When Mormons speak of the Law of Chastity, they often define it as remaining celibate until marriage. In actuality, it would be more properly defined as remaining abstinent until marriage. Today, the words abstinent and celibate are frequently used interchangeably, but in practice they are quite different. Abstinence, as practiced in the Church, is the abstaining from all sexual activity until marriage. Celibacy, however, is the lifetime sacrifice to voluntarily forgo all sexual activity and to remain unmarried for the entirety of your life.
For most of us, we never make any particular distinction between abstinence and celibacy because there is no expectation for us commit to celibacy. For those that are LGBT, celibacy becomes the primary religious requirement that the whole of their religious devotion will be qualified by. In 2007, Elder Holland taught, “You serve yourself poorly when you identify yourself primarily by your sexual feelings. That isn’t your only characteristic, so don’t give it disproportionate attention. You are first and foremost a son (or daughter) of God, and He loves you.(1)”
Elder Holland’s quote is true on some levels and not on others. The characteristic of being LGBT is only one part of who you are. Yet acting on that one part will disqualify you from membership in the Church and from temple blessings that bind you to your family. The consequence of that one part is everything to a gay Mormon, especially for youth. The consequence of that one part is also experienced in how parents, relatives and friends react to them. High levels of rejection for gay youth can be devastating:
8x more at risk of suicide
6x more vulnerable to severe depression
3x more likely to use illegal drugs
3x more at risk to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases(2)
In truth, not being able to reconcile this one part of you affects every other part of who you are. Our internal parts are all intertwined. In any other context, we would refer to who we are on the inside as our spirit or soul, but we balk at self-identifying ourselves spiritually as gay or homosexual. And yet most of us would categorize our heterosexual feelings of love and devotion to our spouse as divine gifts that will last throughout the eternities. With the stakes so infinitely high (eternal marriage on one hand and suicide and depression on the other), let us not minimize the significant theological and emotional war in the heart of our LGBT brothers and sisters.
The Family: A Proclamation to the World
You may be anticipating that someone supporting LGBT rights would be completely against the Proclamation. However, the teachings in the Proclamation contain many of my core beliefs. I was married to my wife in the Los Angeles Temple. Our five children (including my gay son) are sealed to us. I am sealed to my parents and their parents. Our beliefs regarding eternal marriage and families being sealed together throughout eternity is an integral, beautiful part of being Mormon.
Recently, a quote from Elder Eyring was shared with me, “It is important to recognize when we have received revelation. But it is equally important to recognize when we have not. (4) “ The Proclamation contains many truths, but it can also lead to more questions. For example:
“ALL HUMAN BEINGS—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of Heavenly Parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose. (3)”
This quote contains beautiful truths regarding who we are as spirit children of a loving Father & Mother in Heaven. It reveals that we have a divine nature and destiny. It also reveals that gender is a part of our spiritual identity. But what if a male spirit is born into a female body? Does our doctrine reject or confirm the possibility of a transgender person? It largely doesn’t answer the question, but belief in a pre-existence with pre-existing gender leads to some amazing possibilities and questions that are not precluded in the gospel.
Belief in a pre-mortal existence also brings into question what other spiritual attributes and identities we brought into mortality. Gender is explicitly identified. Orientation could easily be another. Belief in a divine nature and destiny implies purpose and an eternal identity that has some root in our Heavenly Parents. Our not knowing does not mean there is no answer, it simply means it hasn’t been revealed yet. As with many parts of the gospel, ‘we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.(5)’
Sometimes we make the mistake that our lived experience parallels everyone else’s experience. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man. (6)” So we look at homosexuality and ascribe it to sexual lust gone awry or a temptation such that all can overcome because “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (6)” Armed with scripture, we (heterosexuals) then begin to prescribe to our LGBT brothers and sisters exactly how God will cure them or provide a way for them to escape being gay. We prescribe a solution to a question for which we do not know the origin, we do not know the lived experience of, and of which we do not know the destiny.
Celibacy is the prescribed solution for the question to which we have no revelation. It is not mentioned in the Proclamation. It is not mentioned in the Bible. Neither celibacy nor homosexuality are mentioned in any work of modern scripture (The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price.) There is no modern apostle or prophet who has expounded on how to live a celibate life. There is no handbook, guide or Church website addressing the subject. It is just expected. It is what you are left with when the commandments leave you nothing else.
In the modern Church, there is a progression of both scripture, commandments and sacrifice. We begin in the Old Testament with Laws of Sacrifice and rigid religious structure. These are lower laws given to the Children of Israel who rejected a higher law. The New Testament embodies the Law of the Gospel. These laws embody spiritual laws such as to love God and to love our neighbor. We view these as higher laws. In many ways these laws are more challenging as they address thoughts and intentions above and beyond the letter of the law.
In the Doctrines and Covenants we are introduced to the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, an even higher law. And beyond that we are introduced to the Law of Consecration. Early saints tried (and failed) to live the Law of Consecration. It demands that we give all to the Lord; all of our means, talents and energy. Today we get glimpses of the Law of Consecration with missionaries that dedicate 2 years of their lives to the Lord. We read of pioneers that gave everything for their families, even as they died on the plains. I have a great grandmother who died on the plains and her last words were, “Tell John (her son) I died with my face toward Zion.”
When we look to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we need to be more aware of what is being asked. We think that what is being asked of them is common to all of us. The Doctrine of Celibacy (if such a doctrine exists) is that they cannot be married to those they love. Even the pursuit and hope of that love is denied. They will never share the intimacy and bonding experience married spouses take for granted. Even expressing those feelings in any context is forbidden. They are forever denied a part of who they are, a core spiritual identity for many. It is all sacrificed on the altar of consecration to the Lord.
For those who do chose celibacy, I cannot express enough respect. You are living a law not asked of anyone else in the Church. You are living a commitment that is only paralleled by the Law of Consecration. It’s beyond the laws of sacrifice, the gospel and marriage, you have laid your hopes, dreams, future and family on the altar and given it all to the Lord. As my wife Wendy testified recently to our Stake President, “I don’t know the answer, but I know that the Lord will compensate my son for everything he not getting at Church or denied through the gospel.”
Some may assert that with enough counseling or through the Atonement, an LGBT individual can change their orientation and marry a woman (or opposite gender spouse). This hope is certainly born out of the desperation to make reality fit our current understanding. Marrying a woman (for gay men) was actually advised by bishops of the Church for decades. But in 1995, President Hinckley specifically discouraged the practice. Recent studies have shown that up to 80% of mixed orientation marriages fail (marriages with one gay spouse) (7). The APA has also concluded after decades of research that there is no conclusive evidence that someone can change their orientation. (8) In many cases, the therapy can be harmful. In recent years, reparative therapy organizations like Evergreen for LDS and Exodus for mainstream Christianity have been forced to close their doors over fraud and harm lawsuits. In multiple states, it is also illegal to use reparative therapy on LGBT youth.
To Bishops and Church Leaders
The vast majority do not chose celibacy. My purpose in writing is not that I have answers or that celibacy is necessarily the right choice. The sacrifice of celibacy does not parallel simple things like the word of wisdom or tithing. It transcends the gospel in that your love of God will deny you fulfillment in this life. It far transcends marriage as you are forgoing all the hopes and dreams of that commitment. In a family centric Church, this is denial of the Plan of Happiness.
I want every Mormon bishop to know what he is asking of the gay youth he counsels. I want him to lead with compassion and put his judgments aside. I want him to support these youth, whether they choose to stay in the Church or not. Don’t crush that youth’s hopes and dreams demanding a commitment to celibacy. Let them find themselves and work through complications that you haven’t even considered. Listen and allow the spirit to edify both you and the gay youth in front of you.
How about just letting gay youth accept the same commitment that other youth do: abstinence. Let’s level the playing field to what we expect of other youth. Let’s guide our youth to avoid the stereotypical ‘gay lifestyle’ just as we would guide our straight youth to avoid the ‘girls gone wild’ lifestyle. Let’s start with where each individual LGBT member of our ward currently is. Listen, empathize and show compassion. Leave the threats of discipline and excommunication aside and help them connect with the Savior. He knows far more about this child of God before you than you will ever be able to imagine.
When a bishop sits across the desk from an LGBT youth, he needs to know the commitment he is placing before that young man is more than he has sacrificed in the totality of his life. That bishop has no handbook for him or her. That LGBT youth will be lucky if he has the support of his parents. And we wonder why the conflict of an LDS LGBT youth multiplies the risk of suicide and depression. We expect these youth to choose celibacy, a doctrine for which we have no scripture, no revelation, no guidance, and no support.
Elder Holland said, “In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith. (7)” Let’s be clear about what we know, but let’s be equally clear about what we do not know (or have revelation about.) Celibacy is not a doctrine. It’s just what LGBT people are left with. In these areas where we do not know, let’s learn to walk by faith. I believe we haven’t even begun to envision the potential and destiny of our LGBT brothers and sisters. Once we start asking our Heavenly Father the right questions (instead of thinking celibacy is only answer), He might be able to give us some answers.
1 Helping Those Who Struggle with Same Gender Attraction, Elder Holland, 2007
2 Family Acceptance Project, SFSU, Dr. Caitlin Ryan
3 The Family: A Proclamation to the World
4 Elder Christofferson, Personal Interview, 2014
5 1 Corinthians 13:12
6 1 Corinthians 10:13
7 http://ldshomosexuality.com, Bradshaw and Dehlin
9 Lord, I Believe, Elder Holland, 2013