55% of Utah Mormons Believe LGBT People can “Change”

A new poll released today by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that among Utah Mormons surveyed, 55% believe it is possible for people who are attracted to members of the same sex to change their sexual orientation. Twenty-five percent of Utah Mormons reported being “unsure,” and 15% believed gay people could not voluntarily “change” their own sexual orientation.

Among non-Mormon Utahns surveyed, 66% believed it was not possible for gay people to “change” their sexual orientation, while 20% thought it possible, and 14% were unsure.

Which confirms what those of us who live within the culture know: many, many LDS people live in a parallel universe when it comes to the reality of LGBT experience.

Just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a friend who has a gay adult child. We discussed the nuances of the recent events surrounding Elder Boyd K. Packer’s abrasive and controversial October conference talk which asserted that God would never have people be born with “tendencies” to same-sex attraction, and which drew hurtful, crude comparisons between the electoral battle to establish civil equality for LGBT people and a classroom of children “voting” on the gender of a cat.

After massive expressions of protest from Mormon and non-Mormon LGBT advocates and allies, Packer’s speech was revised for web publication, and a Church spokesman offered a statement—incredibly progressive by LDS standards and timetables—that denounced bullying and acknowledged gay people as gay (rather than using the conventional LDS term “same-gender attraction,” which downplays the reality of LGBT experience). Still, my friend observed, most of the people she attends church with on Sundays simply believe being gay is an abomination.

Change is very, very slow to come among LDS Church membership. More Mormons have rallied around Elder Packer’s hurtful speech than have carefully read the prepared official PR statement affirming LGBT humanity and dignity. Few have absorbed the nuances Church leaders have been hammering out in successive statements about LGBT issues. Many are still thinking like we were taught to in the 1970s, that homosexuality is simply a base perversion, an abomination, and can be changed through repentance and prayer.

Not so, say a legion of LDS LGBT people who have knees bruised and calloused from so much praying.

Most straight LDS people have not grappled with the reality of LGBT experience. And another thing that has not happened yet in most LDS communities is a frank and searching discussion of the scriptural and doctrinal basis for opposition to the full equality of LGBT people. Are we still holding on to Old Testament stories about Sodom and Gomorrah which have been reexamined by Biblical scholars and found to be at their ancient textual roots not a condemnation of homosexuality? Yes, Mormons are. Are we still holding to Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality, which also declare the eating of shellfish an abomination?

Yes, Mormons are. Even those who love a good shrimp cocktail.

There are more nuanced aspects of Mormon theology which pertain to the importance of marriage as a salvific rite and have been marshaled in opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage. These too deserve to be carefully studied and understood. Any doctrine that would be used to exclude a good number of the earth’s people from full equality before the law and God should be very carefully examined.

When it comes to gay issues, most Mormons have only the muddiest understanding of what life is like for gay people or about the doctrinal reasons their LDS leaders say and do the things they do. In fact, most Mormons have only the muddiest understanding about what their church leaders are really saying about homosexuality. The message of understanding and compassion has not trickled down. And this is dangerous, because most LDS children who grow up to be gay are born and raised in families that feel they must choose between accepting and supporting their child and staying with the church that defines their lives.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.