GENERAL CONFERENCE IS upon us. Many LDS are preparing to hear the admonition, advice, and encouragement of the men and women called to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While many believing members anticipate General Conference with great hope, some face the bi-annual conference with trepidation, bracing themselves for the painful messages that sometimes swipe at the tender souls of LGBTQIA members. Often, the talks that inspire cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) people like myself are talks that can plummet a queer person into despair and self-loathing. (“Queer” is an oft-used, commonly accepted umbrella term to replace LGBTQIA.) I may be cishet, but I’ve spent decades listening to queer people, and, while I’m in no position to speak on behalf of any LDS queer person or their community as a whole, I am in a position to talk to people like myself about the things I’ve learned along the way. I do this in the hope that other cishet members might better understand why General Conference can be so painful for queer LDS, even if they no longer attend. I also stand ready for correction by those associated with the LDS queer community.
Most cishet members balk at the idea that anything we or our Church leaders do or say is homo- or transphobic. After all, we say, we don’t fear LGBTQIA people, and we surely don’t harbor feelings of hate for them. Interestingly, one of my gay friends has stopped using the word homophobic, opting instead to speak of heterosupremacy, or the worldview that heteronormity is and should be privileged as superior to homosexuality. Just because the “supremacy” part of “heterosupremacy” reminds us of the dark, cruel, and vicious world of the KKK’s white supremacy, we shouldn’t gauge the term an ill-fit descriptor of the LDS Church’s worldview; the modern Church can be both infinitely kinder than the KKK and unabashedly favor heteronormity, which it clearly does.
What cishet people need most to understand is that every LGBTQIA person who was born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was raised to understand themselves as cisgender and heterosexual. They were taught to participate in church and family as a heterosexual and to understand queer identities as inferior to the cishet identity. The church environment in which our closeted, queer children are raised often communicates, directly and indirectly, that queer people have less to offer the church, are enemies to the family and the plan of salvation, are unwanted, weak, and (if of my generation) filthy and perverted even when they have never “acted on” their orientation or identity. Here it is: our queer children are being raised to hate and distrust themselves, to believe they are unworthy of love, be it love from family, Church, or God.
If you want to comprehend why queer people use the word “hate” to describe what cishet people feel toward them, this is as much at the root of it as anything could be. The belief systems we taught them disparaged them. The traditional family model we gave them didn’t have a place for them. In word and deed, we taught them to value, love, and honor many things they cannot be. How can we expect them to come away from that thinking we feel anything but hate for who they are?
They aren’t wrong about their assessment just because we don’t want them to be right. We created this world for our innocent children and must now live with the consequence. We may want to say it was just thoughtlessness on our part, and yet, we continue to choose not to see the world through their eyes.
The only way to change their perception of us is to change ourselves. This weekend offers us an opportunity to begin to hear with new ears. We don’t have to stop hearing with the ears of a cisgender, heterosexual person, but we do need to start listening with ears that can hear the pain of a vulnerable population without feeling assaulted. Discomfort isn’t a threat; its a blessing.
Below, I offer a few of the themes common to General Conference addresses and suggest ways a cishet person versus a queer person may hear them. Admittedly, what I offer are over-simplifications and over-generalizations that tap into only a small part of either the cishet or queer experience. I hope you’ll overlook these limitations, made in the name of brevity, and use each to reflect on ways a queer person may not be experiencing the same General Conference you experience.
Temples, temple marriage, temple worthiness, covenant path
A cishet member may rejoice that more temples are being built and look forward to their own or their children’s temple sealing to a romantic partner. When cishet members hear “stick to the covenant path,” their path includes temple sealing.
When a queer member listens to talks about temples and the covenant path, they may hear a list of blessings they cannot have, of love they don’t dare hope for, and a path that stops short of the quintessential ordinance. Rather than feeling inspired, they can feel isolated, dismissed, unimportant, and unworthy.
Many cishet members will sit comfortably while General Authorities and General Auxiliary Leaders speak of the traditional family and gender roles, but, in these talks, a queer youth may hear little more than ways they fail at personhood or hear reasons for their parents to reject them.
Generally, a cishet member welcomes reminders that God honors the prayers of our hearts and that prayer will draw them closer to Him, no matter their circumstance.
A lesbian friend tells me that, no matter how often the Brethren encouraged her to pray, she always felt terrified at the thought. “I wanted to spare God the feelings of disgust and hatred He would surely feel if I were to attempt to approach Him and sincerely ask Him what to do.” She added, “I had pleaded with Him to take away my same-gender attraction for 20 years, and all I got from Him in return was silence.” The promises associated with prayer can cause queer members to feel rejected by God.
Generally, cishet believers accept that all are sinners and called to repentance every day. We look forward to the feeling of being washed clean and of changing ourselves to better align with Heavenly Father and Mother.
But queer members may endure so much shame over their core identity, or fear of a life without feeling loved, or misery at the prospect of living a lifetime lie that talks about the atonement and repentance encourage thoughts of suicide. They sometimes reason that Jesus will forgive them for suicide, or that they will be made cishet in the hereafter; many say suicide once seemed the best way to ensure they didn’t mess up their family’s eternal life.
In 2015, ELDER UCHTDORF spoke at the John A. Widtsoe Symposium, held at the University of Southern California, about his experience with Harriet as they toured Auschwitz. He stated, “[I]f we could only take the time to truly know a person, we would discover that perhaps we are not so different after all.”** Lives could’ve been saved all those decades ago, and lives can be saved now. Remember this throughout General Conference weekend.
Words are difficult tools with which to work, and I can’t escape the reality that here, mine are insufficient. Please overlook where I’m lacking and remember, instead, my call for each of us to listen to General Conference with new ears. Then, my cishet readers, please go the next mile. Learn the varied stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic/agender people raised in, or otherwise associated with, the LDS Church. Read books. Talk to your queer family, friends, and/or ward members. Follow the Affirmation blog (click here). Stay humble and inquisitive. Accept consequence when you must.
And pray for empathy, grace, and yes, forgiveness. Lay down your judgment. We’ve been failing our queer children, youth, and adult members. I know you love them, that you’ve made mistakes. I’ve made the same ones. But by making the effort you’ll make the Church less painful for some of God’s most misunderstood and marginalized children.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matt 25:40
**Note: A kindly reader has reminded me how important it is to never co-opt the trauma of Holocaust survivors and their families, especially to make an easy point. I apologize for my insensitivity. Humans who operate from a fear-based philosophy often seek to eliminate others whose ideas or values differ from their own. What happened at Auschwitz is a heartbreaking example of that.
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