THE STUMBLING BLOCKS:
OBSTACLES TO ACCEPTANCE
A Call to Zion
Mormonism provides us with many wonderful stepping-stones that enable us to raise questions and study things out to better understand God, ourselves,
and the world. These tools for reviewing tradition allow us to question and to scrutinize beliefs and practices, deciphering whether they are grounded in truth or are merely based on tradition. This attitude is one of several strengths that draws many people to Mormonism. Here are a few other reasons:
• A loving, interactive, supportive community
• A religion that’s rooted in faith, service, and a joy for life
• A faith in traditional and contemporary scripture
• A belief in continuing revelation
• A belief in personal revelation and the “lived” experience of members
• A belief that science can help us understand God’s plan
• A tradition of change in the face of new revelation, science, and experience
• Eternal progression and becoming like God.
This dynamic and optimistic attitude in Mormonism is captured by LDS Church President John Taylor in 1874: “A man in search of truth has no peculiar system to sustain, no peculiar dogma to defend or theory to uphold; he embraces all truth, and that truth, like the sun in the firmament, shines forth and spreads its effulgent rays over all creation, and if men will divest themselves of bias and prejudice, and prayerfully and conscientiously search after truth, they will find it wherever they turn their attention.”
In June 2014, the First Presidency issued an official statement: “Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding.
. . . Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy.” In 1995, the First Presidency issued an Easter greeting in which I find a
good reminder of how to behave as we proceed in the search for truth: “We are asked to be kinder with one another, more gentle and forgiving. We are asked to be slower to anger and more prompt to help.We are asked to extend the hand of friendship and resist that hand of retribution. We are called upon to be true disciples of Christ, to love one another with genuine compassion, for that is the way Christ loved us.”
I write primarily from my experience as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taking courage froma beloved LDS hymn, “Come, come ye Saints, / No toil nor labor fear; / But with joy wend your way.” My message is not only to Latter-day Saints, but also to those who find themselves in the challenging terrain where religion and sexuality collide. A particularly fraught area of collision involves homosexuality, which is “so deeply emotional [and] polarized in the church and society.” One Christian leader, Larry Bethune of the University Baptist Church, describes the difficulty:
Just as a self-identified homosexual person is likely to be treated as if that were his or her whole identity, so a person who takes a stand on one side of the issue or the other is apt to become so identified with the issue, no other conviction or commitment will be heard. For this reason, many churches and many persons refuse to take any stand, preferring silence to the labeling and condemnation which accompany this issue on both extremes.
. . . [I]n a polarized context where debate is so oversimplified you
are branded as either for or against with no middle ground allowed, reasonable people are forced to join one extreme or the other or be silent.
But if we are indeed called to be true disciples of Christ and to love one
another with genuine compassion—including our gay brothers and sisters—we can no longer be silent or sidestep the question about their place in the kingdom of God and how we might foster a safe place for them in our midst. Many of us have enormous difficulty in talking about this issue. Yet most of us know someone rumored to have been gay or who might have traits stereotypically associated with gayness. These individuals may have chosen to leave the Church rather than face disapproval, been disfellowshipped, or suffered excommunication.
A prior question must be answered before meaningful discussion can begin: namely, is meaningful discussion of this issue even possible? Can we trust one another enough to question, research, listen, open our minds and hearts to be changed by God through the honest search for truth? Perhaps every individual must answer that for him—or herself. But if we enter a debate with minds so closed we are searching for ammunition rather than information, the debate will be decided by prejudice rather than truth and by power rather than persuasion.
Some would argue on either side that there is no room for debate on an issue that is already clear. They would say there is no room for discussion because all forms of homosexuality are a sin. Or they would argue that all arguments against homosexuality are homophobic, judgmental, and un-Christian. I would argue that the presence of the two extremes in the society and among Christians makes the debate both necessary and legitimate. . . . I believe it is possible and courageous to reject the pressures from either extreme while listening to all sides and to make up your own mind on the issue as you are led by the Spirit in prayer.
Church members and nonmembers, alike, then, have questions to be
1. Why are some people gay?
2. Is it a choice?
3. What does it mean to be gay or transgender?
4. Can these people change? Is transgenderism a choice?
5. Can gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (GLBTI) children
of God accept their orientation or gender variation and still be spiritual?
Because of the LDS Church’s stance on LGBTI issues, a large percentage of us leave, some finding another spiritual home where they can serve openly. Some stay Church members until they are disfellowshipped or excommunicated by a Church leader. A few return to the Church, but on their own terms. Some conceal or repress their sexual orientation, sometimes for their whole lives, although fewer choose this option now than in earlier generations.
The topic of this book has become one of the leading social issues
in the United States and for the Church over the past twenty years. When I started writing this in 1998, we were in a very different political and social environment; and since 2008 great change has taken place politically. Equal marriage rights became the law of the United States, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015. Utah had accepted marriage equality eight months earlier on October 6, 2014. But the legalization of gay marriage has not ended the controversy nor, unfortunately, brought theological and sociological clarity. The issues and ideas that follow are of great importance in our families and religious communities. But many religious communities have lagged in understanding and effective pastoral care.
This Book’s Organization
This book is divided into five parts plus an appendix and a large bibliography with suggestions for additional reading. The main sections are:
Part 1: The Stumbling Blocks: Obstacles to Acceptance
Part 2: Stepping-Stones toward a Zion Community
Part 3: The Restoration and Continual Revelation: More Stepping-Stones
Part 4: The Church in Crisis: Stumbling over Tradition
Part 5: Stepping Up to Zion
Hearing Some Personal Voices
I’ll introduce the topic with statements by four friends or acquaintances, all of whom are striving to live their lives according to their understanding of the gospel.
I’ve known the first writer, Clay Essig, since the mid-1990s. Clay has
been involved with Reconciliation, Family Fellowship, and Affirmation, support groups for gay and lesbian Mormons and their families. He wrote:
Through years of fasting and prayerfully searching the scriptures the Lord has filled me with tremendous hope, belief, and faith that all the blessings of God’s Church and gospel will eventually be extended to His gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children, just as they were eventually extended to the Gentiles. . . . All of my belief, hope, and faith are based squarely on the words and example of Jesus Christ. I believe the Church will eventually include and bless God’s gay and lesbian children because I believe most Latter-day Saints, like most other Christians, have an innate goodness and genuinely strive to steadily bring our lives into greater harmony with the words and example of the Savior.
The second statement comes from John Gustav-Wrathall whom I met in about 2005 at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium. John, who has been with his partner Göran for twenty-three years (as of 2016), is a college professor and currently the president of the national Affirmation organization. He and Göran have been foster parents to two teenagers, the oldest of whom is now in college. He writes: “If I had to list one of the top reasons for why I stay [in the Church], it is this. I find in the Church that spring of life everlasting, that abiding connection with God, that presence of the living Spirit. I also find Saints who are no more nor less perfect than I am. And we together find this opportunity—in our relationships with one another and with God—to take up our cross daily, and follow Him, and become more like
Q-Salt Lake columnist Seth Bracken was serving his mission in one of the poorer branches of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the author of the third statement. He secretly struggled with his orientation but continued to serve honorably. During this difficult time, he became aware of a branch member, Ricky, a dancer and singer who had the “nicest home, three-story, stucco building with a clean and functioning restroom, which was unusual for that area.” Ricky “was the choreographer of all the Church productions. The kids loved his work for their Christmas program, which included decorations, a parade, and a reenactment of the birth of Jesus, complete with animals and a two-week-old infant as the little savior.” Every year, Ricky “hosted a talent show with a 100-peso prize, which he donated. It attracted people from around the city and hundreds packed the small church while dancers, singers, and magicians competed for the top prize.”
It was common knowledge, Seth writes, that Ricky was gay. He had a
partner who wasn’t Mormon but who participated in all of the activities and frequently performed. As Seth notes:
Feeling I had to do something to stop this openly [sic] homosexual
from serving in any position of leadership, I took my concerns to the local leadership.
“We can’t let him continue to serve like this. What he’s doing is wrong,” I said, allowing my own insecurities to get the best of me. “We need to release him from all his callings immediately.”
“Elder, surely you’ve seen how much everyone enjoys his productions.
He believes in God and is as faithful as you or I. He cannot help how he was born and he’s making the best of it,” the branch president responded. “This is not your place to decide. You do not get to make decisions for us.”
I was appalled that the branch of Mormons would accept, without any conditions, this openly gay man. I couldn’t believe that he was somehow as righteous as I was, because although no one else knew I was gay, I was staying celibate and fighting to turn straight. . . .
Luckily, Ricky and his boyfriend were allowed to lead the productions and be an integral part of the Church branch. They didn’t let my own insecurities stop Ricky from producing the best manger scenes in Argentina.
The fourth statement is by Topher Moore, who joined the Church in his teens in California and served a mission. After struggling for years with his sexual orientation, he then had the deeply spiritual confirmation that God affirmed his orientation and that he could make good choices as a gay person living the gospel. He writes:
I came to realize that I still judged gay people, and that there was some self-hatred going on. I was okay being gay [and celibate at the time] but still not really comfortable owning that as part of who I am. It felt like I needed to talk to my bishop about it. I emailed him, giving him a history of my life, and then I set up an appointment and met with him. It was fairly quick. He asked if I had a testimony. I explained that I did, but that I also felt like God was okay with me being gay and being who I was. He explained that with those feelings, I must not have a true testimony of the Church, and that I was going against the gospel and its teachings. He told me I could either choose to have my records removed or be excommunicated. I chose to have my records removed.
I still feel like it was God’s will that I joined the Church. I truly feel like the Church was a way for me to develop a relationship with God. It was something that was meant for my life, but not for my entire life. I have no hard feelings. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and I know God loves me. I find myself bearing my testimony a lot still, maybe even more than when I was a member.
Through personal relationships and unnumbered conversations, I find
that many gay people are inherently spiritual and have spent years trying to figure things out and understand God’s will for themselves. Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the question: Is there a place for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? This question has double-edged answers.
Currently, the Church allows full participation for the celibate member
while labeling as transgressive the member who chooses to be in a committed, monogamous relationship, whether that union includes a legal marriage, a civil service, or personal commitment to the partnership.
Limitations in Religious Tradition
President Taylor’s attitude quoted above is a critical prerequisite for
what follows: my examination of the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex children of God in the LDS plan of salvation and exaltation. The LDS Eighth Article of Faith states: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The scriptures, then, are not exempt from scrutiny. Accepted and prized as fundamental truth, they have often been misused to support a long series of false causes. In the sixteenth century, the Bible was quoted to condemn Copernicus (1473–1543), who asserted that the sun was not the center of the universe. In the seventeenth century, it was used against Galileo’s (1564–1642) observation that the sun did not rotate around the earth. In the eighteenth century, Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642–1727) insights into the laws of motion had to resist a biblical interpretation of God that could only be described as supernatural magic. Similarly, churches attacked nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) for dismantling a brand of creationism that is dismissed today, even by fervid creationists.
Understanding the context of their times may explain such misuse of scripture, but it cannot justify false teachings. Above all, it is not worthy to claim the loyalty of lovers of truth.
Persistent social evils that have drawn support from scriptural interpretations include slavery, apartheid, and segregation; the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of women and children; the persecution of Jews and other non-Christian believers; Hitler’s holocaust; opposition to medical advances; the condemnation of interracial marriage; the execution of women as witches; the violent racism of the Ku Klux Klan; and the mobilization of militias, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis. Scriptural interpretations have also been enlisted in fostering intolerance for sexual minorities—resulting in discrimination, physical attacks, and murder.
Dealing with the Controversy
Yes, the place of LGBTI people in the Church is controversial. However, by engaging in this dialogue, I hope to foster a climate of openness and understanding by which we may reexamine and more clearly understand the complexities of human sexuality and gender, and their place in the gospel of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saint tradition. I take the position that someone who has negative feelings towards LGBTI people has a reason for those feelings— a sad, painful, or uncomfortable experience, a confusion that they cannot adequately express—perhaps even a limited knowledge and experience of LGBTI people. Dialoguing about these experiences is far more effective than arguments that focus only on trying to prove one another wrong. I do not discount or minimize the feelings and experiences of others. I know that these experiences, if we allow them to, can help us bridge the chasm of misunderstanding and traditional beliefs that block understanding and acceptance among heterosexuals and homosexuals. When we seek the assistance of the Spirit, openness and sharing can replace distrust and defensiveness. The experience of listening with care is a powerful way to open hearts and create understanding. This is the type of listening I try to do; this is the type of listening I ask for from my readers.
The scientific study of sexuality and psychology is barely a century old, yet to date the results affirm that sexuality is a core identity issue. It goes far beyond physical descriptions or functioning; it cannot be captured by a list of organs or encapsulated in arousal and orgasm. “Sexuality,” as Daniel A. Helminiak, a Roman Catholic priest, puts it, “is part and parcel of the human capacity for love.” With a Ph.D. in systemic theology from Boston College and Andover Newton Theological School and another in educational psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, he brings insights from both fields to his pastoral counseling. “We are not just intellectual beings, making calculated decisions to cherish somebody; we are emotional, and physical, too” —and, I would add, spiritual as well. Such qualities are integral to our identity and nature as human beings. All of these qualities likewise come into play in the experience of human love.
Attached to a person’s sexuality is the capacity to feel affection, to delight in the beloved, to feel emotionally close to that person, and to be passionately committed to his or her well-being. Sexuality is at the core of the human experience of being in love or being struck by the personality and physical beauty of another. Love means being drawn out of ourselves—becoming attached to another human being so powerfully that we begin measuring life in terms of what is good for someone else, as well as for ourselves.
“To . . . be afraid to feel sexual,” as Helminiak phrases it, “is to restrain
that noblest of human possibilities, love. It is to short circuit human spontaneity in a whole array of expressions[:] creativity, motivation, passion, commitment, and heroic achievement. It is to be afraid of part of one’s own deepest self,” afraid of the divine love God has placed within each of us. “This is not to say that sex acts are a necessary part of every human love,” he continues. “People [can] live without having sex.” It does mean “that people who are afraid of their sexuality are constantly in hiding from their [very] selves. As a result, they are handicapped in all their dealings with other people and especially in their capacity to love deeply. All interior growth is stunted when people repress their affection, for heartfelt passion is . . . the engine of human achievement.”
Forcing people “to choose between religion and sexuality is forcing
them to choose between religion and self,” Helminiak explains. “As we are
coming to understand the matter today,” the limitation of this position
causes people to feel that they must choose “between God and human
wholeness.” Because most of us have been taught about God through religion, such a choice can strand us in a terrible limbo, an irresolvable
If we feel rejected by the Church, then God must reject us as well. Even if we differentiate between the Church and God, we still face a cruel dilemma.
On the one hand, if we, loving God, choose what we see as God’s position and deny ourselves, then we are rejecting ourselves. If we are unacceptable to ourselves, how can we be accepted by God? On the other hand, if we “defy” God and affirm ourselves, then we are crippling ourselves by cutting ourselves off from spirituality—likewise a major and irreplaceable source of human identity.
“Self-rejection divides and confuses the self,” points out Lowell Bennion, a great Christian thinker from the Latter-day Saint tradition. “To have integrity we must come to terms with ourselves as persons. By this self-approval I do not mean self-satisfaction, but only the pleasure of being who we are, so we can function freely and fully as integrated human beings.”
Perhaps the most important part of our journey in life is learning who
we are, learning to appreciate our true nature, and understanding how we
can best serve God and all of creation. On April 7, 1844, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith taught in what became known as the King Follett Discourse, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”
Of course there is another option for LGBTI people, and that is reconciliation with God and understanding the imperfection of the religious institution(s) we each come from. That recognition and reconciliation help us understand that, though religious institutions are guided by God, they are nevertheless filtered through human understanding and experience. The issue of homosexuality and gender threatens to fracture whole denominations; it is as crucial a moral issue as slavery was in the nineteenth century.
Like other religions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must also renegotiate what to do with its sexual and gender minorities. An important part of that dialogue is identifying and discussing the stumbling blocks in the LDS tradition that inhibit the acceptance of LGBTI individuals and committed same-gender couples into full fellowship. The religious and ethical issue is plain. As believers, LGBTI members are part of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11–14), and their exclusion is not only crippling to them as individuals but also damaging to the full Christianity of the Church.
This book, which began as an essay for a symposium presentation,
briefly reviews the main scriptural and scientific issues, offering, where appropriate, broader interpretations and possibilities. Traditions on homosexuality have promoted stereotypical and poorly researched interpretations of scripture, many of which are based in ancient mythologies and primitive understandings of biology and human sexuality. As a result, many souls have been left with shattered hopes and a sense of self-hatred over their same-sex longings or nonconforming gender identity.
The initial stumbling block for some will be whether, given the LDS
Church’s theological and social commitment to the traditional nuclear family and its efforts against marriage equality, with the added 2015 declaration that same-sex married couples, in monogamous relationships, are “apostate,” that it is even possible to discuss such questions. I believe that it is not only our right but our duty as Latter-day Saints to pursue an active and vigorous dialogue. In 1962, Apostle Hugh B. Brown encouraged BYU students to “be dauntless in your pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity. No one would have you become mere tape recorders of other people’s thoughts. Be modest and teachable and seek to know the truth by study and also by faith. There have been times when progress was halted by thought control. Tolerance and truth demand that all be heard and that competing ideas be tested against each other, so that the best, which might not always be your own, can prevail.” Sadly, no member of the LDS First Presidency has made a similar statement in the past forty years, but that does not reduce the inspiring goal President Brown established with his words.
John Taylor, February 1, 1874, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London and Liverpool:, LDS Booksellers Depot, 1855–86), 16:370. Taylor (1808–87) was third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1880 until his death in July 1887 in hiding from federal marshals for his intransigent defense of plural marriage.
 Office of the First Presidency, June 28, 2014, https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/june-first-presidency-statement?lang=eng (accessed July 5, 2014).
“An Easter Greeting from the First Presidency” [Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, James E. Faust], Church News, April 15, 1995, 1.
William Clayton (1814-79), “Come, Come Ye Saints,” Hymns, No. 30.
Larry Bethune, “Homosexuality and the Church.”
 June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. The court ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and the refusal to recognize those marriages performed in other jurisdictions violates the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Thus, marriage equality became the law of the land in all 50 States. Wikipedia, “Obergefell v. Hodges,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obergefell_v._Hodges (accessed January 2016)
 Romboy, Dennis. “Same-sex marriage legal in Utah after Supreme Court rejects case,” Oct 6th, 2014. KSL TV webpage. http://www.ksl.com/?sid=31845612 (accessed January 2016).
Clay Essig, “Believing the Words of Jesus Christ: A Gay LDS Perspective.”
John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, “The True Church.”
Seth Bracken, “God Made Some Mormons Just Too Fabulous,” 10.
Topher Moore, Gay Mormons? Latter-day Saints’ Experiences of Same-Gender Attraction, 328.
“Sexual minority” refers to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (most transgender individuals believe that their body does not match the gender of their spirit), and intersex (includes “true hermaphrodite”) people. Main points from Mel White, “Second Open Letter to Jerry Falwell,” June 29, 1999.
Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality: Recent Findings by Top Scholars Offer a Radical New View, 18. I have recast some of Helminiak’s comments in my specifically Mormon perspective, but the quotations are his.
Although I write from within my own LDS tradition, most of this material is broadly applicable to Christianity in general. I will make it clear, by name or by context, if I am referring to LDS doctrines, Christianity in general, or religious thought of a particular pre- or non-Christian period.
Lowell L. Bennion, The Things That Matter Most, 44. Bennion, a Ph.D. in philosophy, set up one of the earliest Institutes of Religion for University of Utah students and launched the Lambda Delta Sigma fraternity/sorority program.
Joseph Smith Jr. et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6:303; hereafter cited as History of the Church.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Church Provides Context on Handbook Changes Affecting Same-Sex Marriages,” VIDEO — 6 NOVEMBER 2015
http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/handbook-changes-same-sex-marriages-elder-christofferson (accessed January 2016)
Hugh B. Brown, “Be Aware and Beware,” May 1962, 8.