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Guest opinion: Making sense of the LDS Church’s mixed messaging on LGBT issues

By Keith Burns - | Mar 23, 2024

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Keith Burns

Despite assertions of immutability and consistency, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint positions on sexuality and gender have proven fragile and changeable across time. Throughout much of the 19th century, for example, plural marriage between a man and multiple women was taught as an “everlasting covenant” that would never be abolished. Under intense scrutiny and pressure from the U.S. government, the church officially abandoned the practice in 1890 and currently teaches that only marriage between one man and one woman is ordained of God.

Another fundamental shift in LDS sex and gender teachings is its discourse around homosexuality. Since the 1950s, LDS elites consistently framed homosexuality as an evil and viral contagion that would destroy individual, familial and societal well-being. They demonized and condemned “homosexuals,” implementing policies that promoted conversion therapy and made identifying as homosexual, gay or lesbian an excommunicable offense. Today, the church allows people to identify as gay or lesbian and engages in far more accepting and inclusive rhetoric.

Teachings condemning oral sex, birth control and interracial marriage have also undergone massive changes, even full reversals, within the past half-century. Simply put, doctrines and policies around sexuality and gender are moving targets that have been clumsily and contradictorily managed throughout its 200-year history.

As a result, the modern church anxiously finds itself at a crossroads concerning its LGBT stances. They simultaneously cling to anachronistic theology that asserts the sinfulness of same-sex relationships and gender transitions, while striving to stay culturally relevant in an increasingly social-justice-oriented world.

In navigating this untenable position, church leaders have propagated mixed and contradictory messages. On the one hand, LDS President Russell Nelson and his first counselor, Dallin Oaks, have continued to hammer anti-LGBT teachings, declaring that marriage between a man and woman is “irrevocable doctrine.” On the other hand, the church has made a series of moves that show greater acceptance of LGBT individuals and allies than ever before.

The recent hiring of head spokesperson Aaron Sherinian is a powerful example of this tension. His social media accounts are saturated with bold LGBT activism, including his personal use and support of pronouns, unequivocal affirmations of transgender individuals and celebration of the country’s legalization of same-sex marriage. In June 2015, he tweeted: “Way to go #SCOTUS. Gay marriage now legal across all 50 states! #LoveisLove #MarriageEquality.” He also fearlessly promotes pride events, symbols and slogans, which directly contradicts the directives of church leaders.

In a remarkably controversial address delivered at BYU-Provo in 2021, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland called for “musket fire” directed at those who oppose the faith’s teachings on marriage and sexuality, spoke derisively of “flag-waving and parade-holding” and warned “that love and empathy (should) not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy.” If its leaders continue to denounce same-sex marriage and LGBT activism, why then would the church hire such an outspoken LGBT advocate as their head spokesperson?

First, it is likely that top leaders do not act as a monolith and have significant disagreements about LGBT teachings and policies. While there are several high-profile leaders who refuse to abandon their anti-LGBT worldview, there are others who have far more nuanced and compassionate perspectives. Local leaders also demonstrate this ideological diversity and treat LGBT members with tremendous variability.

Second, this mixed messaging represents a gradual, yet successful, struggle toward equality within the church, a decadeslong battle that courageous LGBT individuals and activists have been fighting and even dying for. There are numerous recent examples of same-sex couples receiving callings and taking the sacrament in their congregations, privileges that gay and lesbian members would have only dreamt of in previous years. Furthermore, transgender individuals were given permission in recent years to be baptized with their preferred name and pronouns acknowledged on the rolls of the church.

Martin Luther King Jr. taught that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While it is not inevitable that the LDS Church will fully embrace LGBT relationships and identities, mounting sociocultural and political pressure are at least causing the church to see the damage caused by clinging to its anti-LGBT teachings. I sincerely hope that their mixed messaging represents a gradual dying of old homophobic and transphobic teachings in favor of steady evolution toward full acceptance of LGBT Latter-day Saints.

Keith Burns is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism and sexuality.


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