Homosexuality is a sensitive and complex issue, which can make talking about it difficult. Believing Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction often feel caught in between two worlds—the Latter-day Saint community who, while most often well-intentioned, can say insensitive or hurtful things, and the LGBT-identified community who will often judge them as not being “true to themselves.”
Here are some things you can say and do (and some things to avoid) to help those who experience same-sex attraction.
What to Say (and Do):
Listen to them and let them set the tone. Sometimes people are very serious about coming out. Other people like to have a lighter or more casual mood. It’s their story that they want to share, so let them set the tone. While this may be new or difficult information for you, they’re the one taking the greatest risk here, so do your best to help them feel comfortable.
“Thank you for trusting me.” Every single time that someone opens up to another person, they are taking a huge emotional and social risk. If someone opens up to you, they are showing you that they trust you. Remember to thank them for having such a firm trust in you. And don’t forget that you must continue to be worthy of their trust.
“I love you.” Express your wholehearted, unconditional love. Physical expressions of that love and affection, such as a meaningful hug, can also go a long way. Also resist the urge to add qualifiers like: “I love you, but . . .” So often, people need to simply know that they’re both loved and lovable. When someone is trying to figure out which direction they want to take their lives, there is something healing, liberating, and empowering about knowing that your love is not conditional upon their making certain choices.
“I love and respect you even more for sharing.” Similar to the statement above, when someone takes the emotional risk with you, they’re likely doing so because they want more authenticity, more connection, more intimacy in their life and in their relationship with you. So while saying something like, “This doesn’t change anything,” is a nice sentiment, people typically aren’t sharing with you because they want things to stay the same. It can be meaningful and affirming to know that their revelation will increase the mutual connection and appreciation you feel in the relationship.
“So what are your plans?” Avoid making assumptions about the path a person will or should take. Agency is one of the most fundamental principles of the gospel, and while the gospel principles are clear regarding sexual behavior, the greatest power comes from choosing to live those laws from a place of internal desire rather than external pressure. Simply asking questions from a place of genuine care and interest is the most empowering support you can offer. Make sure they feel that they have space to explore what it is they want for themselves without pressuring or shaming them into choosing one direction or another.
Don’t feel as if it’s your responsibility to have all the answers. In talking to someone about same-sex attraction, resist any impulse to give counsel unless it’s being requested. Simply be willing to love and to listen first. You don’t need all or even any answers to questions about same-sex attraction in order to be a support. Put the ball in their court and ask them how they need you to support them. Ask questions like, “What has this been like for you?” “What’s the hardest part?” or “How can I best support you?”
Respect confidences. Many people are very private about their sexuality and would feel deeply betrayed if they knew that you had told someone about their sexuality without their permission. This is a private journey that often includes working through deep feelings—often shame or insecurity. Always ask for permission before you share that information; it should always be your loved one’s decision as to with whom you share this sensitive information about their life. If as a loved one of the person experiencing same-sex attraction you feel you need support from others who understand what you’re experiencing, share this with your loved one. Tell them that you would like to have someone to talk with as well, and let them guide you to someone you both know who can give a listening ear.
What Not to Say (or Do):
“Of course. I’ve suspected all along.” More often than not, people have spent a good amount of time and energy trying to blend in and act in such a way that others won’t have suspected, so a comment like this could make them feel overwhelmingly vulnerable. Although you may think that you’re being supportive by telling your friend that you already knew about their sexuality, it’s typically best to respond as if you had no idea, and to let them lead the conversation from there.
“We all have our challenges.” While this is certainly true, it’s also dismissive of the real feelings and needs of the person who is coming to you. Connection and empathy are better ways of helping them see and experience themselves in the larger context of life’s difficulties than a reminder that “we all have our problems.”
“If you had more faith, you could overcome same-sex attraction, get married, etc.” There are other variations of this, such as, “If you would only apply the Atonement in your life . . .,” none of which are helpful, even if in individual circumstances they may be true. It’s important to understand that neither faith nor the Atonement can be fully understood in simplistic platitudes, and God works in our individual lives in very different ways. Sometimes life experiences are divinely committed tutorials that will teach individuals certain things God wants them to learn. Rather than attributing this trial to a lack of faith or understanding of the Atonement, you can offer the most support simply by listening, loving, and inspiring by example.
"Hey, I read this story about someone who experiences same-sex attraction and is happily married to someone of the opposite sex. Have you thought about pursuing a heterosexual marriage?" There are lots of individuals who experience same-sex attraction who have happy and fulfilling heterosexual marriages, but marriage is a very personal decision. It’s something each person has to work out with the Lord on their own. There are many who may not marry in this life, and it can be discouraging and isolating to frequently hear either the question of why they're not married or comments about singleness that leave those who experience same-sex attraction feeling like they're failing at mortality. No one wants to be continually compared to others or implicitly reminded of how someone else’s lot in life is perceivably better. Having a variety of examples to look to can be very helpful, but when those examples are imposed on someone, it can be more discouraging than anything. Sometimes family and friends falsely believe that their loved ones would be freed of their same-sex attraction if they would just get married. Not only is this not helpful, but Church leaders have specifically counseled against recommending marriage as a means of reducing same-sex attraction.
“Why don’t you be true to how God made you?” When talking to someone who experiences same-sex attraction, put aside preconceived ideas, judgments, or opinions about same-sex attraction and simply be with the person and hear them. Don’t confine yourself to thinking only in terms of how you believe a person should respond to their feelings and instead seek to understand their dreams, motivations, and desires. Be careful not to assume you know the person better than they know themselves or what the best choice for their life might be.
Don’t use the terms “suffering from” or “struggling with” same-sex attraction. While some individuals may indeed experience struggle or suffering as they seek to understand their feelings or experience deep pain because of abuse, bullying, or loneliness, same-sex attraction isn’t a disease. There are many who are faithful but who don’t necessarily “struggle.” Given that Church leaders caution against the use of terms such as “gay” or “lesbian,” which attribute more to identity than feelings, it’s often most helpful to simply speak of experiencing same-sex attraction.
“Are you attracted to me?” This may not be a question that is voiced, but it need not be a factor in the conversation you’re having. Whether they are attracted to you or not is less important than having a healthy and meaningful connection to you as an individual, not something more.
“I’m sorry.” Sorry that they have these feelings? Sorry they’ve felt shame and isolation? Each of those who may talk to you will often have very different experiences. Most often they’re merely looking for connection and empathy, and it’s important that this empathy is expressed in ways that don’t inadvertently send messages of pity. Even if the individual is sharing pain from their life, it’s important to empathize and connect with them in that specific pain rather than send messages that may devalue them.
For those who experience same-sex attraction, finding comfort within the Church or from Church members can be difficult. But by giving your unconditional love, you can help them feel accepted and supported. And really, that’s what they need most.
Hermia Lyly is earning her PhD in English literature. She contributes regularly to the Young Mormon Feminists blog and has also been published in Exponent II and No More Strangers. In her free time, Hermia enjoys rock climbing, spending time with her nieces and nephews, and repairing her so-old-it's-probably-a-jaredite road bike. You can read more of her writing at youngmormonfeminists.org.
Ty Mansfield is a marriage and family therapist in Lubbock, Texas, and is currently completing in PhD in that field. He co-authored In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same-Gender Attraction with Fred and Marilyn Matis as well as compiled Voices of Hope: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on Same-Gender Attraction. Ty is a co-founder of the nonprofit organization North Star, a support organization for LDS individuals and families affected by homosexuality. Learn more about North Star, including their annual conference, this year held May 29-31 in Utah. Ty and his wife, Danielle, are the parents of two children.
Read more about Ty Mansfield in his 2012 LDS Living article, "Living With Same-Sex Attraction: Our Story."