Are Mormons Changing Their Stance on Homosexuality?

In the United States at least, 2010 was an encouraging year for gay and lesbian equality. In August, a federal judge delivered a strong ruling against California’s Proposition 8, and this past week Congress finally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

The trend in general appears to be toward greater acceptance of gay and lesbian civil rights—even the LDS Church, the leading proponent and generous funder of Proposition 8, made moves this year that have left some observers optimistic that the church is softening its opposition to homosexuality.

In October, a General Conference address by Boyd K. Packer was edited in ways that suggested the church was open to the possibility that homosexuality might be a product of inborn “tendencies.” Shortly thereafter, responding to protests against Packer’s address, a church spokesperson read a statement deploring anti-gay bullying. Then in November, a new edition of the Church Handbook of Instructions seemed to retreat from an earlier commitment to reparative therapy. 

Commenting on these events here on Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks voiced a hope I’ve encountered among other gay-sympathetic Mormons as well: that the LDS Church is moving toward a more welcoming attitude toward gay and lesbian people. Little by little, in this optimistic view, Mormons are overcoming their prejudices and misconceptions; or, as Brooks put it, “Movement is definitely happening.”  

Some pessimistic cautions are in order. 

First, the positions articulated in these most recent statements from the church are not all that new. October’s anti-bullying statement repeated a claim the church has been making for at least a decade, that its “opposition to attempts to legalize same-sex marriage should never be interpreted as justification for hatred, intolerance, or abuse of those who profess homosexual tendencies.” And as early as 1995, apostle Dallin H. Oaks was prepared to accept that homosexuality might be a product of inborn tendencies and that some people struggling with “same-gender attraction” might never be able to enter a heterosexual marriage within this life. (He hinted they would be able to do so in the afterlife.) 

Over the past decade and a half, support has grown at LDS headquarters for the idea that homosexuality may be inborn and immutable. Those who hold this view—no one’s named it, but I’ll call it the “inborn/celibacy” view—still regard acting on homosexual tendencies as sinful, but celibacy rather than reparative therapy becomes the logical response. The editing of Boyd K. Packer’s address and the revised Church Handbook of Instructions show that church leaders desire at least to accommodate the “inborn/celibacy” view, although the revisions are ambiguous enough that I wouldn’t say the church has decisively embraced it. 

We are certainly witnessing a change in LDS teaching about homosexuality. However, this does not mean that the church is moving down a path that will eventually culminate in equality for gay and lesbian people—as if the church’s opposition is eroding away and will finally collapse in a matter of time. 

On the contrary, the “inborn/celibacy” position appeals among the leadership precisely because it strengthens the church’s fundamental opposition to homosexual relationships. The “inborn/celibacy” position doesn’t require the church to stand at odds with science. This position doesn’t rely on increasingly unpersuasive stereotypes of homosexuals as gender confused, promiscuous, selfish, irreligious, or doomed to unhappy lives. The “inborn/celibacy” position is couched in sympathetic, clinical terms: no jeremiads about abominations, perversion, or sins against nature. Advocates of this position talk sincerely, even passionately, about the need to reach out in love to support LDS members struggling with same-gender attraction—to stop driving them away from the church, or to suicide, with condemnation and ugly rhetoric.  

In other words, the “inborn/celibacy” position makes the church’s opposition to homosexual relationships more defensible, more respectable, more palatable. It’s similar to the position favored by the Catholic hierarchy. 

The “inborn/celibacy” position doesn’t require the church to give any reason for its opposition to homosexual relationships other than God’s say-so. It doesn’t matter, to this approach, what biologists may conclude about the etiology of homosexual attraction. It doesn’t matter if reparative therapy can’t be proven effective. It doesn’t matter if studies show that gay couples can be as loving and happy and well adjusted—or as good at parenting—as straight couples. The “inborn/celibacy” position can concede all of that.  

What it does come down to this: Even if homosexual attraction is an inborn and immutable condition, even if homosexual couples can find happiness in this life, God has revealed to modern prophets that heterosexual marriage alone is the path to exaltation in God’s celestial kingdom. And if people with same-gender attractions will submit in faith to God’s law of chastity, refraining from sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage, they may be assured that in the world to come, a loving God will make it possible for them to receive the blessings of marriage and family that were denied them in this world. The church makes a similar promise to its lifelong straight singles.

There’s no way to argue against that position except to challenge the authority of the leaders who claim to be its revelators—which is a rhetorical battle you can’t win within the LDS church.

Without question, the “inborn/celibacy” position is preferable to the church’s past approaches to homosexuality: guilt-inducing jeremiads, electroshock aversion therapy, pushing heterosexual marriages, reparative therapy.  

But growing support for this new position doesn’t mean that LDS opposition to homosexuality is cracking. Rather, this position is a savvy retrenchment that actually makes the prospects for future change in church policy and doctrine even more bleak.