Mormonism and the Paradox of Modern Homosexuality

There is a deep paradox at the heart of American culture when it comes to homosexuality.  On one hand, Americans seem more accepting than ever.  We have openly gay couples at high school proms, gay characters on primetime sitcoms, and plenty of pop songs insisting that homosexuals are “Born This Way.”

Yet on the other hand, many Americans–not just conservatives or Fundamentalists–display a new anxiety about being perceived as gay.  Male behaviors that might not have raised eyebrows in pre-Stonewall days–think Honest Abe sharing a bed with a male pal–now seem obviously “gay.”

If we outsiders hope to understand Fundamentalist America’s hostility to homosexuality, we need to chip away at this seeming paradox.  In a fascinating essay this morning on Religion & Politics, Kristine Haglund explores the way this modern dilemma plays out in LDS (Mormon) communities.  For male LDS members, Haglund argues, an intensely masculine identity is balanced with a soft gentleness.  Male church members have an intense patriarchal privilege.  Yet they are also tied to a sexual chastity that forbids homosexual sexual conquest as a way to establish hetero bona fides.  Men are required to spend their late-teen years in an intimate partnership with another young missionary male.  And in community, men are encouraged to display stereotypically feminine gentleness and emotionality.  These things lead, Haglund writes, to an exaggerated display of masculinity, in traditions such as “church ball.”  Yet LDS members such as Haglund herself are accustomed to seeing men act in gentle, emotional ways in public.  Haglund notes,

“Paradoxically, these behaviors, which might be pejoratively coded ‘gay’ or effeminate in other contexts, are key components of Mormon masculinity. A look at this fraught masculinity may offer a glimpse into what drives the LDS Church, and Mormon politicians like Mitt Romney, to insist on the defense of traditional gender roles in the family. The unique contours of Mormon masculinity can also help answer the question: Why are (many) Mormons so vehemently opposed to gay marriage and any other overt expression of homosexuality?

“The short answer to that question is that the unique mix of ritualized homosociality and patriarchal authority—the bedrocks of Mormon masculinity—means that many Mormon men are nervous about permitting even the idea that there might be more than a platonic ‘bromance’ in the post-Church Ball game sweaty hug.”

What is true for LDS men might be extended to American men as a whole.  As the notion of homosexuality becomes more of an everyday reality in American culture, some males struggle to establish their heterosexuality beyond reproach.  Does this fuel the hostility in Fundamentalist America to the notion of homosexuality as simply another way to be a sexual person?  In other words, as men become more keenly aware of homosexuality as a real phenomenon, does it push them to a sterner insistence on heterosexual supremacy and traditional family norms?

I’m nervous about the dangers of psychologizing such a broad cultural tendency.  It is a tried-and-true culture-war tactic to dismiss any opposition as somehow psychologically maladjusted.  We don’t want to insist that traditionalist opposition to homosexuality can only come from ignorance, fear, and Freudian neuroses.  But Haglund’s observations about the  “performance of Mormon masculinity [as] a difficult balancing act, a tightrope walk between poles established by a brutish, hyper-masculine ‘natural man’ and an effeminate gay man” seem equally applicable outside the LDS temple walls.  For many American men, increasing awareness that homosexuality is everywhere may lead to a desire to project a more firmly anti-homosexual identity.

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