Due to length, I have decided to split this article into two parts. Part 1 of this article deals with the choices of language in conversations surrounding sexuality in the Church. Please keep an eye out for the second part of this article to be released in the next couple days.
Using Labels to Define People
The Church has framed the conversation on sexuality by using the phrase “same-sex attraction” instead of the more commonly used labels of Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual. This fact alone is very interesting to me, as it opens up the topic of how people use labels to define themselves and how the Church handles those labels.
Labels can be convenient ways to categorize and simplify what is normally complex and diverse, but the downside of labels is how limiting they are in acknowledging the complexity and nuance of individual lives. To demonstrate this point, let’s first talk about the word “Mormon” as a label used to describe a group of people.
“Mormon” is a quick and easy term to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but there is a lot of other information associated with this label. In addition to the vast collection of belief systems associated with the word “Mormon,” there is a world of culture and experiences that are also associated with that word. The “Mormon” label many people use to define themselves carries a lot of baggage with it. While there is nothing wrong with identifying as a Mormon, this word is very limited in capturing the diversity of the Mormon experience, because not every person’s experience with being a Mormon has been the same. This explains why a huge list of additional labels within the Mormon experience exist: Converts, Pioneer Stock, Utah Mormons, California Mormons, Jack Mormons, Less-Active Mormons, and the list goes on and on. Simply put, while the Label “Mormon” is convenient for categorizing a large group of people, it does very little to help understand the complexity and nuance of what it means to be a Mormon. This label is a single point in the broad, multi-dimensional experience of an individual, and the same can be said about many of the labels we use to define ourselves. Labels can be very helpful tools, but they almost always lack an enormous amount of context. To truly understand and empathize with a person’s experience, one must make the mental effort to look beyond their labels and into the broader narratives of their lives. The easiest way to come to such an understanding might be to simply ask someone who identifies as a Mormon what this label has meant for them in their life.
Using the label “Mormon” as an example, I hope I can convey the importance of respecting and understanding the words people use for themselves. The label “Gay” has come to mean many things. Much like the label “Mormon,” the word “Gay” only broadly categorizes people, and it lacks a lot of personal context. To a lot of people that call themselves Gay, not only does this word indicate their sexuality, but it also carries the significance of culture, politics, spirituality, etc. The best way to understand what this label might mean to someone who uses it to describe themselves is to simply ask them and listen with an open mind.
On the topic of labels, I hope we realize how unfortunate it is when people make broad assumptions about others based on labels. Doing so is very easy, and frankly it’s an injustice to the broader narrative of the individual because it dismisses everything that can’t be encapsulated into a single word. It becomes very easy to make blanket judgments about entire groups of people when we start making these kinds of assumptions. This tactic of misusing labels to make assumptions about people is used by racism, sexism, and homophobia. People use it to justify hatred of political parties, religions, you name it. I hear this tactic used to justify hatred of Mormons, and I hear this tactic from Mormons to justify their hatred of others. We should be very wary of this practice, because it is an incredibly easy trap to fall into. I believe a healthy antidote to this kind of marginalizing is choosing to have empathy for people instead of simply having opinions about people.
The main difference I see between having an opinion about someone, and having empathy for someone: the former requires no information or understanding, the latter requires complete information and understanding. In today’s age of growing divides between every demographic we must not let ourselves make assumptions about others based on race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, or any other label people use to define themselves. It is our moral imperative as followers of Jesus Christ to love each other as He does. This is a daunting task seeing as how Jesus Christ experienced the pains, afflictions, and temptations of every human soul. The closest we can get to this godlike love is empathy. The task of empathy is made impossible if we assume we know everything about someone based on a single word, thus limiting the information we are willing to learn about them. Everyone has their own story in life, and every story is valid. If we aren’t willing to listen, we aren’t willing to love.
The Language Used by the Church
You may have noticed in recent history that the Church has begun to use the term “same-sex attraction” (or SSA) instead of the word Gay to describe people who are attracted others of the same gender. Here is an excerpt from lds.org explaining the Church’s reasons for doing this:
“Same-sex attraction (SSA) refers to emotional, physical, romantic, or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. If you experience same-sex attraction, you may or may not choose to use a sexual orientation label to describe yourself. Either way, same-sex attraction is a technical term describing the experience without imposing a label. This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.”
I have mixed feelings about the Church’s use of the term SSA, but one thing I can appreciate about it is that it creates a space for people to choose their own labels instead of having others choose labels for them. I imagine the process of coming out about one’s sexuality is daunting enough without the prospect of a label being unwillingly thrust upon you. By allowing someone the choice of how to identify themselves as they make the journey of defining who they are, I think the Church is trying to give the power of agency back to individuals who may otherwise feel powerless.
One potential downside of the term SSA is erasure, the very thing the Church’s above statement claims to avoid in the last sentence. I worry that Mormons who do identify with labels such as Gay or Lesbian will feel like this part of their identity is being erased or gaslighted. I think the likelihood of this outcome will come down to how the term SSA is used; if it is forced upon people who already choose to identify as Gay, or not. I hope we have the respect and empathy to use the words people choose for themselves. This can make all the difference in their mental and physical well-being.
I want to make another quick caveat about how the term SSA is often used. I have heard many members of the Church describe homosexuality as “suffering from SSA.” I think we should be careful not to use the word suffering in this context, because a person’s sexuality should not have to be suffered through, no matter what their sexuality is. Sexuality is a beautiful part of what makes each person unique sons and daughters of God. It should not be treated like a malady. The Church already has a bad history of shaming people for their sexuality, and I fear this is a continuation of the same rhetoric. If this sounds like an inconsequentially small detail to focus on, I recommend doing research into the topic of microaggressions. The word microaggressions is often used in psychology to describe the small everyday acts of marginalization, disrespect, and hostility that build over time. Microaggressions against Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual people have been empirically shown to cause physical and mental damage over time. So again, let’s not characterize sexuality as an affliction to be suffered—be it heterosexual, homosexual, or any other point on the sexuality spectrum.
One last point about labels that I want to reiterate. As we make attempts to understand and empathize with people who are different from us, we may begin to realize that there are certain labels people wish to be used to define them. It is important that we use the labels people choose for themselves. A lot of people tune out when they hear about “political correctness.” I suppose I understand why a lot of people do this. In my opinion the real issue here is not political correctness, but honoring and respecting the dignity of people.
Did you like this article? Do you disagree with me on anything? Let me know what you think in the comments below or at the Postmodern Mormon Facebook page.
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