Genetics and Mormon Homosexuality

I received my genetic report from Nebula this past week. I was underwhelmed with the ancestor report. But how would it be anything other than 100% Northern and Central Europe? What I really liked was the repository of research publications on genomic discoveries and how my genes fit into those studies. There are 140 studies on Nebula right now and they add more regularly. Each time they add one, my genetic profile is compared to the study and Nebula provides a polygenic score (which tells you how your makeup relates to the study). For example, I scored in the 100th percentile on glaucoma. This means my genetic makeup matched the profile of someone that develops glaucoma better than 100% of Nebula genomics users.

One of the studies (paywall) “reveals insights into the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior.” In this study there were “novel genetic variants” that were found to be associated with same-sex behavior. The study included over 490,000 individuals of European ancestry. There are two variants that are significant in both sexes. I matched those two with statistical significance. I found it fascinating that there are scientific studies coming out with this sort of research. Behavior, free will, environment, society and how they interact have always been interesting to me. Throw in genetic predispositions and pow!–you have a potent cocktail of behavior influencers, internal and external, conscious and subconscious alike.

I was excited to tell my family about my findings. Mostly about the genetic predispositions toward colorectal cancer, kidney disease, leukemia, melanoma, PTSD, and migraines (we like talking about these things). While scrolling through the genetic reports, I found the one on homosexual behavior and told them about it. I instantly thought about the connection between genetics and behavior. I thought about my previous personal beliefs surrounding homosexuality and how they had been shaped by the LDS Church. I thought about the history of the Church and its teachings regarding LGBTQ issues. Trends seem to indicate that genetics will become more and more of a science that people will rely on when making decisions about their health, behavior, family planning, and for things we have yet to think of. These implications will impact the LDS Church whether they want them to or not, because genetics influences behavior and religion usually aims to regulate or influence behavior.

I qualified my text to the family group chat with the word ‘controversy’. Our family’s natural disposition is anti-conflict. I know, however, that we also enjoy discussing deep topics, but we have a hard time expressing our disagreements in a kind way, or we get overly anxious and attempt to avoid conversation altogether. My intention was to spark conversation. But I know these types of conversations can go sideways quickly. I texted:

Controversy. There is a study on the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior. There aren’t enough genes that have been identified to be generally significant yet, but they have a 2 right now, and I score high in both of them 😁. When science tells us that homosexuality is highly influenced by our gentics, and not from ‘an overbearing mother’ (President Kimball) or that ‘such a disease is curable’ (Kimball) or that ‘A loving heavenly father would not make us that way’ (President Packer), how will the church respond?

They definitely have shifted their stance over time. The current stance of the church is ‘individuals do not choose to have such attractions’ (from lds.org in 2012), but they must abstain from ‘immoral relationships’. According to 1 survey over half of all mormon millennials support same-sex marriage. This subject will continue to be a really big issue for the church. I will be interested in seeing how ‘unchangeable eternal doctrine’ changes over time. Remember what you thought of same-sex attraction in 1990, 2000, 2010, 2020.

Is your genetic makeup a part of ‘who you are’? In theistic language, “is your genetic makeup a part of your soul? Did God make you this way? Does God change your genetic makeup after you die? That would mean you, your self, who you know of as you, will be changed when you die.” If genes influence behavior, how is there pure free agency (or libertarian free-will)? Sorry, these question just bombard my brain. Finding satisfying answers is the struggle.

My sister responded thoughtfully on how her ideas of homosexuality has changed over time, and about her curiosity on how the soul is “intertwined” with the body, and thus our genes. The question of how much of your genetic makeup is a part of ‘who you are’ impacts the church doctrine of eternal life, including pre-mortal existence. The idea of an eternal “you” is fundamental. I can understand how LGBTQ LDS members would consider, or commit, suicide. If who you are, fundamentally, is thought to be abhorrent and will be “fixed” after you die… then why wait? You’re obviously broken. You wouldn’t choose this right? This line of reasoning is sourced from the teachings of a religion that believes God gives us our moral code. This is what God wants. He tells us what is good and what is bad. This is what you get when you not only believe God is omniscient, but that his professed prophets are too.

In the New York Times article Many Genes Influence Same-Sex Sexuality, Not a Single ‘Gay Gene’ it’s stated that “genetics does play a role, responsible for perhaps a third of the influence… and the rest of the explanation includes social or environmental factors.” Homosexuality is a part of who we are, it is normal and natural, a part of being human. As genetic research expands and is able to provide explanatory weight to behavior, questions of free will and determinism will percolate. How much is our behavior directly influenced by our genes?

The continued march of LGBTQ acceptance continues in the Mormon church regardless of the attempts of its leadership, namely, its prophets and apostles, to subvert its progress. The LDS Church, not unlike many religions, have denounced homosexuality as sinful, and is clearly taught in the Bible. In the LDS Church, the pressure to articulate clearly its doctrine is sharpened by the fact that it claims to be led by living prophets and apostles, appointed by Jesus himself. In a type of irony, the LDS Church not only teaches it is a restored church from the time of Jesus, but that “if you think the Church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning,” as the current prophet put it. (link) Mormonism is uniquely set up to be ahead of a changing moral system. These leaders are said to call other leaders by ‘divine revelation’. The following are a sample of the teachings and policies of these ‘inspired men’ from this comprehensive (and fascinating) Wikipedia article:

  • 1897 – Homosexual behavior as an “abominable”, “filthy”, “nameless crime” that “caused the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah”. He continued, stating that the only way to stop these “dreadful practices” was “by the destruction of those who practice them” and “for the Lord to wipe them out” – George Q Cannon
  • 1958 – Homosexuality is “among Lucifer’s chief means of leading souls to hell”. In the section on “Chastity” he states that it is better to be “dead clean, than alive unclean” and that many Mormon parents would rather their child “come back in a pine box with [their] virtue than return alive without it” – Bruce R McConkie
  • 1959 – Church leaders begin their electroshock aversion therapy program on BYU campus in an attempt to change the sexual orientation of gay teens and men. The program lasted over two decades until at least 1983
  • 1962 – Under president Ernest Wilkinson a complete ban of any students attracted to people of the same sex regardless of behavior was instituted at BYU per the directives of apostles Kimball and Petersen. The ban lasted until April 1973.
  • 1965 – It is a “damnable heresy” for a homosexual person to say “God made them that way”. He also stated that sometimes masturbation is an introduction to homosexuality. – Spencer W Kimball
  • 1965 – Homosexuality is a “malady”, “disease”, and an “abominable and detestable crime against nature” that was “curable” by “self mastery” – Spencer W Kimball
  • 1969 – Kimball viewed many homosexuals as “basically good people who have become trapped in sin” – Spencer W Kimball
  • 1969 – Homosexuality “was made a capital crime in the Bible” as evidence of the seriousness of sexual sin in a general conference address. “Immorality is next to murder” and “the wage of sin is death” – Mark Peterson
  • 1970 – The Church produced Hope for Transgressors, in which apostles Kimball and Mark Petersen offer ideas to leaders about how to effect a “total cure” and “bring the lives of [men with homosexual tendencies] into total normalcy” and “help these people recover” (lesbians are only mentioned once). Ideas include prayer, cutting off contact with homosexual friends, dating women and marriage, and scripture reading. He calls homosexuality a “despicable”, “degraded”, “dread practice”, and a “perversion” that would “doom the world” while labeling the person a “generally lonely and sensitive” “deviate” and “afflicted one”.
  • 1970 – A “normal” and “healthy” 12- or 13-year-old boy or girl could “develop into a homosexual” if “exposed to pornographic literature” and “abnormalities”. Exposure to the material would “crystallize and settle their habits for the rest of their lives”      – Victor Brown, Presiding Bishop
  • 1970 – The “so-called ‘transsexuality’ doctrine” [is] hellish and false since God didn’t place female spirits in male bodies and vice versa. – Harold B Lee
  • 1971 – The Church published a 34-page letter from Kimball to homosexual men titled New Horizons for Homosexuals. In it Kimball called homosexuality “a ruinous practice of perversion” that the Church “will never condone” that begins with “curiosity” and “an unholy practice” like “an octopus with numerous tentacles to drag [the person] down to [their] tragedy”. Saying “perverts are … born ‘that way’” is a “base lie” since homosexuality is “curable” and “can be overcome” and “recover[ed]” from. The letter asserts “God made no man a pervert” or “evil” and that “[t]o blame a weakness … upon God is cowardly.” – Spencer W Kimball
  • 1973 The Church published a guide for bishops and stake presidents titled “Homosexuality: Welfare Services Packet 1”, which posited that “homosexual behavior” begins by being “molested” while also stating “not all who are molested become homosexual”. It also suggested that homosexuality is caused by “a domineering mother and a passive father”
  • 1973 – Homosexuality and adultery were both equally grievous sins second only to murder Harold B Lee
  • 1974 – BYU president Oaks delivered a speech on campus in which he spoke in favor of keeping criminal punishment for “deviant sexual behavior” such as private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity.
  • 1976 – It is a “malicious and destructive lie” that “some are born with an attraction to their own kind” – President Packer 1976
  • 1981 – The First Presidency and Twelve Apostles issued a guide for Church leaders simply called Homosexuality which stated “modern-day prophets have clearly promised that homosexuality can be changed”, and that it was “inconceivable that … [the Lord] would permit … his children to be born with [homosexual] desires and inclinations”.
  • 1982 – Avoid homosexuality “at all costs, no matter what the circumstances”. The 1973 removal of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel for Mental Disorders  as an example of something gone wrong “deep within our national soul”. – President of Ricks College Bruce Hafen
  • 1995 A member of the presidency of the Church denies any biological or “inherited” components in the etiology of homosexuality citing “no scientific evidence” supporting the “false belief of inborn homosexual orientation” leading to “so-called alternative lifestyles”. He continued that if there was an inherited or inborn aspect to homosexuality it would “frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness” and deny “the opportunity to change” leading to “discouragement, disappointment, and despair”.  – James Faust

Now in 2020, would it be unfair to say that prophets and apostles would know better by now? On the website mormonandgay.com the message is the admonition from Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) In reference to homosexual expression, on the same website, the Prophet Russel M. Nelson teaches, “even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.” (link)

How are we to digest the teachings of past prophets, with the teachings from current prophets? How would we expect the average lifelong member of the LDS Church to think, believe, and teach their kids about homosexuality? Today, I think the Church has come as far as they can go without fully accepting homosexuality as an acceptable way to express ones life. While certainly the rhetoric has softened over time, there have been missteps in recent years, namely: teaching to avoid homosexuals (link), teaching living a celibate life is like what others in the church are asked to do that never marry (link), California’s prop 8, apostles discussing questions on “new drugs and gene therapy” to “counter homosexuality.” (link), teaching to wait until after we die for answers (link), teaching God’s only recognizes marriage between and man and a woman and “will not change” (link), the November 2015 policy, and the reversal of the November 2015 policy in April 2019.

I wanted to give genetics its fair place in shaping behavior, but there is another (probably more weighty) important factor at play here, namely: culture. In the book Sapiens, Yuval Harari explains the time it took for Homo Sapiens to get to the point of developing culture. There was what is known has been termed the Tree of Knowledge gene mutation (Sapiens pg 33) some 70,000 to 30,000 years ago which transformed the human genome in a way to allow us to communicate and think in different ways, this period is known as the cognitive revolution. “Consequently,” Yuval says, “ever since the cognitive revolution Homo Sapiens has been able to revise its behavior rapidly in accordance to changing needs. This opened the fast lane to cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (Sapiens pg 33)

This cultural evolution combined religions, governments, and economics into a plurality of shared world-views. Now, instead of waiting for biological evolution to shape our instincts or behavioral patterns, we allowed culture to also shape those for us, for better or worse. Harari states, “because the Sapiens social order is imagined, humans cannot preserve the critical information for running it simply by making copies of DNA and passing these onto their progeny. A conscious effort has to be made to sustain law, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse.” (Sapiens pg 120) In this way, our stories and ideas about homosexuality have developed and been passed onto subsequent generations.

These shared fictions (e.g., the concept of money is a shared fiction, but does that mean it’s not actually real?) influence the reasons we tell ourselves why we believe in them and propagate them. For example, “people did not like to say that they kept slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it was economically expedient. White Europeans in the Americas wanted to be seen not only as economically successful but also pious, just and objective. Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division. Theologians argued that Africans descended from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed.” (Sapiens pg 140) In what ways are the methods used to justify racial prejudice in the history of the LDS Church (and Christendom) different than the methods used to justify sexual orientation prejudice? The Book of Mormon justifies racial prejudice (2 Nephi 5:21) as well as homosexual prejudice (Alma 39:5). I have provided a long list of theological reasons from influential leaders from the Church that say they speak for God against homosexuality. There is a list just as long for the theological reasons past prophets gave for the supposedly “divine” racial discrimination. (see this lengthy article for more context)

As the cultural posture has shifted, and homosexuality has become more accepted, religious teachings in many denominations have also shifted. Like the rapid change in behavior due to cultural shifts, genetic influence on behavior may also enter the ‘rapid change’ domain in the near future. Yuval talks about this potential rapid change moment: “Geneticists claim to have isolated the genes responsible for vole monogamy. If the addition of a gene can turn a vole Don Juan into a loyal and loving husband, are we far off from being able to genetically engineer not only the individual abilities of rodents, but also their social structures?” (Sapiens pg 402) If the social structure of our culture could be so altered by genetics, how do we account for personal free will or libertarian free will as in “nothing other than the will is the total cause.” (John Duns Scotus 14th century) If the will is influenced by your genes, what is the will?

Beyond the possible motivations of genetic engineering by religious adherents, how does one think through the idea of the soul and the body and DNA? In Mormonism the soul is “the spirit and the body.” (D&C 88:15-16) It is believed that resurrection is the uniting of the body and the spirit, forming the soul. How does the genetic makeup of a member of the LDS faith impact one’s conception of themself or the self? If someone is born with innate homosexual tendencies and lives according the LDS doctrines, they will not participate in any sexual act and strive to not entertain sexual thoughts. They will live celibate lives. And then, according to Bruce Hafen of the Quorum of the Seventy, “If you are faithful, on resurrection morning—and maybe even before then—you will rise with normal attractions for the opposite sex. Some of you may wonder if that doctrine is too good to be true. But Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said it MUST be true” (link) But what about their genetic makeup? What exactly does it mean to be resurrected, and yet have your personal identity, affected by genetics to some extent, be fundamentally different? It seems to be a self-negation doctrine.

I understand one of Nietzsche’s objections to Christianity more fully now:

The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit, it is at the same time subjection, self-derision, and self-mutilation.

Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil p 36

The predominant method we use to gain knowledge has changed over the centuries. In recent millennia, “when we are faced with a practical problem,” Yuval says, “we collect empirical data and analyze them mathematically. When faced with an ethical problem – such as determining whether to allow divorce, abortion and homosexuality – we read scriptures.” With time, and experience, our moral stance has changed on slavery, women’s rights, witchcraft, family planning, homosexuality, etc. Often, the religious attempted to find justification in scripture for a higher standard of morality, but most often these changes came in spite of divinely inspired scripture, and from those that rejected the religious doctrine at the time. In recent years, there has been an alternative to scripture for ethical concerns. In his sequel to Sapiens, Yuval Harari explained in Homo Deus, “As humans [have] gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge [has] appeared: Knowledge = Experience x Sensitivity.” (Homo Deus pg 239) Our collective human experience tells us that homosexuality is normal and a part of being a member of the Homo Sapien species. It is who we are, it is a part of our genetic makeup. As such, our moral sense and cultural norms of heterosexual behavior merges with homosexual behavior, without ethical or moral difference.

As we look to the future, “[traditional religions] don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis, and muftis don’t understand the most recent breakthroughs in biology and computer science.” (Homo Deus pg 278) How does the Mormon (or any religion) soul look like when artificial intelligence knows you better than you know yourself? When AI can predict optimal outcomes for career, family, spouse, friendship, religion? What does the Mormon soul look like when genetic engineering alters genes around compassion, intelligence, agreeableness, conscientiousness, alleviating mental illness, and providing cures for genetic abnormalities? What will be the stories told to shift past religious teachings from “men of their time” to the new religious dogma? Why can’t God’s supposed servants see the future?

This conflict of homosexuality and genetics, choice, behavior, and obedience to prophets, will continue to be a mess for the LDS Church whichever direction the conflict takes them. In the Book of Mormon it states, “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” (Alma 34:34)

In other words, the same person you were on earth will be the same as you are when resurrected. If your sexual orientation is a core part of who you are, will this be changed or “fixed” when you are resurrected? It does not appear to be this way according to LDS scripture. I find it hard to believe that God would have you live a lifetime gaining experience, growing, developing, maturing on all levels (mental, spiritual, relational), and presumably in committed healthy romantic relationships, that this same God would say “your same spirit will go with you into the next life, but not if you’re homosexual, you don’t get to take that with you.”

Furthermore in Alma 40:23 it says, “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” I understood this to mean all my physical deformities would be perfected, like my bad back, my migraine headaches, or a my bald head. But what else could “the soul shall be restored to the body” mean than a restoration of who you fundamentally are as a person, your innate ‘being’. If homosexual Mormons are not “fixed” after-death, how do they fit into Mormon afterlife? The teachings of the Church explicitly command sexual reproduction as a central component of eternal life. This idea has been thought of by leaders in the church, and apparently Dallin H Oaks, the next prophet in line, says it’s all going to be okay, and to not worry about it in the eternal perspective. In response to a potential question from someone with homosexual tendencies, “If I can somehow make it through this life, when I appear on the other side, what will I be like?” he states:

“Gratefully, the answer is that same-gender attraction did not exist in the pre-earth life and neither will it exist in the next life. It is a circumstance that for whatever reason or reasons seems to apply right now in mortality, in this nano-second of our eternal existence.” (link)

Dallin H Oaks

Why are we, the Mormon community, comfortable with this doctrine as taught by leaders of the LDS faith? Jesus taught (Matthew 25:31-46) that those who enter into his kingdom will be those that help people in need, those that feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and those that help the foreigner. The issue for Jesus is active love. This is simple. This gives life meaning. This teaching exhorts a level of personal responsibility that one must take on. This responsibility, practiced by many, would create a kingdom of heaven on earth. Unfortunately, under the current teachings of the LDS faith, homosexuals are excluded from this kingdom, in heaven and on earth. I am sorry, but one cannot actively love someone as Jesus does and also abhor that same person for who they are (their ‘self’, fundamentally and genetically). Until the LDS Church embraces homosexuality fully, they will not only marginalize those that are homosexual and their families, but those that care about those that are marginalized, like Jesus would.

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