Talk given by Bill Bradshaw
Talk given by Bill Bradshaw, Sunday, April 15, 2012, South Jordan Utah Country Park Stake, Outreach Fireside
Image an unusual helicopter hovering over a predominantly LDS community. Let’s make it Easter Sunday. Besides being able to feel the warmth of the sun, and making note of the pink and white blossoms and the contrasting yellow of the Forsythia, extraordinary scanning devices are recording all of the prayers of the Saints as they ascend to heaven: the private prayers at bedsides, the prayers to open and close the meetings, the prayers at the Sacrament table, the blessings on the food – each and every one of the prayers. Then, all of the requests are catalogued and listed in the order of their greatest frequency. So now, make a guess. What tops the list? What do we want most from God? Which of our needs is number one?
You’re right – His spirit. “May Thy spirit be with us,” we implore. In each of our circumstances we need the influence of Deity to close the gap between our all-too-inadequate humanity and His enviable omnipotence. And Heavenly Father complies. The devices in the helicopter record the spirit as it descends and falls temporarily on our shoulders. Don’t brush it off. Don’t open the doors to the chapel; we don’t want the spirit to leak out. Make it last as long as possible until we have to refill the prescription. And what role do we play in this communication? Are we like sponges? Hotwater bottles? Reflecting mirrors?
This then, is my first theme tonight. How might we understand the workings of the spirit of God in connection with how we treat our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?
Even as our prayers focus on obtaining God’s spirit, the sermons of Easter call our attention to Christ and our need to express admiration and appreciation to Him. We hear again the standard admonition, that we should all find meaning in this celebration of His resurrection. We are prompted again to do or to become something better as a result of His redeeming sacrifice. So let me pose a question. What particular trait might be most closely connected to the ability of Jesus to function as our Redeemer? This, then, is my second theme: What aspect of Christ’s character, present in all of us, perhaps in a woefully undeveloped state, might we marshal as we try to treat His homosexual brothers and sisters in a way pleasing to Him?
Could the answer to this question be that Christ was unusual in His capacity to love that which He was not? The Sinless to comprehend the sinner? The one without blemish to seek association with the multitudes struggling with their imperfections? To be comfortable with those who find themselves outside the circle, marginalized, invisible because they are different?
Do we generally seek the company of people unlike ourselves? That seems to me to be rare. I know that it is sometimes said of some married couples that “Opposites attract,” and there might be examples of that. But the model that most frequently applies is the one described in the 88th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue: light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy,” and so on (D&C 88:40). We’re happiest when we’re with our tribe. Jocks hang out with jocks, nimble-fingered ladies congregate in quilting bees to share artistry and the latest doings in the neighborhood, the wealthy men of Augusta National Golf Club don’t admit women, and all Red Socks fans hate the Yankees.
What enabled the Savior to be such a contrary example? Let me suggest that it was His divine capacity for imagination. The gifted scientist Jacob Bronowski has suggested that this ability of the mind and spirit separates us from all the other creatures (1). “It becomes plain,” he asserts, “that imagination is a specifically human gift. To imagine is the characteristic act, not of the poet’s mind, or the painter’s or the scientist’s, but of the mind of man.” “To imagine,“ he continues, “means to make images and to move them about inside one’s head in new arrangements. The images play out for us events which are not present to our senses, and thereby guard the past and create the future – a future that does not yet exist, and may never come to exist in that form.” Perhaps in its most refined form, imagination is that capacity of deity that permitted Christ to “descend below all things” (D&C 88:6) in his effort to understand and have compassion for the full range of human experiences.
A major problem, however, for us in the insensitive heterosexual majority, is our inability to imagine being otherwise. Our orientation is the orientation, to persons of the opposite sex, and to conceive of erotic feeling for someone of our same gender is – well, unimaginable. And ironically, our own sexual perspective is one we would defy any program of therapy to change.
Thus it becomes useful for us to listen. Listen with me now to the words of one man, Andrew Sullivan, in his attempt to articulate his private early encounter with his gay sexuality (2). “My feelings were too strong and too terrifying to do anything but submerge them completely. Gay adolescents are offered what every heterosexual teenager longs for: to be invisible in the girl’s locker room. But you are invisible in the boy’s locker room, your desire as unavoidable as its object. In that moment, you learn the first homosexual lesson: that your survival depends upon self-concealment. The gay teenager learns a form of control and sublimation, of deception and self-contempt, that never leaves his consciousness. He learns that that which would most give him meaning is most likely to destroy him in the eyes of others; that the condition of his friendship is the subjugation of himself.” And why, we ask? It is hard not to imagine that the answer is a terrible sense of not belonging. Thus the contradiction: “Know the truth – know the truth about your homosexual self – that truth may not make you free.” All of this inner anguish because you are different.
There seems to be an unfortunate human inclination such that when you look across at another person who is different from yourself, you make the decision that that person is not as good as you are. If that person is black, you must be superior. If that individual speaks Chinese, well, of course, English is better, never mind more than a fourth of earth’s population. If that person is a woman whom you could best in a fist fight, well, men are incomparable. This in spite of who was responsible for managing the family on that meager income in the early years, who remembers when the anniversary is, and finds the car keys you’ve misplaced when they are in plain sight. Is it possible that this capacity for unrighteous judgment was the one trait that God most hoped would disappear from his spirit children during their mortal sojourn? If so, and based on the historical record, He must be terribly disappointed.
I return again to Andrew Sullivan, who freely acknowledges that his experience may not be the same as that of other gay men, or especially of lesbian women, but who argues as follows. “It’s possible, I think, that whatever society teaches or doesn’t teach about homosexuality, this fact will always be the case. No homosexual child, surrounded overwhelmingly by heterosexuals, will feel at home in his sexual and emotional world, even in the most tolerant of cultures. And every homosexual child will learn the rituals of deceit, impersonation, and appearance. Anyone who believes political, social, or even cultural revolution will change this fundamentally is denying reality. This isolation will always hold. It is definitional of homosexual development. And children are particularly cruel. At the age of eleven, no one wants to be the odd one out; and in the arena of dating and hormones, the exclusion is inevitably a traumatic one.” What Sullivan doesn’t mention is how frequently this isolation and sense of not belonging leads to thoughts of self-destruction, and sadly to attempts, sometimes successful, to take one’s life. Please listen thoughtfully to this actual statement by one of our gay brothers, “I attempted to ‘change’ myself through righteous behaviors. However, when the attractions remained despite how often I prayed, read scriptures, served others, attended church meetings, or was obedient, I became more depressed and felt more distant from God and others.”
While agreeing with Sullivan’s description of the inner turmoil in the souls of at least many gay adolescents and young adults, and acknowledging the reality of the cruelty, I find myself imagining that his assessment about the inevitability of isolation, deceit, and impersonation is too pessimistic. I imagine myself being part of an effort to change that world, at least my part of that world, at least for one person, or perhaps for five, or maybe for several dozen, at least for those several dozen at an earlier time in their emergence from that terrible closet, in time to point them away from a mind set in which they imagine the possibility of talking their own lives. And, in fact, more than that, of opening up their imaginations and those of their families and loved ones to lives of possibilities and fulfillment, to lives of goodness, and family, and happiness.
Consider what might be the common element in the following statements which you’ve all heard before: 1) “Honor thy father and thy mother . . . that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee” (Deuteronomy 5:16); 2) “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven” (“Praise to The Man,” LDS hymn # 27); 3) “And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20); 4) “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10); 5) and concerning children, “ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another” (Mosiah 4:15). What we have here is a cause and effect theme; that result depends on this action. From a grammatical point of view, these phrases tend to be constructed in the imperative case, and the feeling is: “You need to do this.” From another point of view, we can imagine a gifted mathematician expressing each of these sentiments as an equation: A is a function of B. Thus, herbs + fruit – nicotine, ethanol and caffeine = tireless jogging. Example 2: X (having obedient, successful, and highly commendable children) = faithfully hold Family Home Evening with great lessons and even greater refreshments. If you do it, everything will turn out right. Remember the words of the song: “Do what is right, let the consequence follow” (“Do What Is Right,” LDS hymn # 237).
So you’re sitting in the living room reading the paper, and your son comes in, sits by you, and announces, “Dad, I’m gay.” And somewhere in the first minute after that, you’re overwhelmed with self condemnation. “Where did I go wrong?” “We thought we had been completely faithful in correctly solving all of the equations!” Or, less traumatically, perhaps, sitting in judgment mode when it’s somebody else’s problem – as in, “Did you hear that Susie Smith came out to her parents as being lesbian?” “Well what do you expect from the Smiths, they’re Democrats, you know.” Misfortune must have an explanation in a failure to follow the paradigm. “John Jones has been home from his mission for eight years. He’s 29 and not married. He must be one of those.”
But then some members of the Ward may suffer pangs of conscience. “I wonder if we’re not being Christian about this?” they ask. Enter the standard solution to save the day: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Good, all is well. No, all is not well. Why? After all, it sounds right. It has the ring of conventional wisdom. We’ve heard it over and over; it must be right. The problem is that it just doesn’t happen. We don’t really love the sinner. We can say it, but we don’t do it.
Church leaders and members have been officially encouraged to “reach out with love and understanding to those struggling with [homosexuality].” What might it mean in this context to “understand”? Some of us appear to equate understanding with sympathy; “we feel sorry for you.” No. The kind of understanding that’s called for is knowledge, accurate information, and the discarding of the myths, misinformation, and distortions that are so common among us – myths, misinformation and distortions that get in the way of the “love” part of what we’ve been asked to do. What then, should we understand?
One: sexual orientation is not a choice. Our children do not choose to be gay. The LGBT brothers and sisters in our wards are not perverse; they have not willfully opted for romantic attractions other than heterosexual ones. Those of us in the majority, who are straight, must honestly confess that our interest in those of the opposite sex did not develop as a conscious decision. Two: sexual orientation has its roots in the biochemical mechanisms that program the developing brain. Homosexuality is not the result of an aberrant psychology, of dysfunctional parenting, or of sexual abuse. No Latter-day Saint parents should carry any feelings of guilt because something they did or didn’t do caused their child to be gay. It just isn’t true. Third: Sexual orientation is not subject to change. Being gay is not a disease, it is not an addiction, it is not a passing phase, it is not a tendency or an inclination, it is not learned, it is not communicable. Some of our LGBT brothers and sisters are able to make accommodations by assuming an alternate sexual identity that makes them more comfortable, some have a degree of attraction to both sexes. But efforts to counsel or persuade gay people to become something that they are not frequently have severely negative spiritual consequences. Four: Gay people are not intrinsically unstable, unhappy, or subject to poor mental health outcomes. The way we treat them, however, does have an impact. Being the target of verbal and physical harassment, being shamed and ridiculed by peers, being marginalized and subjected to rejection, even by family and fellow Church members – these do have serious negative consequences. There is a very large body of evidence that validates each of the assertions I’ve just made. Exploring that evidence will have to wait for another time.
So back to the refrain about hate and love and sin and sinners, the one which some hope will grant then immunity from gaining genuine understanding and an exemption from the task of loving those who are different. “Hate the sin?” What happens to our humanity when we’re given license to hate, especially from afar, when we really don’t know those children of God we’re willing to judge, especially when we haven’t bothered to comprehend their circumstances? Does our hate, which was supposed to be limited, to only be leveled at an abstraction, really start to leak out onto real people? And while we’re looking around for our favorite sin to hate, which one do we choose? Is it Sin 1 or Sin 2? Which is the most hateable? And is it possible in deciding among the popular choices that are available for hating, that we become guilty of falling into the trap Christ warned us about, of “neglecting the weightier matters of the law”? And what of the very act of judging that we’re indulging in? Where does that rank in the hate list?
And who gets to judge the impact of hating sins, the hater or the hatee? We know who delivers the love – it’s Cupid, that pink, and plump cherub. But who delivers the hate? He’s certainly not pink – has to be some darker color. So we imagine him, whoever he is, with his bowstring pulled back to his chin aiming for the bullseye of homosexuality. He lets fly and – what if he’s wildly off target? What if he hits one of God’s children instead? Is that possible? Well, let’s imagine that we’re all gay or lesbian or transgender and we’re in the gallery section of the hearing room in the city offices of a town somewhere to the south of where we are tonight. We’re there as the city council listens to public comment on the proposed Non-Discrimination Ordinances in housing and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. We hear, one by one, the otherwise decent citizens of our community, many of them LDS, come up one by one to strenuously state their opposition. “What if we don’t want one of those kind of people living next to us?” “I should have the right to keep one of them from corrupting my work force.” “We have to protect the morality of this community from their evil influence.” How do you feel, there in the gallery? How much love is washing over you?
“Hate the sin, but love the sinner?” I think we would do well to eliminate that concept from our conversations. Let’s discard that phrase on the trash heap of our theological mistakes, along- side the analogy of holes left in boards after the nails of immoral conduct have been pulled out, and the justification for withholding God’s blessings from some of His children because of their alleged failure to be valiant in the pre-existence.
Many years ago I made a promise that I was too young to understand. It was a covenant to be “willing to bear the burdens of other people, to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Mourning, then, can take the form of recognition of a need. It can be an internal activity, accomplished in the privacy of one’s mind and home. But the “comforting” part of what I promised I would do cannot. To comfort and bear one another’s burdens we must go outside of those private places; we have to speak, we have to act, we have to stand for something. A dear friend, Duff Hanks, whose wisdom and example were important guides at needful times in my life, passed away a few months ago. I think he would not mind if I were to quote some of his words tonight. “In the most personal of His parables the Savior identified himself fully with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:35-36). So many are burdened with earthly care, the stain of sin, poverty, pain, disability, loneliness, bereavement, rejection. The promise of Christ’s mercy is sure and certain to those who find Him and trust Him. He who stilled the winds and waves can bring peace to the sinner and to the suffering Saint. And we as His agents are not alone to declare His word but also to represent Him in doing unto the least of His brethren that which He himself would do were He now here (3).”
It is, or course, natural, to speculate about how sexual orientation will play out in the life to come. It is also true that we have more questions than answers about the eternities that will follow mortality. Some of you will know that there are some questions of particular interest to me, such that I’m starting now to take the steps necessary to resolve them. I am counting on being able to attend a Fireside after I pass on. The topic for the evening will be “The Creation.” Christ is the speaker, and has promised to show slides. Because I’m expecting a large crowd in attendance, I have already booked a seat, the middle one of three, on the front row. On my left will be Charles Darwin. On the right will be Bruce McConkie. I anticipate that in one of His slides the Savior will explain how the possibilities increased marvelously once protein tyrosine kinases made their appearance at the beginning of the Cambrian. I’m also really looking forward to the slide of Lucy. I want to know what she really looked like when none of her bones were missing. When it’s over, I expect all three of us to be not just surprised, but astounded, and a lot of humility will be called for as we recognize the extent of our previous ignorance.
I also want to attend the Sexual Orientation Fireside. Whatever the surprises turn out to be in that meeting, I hope to be able to make the accommodations required of me in the face of the greater light and knowledge that’s going to be available. And I’m pretty sure that the requirement to love will not be rescinded.
In the meantime I’ve decided that there a few things about which I don’t need to be uncertain. The following statements are actual sentiments of real people, our gay brothers and sisters; they are not fictitious. They are responses to the invitation to “briefly describe any benefits or positive aspects of being LGBTQ.”
“You can learn to love others for who they are and not who you think they should be.”
“I am more compassionate, caring, considerate, and sympathetic.”
“I love being authentic, honest, open, happy, and optimistic, more emotionally involved and present in my relationships with others.”
“I feel that it has made me a much more sensitive person and that it has made me always able to think outside of the box which I do not believe would have been true had I not been gay.”
“I think it’s helped me be less judgmental of people, whatever their issues may be. I think it has caused me to be more tolerant and compassionate towards others who may live differently than I do.”
Being gay has given me emotional experiences that make me very sensitive to others. I am often told I am “wise beyond my years” and I attribute that to the amount of time I have spent on inward contemplation as I came to understand my homosexuality. There is a sense of universal understanding that I find comes with being gay. Many times, I have been the “bridge” between my male friends and my females friends – I love being uniquely fit to have that role.”
As I listen to these expressions I find myself wishing that I could be a little more like that.
To return now to the image of Heavenly Father responding to our requests to send to us His spirit. I’d like to share with you a few examples of actual statements by some of God’s gay and lesbian children when asked the following question: “Have you experienced a spiritual manifestation through which you felt an acceptance of your same-sex sexual orientation from Deity?”
“I have had that testimony type feeling with my relationship with my Father in Heaven; Knowing that I am ok and that I am loved for who He made me to be.”
“I was on the verge of suicide . . . driving out to the west desert to commit the act when I heard a still small voice that I was loved no matter what; and that nothing was wrong with me.”
“Prayer in the temple and a distinct voice telling me I was made this way and the only disappointment was that I wouldn’t love myself for who I was.”
“ I had a dream that I was on a platform at a train station where the Savior held me and hugged me and I felt complete love to the point that it was almost consuming.”
“On the mission the Lord told me that I was the way I was, so that the Lord could better use me to help his children in future calling I would have. That my sense of emotions and a caring heart would make me a better servant.”
I am convinced by the spirit accompanying many expressions like these, that they accurately represent a communication from Heavenly Father. I also believe that good people are not just the passive recipients of a divine spirit, but that they can, in fact, become the source of godliness, the origin of a divine spirit, even if only briefly, even if only to an imperfect degree. I spent part of Thursday evening of last week with nearly 100 gay and lesbian students at BYU and some of their straight allies. I spent a few hours Friday with a wonderful group of parents who have gay and lesbian children. I spent some time last night with a group of gay men bound together by the fact that they are fathers. My feelings on these occasions were not identical, but there was a commonality: a strong sense of their shared humanity, their fundamental goodness, and my need to try to follow the Savior’s personal instruction, “But of you, Bill, it is required to love all men.” (See D&C 64:10)
The record states that in ministering to the little children of the Nephite people Jesus spoke words so “great and marvelous” that they could not be verbalized nor written by others, so we are left to our imaginations in fathoming their content. What happened next, however, suggests that the themes were love, both divine and human, and mercy. Having wept, “He took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again (3 Nephi 17:9-22).” Knowing what we know today, we have to believe that among those children were a few who later, as young adults, would have to confront and cope with their homosexuality. I can further imagine that they would not have forgotten that extraordinary experience from their childhood, and that the memory of the Savior’s great love for them would have assuaged their efforts to deal with their recognition of being different, and they would have known that they did belong, to Him and to all the rest of the human family.
- Jacob Bronowski. 1967. The Reach of Imagination, in The Norton Reader, 10th Edition, L.H. Peterson, J.C. Brereton, and J.E. Hartman, Eds. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY. Pages 233-234.
2. Andrew Sullivan. 1995. Virtually Normal, Vintage Book, New York, NY. Pages 12-13.
3. Marion D. Hanks. 1991. Bread Upon The Waters, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, UT. Page 39.