By Robert A. Rees & William S. Bradshaw
Any discussion of theology relating to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints begins with the recognition that traditionally members of the Church have tended to eschew acknowledgment of the fact that there is such a thing as “Latter-day Saint/Mormon theology.” This led contemporary Mormon philosopher James E. Faulconer to argue that “Latter-day Saints are atheological — that is, without a philosophy that explains and gives rational support to their beliefs and teachings. . . . [The] Church neither has an official theology, explicit or implicit, nor encourages theological speculation.”1 Nevertheless, by any common understanding of the term, there is a Latter-day Saint theology, although one must add that within the Judeo-Christian tradition it is a theology that is both unique and complex. In order to understand LGBTQ Latter-day Saint theology, it is useful to consider that uniqueness and complexity as it relates to LGBTQ persons. The following offers a brief summary of those key elements.
Latter-day Saint Theology, Cosmology, and Metaphysics
While Latter-day Saint theology shares some core beliefs with both Judaism and traditional Christianity, in some particulars it is radically different from both. Latter-day Saint cosmology and metaphysics emerge from four basic sources: Judaism, primitive Christianity, various esoteric traditions and a unique set of beliefs stemming from what Mormons call the Restoration, by which is meant the restoration of the original Church and teachings of Jesus Christ as well as the seminal visions and revelations, extra-canonical scriptures and continuing revelation to modern prophets.
That is, as opposed to traditional Protestant and Catholic doctrine, Latter-day Saints take the position that the canon is always open, as articulated in the Church’s ninth Article of Faith: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Latter-day Saint theology as it relates to LGBTQ issues centers on the origin and nature of being, agency, the purpose of mortality, and eternal salvation and exaltation.
Being Latter-day Saints accept some traditional biblical teachings about the divine creation of the cosmos, including the special and specific creation of the earth and the mortals who inhabit it, but with significant variations. Taking the Hebrew word Elohim (plural noun that means God or “gods”), Latter-day Saints see divinity as a sort of “square deific,” with a Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Beloved Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost.
Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother are seen as gendered beings, male and female, who by some process in a preexistent sphere brought into being billions of “spirit children.” There is uncertainty in Latter-day Saint doctrine as to how this happened, with some believing individual beings were not created or born but rather “organized” out of something Latter-day Saints call “intelligence,” which one scripture defines as “light and truth” (D&C 93:36) and one Church authority calls “spirit element,”2 but which might be thought of as some eternal self-existing amorphous substance (a sort of premortal metaphysical clay?) out of which our heavenly parents fashioned, “organized,” or engendered and birthed the spirits of all the beings who have become or who are yet to become mortal. As Dennis J. Packard explains in the entry under “Intelligence” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
Intelligence, however defined, is not created or made (D&C 93:29); it is coeternal with God.… Some LDS leaders have interpreted this to mean that intelligent beings–called intelligences–existed before and after they were given spirit bodies in the premortal existence. Others have interpreted it to mean that intelligent beings were organized as spirits out of eternal intelligent matter, that they did not exist as individuals before they were organized as spirit beings in the premortal existence.… The Church has taken no official position on this issue.3
According to Mormon doctrine, once we were organized, created or born out of intelligence, all beings (or “spirit children”) lived with our Heavenly Parents, receiving light and knowledge from them, which allowed us (as spirit children) to mature, grow, and begin evolving toward our penultimate state of being—mortals—and then to our ultimate state as exalted, glorified beings like the Heavenly Parents themselves, whom Mormon scripture describe as having bodies of “flesh and bones [but not blood] as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22).
According to one official source, “. . .each one of us is a dual being possessed of an immortal spirit body, clothed with a body of flesh and bone. . . . In the Resurrection, the immortal spirit is reunited with the same body of flesh and bone it possessed as a mortal, with two major differences: The union will be permanent, and the body will be immortal and perfected.”4 In their preexistent state all spirit beings were autonomous, all acquired knowledge and experience, and all exercised their agency to risk mortality in the hope of further growth and development, with the ultimate objective of returning to their heavenly home. This theology influences perceptions of current members of the Church with regard to gender identity by suggesting binary Heavenly Parents having given rise to binary spiritual offspring – thus, that there is only male and female as an eternal principle.
Latter-day Saint theology sees agency as central to the entire Plan of Salvation. That is, without the ability to choose, existence has no meaning. According to church president, David O. McKay, “next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man.”5 Related to agency is the Latter-day Saint concept of “opposition in all things”; that is, the idea that agency demands that all have a clear choice between good and evil, right and wrong. In the words of the Book of Mormon prophet, Mormon, “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11; cf. 15).
For Latter-day Saint theology, mortality began when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and were cast out of their innocent Eden. As opposed to most other Christians, Latter-day Saints believe that the fall from innocence was fortunate, not tragic.6 The reason is that it was necessary for Adam and Eve to leave their cloistered garden haven, put on their mortal coil and, having been joined in marriage by God, begin experiencing the virtues and vicissitudes of earthly life, including having children, thereby inaugurating the process and pattern through which preexistent beings could have the opportunity of inhabiting physical bodies and learning the lessons mortality provides.
These lessons include not only what Hamlet calls “the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks, / that Flesh is heir to,”7 but also, the range of intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual pleasures and joys possible in mortality. The origin of spirit beings in the preexistence and the joining of those spirits with fleshly bodies in mortality have little meaning without the ultimate objective of what Latter-day Saints call the Plan of Salvation, the process whereby all mortals are given the opportunity to grow and evolve to higher spiritual states made possible by the atonement of Jesus Christ and adherence to the principles and ordinances of his gospel. This is the process by which all the children of God (save a very small number who reject all entreaties and opportunities to live by light) are redeemed, resurrected and exalted into kingdoms of glory in a post-mortal world.
In this view of mortal life as a testing ground replete with uncertainty and ambiguity, LGBTQ critics can perceive non-heterosexuality and gender dysphoria as unfortunate but temporary anomalies. The resolution is, “Be patient (other people also have significant challenges), your problem is not unique (others are also unable to marry), the Atonement of Christ is sufficient for overcoming all difficulties, keep God’s commandments now and no blessing will be withheld from you in the eternities.”
Immortality and Eternal Life
Latter-day Saint theology includes an understanding of the post-mortal world that differs from that of other Christians. Rather than the spirits of deceased mortals going to either heaven or hell (respectively, a place of eternal bliss or eternal punishment), they go to what is known as the Spirit World, a temporary place of habitation between death and the Resurrection.
The Spirit World is divided into two spheres, “Paradise”8 and “Spirit Prison.”9 The former is reserved for those who, having chosen righteousness in mortality, continue to grow in righteousness; and the latter is for those who: a) untutored in the gospel in mortality have an opportunity to be taught and make correct moral choices, and b) those who transgressed against the gospel have a final opportunity to repent of sins and misdeeds committed in mortality. Thus, before the Day of Judgment, all will have had a free and fair chance to understand and choose to live by principles of light and love.
Latter-day Saint theology includes belief in a universal resurrection. As Paul declared, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Thus, all spirits who come into mortality will be embodied for eternity, but, as explained below, the quality of their embodiment depends on their righteousness. Mormons make a distinction between salvation10 and what they refer to as “exaltation.”11 In relation to the first, all but a very few will be saved, that is, resurrected and clothed with glory. The Latter-day Saint understanding of heaven consists of three heavens, or kingdoms, each characterized by increasing degrees of glory. These kingdoms are likened to the light of celestial bodies–the lowest or Telestial Kingdom to the stars, the middle or Terrestrial Kingdom to the moon, and the highest or Celestial Kingdom to the sun (D&C 76). It is the latter who achieve exaltation, as distinguished from salvation.
A further understanding of exaltation is that those who reach the Celestial Kingdom will inherit the totality of godliness. As specified in a modern revelation: “all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood” (D&C 84:35-39).That ultimate inheritance requires eternal marriage between a man and woman (or, according to some teachings, a man and more than one woman) performed by an authorized High Priest in a Latter-day Saint temple.
What this means is that those who inherit all the Heavenly Parents possess—all knowledge, power and glory—inherit the potential to become not only like God, but Gods themselves. While other believers might consider such a belief the height of human pride or even blasphemy, for Latter-day Saints it is a manifestation of the ultimate love of Deity—their desire to share all they have with those who are both worthy and capable of exercising such knowledge, power, and glory righteously.
Central to the crowning gift of exaltation is the exclusive use of procreative powers. Mormon theology posits the possibility that those who achieve celestial glory will be empowered to imitate the Gods themselves by creating and populating worlds, “without number” (Moses 1:33).
In the contemporary Church homosexuality has usually been seen as a temporary mortal condition or a socially-contrived fiction to be corrected in the resurrection. Church members are encouraged to extend sympathy (too often proffered in a condescending manner), but not accept non-heterosexuality or being transgender as valid. The justification for such a view is that the highest expression of godliness includes reproduction, and that divine process is the model for how humans have children, through male and female sexuality. Unable to reproduce, same-sex couples are excluded in this scenario.
It should be noted that in spite of the appearance of a complete and certain understanding of the post-mortal world, it is important to acknowledge that there is much more that we don’t know than that we do. In other words, the Latter-day Saints belief that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” applies not only to temporal but also to heavenly matters.
Early Latter-day Saint Theology on Sexual Identity, Orientation and Expression
As with the rest of the world of nineteenth century America, at the time Mormonism emerged as a new American religion, issues relating to gender identity, sexual orientation and same-sex intimacy were rarely on the radar of the general public, let alone religionists in a century dominated largely by Victorian values. That is, without the advancements in the medical, social and psychological sciences that have taken place over the past century and absent the extensive and clarifying knowledge and vocabulary on the subject available to those living in the twenty-first century, there were limited ways to both understand and talk about what it meant to be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender during the nineteenth century.
One of the consequences of this lack of scientific information is that nineteenth-century Americans, unburdened by the emotional baggage that has plagued discussions of gender and same-sex love in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, were much more comfortable with affectionate, romantic and non-genital male-male and female-female expression and bonding, including that expressed openly. As David S. Reynolds observes in his biography of Walt Whitman, “It was common among both men and women to hug, kiss, and express love for people of the same sex. . . . Men often made strikingly ardent confessions of love to each other. . . . The least that can be said is that women and men frequently showed various degrees of same-sex physical affection. Since romantic friendship was commonplace, homosexual acts did not stir up much controversy, either with the public or the police.”12 Latter-day Saint scholar, D. Michael Quinn, presents a similar picture among nineteenth century Mormons: “Homosociality in American and Mormon culture was a widespread phenomenon in the nineteenth century and rarely involved homoerotic interest and desires. However, contrary to currently popular assumptions, there was also an early American subculture of people who interacted because they shared an erotic interest in persons of their own gender.”13
It was that “shared . . . erotic interest” that constituted an important distinction between homosociality and homosexuality. In his excellent history, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, Graham Robb states that in most European countries gay and lesbian love was considered aberrant and criminal: “By lumping homosexual men and women together with insane and violent people, the criminal evidence paints a grim and antiquated picture of the 19th century. . . . It places the people who were popularly and legally known as “sodomites” in the same sexual zoo as exhibitionists, paedophiles and sex-murders. Since it was concerned with acts, not with desires, it turns homosexual history into a long tale of sodomy and prostitution.” He adds, “Based on the red glow of crime, the whole Victorian age looks like a homophobic hell from which gay people essentially liberated themselves.”14 That liberation was not easily attained, however, considering the fact that in some European countries homosexual love was punishable by death.
Due to the fact that the Puritans or Separatists came to America to escape what they considered the decadence of Europe, in the United States same-sex sexuality was often seen as a European problem. According to Robb, “A New York journal called the Whip noted with some relief that among the sodomites infesting the city, ‘we find no Americans as yet – they are all Englishmen and French.’”15 Except that they weren’t. But the size of the population, its Puritan origins, and the focus on exploring and conquering a new continent made them a lot less visible.
Although the “the love that dare not name its name” was named and spoken of among the Mormons, it didn’t emerge from the shadows into the public square until the 1840s in Nauvoo when John C. Bennett, a member of the Church’s First Presidency, was accused of and excommunicated for having sex with both males and females.16
The evidence that there was some awareness of same-sex sexuality among the Mormons upon their mid-century emigration to the Great Basin Kingdom in the Territory of Utah is evidenced by a law passed by the Church-controlled territorial legislature in 1851 banning both boys and men from “sexual intercourse with any of the male creation.”17 Thirteen years later (1864), Brigham Young could explain why there were no anti-sodomy Territorial laws by saying, “Our legislators, never having contemplated the possibility of such a crime being committed in our borders have made no provision for its punishment.”18 Apparently, there were also no clear religious provisions for its punishment since there are no recorded church disciplinary hearings for such behavior during Brigham Young’s tenure as prophet (1847-77).19
The fact that a decade later homosexual activity was recognized as part of the culture is confirmed both by occasional reports of homosexual incidents by ecclesiastical leaders and by the establishment in 1886 of the Salt Lake Bohemian Club, a center for those seeking such relationships. By the turn of the century, the club was more openly associated with gay and lesbian members. It was also the subject of a later ground-breaking study conducted by lesbian club member, Mildred Berryman. Begun in the 1920s, The Psychological Phenomena of the Homosexual remained unpublished at her death in 1972, due to what she considered the sensitive nature of her findings.
The nineteenth century ended with the first pronouncement by a prominent Church leader on the subject of homosexuality. During the 1897 general conference of the Church, First Presidency member, George Q. Cannon, condemned same-sex relations as an “abominable,” “filthy,” “nameless crime” that “caused the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Cannon suggested that the solution to these “dreadful practices” was, as in various European countries, “the destruction of those who practice them.”20
The Early to Late Twentieth Century
In spite of growing public awareness of the gay and lesbian world among the Latter-day Saints, there is little in the historical record to indicate a theological position of the Church on homosexuality during the first half of the twentieth century, except its consideration as a grave transgression. It is likely that the aftermath of the Church’s painful and disruptive decision to end polygamy at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the disruptions caused by the First World War, the Stock Market crash and the Great Depression distracted Church authorities from a social concern that remained largely on the margins and underground. While there were occasional incidents relating to gay and lesbian sex, the subject remained largely beyond public awareness. That it eventually rose to a level of concern among the leadership is evident by Apostle Spencer W. Kimball being assigned in 1947 specifically to oversee such matters.21
Evidence that there was no formal articulated position at mid-century regarding homosexuality can be seen in the way George Albert Smith, Church president from 1945 to 1951, addressed such concerns when they came to his attention. Visited by gay BYU students Kent Taylor and Richard Snow, Smith counseled them to “live their lives as best they could.”22 Smith’s more lenient attitude may have been related to his awareness that his kinsman and fellow general authority, Joseph Fielding Smith (not the apostle and later Church president of the same name but the Presiding Patriarch of the Church), had been involved in homosexual affairs. Either because of his status as the member of a prominent Latter-day Saint family, his high profile position, or the fact that leaders had not yet settled on how to address such matters, Joseph Fielding Smith was not excommunicated but rather, at his request, released from his position. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his family to Hawaii, where he lived until his death in 1963.23 Until mid-century, same-sex relations among Latter-day Saints had not resulted in the establishment of a specific, formalized Church doctrine or policy and, consequently, there was no clear theological position.
That began to change with an increased awareness of homosexuality in the general public and, consequently, among the Latter-day Saints. The 1958 publication of apostle Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine marked a turning point in Church attitudes and teachings about same-sex attraction and relations. A comprehensive compendium of Latter-day Saint doctrines and, in the eyes of the general membership, an authoritative source of Church doctrine and theology, Mormon Doctrine included homosexuality in a long catalogue of sins under the heading “Sex Immorality”: “Every degree and type of lewdness, lasciviousness and licentiousness; of concupiscence, prostitution, and whoredoms; of sodomy, onanism, and homosexuality [and nine other sexual sins] . . .—all these things, as well as many others, are condemned by divine edict and are among Lucifer’s chief means of leading souls to hell.”24 McConkie also affirms a popular yet shocking sentiment still heard among some leaders and members, one that has led some Latter-day parents to reject their LGBTQ children and some of those children to engage in self-destructive behaviors: “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of life—better dead clean, than alive unclean.”25
This period also saw the commencement of the use of aversion and electroshock therapy at Brigham Young University to “change” or “cure” homosexuals and the banning of all known homosexuals from BYU, except those who had formally repented to ecclesiastical authorities.26 The university president, Ernest L. Wilkinson (1951-71), warned faculty and students: “[I]f any of you have [sic] this tendency, . . . may I suggest you leave the University immediately. . . . We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.”27 The speech, published in the church-owned Deseret News, also signaled a growing belief that homosexuality was a sort of communicable disorder or disease that could infect or influence others.
This period seems to be the first attempt of the Church to establish a theological rationale for its position on homosexuality, even though there was no formal or published statement on the subject. What we have, rather, are statements by Church leaders which reflect or point toward a theological position. For example, in two addresses on the BYU campus, one to high school and college religious instructors in 1964 and the other to the BYU student body in 1965, Apostle Kimball used language that would characterize the Church’s attitudes and pronouncements over the coming decades: Homosexuality is a “malady,” “disease,” and an “abominable and detestable crime against nature,” as well as a “gross,” “heinous,” “obnoxious,” “abominable,” and “vicious” sin. Also reflecting and formally articulating what would become the position of the Church, Kimball asserted that homosexuality was a chosen and changeable condition, one for which there are “numerous cures,” including “self-mastery.”28
Such ideas were indelibly imprinted in Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness (1969), which was considered authoritative in the minds of most Church leaders and members, especially after Kimball was elevated to the position of prophet-president of the Church (1973-85). In such a position, he was regarded by leaders and members alike as the person who speaks directly to and receives revelation from God on behalf of the Church. Kimball’s views would dominate the remainder of the 20th century and have a strong influence on Latter-day Saint theology.
Thus, the idea that homosexuality was a sinful condition that one chose and could change represented to many Latter-day Saints the will of God, but it also led many gay and lesbian saints either to seek for a cure through extreme righteous devotion or intense psychotherapy, or to leave the Church, often in despair. Some, unwilling or incapable of living a celibate lifestyle and unable to prove they could be righteous enough for God to change them, tried desperately to change, left the Church, or took their lives to escape the pain and loneliness they experienced as outcasts from family, congregation and community.
Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has produced some outstanding scientists, the Church has tended to have an uneasy relationship with science, and this holds true in relation to the biological and behavioral sciences when it comes to homosexuality. The word “homosexual” was not coined until 1869 (in German) and did not appear in English until about 1895. Although same-sex sex had been known for a very long time, it now became possible, perhaps for the first time (at least among mental health practitioners in the Judeo/Christian tradition), to conceptualize humanity in a different way – to separate a behavior from an intrinsic nature. Instead of there being a single type of human being, a few of whom act occasionally in a non-traditional fashion, science posited that there might be a distinct category of people, classified differently on the basis of their innate sexuality. This insight along with increased scientific investigation created the opportunity, at least for those who were open to that possibility, to explore the questions of what might be responsible for homosexuality and how it might be treated.
Late Twentieth Century to the Present
The response of Church leaders to changing perspectives on LGBTQ issues evolved over the course of the late twentieth century to the present in a path that might have been predictable for a person following the academic and scientific history of comparable periods. That is, there has always been an unholy alliance between science and religion and this is true especially in matters relating to sex and sexuality. In response to information being disseminated from scientific and other secular sources, the content and tone of commentaries from Church leadership appear to change in the 1980’s and 1990’s, at least in part, as three overlapping phases emerge from this perspective.
Initially the operational view seems to be that described earlier in this article, i.e., there are only heterosexuals, some of whom are plagued by same-sex feelings and acts and whose behavior is considered, as pointed out earlier, a “crime against nature.” The cause is perversion. The cure is to cease, desist and repent. Often, the tone of such language is akin to an impatient parent dealing with an unruly child: “You’re misbehaving. Stop it.” In this case, however, the penalty for continued disobedience by an LDS adult could be far more severe.
A second phase is characterized by an explanation for homosexuality based on a social construction model derived in part from Freudian psychology. The gay man or lesbian could be helped to extricate him or herself from the “problem” because the cause or causes were known. Homosexuality was caused by temptation and personal weakness; exposure to pornographic material; “parent-child disturbances, gender and role distortion, relationship skill deficits, and erotization . . . masturbatory fantasy . . . fragmentation, and self-focus.”29 Leaders and Church social service professionals provided family members and ecclesiastical leaders lists of suggestions to address the problem, including psychosocial change (reparative) therapy and psychotherapy. Public pronouncements on the subject in keeping with the Church’s position were often delivered by mental health professionals. Some leaders continued to treat any sexual expression outside heterosexual marriage as aberrant or as willful and decadent disobedience.
A booklet, “Keys to Understanding Homosexuality,” distributed by the Church, but which. borrowed heavily from documents written by Latter-day Saint and orthodox psychotherapists, provides twenty-five suggestions for helping gay or lesbian individuals, including the following:
“Discourage him from ‘coming out of the closet.’ He does not need to announce to the world that he is ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual.’”
“Do all you can to increase his hope for change.”
“Help him recognize how he detaches himself from other men.”
“Help him dress and act like a heterosexual man.”
“Help him see the value of leaving homosexual environments and of mainstreaming himself exclusively as possible with heterosexuals.”30
All of these reflect the belief that homosexuality is a changeable condition that, generally, can be overcome by attitude, behavior or environmental changes.
The third phase coincides roughly with the appearance of published evidence from biomedical research; the physical sciences (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology) began to provide evidence that sexual orientation was hard-wired. Unlike an embrace of the secular view, as exemplified by the second or psychotherapeutic phase, a biological origin for homosexuality was ignored, downplayed or rejected among both Latter-day Saint leaders and mental health practitioners. Statements from documents produced by LDS Social Services (now LDS Family Services) illustrate the gradual development of a position. At first, finding a cause in scientific evidence occupied a position of relatively low importance. According to LDS Social Services (1990), “Professionals do not agree on the causes of homosexuality. Some say it is a biological condition that exists at birth while others believe it is a psychological condition influenced by the environment in which a child grows up.”31 And again, “Some people who seek help for homosexual problems may have concluded that experiences from their youth, such as perceived problems with a parent or some other older person, contributed to their inappropriate feelings. Some may believe that they have not consciously chosen to have such feelings in the first place. No general agreement exists about the causes of such problems.”32
Up until about 1960, even if ecclesiastical leaders, psychotherapists or others in the institutional bureaucracy had been monitoring the physical scientific literature, they would have found little to inform their views about the etiology of homosexuality. In 1959, however, the results of seminal experiments with laboratory animals showed that sexual anatomy and behavior could be altered (masculinized) by the prenatal administration of testosterone (a steroid hormone).33 An enormous body of related data has accumulated in the decades since. An influence on Church statements, however, is apparent only after a highly publicized 1991 report on humans by Simon LeVay, that the brains of gay men are different from the brains of those who are straight.34
In both institutional and informal Latter-day Saint statements, then, issued just a few years later, one can detect a significant shift on the question of origins. Instead of dismissing biological explanations, there is both a deliberate effort to discount and invalidate them, and, paradoxically, at the same time, a reluctant acquiescence to include them, albeit vaguely, in reference to causes. The 1995 edition of the LDS Social Services pamphlet,35 attempted to refute the validity of the methodologies employed both by Simon LeVay and researchers in the laboratory of Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health, who found a region on the human X chromosome that was common to pairs of homosexual brothers.36 Again, the LDS response reflected a history of resistance to the biological model, which was the scientific consensus:
“Research has not proved that homosexuality is genetic.”37
“ . . biological factors influence temperament rather than sexual orientation per se.”38
“ . . . though a person may suffer from homosexual inclinations that are caused by some combination of biology and environment, the gospel requires that he or she develop firm self-discipline and make an energetic effort to change”39
“Homosexuality likely results from biologically influenced temperamental factors along with environmental factors such as sexual abuse or peer abuse along with strained parental relationships”40
The Proclamation on the Family
Having begun with no clear, established theology of homosexuality in the nineteenth and early to mid–twentieth centuries, by the end of the twentieth century, with the publication of the quasi-canonical “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,”41 a theology began to emerge and coalesce. Although defended as affirming Church teachings “repeatedly stated throughout its history,”42 the Proclamation seems to establish for the first time in one document doctrinal principles relating to homosexuality that, as the above discussion shows, evolved over time. The Proclamation, the formulation of which was motivated by various initiatives in Hawaii and California to legalize same-sex marriage,43 is the first official document to clearly articulate teachings about and categorize aspects of homosexuality within the larger category of Latter-day Saint belief as it relates to relationships. Having the imprimatur of the entire First Presidency and Quorum or the Twelve Apostles, the Proclamation is considered by most Latter-day Saints as revelation.44
The Proclamation attempts to establish what some authorities consider definitive theological positions with regard to homosexuality (although that word does not appear in the document), which are articulated in the following statements:
“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.”
“The family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”
“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.”
“The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”
“God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”45
The theological ramifications of these statements for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints are as follows:
For reasons we don’t completely understand, in mortality there exist variations of the strict male-female gender identity and sexual orientation dichotomies.
There is only one recognized and acceptable form of sexual expression — that between a husband and wife joined in legal matrimony.
Homosexuality, bisexuality, sexual dysphoria or any other variation from the clear, strict male and female gender identities and heterosexual orientation were not part of pre-mortal life and will not be part of post-mortal life.
Those with other than clearly defined and identified male and female sexual orientations and gender identities will be resurrected and for eternity will possess clear male-female identities and opposite-sex orientations In other words, in relation to gender and sexuality there will be no homosexual, bisexual, transgender, pansexual or other sexual orientations or expressions in the afterlife.
Same-sex marriages and civil unions, while recognized as legal in some countries, are not considered legitimate in the eyes of the Church.
Sexual relations are permitted only within the context of legal, opposite-sex or mixed marriages. In other words, any and all heterosexual and homosexual expressions of erotic desire and sexual intimacy that take place outside the bonds of marriage are considered sinful and must be repented of for the person to be in good standing with the Church. Even same-sex romantic expression is forbidden homosexuals, bisexuals and those who identify as transgender. Chastity is required of all unmarried people and celibacy of non-heterosexually married others, including homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals.
Homosexual, bisexual and transgender persons who abide by Church sexual standards are considered in full fellowship.
Although there is not universal agreement as to whether the Proclamation should be considered canon doctrine, both the Proclamation itself as well as some of its theological ramifications listed above, including those regarding same-sex married couples, might be open for discussion, as the section on speculative theology, below, illustrates.
Although there continues to be discussion among leaders and members as to the cause of homosexuality, a consensus among Church leaders seems to have developed that cause is irrelevant. In a September 2006 online statement, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “The Church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction. Those are scientific questions—whether nature or nurture—those are things the church doesn’t have a position on.”46
Yet, for much of the period from 1960 to the present, there was an undeniable emphasis on the doctrine that, regardless of cause, a change in orientation was possible and should be undertaken, articulated especially by organizations like Evergreen International, to which the Church provided financial resources and public support. This in spite of a convincing body of evidence that personal and psychotherapeutic-directed efforts to make gay people straight were not only ineffective but harmful.47 Change therapy is no longer recommended by the Church, perhaps less because of that evidence than the success of lawsuits brought against organizations that have promoted it.48
A major, and to some a surprising development in Church attitudes toward LGBTQ members was seen in the Church’s establishment of a website (mormonsandgays.org) in 2012, and a revised version (mormonandgay.lds.org) in 2016. The former presented both substance and tone that reflected a more accepting, inclusive and charitable stance than those encountered in previous official statements, as the following examples illustrate:
“No one fully knows the root causes of same-sex attraction”; “Attraction to those of the same sex . . . should not be viewed as a disease or illness”; and “One thing that’s always important is to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real, that they are authentic, that we don’t deny that someone feels a certain way.”
“Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex.”
“There is much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God.”
“As a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate [than Latter-day Saints]. No family who has anybody who has a same-gender issue should exclude them from the family circle. They need to be part of the family circle. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to those and let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”49
The change in the name of the Church’s website (to mormonandgay.org) although subtle is nevertheless significant because it shifts the focus from a contrast between Mormons and gays to Latter-day Saint gays, lesbians and others. The following statement shows a clear departure from previous positions: “It is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur.”50
While these websites show an enlightened change in policy relative to lesbian, gay and bisexual members, very little progress has been made in relation to transgender members. Apostle Dallin Oaks confirmed as much: “I think we need to acknowledge that while we have been acquainted with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that.”51 As of the writing of this article, that business remains largely unfinished.
Although continuing to affirm the Church’s positions with regard to same-sex relationships and marriage, both websites reflect a more caring, compassionate and tolerant view of the Church toward its LGBTQ members. On both websites, the emphasis shifted from the blame, condemnation and punishment of previous decades to an emphasis on leaders, parents, family members and congregations reaching out and responding with love.
It should be noted that not all communication venues in the institutional Church are accessed equally by its members. The web site changes just described, for example, have gone unnoticed by many. That is not true, however, for the policy statement discussed above that was introduced into the Handbook of Instructions and leaked to the public on November 5, 2015. Sometimes dubbed the POX (policy of exclusion), this highly controversial position statement, issued on the heels of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hedges, June, 26, 2015), labeled those in same-sex married relationships as “apostates” who were guilty of “a particularly grievous or significant, serious kind of sin that requires Church discipline” (meaning they might be subject to excommunication). Even more problematic was the provision that children of such couples could not be blessed in infancy, baptized at age eight, nor ordained to the priesthood (for males, beginning at age twelve) and mission and other Church callings before the age of 18. Further, if such children elected to be baptized upon reaching maturity at age eighteen, a condition of their doing so was the renunciation of their parents’ marriage, a policy that had previously been applied only to children of polygamously married parents. Apostle Russell M. Nelson pronounced the policy a divine revelation).52
Some official statements justified the policy as being initiated out of concern and compassion: “It originates from a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years. . . . This is about family; this is about love and especially the love of the Savior and how he wants people to be helped and fed and lifted, and that’s the whole motivation that underlies our effort [in establishing the policy].”53
One of the aspects of the policy that many found problematic was the assertion that it was immutable: “It’s a matter of being clear; it’s a matter of understanding right and wrong; it’s a matter of a firm policy that doesn’t allow for question or doubt. . . . That was the Savior’s pattern. He always was firm in what was right and wrong. He never excused or winked at sin. He never redefined it. He never changed His mind.”54
While it might be true that Jesus’s teaching about what constitutes sin has not changed, he recognized the difference between the lesser and greater law and took into account both the intent and motivation of the transgressor and the context in which the transgression took place, as his story about the woman taken in adultery exemplifies.
Perhaps it was a recognition that many Latter-day Saints who entered into same-sex marriages were good and honorable people, were faithful members of the church with the exception of their marriage and were loving parents that caused the Church to rethink its policy. A more likely explanation may have been the negative publicity and the accompanying decrease in church membership through resignation experienced during the intervening three and one-half years.55 Whatever the reasons, the policy was unexpectedly and inexplicably reversed during the Church’s General Conference in April, 2019.56 As with its original implementation, the policy’s retraction was said to be based on love and consideration for LGBTQ people.57 These changes in direction may reflect decisions based on concern for public appearance more than any theological principles.
The most recent example of the fluctuating and contradictory nature of the attitudes and policies of the institutional Church is the pronouncement concerning provisions of the student Honor Code at Brigham Young University that relate to LGBTQ individuals. In late February 2020 it was announced that the long-standing ban on same-sex romantic behavior (dating, kissing, hand-holding) was being eliminated.58
The campus reacted in a mostly positive manner with some LGBTQ students responding in an understandable celebratory fashion. Just days later, however, a letter from a Church General Authority and a statement from university officials were issued indicating that the change in the Honor Code had been “misinterpreted” (although it seemed unambiguous to most readers) and that the original ban was still in place: “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and therefore is not compatible with principles included in the Honor Code.”59
In light of these recent examples of real or seeming confusion about Church policy and LGBTQ behavior, it is difficult to predict what changes Latter-day Saints might expect in their official Church theology. While the Church considers it position and theology on LGBTQ issues settled, the degree and substance of change over the past century, especially that over the past two decades, gives encouragement for those hoping for additional change. That hope is inspired by two factors: suicide among LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and the wish by a growing number of members that LGBTQ Latter-day Saints might be able to enjoy both institutional and congregational acceptance and the rights, privileges and blessings of marriage and family life central to Latter-day Saint theology currently afforded only to heterosexuals.
Speculative LGBTQ Latter-day Saint Theology
Although, as Latter-day Saint philosopher James Faulconer is quoted at the beginning of this article as saying, “The Church neither has an official theology, explicit or implicit, nor encourages theological speculation,” on a subject as important and controversial as the mortal and eternal lives of LGBTQ Mormons, speculation, at least for some, seems not only inevitable, but essential. That is, since the Latter-day Saint principle of continuing revelation obtains in the contemporary Church, some homosexual and heterosexual members hope and even pray for a time when same-sex marriage at least in mortality might be recognized as legitimate by the Church, thereby extending full fellowship as well as the recognized rights, privileges and blessings of marriage and family life to LGBTQ members and their children. That is, compelled by compassion and empathy, these members feel that it would be an advantage to the Church and society as well as to individual homosexuals and their families were this restriction removed so that LGBTQ members were in all ways able to meet the same religious requirements of their heterosexual fellow members..
Relevant to this possibility is the recognition that in the past the Church has shown flexibility in relation to marriage, including: 1) sanctioning both polyandrous and polygynous marriages, 2) recognizing common-law marriages in countries where divorce is not legal,60 3) tolerating opposite-sex cohabiting members (who are not considered apostate and who generally are warmly welcomed in LDS congregations); and 4) the departure from the restrictions on marriage that Jesus imposed on his followers in the New Testament: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:19, NIV).
One might argue that, given such flexibility—and recognizing the value of marriage for same-sex couples and their children, including their potential contribution to their religious community and to society—the Church should be willing to consider that the heavens may be open to a more flexible policy in regard to its members who wish to enter into same-sex marriages. To date, that possibility has been adamantly foreclosed.
The possibility of such flexibility is bolstered by the fact that both in the past and the present the Church has taken doctrinal positions that, in the minds of at least some Church prophets, were once considered settled and unchangeable but over time proved not to be (e.g., polygamy, blacks of African descent being denied priesthood and temple blessings due to their “cursed” status, and the belief that homosexuals chose and could change their same-sex orientation). Also offering hope, as mentioned above, is the Church’s 2019 change regarding same-sex married couples and their children. Toward the possibility of additional change, several recent scholarly articles have attempted to expand the dialogue about the Church’s current LGBTQ theology, policies and practices.
In his “Mormonism and ‘Same-Sex Marriage’: Theological Underpinnings and New Perspectives,” Seth R. Payne argues that the Church’s “Modern . . . moral opposition to homosexuality generally, and its subsequent political opposition to same-sex marriage specifically, . . . may in fact represent a significant departure from the original teachings of Joseph Smith” (as found in his “King Follett Discourse”). Payne adds, “None of the scant records we have of Joseph Smith’s private teachings explicitly link sexuality and procreation with the potential for Godhood.”61 That link, however, was made by Mormon leaders Brigham Young and Orson Pratt once the saints had emigrated to Utah and polygamy was openly practiced. It was only then, Payne argues, that the Church “began to explicitly link “eternal increase” and exaltation with sexual procreation and . . . to describe God in more explicit sexual terms.”62
Acknowledging both his own “radical departure” from modern Church teachings on Joseph Smith’s ideas about God and humans by relying on early rather than late textual readings, but also noting the potential fluidity of Mormon theology, Payne, argues that “it is entirely possible that the Church could become more amenable to the idea of same-sex marriage in some form depending on a number of cultural and religious factors.”63 One of the things that leads him to this conclusion is the central, but sometimes forgotten teaching of sealing “one man to another in an eternal father-son relationship, thus forming a non-sexual family tie. Such sealings were known as adoption and support the eschatological notion of familial dynastic relationships.” He concludes, “Paradoxically, modern Mormonism may need to look back in an effort to move forward.”64
A parallel argument is made by Taylor G. Petrey who encourages Latter-day Saints to reimagine theory and theology in respect to the doctrine of marital sealings, thus, like Payne, conceiving of the possibility that such sealing ordinances could be extended to same-sex couples.65 To bolster his proposition, Petrey questions the literalness of what the Church’s Proclamation on the Family means by the phrase “spirit son or daughter of Heavenly Parents.” He does this by invoking the concept discussed in the first part of this chapter of organizing spirit children out of “intelligence” (rather than through a birthing process), which, according to his argument, “requires nothing in particular about the sexual or reproductive acts of God, whose organization of spirits likely has little to do with the reproductive organs he or she (or his or her partner) might have.” With this in mind and citing the creation of preexistent spirit bodies, the creation of Adam and Eve, Mary’s conception of Jesus and resurrection as a kind of birth, Petrey posits that “the process of ‘birth’ is not used [in the scriptures] to describe each of the series of progression from intelligence to spirit to mortal body to resurrection,” with the conclusion that, “biological reproduction is not needed to explain celestial parentage.” This leads Petrey to his central question: “Why, then, do we imagine that sexual union as we know it in mortality is a necessary function for the production of life in divine bodies if these bodies are so dissimilar in every other way from mortal bodies?”66
All of this leads Petrey to conclude, “Whether from the critique of gender roles, gender essentialist notions of innate characteristics, or even the notion of biological difference itself, LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by continuing to hold to precritical assumptions about sexual difference. At the same time, however, there is nothing preventing Latter-day Saints from moving past these assumptions in order to more clearly focus on Mormonism’s distinctive teachings about kinship and salvation, which does not require an appeal to the suspect category of gender at all.”67
One might note that the problematic concept of eternal polygyny, wherein one celestial male has multiple celestial wives, seems based on the presumption that each spirit child who is brought into existence requires some sort of male to female impregnation, a sustained period of gestation, and a birthing process similar to that required of humans, thereby requiring many wives/mothers to populate worlds. But this would seem to unnecessarily apply a literal, mortal understanding to a spiritual realm and process that largely are unknown.
In her “Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: ‘A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology’?” Mormon feminist scholar, V. H. Cassler, criticizes Petrey for crafting a new theology that, in her view, omits women: “Women are no longer necessary for the Plan of Happiness to obtain. Women are no longer necessary for temple sealings to take place. Women are no longer necessary for the work of the gods in the eternities, or for there to be brought forth spirit children: indeed, there need not be a Heavenly Mother, or, for that matter, earthly mothers. Women are dispensable in Petrey’s rethinking of LDS doctrine.”68 Cassler seems to have misread Petrey who really posits an eternity of multiple kinds of partnerships, only one of which omits women, but then balances that exception by including the possibility of two women propagating or organizing “Spirit children.”
Devan Mark Hite’s “The ‘Queer’ God(s) of Mormonism: Considering an Inclusive Post-Heteronormative LGBTQ Hermeneutics,” discusses the Church’s clear position that homosexuality, whatever its etiology or manifestations, is a mortal condition that for some may be transformed into heterosexuality in this life and for others surely in the world to come. He then provides personal perspectives to the contrary from interviews with three homosexual Latter-day Saints, one woman and two men, who argue that they all have had personal witnesses or revelations that: 1) they were homosexual in the preexistence ; 2) that “we are created gay , , , that it’s not a mistake by Heavenly Father, and that he will honor homosexuals in the life hereafter ; and 3) that general authorities of the Church who have harmed gays and lesbians by their policies will in the next life have to “fix” the damage they did while in mortality.69 Hite calls for an extended study eliciting the thoughts and feelings of a larger cohort of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.
Whatever one might say about LGBTQ Latter-day Saint theology as it evolved over the years, what seems clear is that by-and-large the evolution of that theology has been slow and painful, has been marked more by intransigence, inflexibility, and an adamantine insistence on institutional rightness than on a willingness to consider the possibility of error, a passionate quest for enlightenment, or an openness to alternative positions, policies and practices.
Most of all, along the somewhat errant and torturous path toward a more enlightened LGBTQ theology, Latter-day Saints seem to have forgotten that theology involves the “study of God and his relationship to humanity.”70 Such study leads to the inevitable and ultimate conclusion that any theology worth our consideration must be based on love, which Latter-day Saint scripture describes as “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:48).
The scope and seriousness of the issues relating to LGBTQ individuals demand a new theology based on love. Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian, Adam Miller, argues, “Human suffering from blunt trauma to quiet desperation, is the perpetual crisis that precipitates theology.”71 The suffering of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their families over the past seventy years should precipitate such a theology for the future. As Miller brilliantly posits, “Theology is worth only as much charity as it is able to show. It is the specificity of this task that distinguishes it. . . . Though intertwined with history, doctrine, and devotion, theology is for the sake of charity.”72 This is confirmed by Latter-day Saint scholar, Terryl Givens, who asserts that faith, hope and love constitute “the foundation for theology, community and destiny.”73
The good news is that such charity, such love is central to Latter-day Saint theology as taught in the Gospels, the Book of Mormon and Latter-day scriptures. As the Doctrine and Covenants states, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—. . . showing forth . . . an increase of love” (D&C 121:41-43). And as the concluding prophet in the Book of Mormon pleads, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48).