The Problems of Eliminating ‘Identity’

During the last couple of months, we’ve had a number of specific responses to what I am going to call the “gay question” by three apostles: Elders Nelson, Bednar, and, most recently, Holland. All three have been prompted by either individual members or a growing voice of discontent, rightfully so, to specifically address the LGBTQ+ population in the church (although, this is usually framed as “same-sex attraction” or something more watered down). While Nelson’s talk, which framed the recent policy towards same-sex marriage as the will of the Lord merits discussion, I will be focusing on the responses of the Elders Bednar and Holland.

To refresh:

Elder Bednar was asked:

“How can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel?”

Elder Bednar responded:

“There are no homosexual members of the church. We are not defined by sexual attraction. We are not defined by sexual behavior. We are sons and daughters of God. And all of us have different challenges in the flesh.”

Elder Holland was asked (see Jon’s post for a transcript of relevant comments) :

“Those who encounter same-gender attraction feel alone in the church. They feel scared and they are not sure how they fit in the Lord’s kingdom. If you could meet with them, what message would you share with them?”

Elder Holland responded:

“This is a current, sensitive, complex issue for the Church…I think we have talked altogether too much about gender and altogether not enough about chastity. The issue is chastity, the issue is not gender.”

Both Elder Bednar and Elder Holland dodge the specific question, but I think the reason is evident in Elder Holland’s response: it is a sensitive and complex issue. (Side note: Notice to whom it was sensitive: the Church. Not those who are LGBTQ+/SSA, but the Church. On one hand I’m annoyed by Elder Holland’s spinning it around to think about how hard it is for the Church rather than concerning himself with the difficulty for those in this situation; but on the other hand, it hints that it is a topic with which the leaders of the Church are still engaged (and hopefully that means future fruitful developments).)

However, I wanted to explore the consequences for downplaying the “identity” aspect of homosexuality. During the most recent general conference, Elder Hallstrom gave an interesting talk, most of which I agree with, but which still presents certain problems. To sum it up, I’ll quote this one sentence: “These earthly identities are not wrong unless they supersede or interfere with our eternal identity—that of being a son or a daughter of God.” From all three of these speakers, especially from Elder Bednar, LGBTQ+ members are being asked to rid themselves of any identity formed on the basis of their sexual orientation (or at least to manage this identity as subservient to that of a child of God). However, there are (at least) three main problems with this: 1) it eliminates the political and change potential of identities; 2) it assumes identities are freely and individually chosen rather than societally imposed/influencing; and, 3) it is avoids addressing the problem of who gets to define what each identity entails and thus ignores a question of power that is near the heart of the struggles felt by LGBTQ+ Mormons (and the LGBTQ+ population in general).

1)  – Ignoring identity prohibits change and progress

Social scientists who research identity frequently refer to their area of research as “identity politics”, mostly because they have noticed that, at least in contemporary, Western societies, identities are mostly employed by individuals and groups to make some sort of political statement or to engage in some kind of movement. We see this especially starting with the Civil Rights movement, feminists, the secular LGBTQ and same-sex marriage movements. But the core idea is that people stake claim to an identity in part to request equality and demand change. Thus, LGBTQ+ Mormons are engaging in an identity politic to request change and equality from the LDS Church. Not necessarily from its doctrine-although there are some groups who believe that needs to be done as well-but, mostly in the culture and policy. Could there be more done in the LDS Church to help LGBTQ+ persons? Absolutely!

For example, before the LDS Church had given priesthood authority to black members, they had established a group in Utah called the Genesis Group which was led by and for black members. This group, founded in 1971, continues till today giving specific help and community for black members of the LDS Church. This is an easy, useful tool to help not only provide a space for LGBTQ+ members, but also one that can demonstrate that the LDS Church is trying and not just reacting to the current social climate. Additionally, they could talk more freely about sexuality and sexual attraction rather than leaving it as a taboo topic. The church could end the characterizations of same-sex marriages as apostate and end using other negative labeling terms. (There are many, many options, of which could be a purpose for another blog. I just wanted to list a number of examples.)

What is partly at stake, in asking LGBTQ+ members to relinquish their homosexual/bisexual/queer/trans identities is asking them to give up their political quest for progressive change within the Church. (I hope conservative readers aren’t turned off by the word progressive. I use the term to invoke a “bettering” or “further progress” of the Church rather than as a political ideology.) As we read in Sunday School a number of weeks ago in 2 Nephi: “Wo unto him that crieth, All is well!” LGBTQ+ members reserve the right to continue and press the Church and to refuse to accept that “all is well”. Destroying their identity will hamper this progress.

2) – attributing too much individual choice to identity

While, yes, we are ultimately the ones who say “I am gay”, “I am straight”, “I am queer”, etc., the meanings that are attributed to attractions and identities are partly defined by society. While doing my research with LGBQ/SSA members, many of them were grappling with the meaning of “gay” or “homosexual” or “queer” that both society and the Church imposed on them. Let’s not forget the rhetoric of the 70s/80s that labelled gays as faggots by society and transgressors/sinners by the Church. LGBQ/SSA members also have to navigate the categorical impositions placed by the LGBTQ+ community. Each of these groups (the LDS Church, mainstream straight society, and the LGBTQ community) often say: “You are attracted to those who share your gender? This is what that means, this is who you are, and this is what you have to do.” They then delineate a number of cultural activities and beliefs that gay people are “supposed” to do in order to fit in. Most of the time, people, by virtue of membership in other groups, cannot fit all the criteria. Mix race, class, gender, and other sociocategories, and most LGBTQ Mormons feel completely homeless.

Let us make no mistake: This is not because they are staking a claim to their identity as gay, bisexual, or transgender. It is because society is telling them, based on their lived reality, that they have to ascribe to an impossible set of rules to be at home. To say, “There are no homosexuals in this Church” simply reaffirms the narrative that gay people have been told by LDS culture: there is no place for you here. While Elder Bednar was probably trying to say, “don’t define yourself as gay-there are more important declarations of identity,” the cultural rule was immediately set in place. If you are are attracted to people of your same gender, you do not belong. The statement didn’t hurt just those who have the marriage equality bumper sticker on their car and proudly identify as “gay”, but also to the 16 year old girl who is confused by why she can’t find the same interest in guys at school like the rest of her girl friends.

Identity is often not individually chosen, but socially imposed. And at the very least, the ramifications of identity are mostly not up for debate but chosen beforehand by the collective. These ramifications extend to those who share some aspects with the collective (same-gender attraction) but do not identify with the group (as gay, lesbian, bi, or queer). Let’s not think that the consequences for identity are only upon those who actively choose to identify. Let us also not think that identity is an individualistic choice. It is vastly more complex than this.

3) – It avoids questions of power

As a sociologist, power is usually on my mind when it comes to questions of this sort. As you could probably see from my comments in regards to the previous point, there is a lot at stake in defining identity. For LGBTQ+ Mormons, many groups are vying to have the power to say what it means to be in their situation. The LDS Church wants to define them, the LGBTQ+ community wants to define them, the secular American society (and other countries) also want to have a say in that. This power is the very source of the conflict.

When the LDS Church says, as Elder Hallstrom did, that you should have no other identity other than that of Child of God, all I can hear is: let us tell you how to live. Because while leaders of the Church may that our relationship as a child of God is between us and the Lord, the LDS Church in practice defines that relationship for us and the consequences of adhering or rebelling against their constraints. To put another way, we’ve been told often that we need to follow God’s direction in our lives. However, many fringe Mormons, whether gay or straight, in or out of the Church, have said they have felt God tell them to be someone or to do something that the LDS Church would not agree with. They then are subject to Church discipline and are often told: “God would never tell you to do that.” Church leaders have just taken the power to tell that person how to live away from God and claimed it for themselves. (To be fair, the exact same thing happens with secular LGBTQ groups. The mantra: “be true to yourself” only works if your “self” fits in with their culturally appropriate standards. Thus, many religious or conservative gays often feel ostracized in that community.)

Telling someone how to identify is the same as saying, “Let me tell you who you are, what you have to do, and what you have to think.” Then, if you do not do what you are expected to do or think what you are expected to think, you are expelled from that group. This is why so many LBGTQ members of the church, even before they have done anything that breaks the law of chastity, feel so unworthy, so abandoned by God, so unloved. Part of the Child of God rhetoric used in the Church doesn’t allow same-sex attraction. (Again, this may not be felt by all members or even all members who have same-sex attraction. But, I would argue that most LGBTQ+ members have felt this at some point in direct relation to their sexual attraction.)

Now, I don’t have all the answers on how the Church should further their engagement with LGBTQ+ persons in the Church. I’m not quite convinced that it should be a doctrinal change. But I am sure there are a number of social and cultural aspects that could easily be changed to help the LGBTQ+ person feel more at home when at church. To deny someone a possible identity is to create a whole host of problems. Instead of engaging in the identity debate, it would be more useful to hear: “So, some of you are LGBTQ. Let’s talk about how we can grow to make you feel welcome and make you feel the love of the Savior all the more.” Don’t change the question to chastity. Don’t negate the homosexual identity. Don’t allow some identities to be more important for others (as if they could even be separated). We need to, instead, foster an environment where LGBTQ members can feel God’s love and directing influence. Allow God to take the reigns rather than assuming the power.

Hopefully that was clear. I’d invite any questions, challenges, or any other suggestions for how to improve the spaces for LGBTQ+ members in the LDS Church.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Problems of Eliminating ‘Identity’

  1. This piece absolutely nails it. The person/group that controls the definition of the terminology controls the discussion – or lack thereof. To ask me as a gay member to stop identifying myself as gay is to tell me that the only way I will be accepted by The Brethren (because I have been accepted wholeheartedly by my own family, ward and stake) is to get back into the closet and shut up. That position allows The Brethren to pretend that I do not exist and therefore have no say at the table. Thanks a lot for your articulate, reasonable, and spot on essay.

  2. Thanks, Jerry, for reading! I’m glad to hear I was able to give voice to your feelings as well.

  3. Thanks for helping me process these ideas, Erik. It does seem like on the topic of sexuality there is a sort of power play on the part of the church to set the vocabulary, to decide which words are correct and which ones are to be avoided (same-sex attraction vs. gay or homosexual). And I just don’t find it compelling. I’m confident in my ability to choose the words I want to use to talk about myself.

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