An Experiment in Empathy

My Doctrine and Covenants course opened as it usually did, and I started zoning out.  However, suddenly the conversation was drawn to the recent General Conference.  Now alert, I listened to my peers express their feelings about the themes of the conference.  After a quick tally, I identified the repeating theme of marriage and the family as carrying predominance.  After being involved with USGA for a couple of months and becoming so close to so many individuals that do not identify with the “straight” or heterosexual label, I was becoming increasingly alarmed.

I completed an exercise I’ve learned to really value.  I asked myself, “How might I feel in this situation if I was gay?”  As I thought about the implications of the seemingly exaggerated emphasis of the marriage and family and the onslaught of the gays, I began to experience serious discomfort and even anxiety.  As a hypothetical gay man, I thought about the irrelevant, “counterfeit”, or even sinful nature of my sexual and/or romantic feelings.  I tried to think of changing those feelings, but using my heterosexual interests as a model; I was at a loss as to where to look to find some switch in my brain to free myself from my “same-sex attraction.”  This attraction was an extension of my identity.

Even with all the happiness and joy I experienced in contemplating the relationships of my heterosexual friends, a degree of sadness and pain burdened my soul.  I felt isolated, illegitimized, and invalidated.  I wasn’t a man that simply chose not to be productive in seeking his eternal companion or even a woman that experiences the agonizing trial of never being courted but someone who had a very real opportunity and availability before me that was being condemned and censured by my beautiful church and culture.

The experiment ended.  I returned to my comfortable “straight” reality, but to this day my mind is still trying to process the flood of emotions I experienced.  To be clear, I do not claim to understand anything any non-heterosexual individual experiences psychologically, but I can only imagine that the lonely and painful feelings that I encounter often in my hypothetical exercise are only magnified and intensified.  I cannot, under good conscience tell any individual that their sexual and/or romantic feelings are lesser to mine.  I cannot tell another human to lie to themselves, to bury their true feelings, or to change who they are.

Doctrinally we have transitioned so much as a church.  From Paul’s “inflamed by their own lust” to President Kimball’s “diseased, abnormal, curable” and Elder Packer’s “why would Heavenly Father do that to anyone?”  Though I know there are some, I hope there are very few Mormons that take these approaches seriously.  Paul spoke in a vastly different world, President Kimball’s views have proven demonstrably false, and Elder Packer’s question was actually edited out of his talk after he inserted it in General Conference.  I don’t see any reason why we cannot hope and pray for further changes in God’s living church.

In any event, most of our current approaches toward homosexuality are not doctrinally based but come from a breed of homophobia and ignorance.  Our awkward laughter and slang surrounding “gay” terminology and behavior is harmful.  Our heterosexism is causing anxiety, depression, and suicide in individuals who think they are broken or deformed.  I never thought I’d change my views of the evil nature of homosexuality, but after simply listening, I cannot believe we haven’t changed our views.  I cannot call homosexuality evil without calling God evil for creating these intense and real feelings of attraction and love between human beings.  It has been truly life changing to interact with the queer community.  Theirs is not a hypothetical but a constant struggle for recognition, validation, and even life.

If you think you don’t know or influence a member of the LGBTQ/SSA community, you are probably wrong.  The statistics are much too high, and, especially in the Mormon community, we interact with each other too often.  If you don’t personally know a member of the LGBTQ/SSA community, it is very likely that those in your circles do not feel comfortable or safe with the idea of being vulnerable with you.  Educate yourself.  Make yourself available.  Be cognizant of the words that leave your mouth and the discussions that might be isolating or invalidating to those who do not fit the norm.  Have the courage to correct misinformation, misunderstanding, or disparaging remarks about the queer community.  Above all, heed the great commandment to love others as thyself, for God is nothing more or less than love.

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