At dinner today we listened to the radio, and in particular to a story about homosexual marriage. I have to say, I’m a little confused about what to think. The LDS church is not in favor of homosexuality, but I feel that that’s only because they [gay people] have extra-marital sex. But how can it be anything but extra-marital?! Marriage is not allowed in such cases. Yet I’m fairly sure the church isn’t in favor of gay marriage either. What a pickle. Makes me glad I’m straigt!!!! [sic]
I wrote that journal entry when I was sixteen. I was on vacation with my family and I remember thinking a lot about gay marriage and homosexuality more generally, trying to figure out how the pieces fit together with what I understood of the Gospel. Reading the entry now, I am struck by several things. First, I seem hopelessly naive and unclear about the church’s stance in a way I am sure the youth of today could not be. Having firmly understood that I was not to have sex outside of marriage, I naively assumed that was the main objection that the church had to homosexuality. Gay marriage would, in that understanding, be the perfect solution. So why was the church against gay marriage? Or was it? Seemingly I was unsure even of that.
The second thing that strikes me, and saddens me, is the final misspelled sentence. Having tried in my adolescent way to wrestle with a serious issue I gave up and dismissed it, knowing that it didn’t affect me personally. I put the problem on the proverbial shelf.
Since that day I have put problems on the shelf again and again. Indeed, I have been counseled to do so by church leaders and friends. When I raised thorny issues they advised me to put the problem in a jar, set it on a shelf and come back to it later to see if it still bothered me, or if I had an answer. Why the principle of food storage should apply to doctrine is beyond me. I was upset about polygamy and church history, so I put it on the shelf. It sat next to the gay marriage jar. Later other jars came to join them.
A few weeks ago I met with my bishop to discuss a calling. I told him that I was not sure if I should be considered for the position as I was struggling with my testimony and I wasn’t where I thought I should be to have that responsibility. He seemed a bit alarmed and pressed for details, asking incredulously if I had stopped believing in God or Jesus Christ. I said no, but that I struggle to know when the prophets and apostles speak for God, and when they advise us from a place of human wisdom that may be in error.
I told him I was deeply distressed by the disconnect between prophets in the past supporting a priesthood ban for men of African descent with racist words, and now those words are disavowed as not being of God. On one hand it was a huge relief to feel that the teachings I always thought were racist and appalling were officially discredited. On the other hand, it raised questions for me about other things that might be taught currently that are hard to take and that feel wrong, that down the road may in their turn be disavowed. Should I act on teachings that make me uncomfortable when later on someone might just say they were mistaken? I mentioned concerns about teachings about homosexuality and about the position of women in the church. I didn’t say anything about the ordination of women, but he leaped to that conclusion.
He asked me if I could compartmentalize these problems, if I could “put them on the shelf” for another day. I tearfully told him that sometimes I could. I could do that with polygamy. Then I told him that I couldn’t compartmentalize being a woman. I don’t have that luxury. I wake up as a woman every day. Every interaction that I have with the church is by definition about women and the church. I can’t willfully stop seeing and experiencing the world as a woman simply because it is painful or because it produces cognitive dissonance.
As I thought about our conversation later I remembered that entry I had written long ago and I hunted it down. I realized then that the shelf is a manifestation of privilege. I could ignore the pain and difficulty that gay people experience in their interactions with the church because, as I put it, “I’m straigt!!!!” I could ignore how oppressive and abusive polygamy can be because I don’t belong to a fundamentalist sect and as far as I know there aren’t any polygamists in my area. It was all in the past, and very ignorable.
I can’t ignore what it is like to be a woman in the church. I know that the gender inequality troubles our bishop, and he has expressed to me privately his own desire for greater inclusion. The difference between us, and indeed for all the male leadership of the church is that when these problems seem too distressing he can decide not to think about it anymore. Perhaps when he comes back the shelf will have worked its magic and the problem will have resolved itself without his consciously doing anything.
I don’t have the answers to any of the concerns I’ve alluded to here. I do think, however, that we should get rid of our shelves. It might be personally comforting to ignore the parts of the Gospel or Church culture that are troubling or heartbreaking. However, we all have neighbors who are intrinsically unable to enjoy the same privilege of pretending that a problem doesn’t exist. The lesson that I might find mildly disquieting may have lacerated my neighbor’s heart. As Saints, as sisters, and as brothers we have a responsibility to see, to listen and to think. Let’s save the shelf for Jello packets and peaches.