Sunday, October 17, 2010

Homosexuality--pardon my ignorance, but....

I've mentioned homosexuality in a number of previous posts on this blog, but up to now I've side-stepped addressing it directly.  However, a number of things that I've read or heard lately have got me thinking about it, and perhaps this post will help distill my thoughts in that regard.  My "default" opinion regarding homosexuality and gay people in general is informed by my Mormon upbringing, and of course the church teaches (a) that although a person may be particularly "susceptible" to temptation of a homosexual nature, no one is "born that way"; and (b) that homosexual conduct is, by its very nature (or its going "against" nature), wicked and sinful.  (It was instructive that one of the seventy gave a talk in General Conference several years ago in which he implied that homosexuality was, or at least could be, an innate characteristic.  But in the very next conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer, the senior apostle, pointedly scotched that notion.)  Reinforcing the church's position in my mind, at least, has been the fact that I'm about as "straight" as I can be and have always been repulsed by the idea of having sexual relations with another man.

Still, I've known quite a few gay people in my lifetime, and the paradox for me has always been that these people, with a couple of irritatingly militant exceptions, seemed like pleasant and thoughtful company.  A few were queer as the proverbial three-dollar bill -- such as my old boss's wife's associate, a real "flamer" who helped her run a charitable foundation here in Albuquerque.  Others showed few, if any, signs of homosexual tendencies -- such as the church missionary with whom I went through the MTC in 1979 (and who [i] projected a very orthodox, spiritual image to all who knew him, and [ii] spoke admiringly of an older friend/advisor of his who, I believe now, was probably his "mentor" in matters both personal and sexual).  And, finally, some showed signs that were only apparent in retrospect -- such as my friend Dickerson Watkins, with whom I palled around a lot in my singles-ward days in 1981-1984 (and who, I found out recently, was killed in Houston in 2006 by a hit-and-run driver).  I never stopped to question why Dickerson didn't seem to have much interest in girls -- in fact, at the time it seemed entirely reasonable for him to avoid them in light of the frustration they generally caused me to feel -- but I found myself thinking, after hearing that he'd come "out" and was living with another man, "Yes, I can see that now."

Thus I was interested the other day to read the theory (stated by a poster on a website that I read quite frequently) that homosexuality manifests itself in our society in a sort of standard bell-curved distribution.  According to this theory, the "outliers" on one end of the distribution were clearly born to be homosexual and could never have been anything else (think Boy George and Ellen DeGeneres), whereas the "outliers" on the other end of the distribution may, due to strictly environmental factors, have dabbled in homosexual behavior but decided it wasn't for them (think Jon Moss and Anne Heche).  And most of the broad "center" of the homosexual population is, therefore, influenced by a combination of innate and environmental factors.  Although this theory comports with neither LDS church doctrine (which still suggests that homosexual tendencies and, especially, practices are signs of moral weakness) nor the prevailing politically correct dogma (which seems to insist that environment is irrelevant to the discussion and that all gay people are simply "born that way"), it makes intuitive sense to me.  On one hand, I can't reconcile the notion that all homosexuals are grimy perverts with my generally pleasant personal interactions with them, nor does it seem entirely reasonable to judge the sexual proclivities of others by my own orientation and upbringing. 

On the other hand, it seems absurd to suggest that all gay people are equally innately disposed toward homosexuality, as I feel certain that most people know, for example, either (a) a lesbian who turned to homosexuality after being molested or raped at a young age by an older man or (b) a gay man who was recruited and seduced, also at a young age, by an older man.  My own half-sister Joan, who lived all of her adult life as a lesbian (after being molested as a young girl by a stepfather), confessed once to my mother that if she'd had her life to live over again, she'd have got married -- that is, to a man -- and had a family.  And the fellow I knew long ago as a missionary had, at the time he died from AIDS a number of years back, abandoned his homosexual lifestyle and been rebaptized in the LDS church.  It's difficult to gauge how much a natural predisposition may have impacted their lives, but to say there was no choice involved, or that environment or events in their lives had no role, is to fly in the face of all logic and reality.

A more-pertinent question to me is what will happen if, over time, public attitudes and/or activist legal precedents bring great socio-legal pressure to bear on the LDS church to accept homosexuality and encompass it doctrinally.  It's reasonable to argue that the church's (a) abandoning plural marriage in the 1890s, (b) reversing in 1978 its long-standing ban on conferring the priesthood and extending temple ordinances to persons of black-African descent, and (c) "softening" certain temple ordinances in 1990 (and at various stages thereafter) to remove controversial -- and, to some, offensive -- material, were more the result of societal and political pressures than divine revelation.  From this point of view, then, it's plausible to believe that the church will eventually alter its stand on homosexuality, and I know at least a couple of Mormon families with gay relatives who seem to be banking on it.  (On the other hand, the church was partly responsible for the non-ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment back in the late 1970s, which non-ratification seemed to deflate feminist protests against the church for its not extending the priesthood to women.  In that light, it doesn't appear wholly inevitable that public opinion will continue to incline increasingly toward homosexuality.) 

My point is that the church could abandon polygamy, then reverse its policy on blacks and the priesthood, and then change temple ordinances, and still plausibly claim it hadn't really changed its doctrine -- even though at one time these things certainly were regarded by most church members as doctrinal in nature.  However, a reversal of the church's stand on homosexuality would constitute a seismic doctrinal shift, leaving rubble that could not simply be swept under the rug.  Just how the membership at large would react to such a shift, regardless of their personal feelings on the matter, is difficult to say.  Some people already claim that today's Mormon doctrine is a watered-down version of what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught.  And I look at the present-day Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- which tellingly has changed its name to the "Community of Christ" -- and see an organization so watered-down that it has almost no reason to exist, at least separately from any number of protestant churches.  (It was formed in the 1860s as a sort of "patriarchal revival" of the church that Joseph Smith had started, but it has since all but abandoned any pretense of adhering to his prophetic legacy.)  

Could the LDS church follow suit?

[Update, 10/22/10: I've become more aware that there is a significant dissident "Mormon intellectual" movement, as is manifest in publications such as Sunstone and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.  It's evident, judging from the tenor of these publications and various symposia or conferences associated with them, that if their publishers and contributors had had their way, the church would have long since embraced homosexuality, extended the priesthood to women, rejected the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and injected all sorts of other "progressive" notions into the church's teachings.  In other words, they would have watered the church down every bit as much, or even more so, than the "Community of Christ" has done to itself.  Two thoughts occur to me as I write this.  One is that there is nothing in this world so tedious as a Mormon who fancies him- or herself an intellectual, especially about LDS theology and cosmology.  And the other comes from the famous quote by William F. Buckley that he'd sooner entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 (or was it 2,000?) people listed in the Boston phone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.  Well, notwithstanding the issues I have with church membership, I'd sooner see the LDS church run by the 400-or-so new missionaries who will report to the Missionary Training Center in Provo next Wednesday than by the "Mormon intellectual" community.  There's no question it would be in better, safer hands.]