Trigger Warning: This is a frank discussion about the treatment of the believing gay male in the church, including excommunication, which some may find disturbing. This post is not intended for gay youth or gay men who are hurting as they reconcile their sexuality with the teachings of the church. If you feel you need to talk to someone, please do not keep it to yourself. Please call the Suicide Prevention Line (800) 273-8255. If you are a youth please call the Trevor Project (866) 488-7386. Many people care about you.
Your LGBT community will at times have difficult discussions such this one to shed light on previously hidden issues for our allies and others outside our community to consider.
A few weeks ago I received a series of distressing messages from a friend who is in the middle of coming out and divorce. With permission, his first message:
Calls like this to the LDS LGBT community for help and support during a disciplinary council are common, but for reasons completely different than the calls of a straight person facing a church court.
It is time to breech an uncomfortable topic for everyone either gay or straight: Breaking the Law of Chastity.
For clarity we will begin with two premises:
- We will explore church discipline from the point of view of the believer. Regardless if you are LGBT+ or straight, the moment you lose your belief or testimony of the disciplinary process or the church, you tend to take yourself out of the game and either resign or don’t show up for your court. I realize that for some straight and LGBT members this is not necessarily an act of defiance or unbelief, but a mature act of reasonable self-care. Much can be written about such things, but this is not that article.
- In the spirit of “write what you know,” I can only speak from the G perspective. I cannot begin to understand, nor should I attempt to write, the story of the L, B, T (or any other letter other than my own) concerning treatment during church discipline. There may be parallels but there are most certainly completely different aspects of the disciplinary process for every sexual orientation and gender identity as we are all dropped through the same machine of church discipline. I would hope that we can hear those voices as they are able. However, the Church’s heavy reliance on patriarchy and approved displays of masculinity is a crushing environment for the gay male and is an interesting angle to explore.
In reflecting on my friend’s call for help I realized most members of the church cannot understand why disciplinary councils are fundamentally more threatening and degrading for a gay person than they are for a straight person.
It is time to shed some light on the inherent problems in the treatment and pastoral care of gay men during the repentance process as well as the unintended consequences of the disciplinary process.
There are three main components that figure into the treatment of the gay male during discipline:
- The Law of Chasity: Orientation vs. Behavior
- The Machine: A disciplinary system revealed by God, executed by mortals
- The Product: Bizarre unintended outcomes for gay men undergoing church discipline
The Law of Chasity: Orientation vs. Behavior
Christianity has always been a staunch supporter of the seventh commandment. Churches have taught and expected chastity through all dispensations and apostasies of time, great or small.
Since the days of Moses, religious leaders have reserved the right to revise and extend their remarks concerning the seventh commandment. Thus “Thou shalt not commit adultery” has become “The law of chastity.” As we do a historical reading of the record we can see the changing applications, views, and punishments concerning the law of chastity.
Thankfully we have moved away from such things as polygamy and stoning, but in order to explore the topic at hand we need to work with the most current teaching of the law of chastity.
The church teaches today that “Chastity is sexual purity. Those who are chaste are morally clean in their thoughts, words, and actions. Chastity means not having any sexual relations before marriage. It also means complete fidelity to husband or wife during marriage.”
This, coupled with the current definition from God that marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman, is the foundation of the law of chastity and sets the tone of the disciplinary process for law of chastity violations.
Priesthood guided repentance of law of chastity violations is a one size fits all approach that does not take your sexual orientation into account. Instead of acknowledging there are different sexual orientations and applying the law of chastity equally to each orientation, the church does not recognize homosexuality as something analogous to heterosexuality.
We are currently being taught in conferences and devotionals that there is no sexual orientation in the church. There are no homosexuals in the church, neither heterosexuals. Everyone is identified as a child of God with either opposite sex attraction or same sex attraction…and attraction is a behavior that needs to be guided, regulated, and mastered.
Therefore the disciplinary process for law of chastity violations are held to this behavioral standard: Sexual activity is only permitted between one male child of God and one female child of God who are married to each other, regardless if they have opposite sex attraction or same sex attraction.
Sexual orientation is a real thing.
And this makes the entire disciplinary process heterosexual friendly but homosexual hostile.
The current disciplinary “behave like a heterosexual” approach to law of chastity violations can give the heterosexual that fresh start, a new beginning, and a healthy way forward to expressing sexuality in the “bounds the Lord has set.”
If you are homosexual, church discipline wrestles your God given orientation into a chained box with no hope or outlet and squashes your behavior into a lifelong suppression under heterosexual rules of engagement often with harmful results.
Because of this, the treatment during and the outcome after church discipline for the gay male could not be more unequal and different than it is for their straight counterparts.
The current law of chastity is a behavior driven model not an orientation driven model.
Under a behavior driven model of the law of chastity, only sexual relations in a legal opposite sex marriage are in compliance with the seventh commandment. Sexual relations in a legal same sex marriage are sexual sin and in violation of the seventh commandment.
Under an orientation driven model of the law of chastity, sexual relations in a legal marriage between two individuals, same sex or opposite sex, are in compliance with the seventh commandment.
From an orientation model, you can read the law of chastity in either a straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or any other letter of the queer alphabet voice and it is fair, consistent, and makes sense to the believer:
“Chastity is sexual purity. Those who are chaste are morally clean in their thoughts, words, and actions. Chastity means not having any sexual relations before marriage. It also means complete fidelity to husband or wife during marriage.”
A reading the law of chastity in orientation mode is fair and consistent to everyone gay or straight, married or unmarried. The above paragraph does not have to be altered one word.
The Machine: A disciplinary system revealed by God, executed by mortals
Before we examine what happens to the gay male when he is subjected to a behavior model of the law of chastity, we need to understand the disciplinary machine.
The mechanics for holding a disciplinary council are found in Handbook One of the church. However, aside from procedural directions and a small handful of “must hold a court with these offenses” there is an extreme amount of local latitude in the actual process. The process of interviewing, fact finding, penalties, determining the fruits of your efforts, the tone of the court, and minimum amount of time until repentance is considered achieved (frankly the whole handling of your case) have all been passed down orally and by example from the culture of priesthood government hierarchy in your particular area, not from the handbook.
I call this “The Machine.” Some call it leadership roulette. Whatever the name, it is created as a byproduct of how we train and advance an unpaid clergy in the church through the ranks.
Because there is no professionally trained clergy in the church, leadership training is on the job training. Leaders are not only mentored by those above them in the hierarchy, but they learn from trial and error through their own experiences. It is a difficult process and like President Uchtdorf said, “mistakes are made.”
As believing members we sustain them in this process when we raise our hands in ward, stake and general conference. Those men who consistently demonstrate their faithfulness to take council from those above them and learn how to effectively lead through a series of unwritten rules while navigating the particular nuances of the hierarchy above tend to rise through the ranks.
It is a calibration process decades in the making. James E Faust stated it this way: “Our Brethren who are serving in this day and time are proven, tried, and true.”
Here is what this means for the gay male in the church.
The machine of church discipline (meaning HOW the process is conducted) has homophobic roots that the straight lay member of the church never sees or experiences.
Why is it this way?
The homophobic culture of the disciplinary process (executed with latitude by local leaders) is infused with modern day trickle down training from Brethren who were themselves informed by their own experiences working with gays in the later part of the 20th century. They were also trained in their duties during their formative leadership years by a homophobic hierarchy above them.
We are taught in the church, albeit very recently, that church leaders are a product of their time. The essay “Race and the Priesthood” essay explains the priesthood ban by acknowledging that “racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”
If the church’s essay on “Race and the Priesthood” is correct and our early leaders were influenced by prejudices common and customary in their day towards black people, can we not also conclude that our leaders of today might be influenced by prejudices common and customary towards gays during the last half of the 20th century? I say the last half of the 20th century because our current general authorities were young local leaders, learning the ropes of priesthood government in the 50s, 60s and 70s through the awakening of the gay rights movement (Think Stonewall and Harvey Milk in Castro).
President Monson was a young bishop in the 50s. All the other Brethren certainly began their local leadership assignments, including training on the discipline of homosexuals in the 50s and 60s. At the same time gay Americans faced an extremely hostile social environment. The FBI and police departments kept lists of known homosexuals, their favored establishments, and friends; the post office kept track of addresses where material pertaining to homosexuality was mailed. State and local governments followed suit. Cities performed “sweeps” to rid neighborhoods, parks, bars, and beaches of gay people. Thousands of gay men and women were publicly humiliated, physically harassed, fired, jailed, or institutionalized in mental hospitals. Many lived double lives, keeping their private lives secret from their professional ones.
In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder and it remained so until 1973.
Such hostility and homophobia also bled into the church at the time. Ernest L. Wilkinson, President of BYU in 1965 gave an address to the student body entitled, “Make Honor Your Standard,” where he said:
BYU does not intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly; and if you will be honest enough to let us know the reason, we will voluntarily refund your tuition. We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.
In 1969 after years of training leaders that homosexuality was a curable behavior, the Church published “The Miracle of Forgiveness” where Spencer W. Kimball listed homosexuality as “equal to or greater than that of fornication or adultery” and that “homosexuality is an ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it.”
There are many more examples illustrating the tone of the day, but this demonstrates that reactions to homosexuality both outside the church and inside the church were EXTREMELY hostile towards homosexuals during the time our current leaders were learning priesthood government duties from leaders above them in the hierarchy.
Additionally, our young leaders went about in a trial and error fashion trying to cleanse young men and men of homosexuality using the only frame of reference they had: revelation colored by the prevailing hostile view of homosexuality in America of their day.
Electric shock therapy, counseling gay men to marry women, condoning violence towards gay men, shaming and/or praying away the gay, reparative and conversion therapy… such unproductive and harmful acts committed on the trusting believing gay men of the church created much unhappiness and confusion. This in turn created a reinforcing narrative for leadership because the only gay population that LDS leaders had close contact with was the unhealthy one they created.
It was a case of the physician creating the symptoms and thereby incorrectly diagnosing the disease.
The perception of the gays, firmly cemented in our young leader’s minds, was selected for by their superiors as they were proven, tried and true through the leadership ranks.
Could this be why even though society has moved rapidly to right the wrongs of the last half of the 20th century concerning the treatment of the homosexual, we still receive top down training and policies in the church that are reminiscent of a 1950s homophobic America, still so hostile to the gays?
There appears to be a massive generation gap between the Brethren who average about 75 years of age and the Millennials. Because of generational experiences the Brethren see “gay” as a behavior while millennials see “gay” as an identity.
Because of this, the current culture in priesthood government holds firmly that sexuality is a behavior not an orientation. You may consider yourself gay, straight, or otherwise… but to be in compliance with the seventh commandment all must live a law of chastity defined by rules conducive towards heterosexual behavior but damaging towards homosexual orientation.
This strange disconnect of sexual orientation and sexual behavior is on full display as the Big 12 considers including BYU in its expansion plans.
Several national LGBT advocacy groups sent a letter to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, asking him not to allow Brigham Young University to join the conference stating that “BYU… actively and openly discriminates against its LGBT students and staff. It provides no protections for LGBT students. In fact, through its policies, BYU is very clear about its intent to discriminate against openly LGBT students.”
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins responded that, “BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards. We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One’s stated sexual orientation is not an issue.”
The Honor Code, however, states, “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Here on full display is the disconnect between orientation and behavior: Sexual orientation is not an ISSUE as long as everyone behaves like a heterosexual. And since marriage is the ultimate sexual behavior for orientation we appear to be on a collision course in the church as we continue to see the fruits of OBERGEFELL v. HODGES blossom throughout all levels of society.
At some point can we foresee a time when our millennial generation as church leaders, informed by revelation and their social justice experiences of today, will not be threatened by sexual orientation issues? The seventh commandment will still be a commandment. The law of chastity will still be a law and a significant doctrine of the church. There will still be help and council through the repentance process of violations of the law of chastity.
The law will apply equally to stated sexual orientation rather than a narrow heterosexual behavioral standard and will be one of the more merciful and just processes of the future church.
A law of chastity based on orientation still holds marriage as the highest standard of human relationships. All youth will be taught to refrain from sexual activity before marriage. All people gay or straight will be held to the standard of complete fidelity to your spouse during marriage. Chasity lessons will apply to all orientations where we are taught to be morally clean in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Everyone in the disciplinary process will be held to equal and fair rules of engagement.
But here we are today, living in today’s church.
And when you drop a gay man into the machine of church discipline today, the product is quite frankly bizarre.
The Product: Bizarre unintended outcomes for gay men undergoing church discipline
In the short run for our youth there is no difference between abstinence and celibacy. All youth are expected to refrain from sexual relations of any kind.
This is a reasonable standard for a Christian church to take. I doubt it would raise any eyebrows that a Christian church expects her youth to abstain from sexual relations before marriage, gay or straight.
The goal of any discipline for a transgressing youth is to get them abstinent and repented. Recent protections for gay youth against conversion therapy as well as stories such as “Saving Alex” coming to light will hopefully continue to weed out any gross mishandling of gay youth in the church during vulnerable points of contact with priesthood leaders such as confession. There should be absolutely no problem in showing equality with gay and straight youth as they are shepherded through the repentance process and church discipline because the goal is the same: No sexual relations before marriage. The expectation for all youth is equal.
This is why we can have gay young men in LDS chartered Boy Scout troops. This is why gay and straight youth determined chaste and worthy by their Bishop after discipline can equally access administration of priesthood duties, a mission, and BYU attendance.
Yes, there can be a severe inequality in non-sexual affection such as hand holding, kissing, and dating between gay and straight youth population that some bishops overlook while others raise to a federal offense level, but the expectation is the same for ANY orientation concerning sexual behavior.
Unfortunately, disciplinary outcomes start to take a very bizarre turn once a gay man reaches an acceptable marrying age because of the “before marriage” clause of the law of chastity is defined as opposite sex marriage. At this point the infantilizing of the gay male begins in the church.
As an unintended consequence of the current treatment of homosexual men, the church has created an accidental church wide Teacher’s Quorum for the believing gay men of the church.
In the Aaronic priesthood, Teachers are not yet 16 and cannot date. They are also expected, like all youth, to live a standard of sexual purity as discussed in For Strength of Youth: Do not have any sexual relations before marriage.
In Gay Teacher’s Quorum men (not youth, but men) are perpetually kept in this adolescent stage concerning sexual development. It is a conglomerate set of behavior standards that are two parts “For the Strength of Youth” and one part BYU honor code. It is a caste of adult men who are expected to be celibate for the remainder of their life and refrain from all forms of physical intimacy that gives expression to homosexual feelings. Depending on your Bishop, dating, hand holding, or other forms of non-sexual homosexual behavior may be OK, but while your straight peers are consistently counseled to marry, you are constantly commended for being single.
Let me repeat that. Single straight men are counseled, pressured, and continually taught to get married. They are shown how to complete this process from the earliest days of their tenure in the Aaronic Priesthood quorums. Single gay men are counseled, pressured, and continually taught not to marry. You are shown how manage life without an eternal companion by your side.
This isn’t even “separate but equal.” This is just plain inequality.
So what does this mean for the gay male undergoing church discipline?
You are going to Gay Teacher’s Quorum. Permanently.
In general, as part of the pastoral care of the repentant straight sinner, men are returned to abstinence and encouraged to court and marry. It is a program to turn unhealthy, improper use of your sexual powers into a healthy proper use. Conversely the gay single male is literally dumped into Gay Teacher’s Quorum. This is devastating in a church that teaches that marriage is the pinnacle of achievement.
This Peter Panning of the believing gay male is locking otherwise healthy and contributing members into a state that would be unthinkable for a straight Mormon male. The sociality that exists in Aaronic priesthood quorums was NEVER intended to be permanent.
What happens to gay men in the church as a result of the disciplinary process?
For the single, never been married gay man you are assigned permanently to Gay Teacher’s Quorum and must agree to abide by quorum behavior standards in exchange for repentance and a limited role of service in the kingdom.
Depending on your Bishop and his trust level, you may have to check in often to make sure you are remaining celibate. Celibacy is your end game. The Bishop per the handbook cannot counsel you to marry a woman. Contrast this with your straight peers who are reminded about marriage when they check in about their abstinence.
If you were previously involved with homosexual behavior, even though you have fully repented you will have your record annotated. This will make you ineligible for many things including service with the youth. Being gay is not an accepted male model for the youth of the church and therefore is purposely hidden from youth as to not be an example of normality.
Unlike your straight peers who may have had a history of fornication, once the repentance process is complete, they will be eligible for a wide range of callings with youth as well as leadership roles. As a faithful gay man you will be placed on a pedestal, where you can serve as an inspiration and mascot of righteousness because you are not like those “other” gays who gyrate atop pride floats. You are the Mormon guncle that everybody loves, but doesn’t want their sons to be. You will be asked to dial down any behavior that is not Mormon hetero-normative.
Those who do not understand the difference between abstinence and celibacy simply see a homogeneous solution of unmarried men in the church who are living the law of chastity. However, the opportunity of marriage allows the heterosexual male to rise away from abstinence and walk a privileged path of growth both in the church and Mormon culture not accessible from Gay Teacher’s Quorum.
Compared to what is expected of the straight man of the church, this is the infantilizing of the gay male in the church.
Men who were once in a mixed orientation marriage and are now divorced have a much harder time in the church discipline process because they often see the intense benefits of marriage. Marriage is healthy and stable long term relationships are healthy. Most want this again, only the second time to be able to love according to their orientation. After years of spectacular adulting in the church, the inequality of being dropped in Gay Teacher’s Quorum as a condition of their repentance while their straight peers are free to remarry and retain full fellowship and service in the church is very apparent.
Almost always, across the board, when a faithful gay man in a mixed orientation marriage violates the law of chastity in his marriage it is a spiritually devastating event. It is the defeat of all the safeguards he put up over the years to protect his marriage… in essence it is the surrender of all things he held dear and tried to safeguard. No straight man has to suppress his sexual orientation in an opposite sex marriage. It is a herculean effort for the gay man who craves male touch, intimacy, and connection to harness sexual orientation. No Bishop or Stake President who councils the gay married/previously married man can even come close to understanding the emotions and hell this is to do day after day after day after day after day after day after day…infinity.
At best you are counseled that it is a task like what an alcoholic or smoker has to deal with. And then the gay man stands on the curb of the meeting house parking lot as the Bishop drives away to his wife, who he was privileged to marry according to his orientation.
A divorced repentant gay man who marries again according to his orientation will never achieve forgiveness in the eyes of the church. This bears repeating: a gay man who marries according to his orientation will never be granted forgiveness because the law of chastity is a behavior driven model and not an orientation model. Therefore a gay married man is incapable of satisfying the conditions of a behavior model law of chastity.
In this case the disciplinary process is just pure animus and punishment with no ability for a fresh start. Instead of hope there is only despair and sadness because the hope and progression in mortality afforded straight men is damned for the gay man. Forgiveness, acceptance, and full fellowship is only found in Gay Teacher’s Quorum. It is an ignominious event for a previously married gay man to be infantilized during the disciplinary process. No believing straight male has to endure that.
It is a step backwards in development and progress. Forgiveness and compliance with the law of chastity comes from either joining Gay Teacher’s Quorum or marrying another woman against your orientation.
The Policy makes no room in the church for gay married couples. You will have a mandatory disciplinary council and as my stake president told me, “I will excommunicate you if you marry again.” Thankfully many of the good and faithful same sex couples still in the church that I know have not been hunted down and brought in for a church court, although there is a thick blanket of fear enveloping the gay couples in the church as they wait for what might come.
In conclusion, there are many who faithfully reside in Gay Teacher’s Quorum. There are those who bump against the boundaries they are not allowed to cross. But ultimately every believing gay male who is shepherded through the disciplinary process either must join Gay Teacher’s Quorum or be removed from the church: formally or informally.
For the believing gay male the motto is: Join Gay Teacher’s Quorum or Spiritually Die
Elder Oaks spoke a few days ago in Fredrick Maryland on September 16th, 2016. Speaking about gender identity he said, “Don’t label yourself, except that you are a child of God.”
In this spirit, the law of chastity should be blind to our orientation as well.
Regardless of our sexual orientation: Chastity is sexual purity. Those who are chaste are morally clean in their thoughts, words, and actions. Chastity means not having any sexual relations before marriage. It also means complete fidelity to husband or wife during marriage.
For the believer, the law of chastity is a healthy commandment to live and desirable as we obey God and follow the Savior. However, regardless of sexual orientation, each child of God should be allowed to flourish and prosper within the healthy bounds of human love and fidelity afforded every believer under the same rules of engagement.