Dear Members of the Heath Ward, Heath, Texas Stake:
I’m sorry to miss the opportunity to participate in our ward’s slated discussion of the First Presidency letter regarding the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ doctrine on marriage, but I must be absent. Knowing the letter is intended to be used as part of a ward-level, but church-wide, discussion, I’ve been pondering its message and what I might say were I able to be with you. This letter represents a few of my thoughts.
In the interest of disclosure, I’m one of the many practicing Mormons who supports same-gender civil marriage becoming the law of the land. This causes some in the public sphere to question my dedication to God, but I know you and you know me; you have heard my testimony. As the First Presidency letter attests, civil law does not eliminate doctrinal law. I support LDS doctrine and have clearly stated that I look forward to revelation that gives us further clarity about how best to minister to all of Heavenly Father’s children. What the First Presidency letter contains is not new. That said, there are things that it does not contain that I want to be sure become part of our ward’s discussion.
I am a straight, cisgender Latter-day Saint woman in a successful, nearly 30 year temple marriage. Obviously, no one has elected me a spokesperson for a community I am not a part of. But it’s probably fair to say I’ve spent more time associating with members of the LDS LGBT community than your average straight, cisgender Latter-day Saint woman. I’ve learned much from these people that I’d like to share with you, particularly if you are also faithful, active LDS, straight, and cisgender.
First and foremost, as you listen to the letter, realize there are likely LGBT people sitting in the room with you. Statistically speaking, the likelihood that there are closeted LGBT members in our ward is higher than you might expect. These LGBT members of the Heath Ward may be single, divorced, or in mixed orientation marriages. Perhaps they are your son or daughter. Perhaps you don’t yet know this about your child. Perhaps your child is afraid to tell you, and perhaps you are afraid to hear. Regardless, chances are, every word of this discussion is being received by someone who is particularly vulnerable. People who live “in the closet” do so because they understand, in “coming out,” they risk rejection and humiliation from family, friends, and yes, by their church community. Every LGBT person experiences the fear that they will not be understood by people who matter to them. If they are not understood, they wonder, how can they be loved?
This isn’t a small question. In fact, it’s pivotal to our discussion. How can we love our LGBT members if we do not understand them? Not how can we show love. Not how can we feel love. How can we love with the fullness of God?
I found my answer in 1 John 4:19. Here John teaches that we love God because He first loved us. Over the years, I’ve reflected on this verse and pondered how I feel God’s love for me. The answer: I feel it as understanding, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, even as confidence in me. It strikes me how intimately Heavenly Father knows me—what motivates me, what experiences have made me who I am, what my fears, hopes, and desires are, etc. In other words, He loves me—loves all of us—because He understands us according to our own perspective. This understanding is God-like love. And it feels good; it feels safe. Our response, once we feel the love of God, is to return that love to Him.
Put otherwise, John is teaching us that, to love as Christ commands, we must learn to love the way God loves: we must understand one another according to the perspective of the person who is to be loved, and not the other way around. Love filtered through any perspective other than that of the person to be loved is a love that is less than God-like. That kind of love is not an easy standard for mortals to hit, but certainly must be the goal of the faithful.
Once we understand this about God-like, or complete, love, we begin to understand why, when heterosexuals profess love for our LGBT neighbors, LGBT people often say what they experience from them is not love. This is frustrating for Christian heterosexuals, but, with the insight of John, the reason becomes clear: The love we profess will not feel like love until we see LGBT people through their own lens, until we understand them through their own perspective, until the kind of love we offer is closer to the complete love God offers.
Think about this statement: When we speak about homosexuality at church (or as a Church), we do so in a way that emphasizes how different, or out-of-sync, LGBT people are with what this First Presidency letter calls the Plan of Happiness. Even when we speak of love and compassion for LGBT people, we have a running subtext that says “We love you even though you are different than the ideal.”
Ingest that. “We love you even though you are Mormon.” “We love you even though you are white.” “We love you even though you are a Republican.” “We love you even though you are fat.”
“We love you even though you are gay.”
No matter how good the intent of this First Presidency letter, its public release once again reminded our LDS LGBT community that the heterosexual normative is the ideal and that they do not measure up to that. Immediately I heard cries of “Here they go again, marginalizing us, telling us we are different, not enough and not good enough, below par. Why can’t we be people to them instead of an orientation?”
Again, it doesn’t matter what you think an LGBT person should understand as the letter’s intent. What matters is their perspective, the perspective of our LGBT members–our youth–who are hearing us. Right now. During this discussion and in discussions in wards throughout the United States. What matters is what the vulnerable, LGBT teenager who may be in our midst hears from us today. I say without exaggeration that what we say may be the difference between his or her living a full, productive life and serious, even life-threatening depression and anxiety.
For this reason, I’m happy this letter was designed to introduce a discussion and not simply administered as edict from the pulpit. That decision was, I’m convinced, divinely inspired. Here, now, we are blessed with the opportunity to show our willingness to learn to love without caveat, to commit to beginning to understand and to love LGBT people in the way God loves them, through their own perspectives.
Some will say, “All of this may be correct, but doctrine is doctrine. Of course, doctrine is often hard! We all have struggles!” The ironic thing is, LGBT people don’t really speak in terms of struggling with doctrine per se, or even with homosexuality. I hear them speaking of their struggle with the alienation, even rejection, they feel by their church, its members, and, too often, their families. I have no interest in arguing whether one doctrine is harder than another, or whether or not different people wrestle equally with various doctrines. Instead, I remind you that your perspective, applied to our LGBT brothers and sisters, does not feel like love to them. When we apply our own perspective to another human being, the consequence is always a judgement. However, if we apply their perspective in order to meet them on their map of the world, we discover true, God-like love.
During my conversion period, the inclusiveness of Mormon heaven deeply moved me. In Mormon ideology, all will have the opportunity, in this life or the next, to hear the gospel of Christ explained in a way that will make sense to them, and all will be judged according to the knowledge, understanding, opportunity, and desire to do good they possessed in mortality. Somehow, regarding LGBT people, we seem to forget this. Or rather, we tend to first see LGBT members as a class of problem people before we see them as individuals destined for a great salvation because of Christ. We treat them as a sin-about-to-happen and warn and warn and warn them to be like us. But they cannot be like us, the heterosexuals who fit so snugly into the LDS Plan of Salvation. Their journey is different. It does not have the clarity our journey has. If you think it does, then you are living on an island of your own perspective.
It is imperative we understand, by acquiring their perspective, how isolated from the LDS Plan of Salvation LDS LGBT people often feel. Nothing I say will instill in you this understanding, but I hope to inspire the desire to learn to love them in God’s complete way. Doing so will require effort and reflection on your part; meditation, exposure to LDS LGBT people, prayer, and humility. This wonderful article, written by an LGBT BYU student, points LDS heterosexuals to places they can encounter a wide cross-section of LDS LGBT voices. Start with it to gain the proper perspective—their perspective—in order to love them as God loves them. Don’t expect to hit the mark after a casual reading of a few articles. Love always takes work.
In closing, I repeat how much I wish I could sit in with you on our ward’s discussion of the First Presidency letter. I know you all to be compassionate, grace-filled people. If I were there, I know I’d hear you express ideas similar to those I’ve said here. Perhaps they’d be stated differently, but I know the heart of this ward is determined to do good. I love you and look forward to continuing opportunities to explore the gospel of Christ while in your presence.
Love, Sister Downing
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear … We love him, because he first loved us…. And this commandment we have from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also. 1 John 4:18. 19, 21