The Sad, Conflicted Lives of America's Gay Mormons

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

A man who made major news by publishing a survey of hundreds of gay members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now faces excommunication for his advocacy of same-sex marriage.

John Dehlin, a doctoral student of clinical and counseling psychology at Utah State University and LGBT activist, working with Bill Bradshaw, a retired professor of molecular biology at Brigham Young University, published a historic 1,612-person survey of LGBT/same-sex attracted members of the Mormon church, producing statistics that further bolster the argument that, however complicated human sexuality may be, "praying away the gay" does more harm than good — and bringing a spouse along for the ride can be even more damaging. The survey was the largest of its kind, soliciting responses through the Internet from Mormons in 48 states and 22 countries.

The results? Married gay Mormons are three times as likely to get divorced.

The study, combined with Dehlin's outspoken advocacy, has led to the commencement of excommunication proceedings against him on charges of apostasy for supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women.

Dehlin told the New York Times that his regional church leader had scheduled a disciplinary hearing later this month. "I would prefer for them to leave me alone," he said in an interview with the Times, "but if given the choice between denying my conscience and facing excommunication, I'd much rather be excommunicated."

The numbers behind his study tell a depressing story for gay Mormons. Between 51% and 69% of so-called "mixed-orientation marriages" between Mormons end in divorce; in comparison, roughly 26% of all Mormon marriages end in divorce. More than 70% of LGBT or "same-sex attracted" — the term used by those who acknowledge they are sexually and/or romantically attracted to members of the same sex but don't identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual — Mormons end up leaving the church, either on their own volition or through excommunication.

A staggering 80% of respondents said they had undergone attempts to "change" their sexual orientation — 85% of those attempts were through a combination of religious and personal efforts, 31% were private efforts exclusively, 40% were through so-called "reparative therapists" and 21% were through group efforts. 

The tactics used in reparative therapy — dismissed as dangerous quackery by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association, among many other medical and mental health organizations — can range from masturbatory reconditioning and creative visualization to aversive treatments that pair electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs with the presentation of homoerotic stimuli.

According to an American Psychological Association study, although some participants in the therapy report experiencing a lessening of same-sex attraction, these instances are "rare" and "uncommon," and concluded that "given the limited amount of methodically sound research, claims that [reparative therapy] is effective are not supported." Treatment in action is hard to watch:

Source: YouTube

These mixed-orientation marriages are driven by a struggle between faith and sexuality. The attempts to rewire human sexual desire are closely tied to the Mormon subjects' desire to get married within the church, one of the nine "saving ordinances," or rituals required for exaltation after death. According to a national religious survey conducted by Trinity College in 2008, 86% of Mormons are either married or have been married, the highest rate for any religious group in the United States.

This comports well with the experience of Jared Fronk, an economics Ph.D. in Washington D.C. and former member of the church.

"Not getting married is not an option. Unwed members are looked down upon with pity by all and contempt by more than a few," Fronk told Mic. "Since heterosexual marriage is the purpose of life, it is assumed that anyone who does not get married (barring any obvious impediment) must therefore be secretly sinful or otherwise unworthy of the Lord's blessings. It surpasses my skill with words to describe the sheer weight of cultural norms and religious dogma that drives gay men and women into heterosexual Mormon marriages."

Although Gordon B. Hinckley, the 15th president of the church, declared in 1987 that "marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices," he did subtly endorse reparative therapy by announcing that marriage would be attainable once an LDS member overcame same-sex attraction "with a firm and fixed determination never to slip to such practices again."

"Not getting married is not an option. Unwed members are looked down upon with pity by all and contempt by more than a few."

That "firm and fixed determination" has led to mixed relationship results for LGBT Mormons: 42% of respondents in the historic survey are single, and 16% say they are one-half of a heterosexual marriage; just more than twice that percentage are in committed same-sex relationships. Peer-reviewed studies of mixed-orientation marriages have shown that many such relationships are rooted in religious approval of the "traditional" nuclear family — but these arrangements seldom work out. According to one German study, most of these marriages collapse due to infidelity as wife and lover compete for exclusivity: "The 'love triangle' can rarely be closed."

"There is talk of lifelong celibacy as an option for gay men and women," Fronk says, "but I have never heard of a success story. Every case of which I have heard has ended with either a mixed-orientation marriage or the man or woman 'falling away' from the LDS church, which in Mormondom is a fate far, far worse than death. I think most Mormon parents would rather their child die in righteousness — and thus be assured a place in heaven — than live in sin."

The survey backs up Fronk's assertions. The cognitive dissonance for those Mormons who came to discover their feelings of same-sex attraction were intractable pushed more than half to reject their faith entirely: 53% of the survey's respondents rejected their LDS identity, compared with only 6% who rejected their LGBT identity. 

Although there are a few organizations that aim to bridge the divide between LGBT and Mormon identity, only 4% of the people surveyed say they have "integrated" the two, like Jimmy Hales, star of a viral coming-out video wherein he declares that being a gay Mormon means he's "going to lead a celibate life. Sucks." But there's no way around it. After all, "the doctrine of the Mormon church isn't going to change."

Source: YouTube

The lives behind the numbers are even more complicated. While most Americans know the Mormon church hasn't exactly been a champion of gay rights, its history with homosexuality in principle and gay church members in practice is more complicated. 

In a briefing on homosexuality, the LDS church states that "the church firmly believes that all people are equally beloved children of God and deserve to be treated with love and respect," quoting apostle Elder Quentin L. Cook in stating that "as a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender." The church has tepidly supported statutes protecting LGBT Americans from workplace and housing discrimination. Mormon.org features a biography of a gay Mormon as part of its "I'm a Mormon" campaign, and the church has even created a website to address its relationship with the LGBT community.

But as LGBT people around the world have learned from Pope Francis, kind words haven't always translated into kind actions. Hinckley himself stated in Ensign, the church magazine, that "we cannot stand idle if they indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation. To permit such would be to make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage."

The church has also flexed its muscle on LGBT-rights issues in the public sphere. Involvement by the church and proxy organizations in the Proposition 8 battle in California is widely seen as key to the initiative's passage, with as much as half of the $40 million raised on behalf of the measure contributed by Mormons. The church has also historically maintained uncomfortably close ties with organizations that practice reparative therapy, including experiments at Brigham Young in the 1970s that delivered powerful electric shocks to the genitals of men experiencing arousal while watching gay pornography.

According to Fronk, the thin line between homosexual attraction and homosexual actions is blurrier than some church officials make it out to be. "In official discourse, same-gender attraction is often likened to a short temper or a problem with drugs: a weakness to be overcome but not a sin in itself. Acting on those impulses is what incurs God's wrath. 

"All that said, my experience growing up as an active member of the LDS church was that there was no fine distinction made between the two. Being gay was a sin. Full stop. In the pantheon of mortal sins, only murder out-eviled homosexuality."

The feeling of failure was as devastating as the feeling of same-sex attraction itself. "I grew up thinking gays were the worst of sinners," Fronk said. "Murderers you could kind of respect, but gays were just disgusting. I fought against acknowledging my own homosexuality for years, cycling through periods of intense depression and zealotry, convinced each time that through sheer force of prayer I could become straight and devastated anew at each failure."

"In the pantheon of mortal sins, only murder out-eviled homosexuality."

When same-sex attraction isn't being described as a moral flaw, Fronk says, church members refer to it as a "disease," a status homosexuality held in official doctrine until 1992. Blessings of healing are one of the principle sacraments of the Mormon faith, leading to the widely held belief that sufficient faith, prayer and fasting can cure anyone of the gay "disease." Anyone failed to be cured is judged to have been insufficiently righteous.

"I served my full-time mission for the church entirely confident that for my unwavering devotion to God, He would surely heal me of my affliction," Fronk said. "After honorably completing my service, I returned home to promptly fall in (unrequited) love with one of my best male friends, which only made me think that I had somehow failed to purge some blight of wickedness from my own soul, if God were willing to allow my curse of same-gender attraction to continue."

Mixed-orientation marriages are just as difficult for straight spouses. According to a University of Chicago study, between 2% and 4% of ever-married American women have either knowingly or unknowingly married a gay man. According to the Straight Spouse Network, an online forum for the heterosexual spouses of LGBT men and women, "the process straight spouses go through is often described as being similar to the grieving process after the death of a loved one ... however, in the case of a straight spouse, frequently the LGBT spouse is still around and involved in your life to some degree, and thus there is no clear point at which grieving ends." 

Prominent sexologist and social worker Joe Kort has controversially stated that "straight individuals rarely marry gay people accidentally," a common narrative that leaves many heterosexual wives of gay men blaming themselves, often too embarrassed to seek support from family or friends. A Journal of Homosexuality report suggests that the side affects of the revelation that your spouse is gay — social isolation, stigma and a dearth of support — can be even more damaging than the end of a marriage.

These are real people and real marriages. The comic trope of the flamboyant husband and the clueless wife has been bandied about in popular culture forever, from Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation to TLC's execrable My Husband's Not Gay, a "special event" from the clogged toilet of American culture that brought you America's Worst Tattoos and I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant.

Source: YouTube

My Husband's Not Gay, the latest in TLC's long line of exploitative, voyeuristic freakshows masquerading as documentaries, follows four men who experience same-sex attraction but don't want to live a "gay lifestyle." It's been slammed as "downright irresponsible" by Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, and more than 130,000 people have signed an online petition claiming that the show promotes "reparative therapy" and calling for its cancellation.

The decisions made by the men in My Husband's Not Gay and by the 1,612 people in the Dehlin-Bradshaw survey are, largely, their choices to make, although many of those subjected to reparative therapy are children, treated through coercion or downright force. Rather than laughing at their own delusion and their spouses' misfortune, we should be making the world a safer place for LGBT people to live full lives with authenticity and honesty.

For Fronk, the journey to self-acceptance took years — and the concerted efforts of people who loved him for who he was. "In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. One day I finally had the courage to begin praying to understand God's will rather than ask him to change me. I then had my own spiritual experiences that convinced me that God had been trying to guide me all along: I had simply been asking the wrong questions. 

"There was nothing wrong with me to fix. God loved me. And he wanted me to be truly happy, which for me meant accepting who I am."

h/t Salt Lake Tribune

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Scott Bixby

Scott is a senior correspondent at Mic, covering the Republican presidential campaign and LGBT issues. He is based in New York and can be reached at scott@mic.com.

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