By nosehtaM divaD
EDITORIAL NOTE: Perspectives shared in North Star’s Community Voices feature are the responsibility of essay authors alone and do not represent the official position of North Star or the beliefs of all members in North Star leadership and community. There are a diversity of perspectives and beliefs one can hold while still maintaining fidelity to the central doctrines and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and North Star heartily welcomes that diversity of perspective.
I watched the recently released “It Gets Better” YouTube video featuring gay and lesbian BYU students with very mixed feelings. As a psychotherapist with lengthy experience working with these issues, I’m happy to see this meaningful effort to encourage, lift, love, and protect those with same-sex attraction (SSA). Many of them suffer from doubt, hopelessness, and loss of desire to live. Some become suicidal. It’s time something was done to intervene in this unfolding tragedy.
And as one who has personally experienced SSA, I could relate to the students in the video. I too know what it’s like to feel shame, confusion, and anguish because of homosexual feelings. I remember the secrecy and alienation, the pleading with God to take away the feelings, the fears about my future, and the seemingly unanswered prayers. I too tried to bargain with God but found that increased personal righteousness did nothing to lessen the intensity of my attractions.
Ultimately, the video left me disquieted because of three falsehoods that it supports and one truth that it completely avoids. The three falsehoods are that God is okay with homosexuality, that accepting yourself as a “gay Mormon” will make things better, and that homosexuality can’t be changed. The truth it avoids is that homosexuality has specific, known causes.
I know the falsehoods are wrong because my own life experience disproves them, because my 20 years of interactions with hundreds of SSA men disprove them, and because the words of past and present prophets disprove them. I know the truth about what causes homosexuality from years of hearing the causes repeated again and again with little variation.
I want to correct the errors and tell the truths the video avoids. In brief, God is not okay with homosexuality, accepting yourself as a “gay Mormon” will not make things better long-term, homosexuality is caused by childhood circumstances, and most importantly, homosexuality can be changed. I can only speak of these things as they relate to SSA men because that is where my experience lies.
Let me begin by addressing the causes of homosexuality. Most people who label themselves as gay believe that homosexuality is caused by genetic or biological factors. This belief became very popular in the 1990s when researchers tried to link homosexuality with genes, brain anatomy, and hormones. But this research was far from conclusive and efforts to replicate it seem to have failed.
My extensive experience has overwhelmingly confirmed to me that SSA is caused, not by genes or biology, but by early life experiences, which are reported in various combinations with almost monotonous regularity. With extremely rare exceptions, men have described childhood circumstances that create a pathway leading to a sense of incongruity with their own gender and ruptures in their bonds with other males.
These conditions can create tremendous internal stress and emotional turmoil for those so affected. As humans, we need to feel congruent with our own gender and we need to experience warm and satisfying friendships with others of our own sex. When this doesn’t happen, our unmet emotional needs may eventually grow into almost compulsive sexual urges.
In my own life, I struggled with both gender incongruity and lack of bonding with other males. Growing up, I felt grossly inadequate as a boy. I became detached from males due to a strained relationship with my father and bullying that began in mid-elementary school. As a result, I became extremely hungry for maleness. I was very drawn to masculine boys and their bodies. And I longed for better friendships with boys. It was these urges to connect with my own maleness and with other boys that became sexualized for me. And this is consistent with what many others have described.
The overwhelming evidence of these stories leaves no room in my mind for the flimsy and unproven biological explanations of homosexuality. It is important to note that even the highly political and gay-affirmative American Psychological Association (APA) has adopted a more reasonable tone on this by at least admitting that they don’t know what causes homosexuality.
Though false, the widely believed idea that people are born homosexual provides a foundation for another idea supported by the video: that God is okay with homosexuality. The chain of logic goes like this: God made me; I was made gay; therefore, God made me to be gay. And since He loves me, and made me gay, God must be okay with homosexuality.
The fallacies in this logic are tightly woven in among some eternal truths. For example, it is true that God made us. But it is not true that He made anyone gay. The essential nature of gender and heterosexuality in the Gospel plan leaves no room for this thought. Also, it is true that God loves all his children, regardless of our inclinations and regardless of how we act on those inclinations. But it is not true that God is okay with homosexuality. God counts as evil everything that prevents us from reaching exaltation, which requires eternal heterosexual marriage. Even if it is not acted on, being gay diverts one from the path of eternal progression.
The idea that accepting yourself as a “gay Mormon” will make things better is repeated throughout the video. But the problem of reconciling gay sexuality with gospel living is scarcely mentioned. The only way these may be reconciled, without ignoring key doctrines and laws, is for the individual to remain entirely celibate throughout life and then to hope for a cure to their dilemma in the next life.
From what I’ve experienced in my own life, and seen in the lives of so many others, I believe it is nearly impossible for gay men to remain celibate long-term. Consider that those who are dealing with homosexuality have a double sexual challenge. First, they experience the normal bodily sexual desires that are universal to all. In addition, they experience the sexualized compulsions to obtain masculinity and to bond with other men. The challenge of normal desires makes being a celibate gay Mormon difficult. When compounded by the challenge of sexualized compulsions, it becomes virtually impossible.
There is a third challenge to maintaining celibacy: permission. With all the feelings and desires pushing men with SSA toward homosexual behavior, it often takes just a small amount of permission to send them over the edge into acting out. Adopting a gay identity, which typically includes the beliefs that homosexuality is innate and unchangeable and that God is okay with homosexuality, can provide that permission. Let me illustrate this with a true story.
A few days after the “It Gets Better” video was released, which coincided with a gay forum sponsored by a BYU sociology class, a friend forwarded to me a post that a BYU student had sent to an SSA-related listserve. In this post, the student described a chain of events that began with the forum and led to him having sex for the first time with another young man on campus, all within 48 hours.
In his post, the student mentioned attending the forum and later being influenced by a friend who had just come out as gay. The friend said he believes that “God still loves him regardless of how he acts on [his homosexuality].” The student commented that he’s “heard that same view from many others.” The post continued: “when he said that, it just finally clicked in my head how freeing that sounds.” Can you hear the permission? Next, the student described using electronic media to find another young man living nearby with whom he “ended up going ‘all the way.’”
The rapidness of this young man’s descent, once permission was given, makes the story dramatic. Other men might have had more resolve and may have lasted longer. But imagine trying to withstand the pressure of unmet sexual desires and emotional needs throughout your life while also espousing gay ideology, which provides ample permission to give in to your urges. My observation has been that adopting a gay identity is one of the steps toward leaving the church. Thus I believe that the term “gay Mormon” doesn’t actually refer to a sustainable lifestyle. Rather, I believe it refers to a transition period—to gay from Mormon.
Perhaps the most disturbing idea suggested by the video is that homosexuality is unchangeable. I wish to leave no uncertainty on this topic. Thirty years ago I was primarily attracted to males. Though I did date girls and eventually married, my attractions toward women were weak and more intellectual than physical. In order to succeed sexually with my wife, I sometimes relied on homosexual fantasies. That has changed radically. Today I am sexually attracted to women and intimacy with my wife is extremely fulfilling. I have no need or interest in homosexual fantasies. My attractions toward other males have decreased to the level of admiration and normal desires for friendship.
My experience is common among the men with whom I have worked who committed to making lasting changes by applying the Atonement with perseverance and the help of therapy. Many who were already married have stabilized their marriages, overcome their desires for homosexual behaviors, and shifted their attractions from predominantly homosexual to mostly heterosexual. Many who were single have likewise changed their behaviors and attractions and have been able to enter into fulfilling heterosexual marriages.
The video assures us that “it gets better,” though I must say that the claim never sounds very certain or compelling. How does it get better? What makes it better? And what does “better” mean? We are left to wonder. Did it get better for the student who attended the forum then “went all the way”? We know God still loves him. But we can only imagine the consequences this young gay Mormon is about to face. The video doesn’t address that stage nor does it tell us how it gets better.
I can tell you with certainty that it did get better for me. And I can tell you how. To begin with, I never defined myself as gay. I loved and accepted myself as I was but refused to stay that way. I worked hard, both in and out of therapy, at resolving the issues underlying my attractions. I surrendered all inappropriate behaviors. And I developed my potential as a man. Granted, it was not as simple or as easy as this sounds, but it did work. Contrary to what the video teaches, you can “fix” it. You just have to know how.
The video was intended to avert potential tragedies of depression, shame, or even suicide among our young people. But I fear that what the video’s producer intended for good might also cause great harm both within the BYU community and in the greater Church. Because the video espouses gay ideology—which separates men from the blessings of the Gospel—it simply trades one tragedy for another. Though I am glad for the new openness about this issue, I am even more grateful that there were no “It Gets Better” videos or gay forums when I was a young, impressionable student. Confused by the permission they offer, I too might have adopted a gay identity. And today, rather than enjoying a good marriage and three amazing children I would in all likelihood be a gay ex-Mormon. For me, that would have been a tragedy.
So how can BYU and the general Church community avert both tragedies and really make it get better?
First, we must refuse to compromise the principles and laws of the Gospel. Gay will never be good in God’s eyes because it has no eternal future. He doesn’t wink at homosexual sin, despite how much He may love the sinner. That isn’t going to change with time or social progress. So we must think before we advocate and temper our support for those who are homosexual with wisdom informed by the gospel.
Second, we must accept that the Atonement applies to all conditions—even homosexuality. God invites all men to come unto Him and He gives us no challenge we cannot overcome. So we must believe that homosexuality can be overcome based on principle, regardless of what the psychological community and the media tell us.
Third, we must actively try to accomplish the good that the video intends by making our community safe for individuals struggling with homosexuality and all other types of challenges. All people need to feel safe to talk about their imperfections without fear of being mocked, rejected, or treated with undue harshness. We need to extend ample love, compassion, and support.
And finally, we must provide authentic hope and real help, which is the intent of what I have written here. For over 20 years in my personal life and 15 years as a therapist, I have witnessed that it does get better through the power of Christ’s encompassing atoning love.
David Matheson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Salt Lake City. His clinical focus is on helping men who want to diminish unwanted homosexuality and feel whole as men. He is a co-creator with Rich Wyler of the Journey Into Manhood experiential-learning weekend retreat; he currently conducts with his wife, Peggy, a “Gender Wholeness” / “The Dance of Marriage” conference series; and his forthcoming book, Becoming A Whole Man, is due for release in the fall of 2012.
Watch the video referenced in this essay: