The tension between sexuality and religion is not news.
As a person who considers herself sex-positive, and who associates with other sex-positive people on and offline, I’m well familiar with the often-justified assessments of religion as damaging when it comes to holistic health, especially as vehicles of guilt about bodies and sexuality. The criticisms, the examinations, the tirades – I often agree with them. But I’m also left with a nagging feeling, that such categorically dismissive views on religion end up alienating people who might otherwise be allies for a saner attitude toward sex and sexuality.
Am I fan of religion? I’m not. Have I been harmed by religious dogma and hurt by those who live for and through such dogma? Oh yes, I sure have. But do I think that blasting religion is going to convince anyone that they should give up religion? I don’t. Not at all.
Perhaps the real question is: do we want to have a conversation with people who think and feel differently, or do we want to preach to the non-religious choir? It seems unlikely that anybody who feels sympathetically toward religion is going to change their mind or heart by reading someone’s angry or patronizing views on why religion is ridiculous, harmful, or wrong.
What is the first question I hear when someone learns I grew up in Utah? I bet you can guess. “Are you Mormon?”
That’s a complicated question, whether or not I’m Mormon. No, I’m technically not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over a decade ago, I asked to have my name removed from church membership. But I’m definitely Mormon. No getting away from that. My ancestors were Mormon. My upbringing was Mormon. Many of my relatives are still Mormon. Being Mormon is part of my cultural heritage.
That potential disconnect, between being the person I am and being the person my upbringing would have me be, has formed a strong narrative throughout my thirty-six years.
When I heard about the “It Gets Better” video released by BYU students, I settled in to watch.
“I know what it’s like to feel like you’re alone. I know what it’s like to feel afraid,” they said. And I believed them. They do know. So do I, even if those feelings were most present for me half a lifetime ago. I continued watching these incredibly brave young Mormons talk about what it’s like to be gay at Brigham Young University.
It was at the 4:35 mark when I choked. A statistics student relayed how she pleaded with God. “If I pray every day, if I read my scriptures every day, will you please take this away from me?” This being gayness. Same-sex attraction (“same-gender” as Mormons call it). Her tone, her words, her demeanor – it was eerily familiar.
After several students relayed their dogged attempts to change, to pray the gay away, they began to shift the question. Instead of asking that their queer feelings be removed, they began asking if those feelings were okay, if they were okay. The students described feelings of peace and acceptance, of becoming aware that they weren’t wrong, of feeling loved.
Feeling wrong is another thread that runs prominently through my life. For years I prayed and bargained, made deals with myself and the God I was raised to believe, begging that I would wake up and Be Different. For me, it wasn’t entirely rooted in “being gay.” It was everything. Being bold and outspoken. Feeling sexual and sensual. Questioning my elders and church teachers. A deep skepticism that I couldn’t seem to shake. I wished it would be gone, that I could be “normal,” that I didn’t always feel the compulsion to swim upstream.
Years ago someone asked me when I thought I was free from Mormonism.
“I can’t say that I’m free from it. But I can say that I started to become free the day that I stopped asking God to forgive me for being myself, when I stopped trying to repent for my Marisa-ness.”
I was startled by the question because being free from Mormonism, fully free from it, felt and feels unlikely. In some ways, I don’t want to be free from it, because my ties to my religious upbringing and the culture surrounding it gives me a perspective that I value. If I’m free from Mormonism, would I be able, or inclined, to help bridge the gaps between my worldview and my Mormon relatives and childhood friends?
Bridge-building, in my mind, is the greatest good. The conversations I’ve had with Mormons I know have changed us. No, those conversations didn’t just change them. I didn’t convert them to my way of thinking. We moved, each of us, in our positions. We came to find compassion and understanding for each other’s experiences and views. I’ve found it’s critical to give people a chance to move, to shift, and to become supportive advocates.
We don’t have to agree with each other to be kind. Civility and empathy do wonders in seeking common ground, healing wounds, and finding peace.
When it comes to self-love, Eve Decker nails it: