Gay Mormons, reparative therapy, and the safe spaces of conservative religion

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A guest post by Benjamin E. Park

News from the last year has been replete with coverage of mistreatment of LGBT adolescents within conservative religious traditions, including the suicides of gay youth who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thankfully, the new memoir Saving Alex: When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay has a happy ending, but its story is a reminder of the lengths people are willing to go to in denying the authenticity of homosexual voices. More, it demonstrates a desire for the same type of “safe spaces” often denounced by those in conservative religious cultures.


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Alex’s quest to obtain freedom, acceptance, and, indeed, love is movingly told. But what makes the book stand out from other similar titles is its ability to sympathetically reconstruct the mindset of those who initiated Alex’s nightmare in the first place.

The term Alex frequently uses to justify her parents’ actions was “desperate,” but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Their motive for sending her away was not a caustic indifference for Alex’s well being, but a sincere devotion to genuine religious ideals—they believed in the Plan of Salvation too much, not too little. Her mother was “so hungry for the comfort of the plan of salvation her religion taught her that she was willing to send me away to live with strangers”—a couple in St. George, Utah, who emotionally and physically abused Alex in their attempt to turn her heterosexual.

Time and time again, Alex reminds us that her parents made all their decisions because they “just wanted to feel okay, to feel safe.”

“Safe” is a potent word in today’s political and cultural discourse. Millennials are often denounced for pathetically seeking “safe spaces” on campus, at work, or in society. In the Age of Trump, safety is seen as a weakness, an inability to confront reality and defend a position.

But what Saving Alex demonstrates is that at the root of the cultural backlash against LGBT voices, especially within religious communities like the LDS Church, is a similar attempt to create a safe space, a refuge where their beliefs in how society is structured, how bodies operate, and how sexuality is practiced is free from the dissonance caused by unorthodox protests. They want the safety for their traditional belief system to remain untrammelled.

In one of the most moving passages in the book, Alex described how her mother and father could justify leaving their daughter in such a situation and ignoring all evidence provided for its abusive nature:

My parents both needed to believe that there was a plan that would make everything okay and keep them safe. They both needed that assurance to deal with everything life handed them—all the day-to-day struggles and challenges. They both needed to belong to a community that told them they were okay, even if it had no place for people like me, even if the demands it placed on me—to change who I loved, to change who I was at a basic level—hurt me.

These safe spaces, just like those decried by culture warriors, would rather secure stability than invite change. They suffer from the same malady often diagnosed for the millennial generation—what Alex calls a “punishing certainty.”

Making threats like Alex’s sexuality invisible preserves these safe spaces. Throughout her tale, Alex is frequently confronted with attempts to diminish her very existence, whether it is through temporary measures (missionaries who visit the St. George family literally ignore her presence as she faces the wall with a weighted backpack) or permanent ones (a theology that denies the existence of homosexuality).

Ironically, between the completion of the book and its publication, the Church instituted new policies that further cemented the invisibility of homosexual voices: those who enter into same-sex marriage are now officially classified as “apostates” and, even more radically, children of homosexual unions are barred from rituals like baptism until they reach the age of eighteen and “denounce” their parents’ lifestyle.

The sympathy in Saving Alex can only go so far. Alex’s narrative of simplistic Mormon faith buttressing harmful reparative therapy techniques works because such activities are mostly disavowed through official LDS channels. (Indeed, after the book’s release, a representative of the Mormon Church reaffirmed disapproval of therapeutic practices that seek to change sexual orientation.)

Yet it still leaves the question of whether there can indeed be a robust theology that maintains a commitment to heterosexual normativity, or whether all theologies that denounce same-sex activity are indicative of a stunted, underdeveloped, and adolescent spirituality.

But these questions must be answered by America’s many conservative religious organizations, including the LDS Church, rather than through Alex’s tale. Though efforts to “cure” homosexuality now seem antiquated — and judicial systems increasingly categorize them as torture — they are still inextricably linked to a mindset that wishes to identify gay feelings as deviant, as a threat to a traditional family’s safety.

And as long as that idea persists, it can justify a multitude of sins.

 

Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park received graduate degrees in theology, politics, and history from the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

This fall he will be an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University.