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PUASE from Sunstone: Straight-acting gays at FAIR Conference

August 3, 2012

So far, I am only two days into my Sunstone summary (and I haven’t even started writing my session-specific articles), but I just wanted to take a break to PUASE from Sunstone and go to a different kind of conference: The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) is having their own conference now. I am not there, but I am seeing some of the write-ups.

PUASE Homestock

Peggy Fletcher Stack, who covers the event in the Salt Lake Tribune, names her article an (appropriately) attention-getting “LDS apologists tackle same-sex attraction, women’s issues.”

Did Same-sex attraction even need to be tackled?

Even though I am aware that the use of “tackle” in this instance is probably just a foray in the Lakoffian tradition of the conceptual metaphor of argument as struggle, the phrasing does give me pause (I do know how to spell this word after all!)

John Dehlin posted complimentary thoughts on Facebook in response to Neylan McBaine’s talk on the issues affecting women in the church, and although I haven’t read Neylan’s talk, I can guess from the Salt Lake Tribune post that the good vibes from John are because Neylan’s article incorporates some results from John’s survey on Mormon disbelief (and let me just take an aside to mention that John’s penchant for naming and renaming things reminds me just a slight bit of people who have a bunch of wholly owned flow-through entities…).

So, without reading the article yet, I can at least look at a title like “LDS apologists tackle women’s issues” and be aware of issues that anyone might think should be addressed. They aren’t issues related to being a woman…but issues that women face in society or institutions like the church.

But when the same thing is said for same-sex attraction, I get only the sense that we still live in the bizarro world where homosexuality itself is a problem. The church and its members, though they have painfully learned how not to go about expressing this contention (not in a very publicly and ostentatiously funded/supported state amendment, for example), are trying to figure out alternative ways to express the same conclusions. And that’s where the talk described at this FAIR Conference comes into play.

Joshua Johanson is the latest in the line (a line that includes most recently Josh Weed, but more perennially well-known Ty Mansfield) of folks pioneering with what I can only suppose is the church’s new public position (only…because the church knows that when anything is said in a public capacity, there is a lot more volatility to it…so of course, it doesn’t publicly state it) on homosexuality. This message is simple:

  1. Agency/Acting and not being acted upon means that gay members in the church have the choice to avoid same-sex relationships and engage in opposite-sex relationships
  2. Being gay doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be in a same-sex relationship..but
  3. It’s not about being ex-gay. It’s about “managing” homosexuality.
  4. Everyone must make their own choices, and this may not be the right choice for everyone.

Each part of this message has its own aspects that must be unpacked, because I think that what’s going on underneath the surface is actually pretty clever:

Agency in Same-Sex Attraction

Whenever someone like Joshua makes a line about “acting and not being acted upon,” I immediately recognize that as an LDS tie-in. This concept is a counter to the decidedly essentialist or fatalist rhetoric that is common in much of the discourse about marriage equality — basically, the side in favor of gay rights has argued something like, “As gay folks, we are attracted to the same sex. We do not choose this, and cannot choose to change this. Because we are attracted to the same sex and cannot choose otherwise, we should pursue relationships with the same sex.”

The problem with this argument (as it exists) is that it’s hitting on a lot of irrelevant stuff, and failing to discuss some of the most relevant stuff…and the thing is, people most often understand that is happening, but only when something else gets brought up: something like pedophilia. So, suppose that someone were to say:

“As pedophiles, we are attracted to young children. We do not choose this, and cannot choose to change this. Because we are attracted to children and cannot choose other wise, we should pursue–“

Now, most people would have been able to stop before I did, and they would’ve been able to point out some objection to pedophilia that they don’t believe applies to homosexuality. In other words, the origin of either pedophilia or homosexuality do not say anything about their comparability, morality, or acceptability. The real argument for approving of gay relationships isn’t that people don’t choose who they are attracted to, but that there isn’t or there shouldn’t be considered anything wrong with gay relationships, and in fact, perhaps there is something socially right with committed relationships that we should seek to promote. These are the two contentions that are worthwhile to discuss.

Attraction vs. desire?

The second point and third points are the most curious…just to quote from the article:

Critics presume that attraction naturally leads to a desire for same-sex relationships, but that is not always the case, he said. “There are many faithful Latter-day Saints who have overcome their desire for same-sex relationships. LDS Family Services estimates there are four or five members in every ward with SSA, and about half have a temple marriage and kids.”

It’s not about “changing your attractions,” Johanson said in an interview, “it’s about managing them.”

Unfortunately, because the very first line I’ve quoted isn’t a direct quotation, I don’ t know how much of it would stray from what Joshua really wanted to say…but here’s the problem I see here…

So, Joshua is stating that it’s not always the case that attraction naturally leads to a desire for same-sex relationships…OK…

…but in the very next line, he talks about a completely different scenario: those faithful Latter-day Saints who DO have a desire for same-sex relationships, but who “overcome” them.

But do they “overcome” them? Well, “it’s not about ‘changing your attractions’…it’s about managing them.”

This section is a bit of a mess. Because what it actually sounds like Joshua is saying is something more like this:

Critics presume that attraction naturally leads to a desire for same-sex relationships, and while that is the case, there may be other factors and other desires that may cause them to act against the desires given to them by their attraction.”There are many faithful Latter-day Saints who have do not fulfill their desire for same-sex relationships. LDS Family Services estimates there are four or five members in every ward with SSA, and about half have a temple marriage and kids.”

It’s not about “changing your attractions,” Johanson said in an interview, “it’s about managing them.”

In this case, at least we can begin to discuss the fact that people can have different (and competing) desires. I would be a little more OK if people realized that — for example, the desire for a gay relationship can compete with the desire to follow the commandments as given by prophets in the church. But then, let’s be well aware of the extent that outside parties (society or institutions like the church) can have this impact and pressure on folks (and I’m sure that at some point someone will say that the connection between attraction -> desire to act on the attraction is affected by society as well.) And let’s be well aware about what this impact and pressure does — it does not change or overwrite or overcome internal desires (such as those from sexual attraction)…rather, it creates a tension between fulfilling those desires and ignoring them.

Your Mileage May Vary

The one thing I’ve noticed about these new straight-acting gays* is that they generally point out that their path may not be for everyone. I think that this is a bit of a disclaimer — even though they just happen to be in relationships with women, I think that they (and the church) understand that mixed orientation marriages aren’t something that can be categorically recommended. Even Josh and Joshua’s relationships are, in some sense, under constant “trial” — but then again, with the divorce rates being what they are for straight folks, one could say that no relationship is a set thing.

The interesting thing about these statements is that people can take them however they want to…they can be a sincere piece of advice, or they can be cold comfort. Since no one really knows what mileage they will get before they go on the journey, just presenting the mixed orientation marriage route out three, there will be people who think they can be just like the Joshes and make things work out — and in the aftermath, there will be plenty of hurting men and women. And who will comfort these men and women? Well, not the Joshes or the church. After all, the Joshes gave their disclaimer; the church was silent.

Final Addenda

There is a final point I want to make: these stories are complex. We do not have enough information to be as confident as we are about actualities — we are only presenting possibilities. For example, Josh Weed’s occupation as a marital therapist does cloud issues, but the narrative that he (and now Joshua Johanson) present about the nature of their attractions also clouds issues. From Johanson:

“I was never attracted to girls, until Alyssa came into my life. … The more time I spent with her, the more we fell in love. Then, I started wanting to kiss her, like a lot. I wanted to do more,” Johanson said. “I had never had those feelings for a woman before, and she remains the only woman to whom I am sexually attracted.”

A lot of people say that people like Josh Weed or Joshua Johanson are incorrect to call themselves as gay — if they are attracted to women at all, they must be bisexual. (And when people reference the Kinsey “spectrum” of sexuality, they are usually getting at this — their contention is that homosexuality should only refer to those who are exclusively attracted to the same sex, and since the Joshes don’t seem to fit that criteria, they should consider themselves bisexual.)

I think that there are problems with this. For example, it’s kinda like the advice that people give gay folks when they are growing up — you just haven’t met the right girl yet. OK, so the Joshes have “met the right girl.” But what does that mean? Does that mean every gay guy or lesbian woman should be “waiting for the right girl/guy”? Does that mean that every gay person should wait until they take the label “gay” vs. “bi” (and how long? until they are 30? 40? Dead?)

The second thing I wanted to end with was the “*” I posted earlier:

Straight-acting gay? This term needs to be redefined. How about we reserve it for those gay folks who are in mixed-orientation marriages…since how else can you be straight-acting than  by actually pursuing and living a relationship with someone of the opposite sex!?

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  1. nathankennard permalink

    ‘Straight-acting’ is a strange expression. Embedded within that expression seems to be an assumption that the actor qualifies as not straight (presumably gay) and that a set of behaviors can be undertaken which characterize a straight relationship. Obviously sexual behavior has been used to categorize people but many other behaviors characterize intimacy.

    A problem arises when the institution endorses “straight behavior” since by definition, a particular behavior would be eschewed by the organization when engaged in by individuals having the same gender yet accepted if the genders differ. To institutionalize invalidation of an individual points to an institutional problem. I’m happy not to be part of that club.

  2. Straight-acting gay? This term needs to be redefined. How about we reserve it for those gay folks who are in mixed-orientation marriages…since how else can you be straight-acting than by actually pursuing and living a relationship with someone of the opposite sex!?

    Agreed. But probably for different reasons.

    I know someone is going to skewer me for this and I don’t care, but I am of the opinion that being attracted to people of the same sex doesn’t relieve you of the sociocultural obligation to adhere to normal behavior for your gender.

    Being a homosexual man means you’re a man who wants to have sex with men. It doesn’t obligate you socially to act like a woman or like some kind of third gender.

  3. Nathan,

    I would point out again (at the risk of making the dangerous comparison again) that we institutionalize invalidation of individuals all the time — and don’t view it as the institution’s problem. E.g., in the pedophilia example.

    It’s just that in one instance, we might be using “gender,” whereas in another, we might be using “age, consent, exploitative potential,” etc.,


    In before skewering…

    OK, so my first question is: what does it mean to act like a man or act like a woman?

    I think that most folks would say that being attracted to the same sex (and even engaging in same sex relationships) isn’t necessarily acting like the opposite sex or like acting like a third gender…in other words, sexual orientation is different than sex/gender identity for most folks. The church’s rhetoric noticeably disagrees — hence why the church describes homosexuality as being “gender confusion.” Personally, I am not confused about my gender — being gay is about knowing what my gender is and knowing the gender of the folks I find attractive. Similarly, transgender folks aren’t necessarily “gay” (however that would play out.)

    But that brings up the main issue…we can’t really define men and women’s roles, or, for that matter, men or women.

    So again, what does it mean to act like a man or act like a woman?

  4. nathankennard permalink

    You make a good point Andrew that institutional invalidation is common. Still, I see little reason to hang-out with people who consider their institutional group membership as definitive of themselves. There are way too many cool people to hang-out with. Your example of pedophilia is apropos. I do not think I would enjoy the company of an individual who defines themselves by their membership in a group devoted to pedophila or attraction to young children.

  5. Nathan,

    I think I lost what you were trying to say in your last comment. I don’t think that the people who identify one way or another consider those identifications as “institutional.” So, whether someone identifies as “gay” or “straight” (or even ‘pedophile’), they don’t have an institutional group membership for that.

    (This is different than something like, say, the church. A Mormon may or may not have that institutional group membership be definitive of themselves.)

  6. You got your “A” and your “U” mixed up, Andrew. And it’s hurting my eyes.

  7. Chris,

    PUASE is totally different than PAUSE.

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