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Ty Mansfield on Deconstructing Homosexuality (while preserving heterosexuality)

August 8, 2014

Ty MansfieldI have to be completely fair (pun not intended). I did not attend the 2014 FairMormon Conference. But I do not have complete notes of Ty Mansfield’s talk have seen the notes of Ty Mansfield’s article posted at FAIR’s website. All I have are summaries from news articles, like this article from DeseretNews titled “Terms important to same-sex discusion in LDS Church, Ty Mansfield says at FairMormon Conference“, and summaries from people who attended, like Rachel Whipple’s Thursday afternoon session coverage on Times and Seasons. And I am aware that news articles and summaries can’t capture the complete comments of a talk…that’s why they are summaries. So instead, they will highlight the juiciest points…the ones most likely to rustle someone’s jimmies.

Well, my jimmies are rustled.

I don’t know if this is the exact title, but from Rachel’s post, Ty Mansfield (famously known for living with same-sex attraction and being married to his wife, whom he loves [but totally not in a bisexual or even remotely heterosexual way, of course. {and certainly, in this narrative, demisexuality doesn’t exist.}]) spoke at the FairMormon conference on the subject: “Mormons can BE gay, they just can’t do gay”?: Deconstructing Sexuality and Identity from an LDS Perspective.

But as far as I can tell…Mansfield isn’t deconstructing sexuality…he’s just deconstructing homosexuality while leaving heterosexuality intact. (Update: since I first wrote this post, I found a link to Ty’s full comments, and while I like the additional nuances within, it absolutely does seem that he is leaving heterosexuality intact.)

For whatever it’s worth, I’m actually somewhat amenable to social constructionism and the concept of deconstruction. I am not one of the people who think that this is automatically gobbledegook that can’t see what is clearly in front of us…in contrast, I am very curious at the way that what is “clearly” in front of us, what we think to be obvious, has often not been the case, and may not be the case in the future.

But it seems to me that deconstruction is a very volatile tool. It burns all the way down. If someone is going to criticize deconstruction, I am more amenable to a deconstruction that claims that when it’s done, all you have left is nihilism.

So, the jimmy rustling occurs when people want to use deconstruction, but don’t want to use it all the way. I’m too lazy to link, but I have read and heard similar critiques of Mormons (or other religious folks) using a deconstructionist or even a postmodernist critique of, say, science, to prop up the possibility or plausibility of Mormon concepts — it just doesn’t work that way!

I don’t want to go and retype in Rachel’s notes or the DesNews article, so go to the first two posts of the link and read them (in Rachel’s T&S article, it’s the second to last of the talks described).

But the basic concept (all specific phrasings stolen from Rachel’s summary): is that being Gay is a social construct. This isn’t to say that feelings of same-sex attraction are not real, but that the identity of being gay is a construct. This identity is not a scientific idea, but a cultural or philosophical one. But more importantly, instead of this constructed identity getting at a person’s essence, it strips it away. The Gay construct relates to many agendas.

As Rachel summaries, sexuality goes into four tiers — attraction and desire, orientation, behavior, and identity. And Ty goes through each to deconstruct them. For example, for sexual orientation, Ty points to research from Lisa Diamond on female sexual fluidity and says that “homosexuality” as a category may be false because instead, we need to talk about homosexualities. He notes that the idea that gender preference is the primary component of our sexual orientation is a current social construct, but there are many factors required to make someone erotically desirable — after all, we are only generally attracted to a few people of the sex to which we are attracted. (And I’ve already mentioned his critique of the identity aspect in the earlier paragraph.)

…so, what’s the problem?

As I mentioned before, deconstruction goes all the way down. I’d be more OK if Ty’s discussion weren’t so focused on the social situatedness of homosexuality without saying anything at all about heterosexuality.

Because here’s the deal — heterosexuality is also a construct.

And even more importantly, the reason sexualities are constructs is because they are built on a substrate of gender and sex — which are also constructs.

I think Mansfield is correct to point out that we typically aren’t attracted to everyone of the sex we desire. To be same-sex attracted (if we will deign to use this term) doesn’t mean to be attracted to all folks of the same sex. To be opposite-sex attracted isn’t to be attracted to all folks of that opposite sex.

But here’s the thing…what we take to be sex is steeped in cultural and social expectations. Believe it or not, if I’m a man who’s attracted to a woman, that doesn’t somehow mean that my XY chromosomes can sniff out XX chromosomes. It doesn’t mean that my penis is magnetically attracted to vulvae.

To use an unfortunate and transphobic expression, such a person who thinks that’s how it works can be “fooled”. But more importantly, even if we don’t bring in that, the very idea is that there are other factors that contribute to attraction…such that the “ideal” type for me takes into account aspects of personality, maybe some facial features (or other bodily features) I like, and so on.

Why is this problematic?

Glorious PC Gaming Master Race

Why does the glorious PC Gaming Master Race have blond (white?), straight, flowing hair?

I am wary of statements like, “I’m just not into black girls” or “I’m just not into Asian guys” or even “I only want an Asian waifu” or “I want that (oh, man, don’t google for that one at work) BBC” . Here, we seek to essentialize and biologize what we increasingly see as non-essential features into attraction as well. (This is most often inadvertent and unconscious, but some people will consciously go full out in this direction by seeking to explain that features associated with “white” people just happen to be objectively more appealing. The lesson they take away from the white-doll/black-doll experiment is not one of social injustice and internalized racism, but just one pointing out the facts of life.)

But it seems to me that if we call this into question, it seems difficult to say where to stop calling it into question.

And it’s difficult even for me, since in my case, I find that the presence of facial hair on a guy in 7/10 scenarios will bump my evaluation of his attractiveness by some unhealthy factor, but the absence of said hair will return even the same dudes into normal blokes. (And you know, while I feel bad for folks trapped in our modern 21st century beauty regime that typically prioritizes a youthful beauty that life will wear out of us over time, I feel fortunate that for me, dudes tend to just keep looking better with age!)

I digress. (*wipes beads of sweat off forehead*).

If I have to wrap this up, I think the main issue I take with Ty (and others who make similar arguments, whether about sexuality or elsewhere) is this…it seems that he wants to use social constructionism and deconstructionism when it suits him (to show why being gay or adopting a gay identity or whatever is not all it’s cracked up to be)…but then he doesn’t want to apply the same tools elsewhere (to the church’s own identity claims and assumptions on gender, sex or identity.)

I’d feel a whole lot better (even if I wouldn’t necessarily agree) if Ty said something like this:

“Sexual identities are socially constructed, and are tied with competing and sometimes incompatible social narratives and paradigms. Because I choose to participate in the LDS/Mormon social paradigm, I choose not to let the bare facts of my attractions drive my sexual identity, but I recognize that my Mormon paradigm is yet another social paradigm.”

I would think this is a sufficiently humble statement. We could debate the merits of different constructs (namely, I don’t think the LDS construct fits a lot of people’s facts-on-the-ground situations), or maybe talk about what things could be borrowed or adapted between the frameworks (while I don’t think the LDS church is ever really going to be on board with a radical queer theoretical framework [which also bugs me when LDS folks try to use elements of queer theoretical thinking], I think that one could certainly develop a well-intentioned white picket fence homonormativity in the Law of Chastity.)

But I can’t really grasp that from Ty’s message can only partially see that in his final paragraph of his talk. Instead In addition, I suspect that he’s got something like this:

“Non-heteronormative sexual identities are socially constructed, and are tied with an incompatible social narrative to the true, real, actual paradigm that is revealed by the Gospel.”

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13 Comments
  1. I had an interesting conversation with a ward member recently, because he was upset to find out that I was a member of a club on campus that is for non-heteronormative students and allies. He felt that by being a member of the group that I was encouraging people to “choose a gay lifestyle,” and that being an ally was incompatible with the gospel and church membership. (He also happens to be upset that after forced reparative “therapy” his son chose to leave the church instead of going to BYU or on a mission. The member assured me that the conversation had nothing to do with his son’s choices or that his son is one of the club officers, and since he said so 3 times, it must be true, right?) He warned me that once you start spending time with people who don’t follow church standards, that “your worldview will never be as faithful or pure, ever again.”

    He did not seem to know what to do when I told him that I think incest at age 4 probably did more harm than bringing cookies to the drag show or participating in peer suicide prevention training. I invited him to join me at the How to be an Ally, Even if You Don’t Understand. He declined, and missed out on one of the best workshops I have been to. It was a parody, that was handled brilliantly, by talking about gay and trans people can be allies with straight cis people, even when they don’t understand how and why they create accidental chikdren/families. I really wish that we could have a talk like that for a CES fireside. 🙂

  2. I guess I forgot to say that I really like this way of looking at deconstruction:

    “Sexual identities are socially constructed, and are tied with competing and sometimes incompatible social narratives and paradigms. Because I choose to participate in the LDS/Mormon social paradigm, I choose not to let the bare facts of my attractions drive my sexual identity, but I recognize that my Mormon paradigm is yet another social paradigm.”

  3. juliathepoet,

    .He warned me that once you start spending time with people who don’t follow church standards, that “your worldview will never be as faithful or pure, ever again.

    The interesting thing is that if you filter the actual data through that mindset/paradigm, that is pretty much true.

    Like, the data and research suggest that as soon as you get to know someone who is in a marginalized position, then you start building empathy for them, however minor or slowly. So, from the position of someone who believes their worldview and faith precludes such empathy (or thinks that such empathy can sometimes cause people to allow sin or whatever), then it would look like if you start spending time who don’t follow church standards, then *your* worldview will not be as faithful.

    I don’t really think you can get around this. You can hope to try to change their view of what is faithful, maybe.

    I definitely, definitely, am going to have to sidestep the incest mention (while consciously commenting about it to raise attention to that.) This is a tragic event to happen in someone’s lives, but I don’t want people to even accidentally or inadvertently associate childhood abuse or trauma with non-heteronormativity.

    • Mentioning my personal history was not intended to equate it with being non-heteronormative. I am heterosexual, and my experiences in childhood didn’t change my orientation.

      My experience being in support groups with other survivors has convinced my that incest and other sexual abuse does not change sexual orientation. Most victims are clear on their sexuality before they are abused, and I do not know a single victim who feels their abuse changed their orientation.

      • I totally misread/read a lot of things into the comment that I shouldn’t have. I thought this was a discussion of the ward member’s son.

        I did not know that part of your history.

        • Trigger Warning: support groups for survivirs of incest, rape and sexual assault (resource link at the end)

          I’m sorry that I wasn’t particularly clear to start with. I do think that it is important to occasionally share my experience, (being in hundreds of support groups for incest, rape and sexual survivor support groups) and being able to say that the false connection people make between abuse and sexual orientation, is simply FALSE!

          I’m not saying that no survivors have trauma issues that makes it difficult to engage in a variety of specific sexual practices and discussion about their sexuality. PTSD is real, and all survivors need love, support, and understanding, no matter what other circumstances of life or self identity are also part of them. (Link at end of comment)

          There is a difference between being afraid to have sex with a person or group of people, (who are similar to the person’s abuser) and not ever being attracted sexually, emotionally, and physically to another person, who you would have not been attracted to before. That so many people go a whole step farther, and claim that abuse has made it so that you’re previous attractions are now gone entirely, as if they were parts could easily be switched out.

          Even the survivors who I know that identify as bisexual, (I can think of 9 people, with both cis and trans-gender bisexuals, that I know well enough to make the sentence declarative) who have all been clear that the men and women they are currently attracted to share the same general characteristics, sexually, emotionally, and physically as their prior attractions.

          I am not saying that desire is static or singular, but like your biological *zing* for facial hair and your appreciation for older men, or my personal tendency to date men who are 6 feet or taller and valuing stimulating conversation that includes a laughter, we both are only looking at men, when we consider who we consider looking for those things in. Personal preferences are part of what makes us individuals, but sexual attractions all have a base, layered over the biological reactions to members of the sex we are attracted to.

          I hope this hasn’t confused things more, but I think it is really important that survivors speak out and share our lived experiences, especially when our experiences are being assumed. I have had way more people tell me how incest and rape has impacted me, compared to those who have actually asked me how it has impacted my life. Sexual abuse is a terrible thing, but it does not change whether someone is heterosexual or homosexual.

          (It does cause pain, shame depression, and feelings of loneliness for many victims. If you or someone you know needs help, there are lots of resources available. I suggest checking out the website for RAINN, which stands for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, https://www.rainn.org where you can find local resources as well as literature that is vetted through psychologists, psychiatrists and survivor groups. You are welcome to contact me if you want help finding resources, or want/need someone to talk to.)

    • I agree that we tend to become empathetic with people we know, and that some people prefer ignorance. I just don’t accept that ignorance and fear help us to become better people, or better members of our communities.

      I had a hard time not asking the man I was talking with, whether he believed Christ. I have a harder and harder time with people demanding that I live an inauthentic life. If they are hell bent on that as a goal, (yep, pun intended) I won’t stop them or waste my time arguing. I have chosen to be someone who will reach out when someone is just trying to find some hope, and I just don’t want to argue with those who tell me that I should be judging who is worthy of help, because most of tge world is unworthy.

      I want people to know that they can come to me, no matter what the struggle. That does mean that I have seen and heard more than most Mormons my age, and I have no intention of turning my back on the people who need me. I need them just as much as they need me. If someone wants to call me unfaithful, that’s okay, I can live without their approval. Most of the people who are grabbing me, as I grab them, do need my friendship, and I don’t want to have to live without them on the earth.

  4. TGD permalink

    Excellent article! I couldn’t have said it more eloquent. I don’t have anything to add, I just wanted to say how much I appreciated your take on all of this.

    • Thanks TGD.

  5. Ty Mansfield permalink

    Thanks, Irresistible, I appreciate the thoughtful critique. I actually do have a lot of thoughts on the social construction of heterosexuality, but time was limited and I focused my remarks on same-sex sexuality. While I suppose one could say I leave “heterosexuality intact” by virtue of the assumed shared narrative of the intended audience, I did try to qualify at the end:

    “At the end of the day, Latter-day Saints have a unique worldview that provides the lens through which we view and interpret our experiences. Take that framing narrative away, however, and reasonable and sincere people may come to different conclusions about how sexual and gender variation might best be understood and responded to.”

    Not exactly what you’d suggested, but reasonable?

    I would also add that while I see social constructionist thought or deconstruction as a tool to be useful, how far you go depends ultimately on one’s ultimate worldview/paradigm. I tend to be more post positivist in my thinking/worldview and believe there are certain bounds to how far social constructionism and deconstructionism can take us. Even Foucault is purported to have referred to extreme deconstructionists as terrorists (whatever he meant by that).

    All that said, I appreciated your remarks and thought them fair and insightful, rustled jimmies notwithstanding. 😉

  6. Ty,

    Thanks for commenting. I did like your concluding paragraph when I saw it, but of course, I still had/have quibbles. I guess most of the quibbles aren’t worth addressing, since they are probably just the difference between “someone who has faith” and “someone who does not have faith.”

    …but I guess I would still be more interested in the transition between the two. In other words, it’s not enough to say that LDS folks have a worldview that provides such a lens and that if you take the narrative away, then people can come to different conclusions. Rather, there are also LDS folks who — for a number of reasons — are not sustained through the status quo framing narrative of the church. For whom the suffering, the endurance, the consecration of their sexuality (in the status quo way the church would like) does not build their character, purify their heart, expand their soul, etc.,

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