Today, the LDS church has updated its Mormons and Gays website. Over at By Common Consent, Christian Harrison has done a far more in depth analysis of the site, so I will try to comment on aspects not mentioned by Christian.
Brought to you by the Letter S
If you try to go to the old website for MormonsAndGays, you will find you can’t (although you can go to an archive here). Instead, you’ll be redirected right on to the new site MormonAndGay.org. Note the lack of s’s — but also note the lds.org domain. Perhaps this was motivated by spoof websites like MormonsAndBlacks, efforts by disaffected Mormons which mimicked the style domain naming of MormonsAndGays while discussing the unflattering doctrines of past church history (at least before it was taken down.)
What’s the deal with this? What can the measly letter s do?
To me, this simple change in grammar immensely changes the meaning that I perceive from the phrase. To me, “Mormons and Gays” reads as if it’s talking about two separate groups — the Mormons and the gays — whereas Mormon and Gay reads as if it’s talking about two traits that one person could very well share.
But another shift is that the use of those nouns like “Mormons” and “gays” made the old site feel like it was for 3rd parties — it felt like the church’s objective, outward-facing site for issues relating to the Mormons and the gays.
In contrast, the new site feels like it’s about and for people who are Mormon and gay. It feels inward-facing — to people who are Mormon and gay, or for their family.
Contrasting site content
Analyzing grammar probably isn’t something normal people do, so I felt a little paranoid about my above impressions. Was I just reading too much into this or is there anything from the two sites that backs up a shift in perspective?
Unfortunately, I quickly ran into content that opposed my initial impression:
This official website does not offer a comprehensive explanation of everything related to same-sex attraction, but it does reflect the feelings of Church leaders as to how we should treat each other as part of the human family. The site offers a place where the people whose lives are impacted by attraction to the same sex can find inspiration to work through difficult challenges while remaining faithful to Church teachings.
So, it seems even the old site was inward-facing.
So much for that hypothesis.
However, this led me to think if there was anything about either site that had been written in such a way to give one impression while the site itself was working toward a different conclusion. And of course, I think that the very use of the word “gay” in these sorts of sites already speaks out to this.
Gay vs. Same Sex Attraction
We know of many talks given where church leaders have cautioned against granting legitimacy to the concept of “gay” as an identity. MormonsAndGays felt like the church was finally conceding this point, by finally recognizing that some of our brothers and sisters may be gay or lesbian, rather than just “struggling with same sex attraction.” That being said, earlier this year, Elder Bednar corrected an audience member for implying that there could be homosexual members of the church.
But both the old site and the new site made and make clear that this term is used not as a concession at all. The old site uses “same-sex attraction” very regularly (to the point where the title of the page is Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction). The new site is more explicit with this being the first of its frequently asked questions:
Why Use the Term “Same-Sex Attraction”? Why Not Just Say “Gay”?
Same-sex attraction (SSA) refers to emotional, physical, romantic, or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. If you experience same-sex attraction, you may or may not choose to use a sexual orientation label to describe yourself. Either way, same-sex attraction is a technical term describing the experience without imposing a label. This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.
Is it a step in the right direction?
As Christian Harrison wrote at By Common Consent, lots of folks aren’t going to be happy with this site (but such was true with the old site as well). This website doesn’t change on any established teachings (in case people were looking for a softening of the position), but at the same time, for anyone who really is struggling with same-sex attraction, this website doesn’t pretend to offer any concrete cures for SSA (although it does say, when advising people not to call themselves gay, that sexual desire “can be fluid and changeable” [although really, I think this distorts the research on sexual fluidity and implies more conscious choice than is actually the case]).
Christian comments that what the site does is that it
puts away childish things, and speaks as an adult—an adult that doesn’t see itself changing its mind any time soon, mind you… but one who values the people in its life and who’s making a solid effort at having the hard conversations.
Are we ready to have the hard conversations? I am not entirely sure. I am not entirely sure because I think, ultimately, it may be that members (even liberal/progressive ones) are as unwilling as the church is.
Grounding Sexual Ethics in Theology
Mormons will need to think about how sexual ethics is grounded in their theology, and how such theology may or may not limit future changes or even revelations. In comparing Mormonism to other Christian traditions, I have increasingly come to realize that the sexual ethics of, say, Catholicism, makes sense given its system based on natural law theology in which the ends of marriage are to unite and to procreate. (From here, it follows — whether the average Catholic aligns with that or not — that artificial contraception and all inherently non-procreative sex acts are against traditional sexual ethics. These things seem draconian from a secular perspective where we take it all for granted, but it just doesn’t seem very plausible to argue for these things from within that framework.)
Mormonism doesn’t necessarily follow the same logic (hence, contraception and non-procreative sex acts are OK…as long as they are between married straight couples), but this should not mean anything can go. The church seems set that this is a doctrine that will not change, and even if we can point to other unchangeable doctrines that did change, opposition to homosexual relationships gets to more fundamental teachings about the physicality of Heavenly Father and Mother.
Those who want the church to change positions have to seriously grapple with what it means to become more like God in a religion with a rigorously physical conception of deity. This exploration may end up not just being hard for LGB folks, but for plenty of others (what will we discover when we eventually dive further into the implications of Heavenly Mother?)