Friday, October 21, 2011

Gay Mormon Discomfort with Pride

A significant number of gay people from Mormon backgrounds are uncomfortable with many aspects of Gay Pride events. Although Pride events typically occur during the summer months, they are not infrequently discussed throughout the year. This post was prompted by an online discussion thread in which most commenters expressed discomfort and dislike toward various aspects of Pride, wondered whether Pride was necessary, and voiced their view that flamboyant gay people at Pride events perpetuate stereotypes, decrease the chances for social acceptance and cause the definition of “gay” to be too limited in the minds of the majority of people.
For me, Pride isn’t about acceptance, it’s about recognition. It’s about showing that there’s more than one way to live a legitimate life. It’s about proclaiming (and even shouting if necessary) that the most “obvious” queer person is just as deserving of respect and dignity as a queer person who can pass as a straight person from central casting.

It is the eagerness of people to dismiss other people who they view as weird that perpetuates stereotypes. People must take action to apply a stereotype to other people. That process is a strange combination of conscious and subconscious. Stereotypes do not merely radiate from the person being stereotyped. To say that the perpetuation of stereotypes is the fault of particular aspects of Gay Pride events or what someone terms as flamboyant is far too close to blaming the victim in my view.

Mormon culture rewards conformity to a very narrow band of acceptability. The broader American culture rewards conformity as well. Neo-Victorianism pervades many aspects of American religious life, even though it has led to hypocrisy and psychopathology all too often. These are things that many of us will likely have to work through for the rest of our lives---individually and in our communities. For our own self-respect and emotional health, work through it we must. Turning up our noses at the parts of Pride we don’t like is the same as the people we view as intolerant turning up their noses at us.

I agree there should be a broader range of voices involved in Pride. I’m glad there is a diversity of voices. That is vital. In fact, the range of voices has continually grown over the years. Take for example the experience this past summer of a good friend of mine who spoke with mother who came to Pride on her own to find out how she could support her gay child. I bet that mother raised her eyebrows a few times as she walked around Pride. But I’d bet even more that she gained something valuable in talking with my friend and in participating in something outside her comfort zone.

Beaches and swim meets also have scantily clad people. One important part of Pride for me is that it challenges the often arbitrary nature of what is deemed acceptable in particular settings. People may feel uncomfortable with people dressed in underwear and covered with glitter and feathers. Oh well. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that there are still local and national political leaders who say they will gladly “die on the hill” fighting an expansion of gay rights. But I don’t think they’re the majority of people who are grappling with their views about gay people.

If someone doesn’t accept me, fine. If someone wants to apply a stereotype to me, all I can do is be myself. I can’t control the smallness of the mind and heart of another person. I can live genuinely in the hope that people of good will eventually will expand their understanding and compassion for other human beings. But I will say this: If someone starts violating my civil rights, dehumanizes me or uses their disdain for me for an insidious purpose---or does that to someone who I love or someone among my people---that’s a problem. In large part, acts of violation, dehumanization and disdain are why Pride began, and why it’s still needed.

I guess I’m a “big tent” person who doesn't mind that there may be a couple making out in the corner while everyone else is just chatting and supporting each other.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Hope and the Voices We Choose to Hear

The following is an open letter to anyone considering reading the recently published book, “Voices of Hope: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on Same-Gender Attraction – An Anthology of Gospel Teachings and Personal Essays” edited by the gay Mormon and mixed-orientation married Ty Mansfield, who is a practicing family therapist and doctoral student in Marriage and Family Therapy at Texas Tech University.

Hope is an interesting word. For most devout Mormons, “hope” in a discussion of the place of gay people in society is couched in terms of “overcoming the struggle of same-sex attraction,” being “valiant in following the prophets,” and “living according to the values in the ‘Family Proclamation.’” This is especially true for Mormons who identify as straight. For most people, “hope” as a gay is more about living a life filled with meaning, personal authenticity and love.

My challenge to anyone reading this “Voices of Hope” book (and any of the comments on Amazon, the church-owned Deseret Book website or elsewhere) is to read between the lines. Historically (especially within Mormonism and other social compliance-driven religious traditions), gay people have been vilified simply for being gay, accused of advancing an insidious agenda, and for being intolerant of other people’s deeply-held religious views. Now, we have this new book, with its delightfully unwieldy title, as another in a long-line of sugar-coated tomes of “hope” to encourage gay people from a Mormon background to consign themselves to being silenced in lives of despair. How sad that these myths continue to be perpetuated by leaders and members with an agenda of their own, as well as what I have come to call the Gay Mormon Heroes who claim to have found happiness in a post-gay life.

Of course, sexuality is fluid. Each person travels their own path. Who are any of us to say that a person can’t choose to be straight? Many of us who are gay tried that for a long, long time. Straight people make the choice to be straight every day. Mormons make the choice every day to be Mormon. Gay people make the choice every day to face a world that may be slowly changing but it still deeply suspicious and fearful of them. Despite that, gay people find true hope in living a life according to the dictates of their own conscience, to borrow the term from Joseph Smith himself. Mormons would do well to remember their founder’s injunction to allow all the same privilege of living lives of conscience rather than delivering a nearly endless stream of pseudo-science. The entire world would do well to stop obsessing over the pointless question of whether being gay is a choice. It’s a red herring used to distract people away from the universal value of treating other people with respect and dignity. Gay people exist. How anyone “became” gay is irrelevant.

If you want to struggle and be stuck in that mode, or you want to have your pre-conceived notions of how other people should live without seeking to understand the full range of what it is like to be gay, then this is your book. You will find many glowing examples in the writing of heroes who struggle with managing their same-sex attraction, leaders and family members who preach without truly listening, quasi-theologians who expound on the law of chastity and the “traditional” family, and professionals whose unproven approach is far outside the generally accepted standards of the scientific community.

If you care for your loved one who is gay, bisexual, questioning or simply trying to sort through the range of feelings regarding sexuality, encourage them to seek out multiple perspectives. You and they may even want to read this book. But don’t stop with this book. Please. 

During a quiet moment of personal reflection, think about the fact that the church still publishes and its leaders still recommend Spencer Kimball's book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness” that labels gay people as threats to civilization and contains quotes such as: “All such deviations from normal, proper heterosexual relationships are not merely unnatural but wrong in the sight of God. Like adultery, incest, and bestiality they carried the death penalty under the Mosaic law. (Lev. 20:13, 15-16.) The law is less severe now, and so regrettably is the community's attitude to these grave sins--another evidence of the deterioration of society.” If the church has indeed changed, why is this still published and recommended?

After you reflect on this, read a wide array of books. Find other resources. Do some research beyond and church-approved material. Focus on the love you have for your family member or friend, and how much you value a genuine relationship with them. Talk to gay people you know. If you don’t know any gay people, expand your circle. Go to a GLBT community center and ask for a reading list. Sit and talk with the staff. You’ll probably find that they are just as nice as any Mormon you may have met. You might even find out that they come from a Mormon background. At all costs, avoid making this book the centerpiece of your knowledge about what it means for your fellow human beings to be gay.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The End of Thinking

On a Facebook group I belong to, there was a recent discussion about a statement published as a “Ward Teachers’ Message” in the Deseret News, Church Section, p. 5, May 26, 1945. This has been discussed for decades. It should be discussed, not because of the original publication, but the phenomenon in Mormonism from whence it sprang and its effect on the human mind and heart.

The statement is a summary of one of the key folk doctrines of Mormonism: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”  

The opening line of the message (“No Latter-day Saint is compelled to sustain the General Authorities of the Church”) is a declaration almost entirely undermined by what follows in the message and what culminates in the final paragraph quoted above.

It has been pointed out that the president of the LDS church at the time, George Albert Smith, responded in private correspondence with Dr. J. Raymond Cope, a Unitarian in Salt Lake City who wrote to the LDS church conveying his concerns about the statement. In his reply, Smith clearly states that the ward teachers’ message “does not express the true position of the Church.” He gives a heartfelt and articulate response, noting that “not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.” The full text of the message and Smith’s letter to Dr. Cope are available here.

Despite George Albert Smith’s earnest private letter, this belief among Mormons persists.

Here’s the main reason for that:  It is a current teaching of the church. Despite George Albert Smith’s emphatic support of freedom of thought among Mormons, statements like the one from the 1945 ward teachers’ message are repeated by senior members of the church hierarchy, in official church publications and by leaders and members at the local level quite regularly. Online social media communications further solidify this folk doctrine’s place in the minds and hearts of devout Mormons. For most devout Mormons, folk doctrines are the most important ones that guide their lives and interactions with other people. In fact, folk doctrines are what tend to dominate much of what is taught in the LDS church, even in the church’s semiannual general conference.

I will leave it to scholars of religious studies and sociology to compile a full list of statements that have perpetuated this “the thinking is over” principle among Mormons. But to give you a taste, here are a few places to look:

Dallin Oaks, in 2007 during his interview for the PBS documentary The Mormons, crafted an ingenious extension of this principle. Oaks (a senior apostle, mind you) stated: “It's wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” This means true-believing Mormons aren’t supposed to criticize him for saying that. It’s brilliant, really.

In all my time as an actively participating member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I never once heard anyone repudiate or soften statements suggesting that faithful Mormons must absolutely assent to statements and decisions of the president of the church (a.k.a, “the prophet”) or the other fourteen apostles, except on rare occasions in private and in hushed tones—as if to do otherwise was akin to a devout Muslim blaspheming the name of Mohammed. As a side note, I think I could have very interesting conversations with my free-thinking contemporaries who grew up in modern Iran.

This widely accepted Mormon principle was on full display during the Prop 22 and Prop 8 campaigns in California, and during the national debate regarding the nearly-ratified Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It buttressed institutional racial offenses prior to the 1978 Official Declaration 2 (which ended the infamous “priesthood ban”). It was used in support of purges of academics from church-run universities. It has been used in a variety of other circumstances as well in matters weighty and mundane.

Another commenter on the discussion thread this post stems from, who is an active, believing Mormon (albeit a bit unorthodox), wrote that critical dialogue that allows him to think about and understand all the options makes it much more likely that he will choose the right option for himself. I think that’s a very good way to approach decisions. He further wrote that “truth invites scrutiny, for that is where its validity is uncovered,” and said he encouraged honest questioning of what we think we’re hearing when someone speaks.

Unfortunately for Mormons who value reason and thoughtful inquiry, one would be hard-pressed to find quotes from any of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve during the last 40 years that genuinely support notions such as “open up lines of critical dialogue that allow you to think about and understand all the options” and “we encourage honest questioning of what you hear us say.” Even more unfortunate is the likelihood that most active members of the LDS church wouldn’t like the church to function that way.

Church leaders at all levels, and much of the membership, like having it both ways. The official publications of the church (the Ensign, Liahona, lesson manuals, articles in the Church News or the “Newsroom” section of the church website, a general conference talk, etc.) state something extreme, a thoughtful person expresses legitimate concern or outrage, one of the brethren responds privately with personal assurances that the church isn’t really that extreme, the extreme teaching spreads and takes root, years later the same teaching rears its head and becomes even more widely accepted, and during this entire time there is no direct and concerted effort by church leaders to make public clarifications. They say, “oh no, we don't teach that,” but then allow it to be taught without a word of correction. (Also, they DO teach it, as evidenced by the Frankenstein-esque re-animation of Ezra Taft Benson’s “14 Fundamentals” talk in 2010 cited above.) The Mormon hierarchy values fealty and its own display of a united front above nearly anything else. I know this from painful personal experience and from hearing the painful experiences of many others.

These are smart men. And for the most part they are not trying to make life miserable for others. They dedicate their lives to a cause they believe to be truly helpful to people. But they have painted themselves and the church into a groupthink corner with paint that never seems to dry.

Perhaps things were different at another time. We can talk about what may or may not have happened in the pre-mortal existence described in Mormon cosmology. We can talk about personal letters written by past presidents of the church. We can talk about how Joseph Smith might have treated gay people in our modern world. The reality is that there is hard evidence showing that since at least the 1950s, almost every personal relationship, event, program, doctrine, policy, procedure, activity and every other church effort comes down to how it supports the absolute authority of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in matters both spiritual and temporal.

The dirty little secret is that most devout Mormons like it that way. Many, if not most, active Mormons would like to have these 15 men be the head of a world government (the Kingdom of God on Earth with Zion as capital city and a United Order economic system) as was contemplated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Council of Fifty. Google that when you have some spare time (and fasten your seat belt for the ride).

We can debate whether the authority of Mormon leadership is divine or a human creation. But where we side in that debate doesn’t matter much with regard to freedom of thought and expression. At this moment, the authorities of the church are stuck in a pattern of supplanting anything that could pass for divine with their own stubborn hubris. They are the ones who have frozen the church into a glacier. It’s worth pointing out that the only reason a glacier moves is due to gravity. They have not moved it an inch, and see no need to. We approach the height of irony when “special witnesses of Christ” (as LDS apostles are called) must be compelled to move rather than taking up the charge to move the people closer to the pure love that is the clear foundation of what Jesus of Nazareth taught. What is more, their answers aren’t the biggest problem. It is that they aren’t asking the necessary questions.

We can and should be thinking critically. We should speak up where we can. We should be outraged that because of a lack of vision and compassion, church leaders have allowed fear and hate to fester (and in some cases fomented it themselves) to such a degree that even they can’t do much about it out of fear of schism. That said, we shouldn’t be so naive as to think that anything short of an existential threat along the lines of the church losing its tax-exempt status will do much to move the church institutionally. They know about the alternative viewpoints. They just aren’t doing anything in response, other than digging in for a fight of their own creation.

Isn’t it odd that in a church which places a premium on following the prophet that if the president of the church were to announce that gay marriages would be performed in Mormon temples tomorrow, a significant percentage of members would surely reject him as a prophet? People think a bit more than the “thinking is done” principle suggests, although many Mormons are very ill-equipped to think (and to process their emotions) about issues because of that very principle. No wonder the church hierarchy is so obsessed with appearing unified if their hold on power is so precarious. No wonder they want people to believe that when the leaders speak, the thinking has been done and the debate is over. In their world, debate and thinking about anything other than obedience are dangerous.