SUNNY: Response to Philip Barlow

SUNNY SMART  is a queer Mormon woman navigating life with a supportive husband and four tremendous kids. She loves solitude, the desert, mountains, and solo road trips. She especially enjoys public speaking and wishes she could be Brene Brown when she grows up. 

I want to focus first on what has been a theme so far not only at this symposium but in the larger discussions around this and other issues. We are prone to focus on precedent as a means of supporting or obliterating an idea. Last night Dr. Petrey spoke of precedent being one way in which we can be invited to reconsider our mythology or beliefs. I don’t disagree, but any of us who have spent time discussing these questions know that, like scripture, precedent can be found or at least twisted to support any view. For this reason the discussion around whether the church will change it’s views on LGBTQ people and our possibilities seems moot. We center it so often around history and precedent because in one sense that is all we have to prove our world view to ourselves and others. But just because something has been done doesn’t make it right, just as the absence of something doesn’t make it wrong. It is as if we are asking the past for permission instead of asking ourselves what is right. 

I’d like to think history can be used not so much as an excuse for what can or cannot be done but instead as a reminder that each generation has blind spots- those missing pieces of experience and information that keep us from imagining new and better possibilities. Dr. Barlow’s third caution to us involved being aware of how reality maps are formed, or, in other words, seeing through the lens of our own experience. Each of us sees as through a glass darkly. It is a universal human condition. We only know what we know, and sometimes not even that.  The same is true for those who lead our church. 

As Dr Barlow quoted, Elder McConkie acknowledged that like the rest of us, prophets and apostles get their truth and light line upon line, precept upon precept. They only know what they know until they know more. To put it another way, were previous prophets and apostles any less certain of the divine mandates they preached than current leaders today? As the saying goes, when we know better we do better, or so we like to hope. I’d add that when we know better we see better- we see solutions and opportunities we could not have considered previously.

So how can we know better? 

For me, the answer lies in vulnerability. None of us like drawing attention to what we don’t know. Being sure of things helps us feel safe, protected from even the idea of the unknown. But in order to know better we have to be able to admit we are lacking, even that the things we think we do know might not be accurate. We must stay curious. 

Dr. Barlow spoke of listening to LGBTQ people and their experiences. The importance of listening cannot be overstated. But the quality of our listening matters. We must learn to listen to one another in a way that leaves us vulnerable to our minds and hearts being changed. 

We’ve heard lots of definitions of love already. I will draw on only one example and hope you’ll join me in my world view (and scriptural proof texting) for just a little while. 

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 28:37-40)

Love the neighbor as thyself. Most of us recognize this as the golden rule, do unto others as you would have done unto you. The golden rule makes use of our inherent self-centeredness to hopefully elicit empathy. It’s a good way of life, but Jesus gave another commandment. In one of his final teachings to his disciples He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)

This idea to love as Jesus loved has been termed by some the platinum rule. Or to put it another way, do unto others as they would have done unto them. In his earthly ministry Jesus understood and responded to individual hearts and needs. Instead of assuming I have the information necessary see and treat others as I should, the higher law seems to call me to become deeply acquainted with another’s grief, to know and do what love requires. It may seem simplistic, but I believe this is always the answer to what is right. 

For you and I discerning another’s heart, to love them as Jesus does, takes hard work.  We must be humble, vulnerable, and avoid presuming we know what is best based on our personal experience or reality map. We must stay open to new possibilities, new ways of seeing. And when we love as Jesus loves I believe we begin to participate in the work of healing as Jesus did. No less is required of those who are tasked with leadership. 

I’m going to borrow from the writings of my friend Dr. Brad Kramer and I hope he’ll  forgive me as I intermix his thoughts with mine. Dr. Kramer posits that while we focus much on the works of Jesus in curing diseases we often overlook what may be a more important aspect of Jesus‘s ministry, that of healing social stigmas and divides. (To Heal the Afflicted, published at By Common Consent)

Take for example the story of the healing of the leper on the road to Capernaum. In this time leprosy was not just as we know it today, but a catch all term for a myriad of diseases and social stigmas. Those deemed lepers were excluded from their communities and religious rituals. Lepers were required to keep a distance from the clean and unafflicted so as not to contaminate them. To touch a leper or their belongings would also exclude that person from participating in religious rituals as well. 

Consider then, the risk this man took when, ignoring social convention, he approached Jesus and fell to his knees in front of him, breaking the proscribed boundary of distance. His faith, and I imagine his desire to have a place in his community once more, drove him forward. He spoke to Jesus saying, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” The account continues, And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.” (Mark 1:40-41)

What were the people around them were thinking? I imagine there were many different feelings about that act. It was no less than radical. But more importantly, can we imagine what it felt like for that man to have someone reach forward with compassion and touch him, the untouchable, and see his humanity? The man was cured of his leprosy, but Jesus also charged him to go show himself to the priests and offer sacrifice- to participate in the rituals that bound him to his community and from which he had been excluded. (Mark 1:41) Through his willingness to see and reach beyond social stigma and the invitation to participate in religious rites Jesus was healing a social divide. The scriptures are replete with examples of Jesus defying what had always been done in favor of what should be done. That is radical, healing love.

As LGBTQ persons in the LDS church many of us feel we exist on the margins of a community we have loved and have called our home often since birth. I want to be careful not to convey the idea that being gay or transgender is a malady to be cured, but rather, like so many things seen as leprosy long ago, a lack of knowledge and truth has lead to social ostracization through fear, cruelty, ignorance, and many times outright banishment from families, homes, and communities. 

Acknowledging the harmful, misguided, and untrue things we have believed and been taught in the past is critical to understanding how LGBTQ persons have been pushed to the margins of our communities, regarded as untouchable and unclean. Even as change is slowly made the path for an LGBTQ person in the church is still an isolating one as there is simply no place for us in the  current theology. 

So what does knowing doing and seeing better look like in an LDS LGBTQ context? It looks like love. It looks like loving the way Jesus loves which means looking beyond precedent, prejudice, politics, popular opinion, and especially religious dogma to see the humanity in another, to see their worth and to facilitate their full participation in a religious community that bears his name. 

Will the LDS church welcome LGBTQ people as full citizens and fellow saints? What I know is that we must. It is what love requires. For “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God.” (2 Nephi 26:33)