TLC has a controversial new show called “My Husband’s NOT Gay” about Mormon men with SSA (same-sex attraction) who are married to women. GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy group had this to say about it: “This show is downright irresponsible. No one can change who they love, and, more importantly, no one should have to. By investing in this dangerous programming, TLC is putting countless young LGBT people in harm’s way.” Ty Mansfield, himself a SSA married Mormon responded to the outcry: “the sheer hatred and ugliness I have seen from many LGBT folks and supporters around this TLC special far exceeds anything I’ve seen from the vast majority of religious folks and is shameful and hypocritical coming from a community proclaiming that ‘all love is equal.’ The hypocrisy and double-standard is mind-blowing.”
At the heart of the controversy is the question: what exactly does it mean to be gay or to have SSA? In its very title, “My Husband is NOT Gay,” TLC invites viewers to make a distinction between people who claim to be gay, and those who have the same feelings, but don’t act on those feelings. The show effectively says: you can have SSA and still not be gay. This makes “being gay” a choice. And the LGBT community’s number #1 mantra has always been that being gay is NOT a choice, but rather a fundamental aspect of identity, like race or gender. Defenders of the show counter that they don’t judge others for making other choices. But even suggesting that there is a choice involved represents a direct affront to the LGBT agenda.
Is Same-Sex Attraction an Identity?
What is same-sex attraction anyway? Is it a simple matter of sexual preference, a preference which one can subdue through discipline if need be? Or is there something deeper about sexual orientation which cannot be subdued, which indeed would be harmful if subdued, like race or gender? One of the participants compared being gay to being oriented “towards donuts. I could eat a lot more donuts if I wanted to, but if I don’t, am I miserable, am I lonely?”
I agree that sexual attraction is only one of many dimensions of our identity. Among heterosexuals, many men get along fine even if they aren’t married to their sexual ideal. Most heterosexual men are attracted to young, thin, beautiful women. But how many of them are married to such women? And if they are, for how long? Biologically, we are sexually attracted to novelty and youth, yet over time we all become older and less attractive. But even when we don’t have our sexual ideal, the lack is more than made up for by other things which are deeper and longer lasting: friendship, sacrifice, compassion, the refinement of shared experience.
So what is the difference between a Mormon with SSA married to a woman, and a strait Mormon who is for example attracted to big-breasted women but married to a flat-chested woman? There is a big difference.
Is Sexual Orientation Deeper than Who You Are Sexually Attracted To?
In previous posts I have noted that men and women have a plethora of both masculine and feminine characteristics. Generally, women have more feminine characteristics, and men have more masculine characteristics. You could speculate that men in general are 80% masculine, 20% feminine and vice versa. Sexual attraction is one of these either masculine or feminine characteristics. Being attracted to men is understood as a “feminine” attribute. But many men who have this particular attribute also have other feminine attributes as well, and in a higher percentage than other heterosexual men. If I go into specifics I will surely be accused of “stereotyping.” However, it must be acknowledged as a self-evident reality that homosexual men have a more pronounced femininity in general than heterosexual men. This is not learned behavior but is present in the behavior of many children who turn out to be gay regardless of culture or upbringing.
Everyone is obviously different. Sexuality exists on a spectrum from complete heterosexuality through bi-sexuality to complete homosexuality. Some extremely masculine men happen to display that one feminine characteristic that makes them attracted to other men, as if it were some kind of fluke in their gender makeup. For others it is part of a more pronounced feminine identity. There should be nothing shameful or controversial about this fact. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had this to say about the virtues of possessing a more balanced spreadsheet of masculine and feminine characteristics:
Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too…Perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the “femininity” of the men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant.
Each individual identity is a diverse constellation of masculine and feminine attributes, sorted and arranged in an infinite variety of ways. Yet society takes our beautiful individuality and forces us to chose between two blunt definitions of ourselves: gay or strait. Adding bisexual helps, but even three categories are hardly adequate to cope with the endless diversity of individual identity and its make-up of masculine and feminine traits.
Nevertheless, belonging to a society where “being gay” is actually recognized as a real thing, is much better than being in a society that pretends that everyone is supposed to be just one way. This is why the LGBT community is so upset about “My Husband’s Not Gay.” It wasn’t long ago when mainstream society didn’t even recognize the reality of inborn homosexuality. They have fought hard for this recognition, and they don’t want to see us go backward. However GLAAD’s fears are unfounded. Society is not going to slide back into homophobic prejudice in general.
GLAAD is looking at this the wrong way. They have justly won recognition for homosexuality. But what about the reality of bisexuality, the reality of religiously motivated SSA men who act strait, of adventurous strait people who act gay? And what about trying to parse out the rich tapestry of individual masculine and feminine traits in each person, instead of defining everyone ONLY by their particular sexual attraction?
I think Mormon men with SSA have made enormous strides. They have gone from complete denial a century ago, to self-loathing decades ago, to their present acceptance and compromise. It might seem a little strange for strait Mormons to watch gay Mormon men reveal their intimate struggles so publicly. But this is an indication of just how important sexual identity really is for people. Even being able to acknowledge it openly brings self-acceptance and honesty. We heterosexuals can be openly heterosexual all our lives, so we don’t know just how damaging it can be to live in the closet.
And Mormon men with SSA are not buying into the pitfalls of GLAAD’s “either-or” world view, but instead are recognizing that identity is a complicated and multi-dimensional reality, which must necessarily compromise with the arbitrary realities of the world in order to survive. The harsh realities of religious culture and a person’s sexual identity CAN be reconciled, however imperfectly, and in that reconciliation comes sacrificial love and maturity.
Not Judging Others
For those not under our particular “covenant obligations” as Elder Oaks describes them, I see no reason to challenge Gentile gays to be celibate or marry those of the opposite sex. For many homosexuality is a natural, God-ordained reality, one which the church has admitted “may not go away in this life.” For Mormons, it is a “trial.” But should we try and make it one for non-Mormons? The TLC program has the potential to go in both directions, and it will be interesting to see which way it takes it. Will it try to insist that having SSA does not mean you are gay, and that it is a choice, even for non-Mormons? Or will the Mormons on the show make it clear that their choices and perspectives are based upon their own peculiar religious covenants and beliefs?
If these Mormons can present their situations as individual, not judging anyone else on a different path, while also showing how true love and unselfishness helped them transcend the purely sexual element of their being, I think it will be very positive. Modern society sees sexual attraction as the raison d’être of existence. But it is not. Even gay lovers will have to transcend their sexual attractions if they want to truly be happy together long-term, focusing instead upon friendship, love, and shared sacrifice. We must all exercise sexuality in an unselfish way, learning to make it all about “the other.” Maybe SSA married Mormon men will reach that level sooner than the rest of us. And while it might make things more difficult for them temporarily, it might ultimately make them better people.
- Does having SSA mean you are gay?
- Is sexual orientation deeper than who you are attracted to?
- Is it possible for Mormon SSA men to discuss it in a way which is non-offensive and respectful of those who believe SSA represents a fundamental aspect of their identity?
- Will the show be a good and respectful portrayal of LDS beliefs on the subject of homosexuality?