By Natasha Helfer Parker
Natasha Helfer Parker is a licensed clinical marriage & family therapist and certified sex therapist with almost 20 years experience working primarily with Latter-day Saints. She can be contacted at natashaparker.org.
QUESTION: Our teenager recently came out to us as being gay, and, wanting to respond in a supportive way, we told him that we love him no matter what. In the wake of the new Church policies regarding LGBTQ members, however, we are deeply concerned about the pressures he will face within the LDS community, especially since he loves and is committed to the gospel. The place where we worship no longer seems like a safe place for our child. Help us make sense of this situation.
I deeply sympathize with the many parents of LGBTQ youth who are trying to navigate the LDS Church’s increasingly LGBTQ-hostile environment. The new policies— targeting those in same-sex marriage as apostates worthy of excommunication and denying their children access to Church membership—are difficult to fathom. And the way they were communicated to the general membership was both dubious and confusing. Furthermore, any hopes of keeping the new guidelines in the “policy” box were swept away when Elder Nelson gave an address interpreting the policy-making process as revelatory.
This shift has challenged many mainstream members who have become increasingly supportive of civil rights for LGBTQ people, leaving us wondering how to make sense of our growing discomfort with stances we are expected to accept and sustain—putting obedience to priesthood authority into tension with obedience to personal revelation and conscience.
This is all further complicated when we become aware of the tragic consequences such stances either cause directly or exacerbate: family & community rifts, mass membership resignations, worsening depression and anxiety, increased isolation and cognitive dissonance, painful faith transitions, and even reports of suicide attempts and deaths by LGBTQ members. Many of these symptoms have become increasingly manifest in my clinical practice over the last few months, which makes it more and more difficult to believe the statements—coming from both the Brethren and Church spokespeople—that the blessings of the gospel are meant for everyone, that our leaders have compassion for LGBTQ members, and that they desire to welcome and fellowship them. They may say these things, but behind those words are what psychologists call a “double bind” or what educators call a “hidden curriculum.”
A double bind is when two propositions that contradict each other are presented as if they do not. For example, if someone declares their undying love for you while threatening you with a baseball bat, that is a double bind. Which do you react to? The words or the baseball bat?
Similarly, a hidden curriculum is the (usually unspoken) structure of a situation, which is often more powerful than its actual content. For example, a boss may say that he welcomes criticism, but fire those who do bring forth complaints (though giving unrelated reasons for his action)—a hidden curriculum that everyone soon learns.
It is inherently confusing when Church leaders and spokespeople continually state that their love and acceptance are unconditional, when in reality it is not. For example, in a recent Deseret News article, a Church spokesperson said, “Each congregation should welcome everyone.”
Yet the Church policies have made it very clear that those exhibiting certain behaviors, especially those having to do with the choice to commit to a same-sex marriage, will be met with disciplinary consequences within our church structure. And these disciplinary councils most often lead to the exact opposite effect of LGBTQ folks feeling welcomed, loved or accepted. The very meaning of excommunication relays the message of exclusion from the community’s membership, rituals, and even fellowship. Therefore, those who are disciplined, albeit still allowed to attend church and engage in a repentance process that does not resonate with choices they need to make for their mental health, are usually not reporting feeling welcomed. LGBTQ members are very aware of this double bind because it hides behind every interaction they have with the Church.
Regardless of the Church’s stance towards LGBTQ members, there is much we can personally do to make a significant difference in their lives and become LGBTQ allies, whether from inside or outside the Church.
If you’re a beginner, a good place to start is Dr. Caitlin Ryan’s Family Acceptance Project, which offers resources specifically geared towards an LDS audience. Another rich, evidence-based resource comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a publication titled Ending Conversion Therapy: Supporting and Affirming LGBTQ Youth. There are also some wonderful LDS-centric support networks, including Mormons Building Bridges, Affirmation, LDS Family Fellowship, LDS Walk With You, and Circling the Wagons to name a few.
As you go about becoming an LGBTQ ally, it is very important that you do not taint your words and actions with an unconscious double bind or hidden curriculum. Are you being supportive in hopes that your child, friend, or relative will eventually see the error of their ways? Rest assured, they will soon pick up on that hidden agenda and realize that your love is conditional.
From my own training and observations, I have put together a list of essentials when it comes to supporting LGBTQ people in your life:
- Offering support and normalization is the most important thing parents, family members, friends, and leaders can do for coming-out members. Regardless of where you stand on doctrinal issues, it is essential that you can say—and mean—, “No matter what happens, I love you. I’m here for you.” If you have not gotten to this point yet, get there soon. The well being of your loved one depends on it.
- LDS culture has influenced our members (in particular our teens) to see a large part of their spiritual worthiness through a sexual lens. It can be overwhelming for them to feel that they fall outside sexual acceptability. They may become convinced that they have nothing to offer to God or to their congregations. It is important that they understand that there are many ways to dedicate one’s life to God and righteous living. Regardless of the sexual orientation of one’s relationship, one can always focus on service, charity, integrity, education, love, and spiritual practice.
- It is important to educate our members about maintaining healthy, appropriate boundaries with their ecclesiastical leaders. If you parent a teen, let them know that it is okay to not answer questions a leader may ask of them (especially in worthiness interviews), to leave an interview where they feel uncomfortable, and to invite a parent or ally to attend interviews with them. Minors behind closed doors with adult men who are asking questions of a sexual nature is not something we should continue to be comfortable with. We have a right to protect our privacy while still prioritizing integrity. If you are in a leadership role, constantly check your own privilege and biases when interacting with LGBTQ members; much of it will be invisible to you, which may cause you to do harm when you intend none. The way leadership roles play out in our church needs to be updated to address the new challenges and opportunities contemporary situations are presenting. You are on the front lines of this evolution, and though it will be difficult, you can be a part of the improvement.
- If you plan to remain active in the Church, role model strategies for respectfully sustaining leaders even if you don’t agree with everything the official Church does or promotes. It can be helpful for a teen or fellow member to hear you say something like, “I love our Church; it does much good around the world and has a positive impact in my life. At the same time, our Church leaders have made mistakes in the past and continue to make mistakes today. That’s true of any church or organization. I just want you to know that I don’t agree with some of the stances our church has taken in regards to homosexual members. I think there is still a lot that will change or that we will understand better as time goes on. What do you think?”
- Remember that sexual orientation isn’t just about sex; it’s about relationship. Your LGBTQ loved one will need a listening ear and guiding wisdom to help them learn the importance of getting to know somebody, of self-protection, of emotional connection as well as sexual attraction. Affirm that their sexual orientation does not negate their entirely human need to be in close relationships with others. Open up space to help them talk about the Church’s current expectation that LGBTQ members remain romantically and sexually celibate. When celibacy is chosen from the space of a religious double bind, it is not a healthy option for your loved one.
- Encourage your loved one to become involved with support groups. Talking with people in situations similar to yours can decrease isolation and negative self-image. Many high schools in the United States have GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) clubs, which have been linked to a reduction in suicide risk.
- Make sure you take time to role model self care for your LGBTQ loved ones. It can be very helpful to seek professional help, both as an individual and as a family, to sort out the complicated dynamics of appropriately supporting an LGBTQ family member. The issues that come up are legitimate and often difficult to face on your own.
I hope we can all find healing spaces during this painful time in Church history, remembering that the true value of Christian theology is choosing relationship over ideology—every time.
- “Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng (accessed 5 November 2015).