We’re all familiar with Shakespeare’s famous line “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” On the surface, this line is true. Saussure’s theory of semiotics shows that words are not inherently linked to the objects they signify, and the random combinations of sounds only gain significance when they are placed in an interconnected system of language. We could just as easily have named a rose a “brishnoll” or a “wittot,” and it certainly would smell as sweet. But what if we called it “reek weed?” How many generations would it take before the smell of the rose became loathsome? The words “reek” and “weed” already have strong negative connotations in our language, and those connotations bleed through our objective sensual intake and shape how we perceive the world. In other words, how we choose to name something helps determine how we feel about it.
This brings me to how we define our own identity, specifically as it relates to sexual orientation. Most people use terms like straight, gay, lesbian, bi, or queer. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, members are encouraged to refer to non-heterosexual orientations as “having same-sex attraction.” The former four are adjectives that directly modify one’s identity. We say “I am straight” or “I am bi” the way we say “I am Mormon” or “I am female.” The latter is an object that one possesses, but it does not touch on identity: “I have same-sex attraction” is similar to “I have a dress.” When we choose how we refer to the orientation of ourselves or of others, it shapes the way we feel about that orientation.
When we use an adjective to describe ourselves, it intimately ties that trait to who we are. To say “I am an American male” or “I am a Japanese female” says a lot about how we perceive ourselves. It’s an easy shorthand to say we share certain cultural upbringings or behaviors of a larger group. On a more eternal scope, we say “I am a child of God,” to link our identity with the Divine. Some words are more temporary, such as “I am hungry,” or “I am happy,” but on the whole these adjectives help describe who we are more broadly.
By saying that one “has same-sex attraction,” the Church is intentionally discouraging people to associate deviant sexual orientation with one’s identity. It is merely something you “have,” not something you “are.” It’s only temporary, so don’t worry about it and focus on other things. The Church also avoids using words like “gay” because they carry certain connotations of behavior: the infamous “gay lifestyle.” There is a fear that once people identify as gay, they will begin to act on such feelings, which may include promiscuous, anonymous sex.
Yet a problem lies embedded in the construction of the phrase “having same-sex attraction.” We don’t say “I have happiness” or “I struggle with joy.” No, we say “I have cancer” or “I struggle with depression.” Remember how certain words and phrases in our language carry negative connotations? We have taken the language of disease and transferred it to how we speak about same-sex attraction. This pathologizes non-heterosexual orientation and ensures that we always think of it in negative terms. It doesn’t matter how sweet that rose may smell as long as we’re calling it reek weed.
And the Church wants people to think about these orientations as bad. It regards sex between two people of the same gender as immoral, as a sin. So of course an inclination towards such an act that has no sanctioned outlet will also be considered a disease. If you start referring to the orientation as something positive, it won’t be long before the action it links to is also viewed as positive, and the Church cannot allow that to happen. Heteronormativity is a keystone of Mormon doctrine, and it would take massive readjustments to accommodate anything outside that norm. And to be fair to the Church leaders who make such linguistic policies, they have the eternal welfare of their members at heart. If same-sex attraction is a life-long spiritual disease, then acting on those impulses is a terminal one. The Church is in the business of saving souls and curing sin, and as long as homosexual actions are sin, they’re not going to stop preaching against it, nor should they.
Let’s examine some of the underlying assumptions when we say that someone “has same-sex attraction:”
- The natural state of humankind is to be straight. In the premortal existence, everyone was straight. This assumption was very obvious on a recent Church survey where the two main options for sexual orientation were “I am heterosexual, but I struggle with same-sex attraction” or “I am heterosexual and do not struggle with same-sex attraction.”
- If you are not heterosexual, then something is wrong with you. You “have same-sex attraction” the same way others have an ailment or a birth defect. It is never a good thing to “have same-sex attraction.” It is a pitiable position, one that may mean that you will have to forgo heterosexual marriage and remain single your entire life. Again, people “struggle with” or “suffer from” this attraction; it’s a burden, a trial, an affliction, an incurable and lifelong disease.
- Fortunately, because it is not a part of your core identity, and only a defect of mortality, God will take it away from you after you die. Heaven will at last bring relief from these defective feelings. You will be straight as you were always intended to be.
Now for some people, this narrative works fine. Some genuinely feel that they were meant to be straight and that their feelings are just a mistake. For them the phrase “having same-sex attraction” may be a perfect fit, and we should respect their choice in words. Nothing is worse than thinking that what works for one person should work for everyone else in exactly the same way. To those people that say that their same-sex attraction is not a part of their identity, and that it is a foreign addition to their eternal self, I support you in your decision and will respect your terminology.
But as for my own experience, I find it very difficult to view myself as broken for life. When I still identified as same-sex attracted, every talk about the importance of marriage and family reminded me that my sexuality was broken and defective, with little hope of it ever being fixed in this life. No amount of prayer or personal righteousness would fix it. No psychotherapy or gender-wholeness exercise. I had a life-long, incurable disease, and it sucked.
Depression, anxiety, and a slew of other problems followed like scavengers, harrying my battered soul. “If only I could be like all the healthy straight people!” “If only I could be a complete person!” It was a very dark place.
At some point amid the swirls of self-loathing and suicidal thoughts, I made a gradual discovery. For me at least, same-sex attraction isn’t something I “have,” it’s something I am. It’s bound up with my identity as surely as my faith in God, my masculinity, my love of learning. At first this made things worse, since I still viewed it as something negative. Now I wasn’t just sick, I was evil. A demon from Hell destined to be cast back into the pit as soon as I bit the dust. But as I became more comfortable with the idea, everything started to click into place. God didn’t create me to fail. He created me as a glorious, eternal being. And even though I don’t know how my sexuality fits into the Plan of Salvation, I know that God knows. I ask him all the time to guide me in understanding how this all works, and so far he’s let me learn mostly through trial and error. But I am learning and progressing, whereas before everything was stagnating.
And so many other aspects of my life opened up when I accepted my sexuality as part of me! My body felt like it fit better and I enjoyed exercising more. It was easier to talk to people and understand what they were feeling. I was happier than I had been for years. Studying the scriptures became a joy rather than a burden. I had been spending all my energy trying to silence a piece of me, but once I let it work as it was supposed to, it was like a missing piece of a machine was added back in, and I became fully functional again.
This is not to say that I’m sleeping with every guy I meet. In fact, I’m still celibate. But when I see a cute guy in a class, I no longer stare at the floor and wish to die. Instead I go up to him, try and get to know him, and develop a good relationship with him. For me, being gay isn’t just about who I want to have sex with. It means that I connect more intimately with men than with women. I have plenty of great female friends, but my relationships with guys are what feed that deep human need for intimacy. And when I find a guy who reciprocates, life is great. That ranges from solid friendships with straight guys to more emotional connections with gay friends. Even as a celibate guy, I’m still living the gay lifestyle: I’m gay, and I’m living my life. Mortality has never been sweeter.
So to sum up in typical Mormon fashion, I testify that God loves us—all of us, and every part of us. My sexuality is a gift from Him that he wants me to use, not burry in the earth. I will continue to seek His guidance, to find strength and forgiveness in the Savior’s Atonement as I figure out how to better serve those I love.
I am a son of God.
I am gay.
And I am glorious.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.