for those in Group B.
It seems pretty obvious that these men had a role in forming and perpetuating church policies that encouraged reparative therapy and aversion therapy, as well as marriage as a cure for homosexuality. It was only recently that the Apostles decided to start paying attention to the experience of its own clinicians at LDS Family Services who had been noticing and reporting the disastrous results of these policies. This was helped by a core of faithful Mormon activist allies who came to the cause in the 1980’s and 90’s who helped the church leaders start considering the large body of scientific research that proves the futility of trying to change sexual orientation.
A new climate in Mormonism thus emerged, that is slightly more open to considering some of the realities of homosexuality. This has created a different type of Mormon in Group A–married men and women who openly acknowledge their homosexuality (or SSA/SGA). Although they do face some marginalization for speaking out, some of them have found a voice in the Mormon community and have become influential to the church leaders as they contemplate issues impacting LGBT people.
This new breed of Group A members have had both a positive and negative impact. The positive has primarily come because some high-profile individuals have succeeded in partially removing the stigma of homosexuality and have helped promote the message that having homosexual attractions is not a sin (in and of itself). The negative effect comes because many of these group A people generalize their own experience, ignoring and denying the realities of Group B members. The people in group B still have almost no voice within the church, and are still only represented by people in Group A, all of whom happen to have inborn capacities to follow a respected path in Mormonism and assume everybody has these same capacities. These Group A voices often try to promote their path as being superior, thus continuing the marginalization of Group B.
I must point out that there have been some amazing exceptions to this trend, as a growing number of Group A people are advocating for the needs of those in Group B. Although few in number, there is also a brand new development of Group B people who have just barely started to have a voice within the church’s dialogue about homosexuality.
Meanwhile in the leadership of our Stakes, Wards and in the upper hierarchy of the church, there remain closeted homophobic Group A individuals. (Fortunately the homophobic stances by any church leader are being harder to maintain as the younger, more tolerant generation moves into these leadership positions.)
A broader discussion of bisexuality is badly needed in our Mormon community, partly to recognize the above phenomenon. It is also badly needed as part of a discussion of how to identify who can successfully enter a mixed-orientation marriage. Even though MOM’s are no longer being held out as a cure for homosexuality, it is still being pursued by young LGBT people because it is seen as the only socially acceptable way to participate in Mormonism. Single Mormons don’t hold an enviable position in Mormonism and for many LGBT Mormons, even a MOM seems less dismal than life as a single Mormon.
Unfortunately, Bishops who counsel young LGBT/SSA people aren’t given tools to help them make good choices. This leads to many disastrous marriages that end in divorce and familial disintegration and even suicide. It is pretty clear that sexual attraction to one’s spouse has been an essential feature in these MOMs that succeed. So whether or not you call that bisexuality, opposite sex attraction and aversion need to be taken into account.
But it is not just sexual attraction/aversion that predict success. There are lots of anecdotes of gay people who described good sexual relationships with their opposite sex spouses, but had to leave the marriage due to the ever increasing suicidal feelings that led them to either leave the marriage or die. These questions badly need the help of research, to really identify factors that can predict success and failure.
There is another more serious problem that has arisen due to the different realities of Group A and Group B, and it is currently contributing to the church’s non-action on the dreadfully high suicide rate among LGBT Mormon Youth. Research has clearly established that the family and community rejection experienced by LGBT youth during their adolescence is the biggest factor leading to suicides both as teens and later as adults. And there is similar proof that rejected teens also are more likely to be infected with HIV and be involved in drug addiction both as teens and later as adults. The difference in outcomes between rejecting and accepting families is huge, as research by the Family Acceptance project has shown an 8 fold increase in these bad outcomes for LGBT people who came from rejecting homes. The church has been reluctant to act on this information, because they still operate on the wishful thinking that if we discourage teens from calling themselves gay, then they are might outgrow it. Research has shown this thinking to be faulty. If the church would listen to the experience of people in Group B they would have tons of testimonials.
However, in this case, the church is only paying attention to people in Group A. Those people are the very ones who have had SSA, but have also had some opposite sex attraction. They describe this experience and conclude that they were better off not boxing themselves in with the label ‘gay’. This doesn’t surprise the researchers, since they conceptualize Group A as ‘bisexual’. However, since the Group A people reject this label there is no discussion of the distinction, and no effort to differentiate between Group A and Group B. The problem is obviously exacerbated by the church’s view that a homosexual orientation is clearly inferior to a heterosexual one. Without that back-ground assumption, then there would no mis-guided efforts to guide our youth toward heterosexuality. What the church refuses to recognize is that no efforts to impact a youth’s sexual orientation, one way or the other, has ever be shown to be effective. By the time they are teens, their orientation is something that is merely to be discovered, not changed. It is already formed and unchangeable. There is clear scientific consensus on this.
So the church has made a deal with the devil here. They think they are saving a few vulnerable youth (aka bisexual youth) from going to the dark side (same-sex relationships) at the cost of a huge number of suicides of the (totally gay) youth who could be saved if their families were taught by the church how to stop the damaging, rejecting behaviors. Either they are calling it a calculated loss of life, or they are not looking at the data. However, they are listening to the experience of Group A people who are convinced by their own experiences. Many of them are convinced that a ‘sinful’ gay life would have been too compelling if their families and church hadn’t given them rejecting messages–those same rejecting messages that end up killing so many in Group B. (Once again, I can not continue without a huge applause for the people in Group A who are exceptions to this generalization! I am acquainted with several of them, and they have opened themselves up to great criticism by bucking the trend. It is even more admirable because they have opened their own lives and marriages to intense scrutiny and criticism from both sides of the aisle–all in an effort to bring light to the suffering of their Group B brothers and sisters.)
It really is a matter of life or death. The lack of a nuanced discussion on bisexuality helps perpetuate a dynamic in the church that is leading to an enormous loss of life in our communities.
I hope researchers will begin addressing the complexities of sexual attraction and aversion and come up with more helpful categories that better help people assess and understand their own situation, and that also help the church make more compassionate policies toward the people impacted by these issues. I also hope that church leaders will start taking into account the realities and experiences of Group B men and women who still don’t have a place of full integration in the church and certainly don’t receive much hope from their church participation.