Robert A. Rees: My Experience in Working with Homosexual Latter-day Saints

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D.

I grew up with what were the normal American attitudes toward homosexuals—I considered them as flawed, perverted, even perverse. The attitude of my father towards homosexuals caused me from an early age to have an angry, visceral reaction to them. Although I never acted on such feelings, I somehow felt it was appropriate to physically punish them for being so against nature. I was also taught to consider them dangerous to me personally.

My first real awareness of homosexuality on a personal level (everything up to this point was spoken in hushed, disapproving language or with indirect, suggestive hints) came during my fifteenth year when a Latter-day Saint band teacher was hired at our high school in a small Arizona town. I was naïve and vulnerable and was not sophisticated enough to interpret his friendship and even affection as dangerous. Before the year was out he had sexually abused me and several of my friends. That experience was disturbing and confusing, and added to my fear and loathing of homosexuals.

My next significant encounter with homosexuals was in the mission field where obviously effeminate elders were the subject of whispered gossip and, at times, unkind jokes and teasing. I was also aware when I was a student at BYU that certain of my classmates were identified as “queer,” although I was not close to any of them.

It wasn’t until I went away to graduate school that I began to have close association with homosexuals—of both genders. There, it was clear that some of my fellow students as well as some of my professors were gay or lesbian. It was during these years that my attitudes toward homosexuals began to change. I knew and associated with people who seemed like everyone else except for the fact that they were attracted to their own gender. Some became friends.

When I took my first teaching position at UCLA as a new assistant professor of English, my experience with homosexuals expanded, although my attitudes toward them were slow in changing. A number of my colleagues in the English Department were gay or lesbian, as were some of my students and teaching and research assistants. It was during these years that I began to read about homosexuality and to try and understand homosexual experience.

Undoubtedly, the slow evolution of my attitudes and understanding was influenced by what I heard and read about homosexuals at church. Most of what I understood was that homosexuality itself was “an abomination” in the sight of God, that it was a grave sin, that it was a perversion, and that it was something people chose and could change if they desired.

When I became bishop of the Los Angeles First (Singles’) Ward in 1986, I set as my first challenge to meet everyone in the ward, including all those who were inactive. I did this through a series of fifteen minute interviews held over the first several months of my tenure. During these interviews and in subsequent interviews with each new member who came into the ward, it became clear that there were a number of homosexuals under my pastoral care, many of whom were either estranged from the Church or who had a tangential relationship to it. I tried to create an environment in which these individuals felt welcome and, as a result, a number who had been inactive or whose activity was marginal began coming to church. In part because of this supportive environment, the ward attracted homosexuals from neighboring stakes.

Those who were under my care knew that I endorsed a single standard of sexual morality and that sexual misconduct had to be dealt with through standard ecclesiastical procedures, but they also knew that I was understanding and supportive of those who were making a sincere effort to align their lives with gospel standards.

As a result of my experience with homosexual Latter-day Saints and in an effort to help the heterosexual members of my ward understand and support their gay and lesbian fellow saints, I gave a major sacrament meeting address entitled “No More Strangers,” in which I tried to establish a gospel framework for how heterosexuals should understand, treat and relate to homosexuals. That address has been twice printed and has been widely read.

During the time I was bishop I had what I would estimate to be somewhere in the neighborhood of forty homosexuals under my care. Although it has been more than a decade since I was released from my calling as bishop, I still keep in touch with some of these members and count them among my friends. Some of the most rewarding experiences I had as a bishop were with homosexual saints, especially with those who came back into full fellowship.

Since being released as a bishop I have continued to be a friend and counselor to homosexual Latter-day Saints. Because I had a reputation of being an open and supportive bishop and because I have sought to reconcile homosexuals with the Church and to expand the understanding of heterosexual Latter-day Saints toward homosexuals, I continue to get calls from ecclesiastical leaders, parents of homosexuals and homosexuals themselves seeking guidance in this area. In these experiences, I always try to convey my limitations both in understanding homosexuality and in offering guidance. Always I encourage people to seek for information and inspiration from appropriate sources and, where appropriate, to seek professional counseling.

My experience with the fifty or so homosexuals with whom I have had a close relationship over the past twenty years can be summarized as follows: I have not met a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who chose or was able to change or alter his or her sexual orientation. I also have not met a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who had not tried valiantly, generally over a long period of time, to change his or her orientation. Some of the most painful experiences I had as a bishop related to homosexual members recounting their desperate, even heroic efforts to change their sexual orientation. For many, these efforts took place over a number of years and involved incredible sacrifice and self-denial. Because they had been led by priesthood leaders to believe that they could change if they were just righteous or self-sacrificing enough, when change didn’t come, they tended to blame themselves. Such self-blame often led to alienation from God and his church and at times to self-destructive behavior, including suicide.

Most if not all of the homosexual Latter-day Saints with whom I have worked over the years have been in therapy, some for extended periods of time. Many were under the care of LDS Social Services/Family Services therapists or other Latter-day Saint therapists. My general summary of their experience with LDS Social Services/Family Services therapists is not a positive one, mainly because these therapists focused on orientation change. Some Latter-day Saint therapists in private practice, including several that I used in my own stake, proved in general to be more effective in their treatment. Several homosexuals with whom I have been associated had been involved in Church (indirect) or BYU-sponsored reparative therapy treatments. Universally, these proved to have quite destructive consequences. A number of the homosexuals had sought help and treatment through Evergreen. Most reacted negatively to Evergreen programs.

One of the problems we face in this arena is that there is a tendency of those in Evergreen and Family Services to generalize from a few case studies in which a homosexual or bisexual may have manifest some change or adjustment to all homosexuals. The absence of a consistent, responsible history of clinical studies of homosexuality among Latter-day Saints has created a vacuum in which a few therapists, convinced that change is the answer, have dominated the discussion and have had a disproportionate influence on Church policy and practice. To many Latter-day Saint therapists in private practice, the influence of a small group of Evergreen/Family Service therapists has been extremely costly—in terms of the alienation of homosexuals from the Church, ruptures within families, and particularly the pain and deaths of homosexuals themselves.

Of the fifty or so Latter-day Saint homosexuals with whom I have worked over the years, I would say the vast majority have tended to show a pattern wherein they make all the adjustments they can through therapy, gospel living and church participation, but become disillusioned with the prospect of finding a resolution to their related social, spiritual and sexual conflicts. As they get older, most simply drop out of the Church, even when they choose to live lives of celibacy. In general, the Church does not provide a friendly, nurturing environment for homosexuals. The experience of homosexuals in California and elsewhere where the Church has undertaken to support legislation relating to marriage has been to see an increase in anti-homosexual sentiments in their own wards and stakes. Many homosexuals face similar negative reactions from family members as well.

The result of these experiences leads to a gradual erosion of hope and confidence in the Church as a place where homosexuals feel they are part of the community of saints. Some homosexual Latter-day Saints gravitate to other more gay-friendly churches where they can sustain a spiritual and religious life; most, however, tend to gravitate to more secular environments. Of the fifty or so Latter-day saints in the orbit of my experience, I know only five past the age of thirty who have maintained an affiliation with the Church. Those homosexuals who stay in the Church may tend toward asexuality or may be particularly adept at sublimating their sexual desires. Those who might be characterized as having healthy libidos almost always disassociate themselves from the Church after a long period of trying to adjust to Church expectations.

Although I am not an authority on homosexuality and am not trained as a therapist, I trust the experience of those homosexuals I know personally. When a homosexual does everything he or she can to change his or her orientation over a ten to fifteen-year period, including serve a mission, work in the temple, hold church callings, fast and pray frequently, and keep all of the commandments, and change doesn’t come, the conclusion is either that he or she hasn’t tried hard or long enough or that change won’t come. Personally, I don’t know of a single homosexual Latter-day Saint who didn’t try desperately to change his/her orientation, who wouldn’t have changed if he or she could have, or who, in spite of all efforts (including promises and blessings from ecclesiastical leaders), was able to change. This is a reality I accept and one that I feel the Church must face if it hopes to have any chance of redeeming its homosexual members.