by Dan Flanders*
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Same-sex attraction (SSA) is becoming more and more common both in the Church and in the world. Until recently, we have known very little about the roots of SSA. Many psychologists do not consider SSA to be a disorder but feel that it is just part of an alternative lifestyle. As a result, it has been very difficult for most Latter-day Saints to find help in dealing with their SSA.
Just what is same sex attraction? Those with SSA find themselves attracted toward or may have erotic thoughts or feelings for others of the same sex. Many people have SSA and have not acted on those feelings. At the same time, those with SSA often do not have the same kinds of feelings for those of the opposite gender. As a result, they may not date or may feel that they cannot marry.
This does not mean that those with SSA are not comfortable with members of the opposite gender; it is quite the contrary, they may have many close friends of the opposite gender but they do not feel a romantic attraction to them. They do not feel comfortable with members of their own gender. Same-sex attraction should be distinguished from being "gay." Generally, being "gay" means adopting the lifestyle that is associated with it. Similarly, the term "homosexual" has many connotations that may not apply to many people who have same-sex attraction. Generally that term is used to describe a condition where the individual has accepted acting on these feelings. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi refers to those who choose not to live the gay lifestyle but who have these feelings as "non-gay homosexuals." In the Church we never use the word homosexual as a noun, always as an adjective because when used as a noun, in has the connotation that the person is this way and cannot change, rather than viewing the person as a child of God with a temporary affliction.
It is critical that priesthood leaders help those with SSA to understand why they feel the way they do and what can be done to help them. Because of their SSA feelings, they probably do not feel like they belong in the church and feel that they have no home of being exalted. If the church does not help them to feel a part of the Gospel plan, they will almost certainly seek happiness elsewhere. The world is increasingly portraying the gay lifestyle as being acceptable and even desirable. Many members with SSA who have not acted on those feelings are being increasingly tempted to do so. This may particularly be true of our youth who are even being taught in many schools that they have the right to choose this alternative lifestyle and that denying themselves this opportunity is denying who they are.<
Things you should know about men with SSA
Many men with SSA are not fully aware of their condition. Because much of the basis for their condition is subconscious, they often do not recognize just how strong their attraction is or realize that they have different feelings from other men. At the same time, they know inside that they are different. If they are aware of their SSA, they may not have any idea why they feel the way they do. The world would tell them that they were "born that way" or that it is "genetic." It will tell them that if they do not give in to those desires, they are denying their true self. In addition, there is an excellent chance that even though they have participated in activities that strongly suggest that they are SSA, that they are in a deep state of denial and fail to consciously recognize and admit that they have a problem.
If in counseling with a man who shows signs of SSA, he denies that this is a problem, the denial should not be taken at face value. As the spirit dictates, probe for enough information to determine whether SSA is really a likelihood. Remember, he may not recognize his problem as SSA and may, in fact, never have heard the term. The only terminology he may be familiar with is "gay" or "homosexual." It is difficult for an LDS man to admit to himself, much less to his priesthood leaders that he feels gay. However, if he can be helped to understand what SSA is, he may be able to recognize this tendency in himself. Someone with SSA will likely engage in one or more of the following activities: watching or staring at other men (in preference to women), masturbation, pornography (particularly involving homosexual acts), spending time at parks, wearing revealing clothing, or loitering and/or exposing oneself in restrooms. Other evidences of SSA may include lack of desire to date, aloofness from other men, and lack of interest in sports.
The root of this problem usually lies in childhood. Although each person's situation may be different, many follow a common thread. The man usually feels that he was abandoned by his father, either physically, emotionally or both. This abandonment occurred at a very young age, usually before the age of three. When a child is first born, he or she does not recognize himself as separate from his mother. He cries if she is out of sight. Eventually the child comes to recognize that he is separate from his mother. But a boy has another transition to make. He must also recognize that not only is he separate from his mother, he is different from his mother and like his father. If there is no male figure to identify with, the child may not develop his gender identity properly. This alone is usually not enough to result in SSA. In addition, the male role models that the child eventually encounters may be abusive -- emotionally, physically and/or sexually. This abuse causes the child to reject the "maleness" of the male role model. So in addition to not having established his own gender identify, he rejects what he perceives as male attributes. It is important to recognize that it is not so much what happened to the child that causes him to develop this way, but how he chose to react to what happened to him. This choice was made at a very young age, long before the age of accountability, and was made at a subconscious level. Nevertheless, it was a choice. Sometimes his mother encourages the boy to reject his father with statements like, "You don't want to grow up to be like him, do you?"
The SSA feelings then, are a reparative drive, an effort to find and repair that which is missing. At the unconscious level, the boy recognizes that something is missing in him, something that other boys or men have. He both wants what they have and is afraid of them. In addition, he wants desperately to be accepted by his father, which includes other men who become surrogate fathers for him. He wants to feel loved by them -- the love he never felt from his father. There is a myth that most men living the homosexual life style believe. It is that they will find the one man who will make them complete, who will love them unconditionally, and somehow bond with them to make them whole. Because they are afraid of real men, they usually develop what is known as defensive detachment. They remain aloof so that they will not be injured again. So ironically they are detached from the very thing they most want in their life. They are typically not assertive and don't make their needs known but at the same time they will lament the fact that no one is there to meet their needs. They will conclude that they just aren't good enough or "worth less" than the attention of others.
Another problem they usually struggle with is shame. They were often shamed as a child. They felt that they were never good enough to receive the approbation of their father or parents. Their feelings of attraction to other men adds to these feelings of shame. If they have acted on those feelings, the shame increases. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt says "I did something bad." Shame says "I am bad," Shame will often keep them from talking openly with their priesthood leader about their problems. If they do confess and receive Church discipline, their feelings of shame are likely to mount. No matter what is said at the time of the court, they will believe that they are worthless. It will take patience and much follow-up to convince them that they are of worth and that they can be forgiven and still fulfill an honorable life's mission. They are likely to believe that there will never be any relief from their SSA feelings.
A Feeling of Hopelessness
A frequent comment from LDS SSA men is that in trying to live the Gospel they are completely miserable so they might just as well give in to their SSA feelings, live the gay lifestyle and find some happiness in life. The myth is so strong that they have a hard time believing that anything could be as bad as the way they are feeling as they struggle with staying in the Church. If they are single, the problem is often even more difficult. Singles frequently feel like they don't fit in to a church that talks of families all the time. To be SSA and single is even more difficult because they have little attraction to women and can't see a marriage in their future. Many will forego a mission rather than be subjected to the temptation of living with an attractive companion. They feel that even if they remain in the Church, they will be single forever and therefore damned. It is not uncommon for men with SSA to consider suicide. Any suggestion of suicide should be taken seriously. Men are much more likely to commit suicide than women. If a man feels he has exhausted all other avenues, he may feel that death is the only release from his struggles.
If he is married, there are probably many struggles in the marriage. The wife is likely to believe that the SSA feelings of her husband are somehow her fault; she is not attractive enough, sexy enough, or thin enough. Because he may not have strong physical attraction for his wife, the husband will have difficulty in working through the normal difficulties that arise in a marriage. In addition, he probably did not have a good role model for that in the marriage of his parents. Another struggle that the wife faces when she finds out about her husband's problem is that she has no one to talk with. Not wanting to violate the confidence of her husband, she feels alone in trying to deal with this. Both the husband and wife need support to work through the struggles associated with SSA.
The first thing that a man struggling with SSA has to do is to recognize that he has SSA. Next he has to come to believe that it is possible to heal those areas of his life that have caused him to have these feelings. He must not feel shamed by his Church leaders. He needs love and understanding. It may take time before he is willing to seek other sources of help but there are other sources. Some of the sources include: professional counseling from a therapist familiar with Joseph Nicolosi's Reparative Therapy for Male Homosexuality; Evergreen International, a support group for LDS men suffering from SSA who want to live the Gospel; Disciples2, an e-mail support group of LDS men and women suffering from SSA and those interested in working with them; and if available in the stake, a local support group for SSAed people under the direction of the priesthood of the stake. Evergreen International also has a reading list of books and some publications that can help men with SSA understand their struggle and how they can overcome it. There are also several Church publications available to priesthood leaders.
In addition to the other sources of help, men seeking to apply the atonement of Christ to their lives, both for forgiveness of past sins and for healing, will likely be involved with regular counseling from their bishop or stake president. Due to the nature of this struggle, there are some things that priesthood leaders need to be aware of as they work with these men.
First, they may experience difficulty in getting a man with SSA to open up and admit everything that he struggles with. He may, for example, admit to problems with masturbation, but not some of the other activities. This reluctance may be a combination of the problems noted above: denial, shame, defensive detachment and/or fear. It is important that he be made to feel that his leader loves him and only wants to help him grow and that he will not shame him.
Second, they will likely find him reluctant to participate in other activities which could help him find healing. His fear may keep him from going to a therapist or participating in a support group. It may take time before he will be able to take these steps and he may have to take them one at a time. Since he can participate in the e-mail support group anonymously, that may be a good place to start. As he reads the stories of the struggles of others, he may recognize that he is not alone in his struggles and he may come to better understand himself. It will take patience and challenging to get him to take full advantage of these resources.
Third, he will look upon his priesthood leader as a surrogate father. At first he will be afraid of him. In fact, if he has transferred his feelings about his earthly father to his Heavenly Father, he may be afraid of Him, also. But after he comes to believe that his leader cares about him and wants to help him, he may experience a period of excitement and hope during which he believes that he will finally receive the help that he needs and the love and acceptance that he has desired. This is called positive transference, where he transfers all of the positive traits he wanted to experience from his father to his priesthood leader. After a few weeks or months, however, the priesthood leader will probably experience negative feedback. He may break appointments, become angry, question his leader's masculinity, or become easily offended. This is negative transference. It is important to recognize that this behavior has more to do with his anger toward his father than anything the leader has done. The leader must not personalize this but must help him to understand that his reaction reflects the anger he feel toward his father or whoever abused him. It is critical to the healing process that he recognize his anger and that he learn to forgive his abuser. In this process, the priesthood leader must play the role of the salient father, one who provides love and support but who gently challenges him to grow and to develop in those areas where he feels he is deficient.
The priesthood leader cannot possibly fill all of the nurturing needs of someone with SSA. His needs are far too great. Therefore it is important to enlist the help of others. He should have a home teacher who is understanding and patient, willing to visit more than once a month, willing to become a true friend, and who can be a good role model. It is not necessary for the priesthood leader to divulge details of his struggles, but he should make other priesthood leaders and the home teacher aware of the great need for nourishment and support. As he progresses in his healing, he may choose to share his struggles with those whom he feels he can trust. This will be therapeutic, but should be done with caution to avoid overwhelming those who are not ready to deal with the issue. He should also receive love and support from his quorum leaders. Contact should be made weekly or more often, especially after disciplinary action has been taken. Phone calls, notes and visits will do much to help him to believe that he is of worth and that God really loves him. He will feel isolated and alone and without this support, he may give in to his feelings rather than progress along the path to wholeness.
Many of these men are strong and valiant men but they are struggling to believe in themselves. They may indeed already have many of the qualities they feel that they lack but don't realize it. They are survivors. They have come through much affliction and still want to be a part of the gospel but they many not be sure that they can make it. The more sexually active they have been, the more difficult it will be to break the patterns of the past. The more they have been sexually abused as a child, the harder it will be to forgive their abuser and even to forgive God for letting it happen. They cannot make it alone and yet they feel very much alone. Above all else, they must come to believe that they are not alone, that help is available, that God loves them, that their priesthood leader loves them, and that exaltation awaits them if they will trust in God and not harden their heart.
*Pseudonym. (The author gives permission for this article to be copied and shared with others who are interested in learning about SSA.)