Emotional Pain, Families in Conflict and Learning Acceptance

By Anne McMullin Peffer

Same-sex attraction within Mormonism has a tendency to be associated with deep amounts of emotional pain. This emotional pain is often at the heart of family and community conflicts. In general, a great deal of the emotional pain is related to fear of rejection and exclusion.

Family members who are attracted to the same-sex often hide their attractions out of fear that their families and communities will blame them, label them, think they are sinners, reject them, and cast them from their lives, religious spaces and homes. If same-sex attracted family members follow through with their attractions and engage in same-sex sexual encounters, the fear of rejection, exclusion and the shame deepens and often increases desires to keep attractions and same-sex sexual behaviors closeted. The silence and loneliness experienced in the closet deepens the emotional pain to an extent that some may engage in suicidal or other self-destructive behaviors. Some may stay closeted in this emotionally painful place for years. Others may eventually decide that it is preferable to come out and risk rejection and exclusion rather than remain bound by the silence and loneliness that accompanies not being able to be honest about oneself with others.

When one member of a family decides to end his or her silence and share his or her same-sex attractions, other family members may respond with rejecting and excluding behaviors because they, too, are worried about being judged by their communities through their relation to that family member. Both the same-sex attracted person and his or her family may feel intense fear of being labeled, excluded, and socially ostracized by their broader communities. As a result of their own fear of being viewed negatively, some parents sometimes may make hurtful decisions such as ejecting a same-sex attracted child from the home or deprecating his or her status in the family. This act is often done out of self-protection because humans are social beings who care deeply about how others perceive them.

The emotional pain accompanying fear of retaliation, exclusion and rejection are at the center of this system for ALL family members. The sense that there is something so inherently shameful about same-sex attraction that one must remain silent about it, hide it from family and/or community, and that one even risks loss of social connection and social status if one is honest about aspects of the self or a family member that are so inherently intrinsic to identity leaves people feeling as if they are in deep and desperate double binds. Either they must hide something about who they or a family member are, must degrade themselves or that family member, or must speak out openly and risk loss of acceptance.

One thing that we can do, as a community of Mormons who care about our LGBT and same-sex attracted brothers and sisters and their families, is make a direct and intentional point of being accepting. It is fortunate that rejection and exclusion have an opposite in acceptance because the concept of acceptance makes it possible for us to reduce emotional pain and family conflict by letting it be known that we will not judge or reject anyone for their attractions or behaviors or the attractions or behaviors of one of their family members, and that instead, we will be accepting — even when we disagree.

We can remember, too, that it is not true that accepting others means that we must necessarily deny ourselves. We can be accepting of those who are different than we are without simultaneously compromising our own beliefs or engaging in behaviors we disagree with. Just as Christ knew who he was and administered to all without fear of becoming a lesser person for his actions of acceptance, we can accept all regardless of the ways in which they are different than ourselves.

We all want acceptance. People, in general, do. The hard part is that acceptance is a two-way street. We can not genuinely ask others to accept us if we are not willing to accept them in return. If we are not willing to sit together with those with whom we disagree, and make a point of listening to them even though our opinions are different, we are engaging in the same judgmental and socially exclusive behaviors that 1) drive individuals to remain in the closet despite the emotional pain they experience there, 2) are associated with suicidal and self-destructive behaviors, and 3) play a role in the fear that causes parents to reject their own children because they do not want to be ostracized and judged by their communities.

Really practicing acceptance means we must accept those who choose to self-identify as LGBT AND those who choose to self-identify as same-sex attracted. It means that we must accept those who choose mixed-orientation relationships AND those who choose same-sex relationships. It means that we must accept those who choose celibacy and those who do not. If we can together make it known that we support and accept everyone, regardless of belief, attraction, behavior or life decisions, we can ameliorate the fear felt by those who are same-sex attracted and their families and put an end to some of the rejecting and retaliatory behaviors that are the source of so much emotional pain, familial conflict, heartache and loss.

If we really want to demonstrate acceptance, we must be willing to outwardly accept those we disagree with. We must be willing to create and share spaces with people with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye and don’t normally get along. The intentional action of acceptance is effective because it has the potential to counteract the deleterious effects of exclusion and rejection and to alleviate individual emotional pain and family conflict.

Acceptance is a powerful tool. Circling the Wagons provides the opportunity to practice it. Come and sit next to people you don’t agree with and try listening to gain understanding and find common ground.

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