Mormon Homophobia: Up Close and Personal

I posted a brief item here recently about the PR nightmare facing the Mormon Church as a result of the prominent role it played this year promoting Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage in California. At the urging of church leaders, Mormons spent about $20 million on the effort, which probably provided the margin that enabled the proposition to pass.

There is some irony in the fact that Mormon pollster Gary Lawrence, who led the Proposition 8 grassroots campaign for the church in California, has a gay son, Matthew, who publicly resigned from the church to protest its anti-gay campaign. Matthew says that after his father's participation in "two anti-gay initiatives in eight years, it's impossible not to feel attacked."

Adding further to the irony, Gary Lawrence has a new book out, titled How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image. His advice to Mormons who want to be better liked is, "Simply be yourself" -- advice that drew a sharp response from one blogger, who pointed out that being yourself "is a poor prescription for winning friends when 'who you are' is someone willing to lead a campaign to strip your own child of his civil rights."

The anti-Mormon backlash continues, and some people who have Mormon friends are rising to their defense, including Kaliya Hamlin (also known as "Identity Woman" for her work on issues related to online identity). In a recent blog post, Hamlin complains that "web mobs" are engaged in "blacklisting and subsequent public harassment and targeting of specific people and specific religious groups for their beliefs and support of YES on prop 8." She continues:

I take this personally, I have and do work with people who are Mormon - (When I played water polo in university and in the Identity field). I respect the LDS church and the people in it - they have good values. ...

I think what is going on with the blacklists -- that are directly targeting people in their private life is wrong. I think targeting specific religious institutions for protest is wrong.

These people and these religious institutions are not propagating HATE they are just not agreeing that marriage can be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. This is a cultural difference of opinion.

A photo from my own days as a Mormon missionary. I'm the blond guy in the middle. My relationship with the other missionary was strictly platonic (not that there's anything wrong with that).With all due respect, I think Hamlin fails to understand the intensity, seriousness, and yes, hatred underlying Mormon opposition to gay rights. I actually have more personal experience with Mormons than she does. I was raised in a Mormon family and even served a two-year Mormon mission in Japan from 1976 to 1978. Although I no longer believe in or practice its teachings, my extended family includes many active members. It's true that individual Mormons are mostly nice people -- as generous, thoughtful, intelligent and considerate as people from any other religion or belief system. Unfortunately, it is actually possible to possess all of those positive attributes and still promote hatred and intolerance.

From my missionary days, I still own a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness, a book by Spencer W. Kimball, who was president (and "prophet") of the Mormon Church from 1973 until his death in 1985. The church still promotes Kimball's book and supports its beliefs regarding homosexuality, which he outlined in a chapter titled "Crime Against Nature." It states,

Homosexuality is an ugly sin, repugnant to those who find no temptation in it, as well as to many past offenders who are seeking a way out of its clutches. It is embarrassing and unpleasant as a subject for discussion but because of its prevalence, the need to warn the uninitiated, and the desire to help those who may already be involved in it, it is discussed in this chapter. ...

[P]erhaps as an extension of homosexual practices, men and women have sunk even to seeking sexual satisfaction from animals. ...

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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. ... The law is less severe now, and so regrettably is the community's attitude to those grave sins -- another evidence of the deterioration of society. In some countries the act per se is not even illegal. This "liberalizing" process is reflected in the United States by communities of homosexuals in our larger cities who sponsor demonstrations and draw up petitions to this end, who are formally organized, and who even print their own perverted journals. All this is done in the open, to the detriment alike of impressionable minds, susceptible urges, and our national decency.

Mormon abhorrence of homosexuality is so strong that in the 1970s the church even experimented with aversion therapy at Brigham Young University (BYU), setting up a center where it tried to "cure" homosexuality. The so-called therapy consisted of taping electrodes to the groin, thigh, chest and armpits of gay men and subjecting them to painful electric shocks while showing them pornographic photographs of nude men. The treatments, which were overseen by the head of the university's psychology department, were thought to be "effective in reducing homosexual responsiveness." I happen to know someone who underwent this treatment -- in his case voluntarily, because he was desperately trying to comply with Mormon teachings. However, some cases have been reported of people who were subjected to aversion therapy against their will, or who were pressured into it with threats of expulsion from college. The experience left many with psychological and physical scars, and at least two men reportedly committed suicide shortly after undergoing treatment.

Hamlin says that Mormons have "good values." However, Mormon values are precisely what are on display in Kimball's writings and the actions of the aversion therapists at BYU. And they are core values of Mormonism today. These values are deeply felt and widely believed. They are the basis for Mormon political activism against Proposition 8 in California, and they will undoubtedly continue to drive Mormon political actions against gay rights in the future.

Of course, not all Mormons share this homophobia. There is even a website, MormonsForMarriage.com, devoted to letting "the world know that not all Mormons (LDS church members) oppose gay marriage." However, this view is in the minority and is strongly at odds with the church's official position and numerous pronouncements from church leaders over a period of decades. Matthew Lawrence is only one of hundreds of Mormons who have felt compelled to resign their membership in protest against the church's opposition to gay rights.

The question remains, of course, whether Hamlin is right that supporters of gay rights should refrain from "directly targeting people in their private life" by protesting and arguing with individual Mormons who have participated in the church's anti-gay campaigns. Certainly protesters should refrain from belligerence, threats and intimidation. However, the only way Mormon attitudes are going to change on this issue is through confrontation. (And even then, attitudes will not change easily or quickly.)

On this point, I remember my own experience as a teenager in the 1970s, a time when Mormons continued to cling to another discriminatory value -- the so-called "Negro doctrine" which excluded people of African descent from the Mormon priesthood. As justification for the priesthood ban, a number of pernicious theories were popular in Mormon culture. I own a book from that era titled Mormonism and the Negro (co-authored by a vice president at BYU), which patiently explains that Negroes are "descendants of Cain" and therefore subject to "Cain's curse" because their spirits were "less valiant" than the spirits of white people. (Although I didn't know it at the time, even these ideas were an improvement over the statements of Brigham Young in the 19th century, when he declared as a "law of God" that "If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.")

As a high school student in 1974, I felt privately uncomfortable with the "Negro doctrine," but like many members of the church, I didn't think about it very much. It didn't become a personal thing for me until one day in gym class, when a black kid came up to me and angrily said he had heard that Mormons didn't think blacks like him should go to heaven. What did I think of that? He wanted to know.

Technically, he was wrong about the theological details. Mormons actually believed that blacks could go to heaven. They just couldn't have the priesthood. I tried to make that distinction the basis for a joke to defuse the situation. "No, we think you can go to heaven," I replied. "We just think you don't deserve to." The black kid glared at me for a minute, and that was the end of the conversation. Today, more than 30 years later, I don't remember his name, but I remember the moment very clearly. I imagine he walked away thinking he had wasted his breath by even talking to me. He certainly didn't get a satisfactory reply. But the conversation had an effect on me. It left me feeling profoundly shaken and uncomfortable about a church practice that until then had seemed like a theoretical abstraction of no particular relevance to my own life. Over time, that discomfort helped inform my thinking and changed my attitudes.

There were Mormons and non-Mormons who challenged the Negro doctrine long before I ever heard about it. For most of them, challenging the status quo was unpleasant and sometimes was met with hostility -- all the more so because on that issue, as with the issue of gay rights, Mormons simply did not believe that they were guilty of promoting hatred or discrimination. It took years for attitudes to change on the Negro doctrine, but in 1978 the Mormon Church officially announced a revelation -- from none other than Spencer W. Kimball -- which gave black Mormons the same priesthood rights as everyone else. I remember when it happened. (I was in Japan at the time, knocking on doors and trying to get people to read the Book of Mormon.) Most members of the church were palpably relieved when the Negro doctrine was finally abandoned, but nevertheless it took pressure and personal confrontations to make this change happen.

On an issue like this one, where there are entrenched attitudes and strongly held beliefs, change comes one conversation at a time, haltingly, with discomfort and difficulty. Some Mormons are having those conversations as they discover that members of their own family are gay. Others are now having the conversation thrust upon them as people "target them in their private life" to challenge their political activities. However discomfiting these conversations may be, they need to happen if attitudes are ever to change.

Comments

It will take some time for the individual members of the LDS to separate themselves from the bigotry of the CA election. In 1978, when I worked in a local newsroom as a reporter we got flooded with calls from LDS members accusing us of lying about the changes allowing Blacks into the priesthood. One fellow read me the riot act with as many expletives as you can imagine. When he asked if I agreed with him, I mentioned that being Black and listening to his racism convinced me that he needed a lot more help from his religious leaders than I could give him. He was not pleased. I was.

<blockquote>"...[W]hich patiently explains that Negroes are 'descendants of Cain' and therefore subject to 'Cain's curse' because their spirits were 'less valiant' than the spirits of white people."</blockquote> The Biblical justification for racism I'd always heard was that blacks are the descendants of Cham, the son of Noah, whom God punished for laughing at his father on seeing him drunk and naked, by making him a servant to his brothers Shem and Japhet. To a certain sort of theological mentality, this Cain theory might well make the racial divide seem all the greater because it moves the origin of the split between white and black much closer to the supposed creation of mankind. Ain't scripture fun? Anyway, Sheldon, thank you for this fine post.

I too was raised Mormon and as a fifth generation Mormon left the church after prop 22 in CA in 2000, which is much like prop 8 was, and the church reportedly raised forty million dollars then, assessing each family in CA congregations an average of 250 dollars to "donate," to the cause. Seeing my lovely church yard in Pacific Palisades covered with vote yes signs on Prop 22 ripped my heart apart. I was raised to love all people and these signs spoke silently of hate. I especially liked this line from the article "Unfortunately, it is actually possible to possess all of those positive attributes and still promote hatred and intolerance." And sadly that is what I find so true and the thing I can understand the least. Thanks for such a great article. Beckie Weinheimer Author Queens NY

Great post, and enlightening to boot; I always thought of Mormons as, uhh, a bit quirky--for some reason, most of us find the idea of demi-gods roaming the planet a couple of thousand years ago perfectly reasonable, but can't get our heads around the idea of 19th century New Yorkers in possession of golden tablets--but ultimately harmless. A semi-lapsed Catholic, I always felt the Roman Curia was a far greater threat to civil rights and psychological well being. Some of what you've included herein is downright stomach-churning--torturing gay people in the 70's is a far cry from the groovy let's-hear-it-for-the-spirit! style nuns (short haired but habit-less) with whom I was familar at the time. I have some pretty deep roots in NE PA--Scranton and environs--though I haven't lived there in some time; I think the most stunning thing about election night for me was when Pennsylvania was called for Obama the instant the polls closed. Thought I was misreading. So what I couldn't figure out was how my allegedly racist, gaybashing, abortion hatin' hillbilly brethren in PA managed to break so heavily for Obama, while my enlightened left coast comrades voted in favor of this moronic ban. But it may well be a case of winning the battle but losing the war. Like Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, the Mormon struggle against gay marriage may represent a watershed moment--a grand gesture which ultimately reveals an institution pathetically out of touch and doomed to an imminent political state of irrelevance because of this committment to a single explosive issue (look at Catholic voting trends in PA last month for an example--in the Scranton archdiocese, the Bishop had every pastor read a letter decrying Democratic pro-abortion candidates; the week the letter was read contributions to Obama's campaign surged in these same districts). While I have tremendous sympathy for the gay couples of California--I live in Massachusetts, where we've resolved the issue, apparently for good now--the "PR nightmare" might be worth it (I assume that next time around the good people of CA will overturn the ban). While I'm not looking to wholly discredit any religion, the personal really is the political, and vice versa. Being a decent and kind person amongst your own tribe is one thing--but as Jesus himself noted, "even the heathen do that." Extending that same goodwill towards those Outside the tribe is the mark of a spiritually mature person and genuinely godly religion, and like so many other institutions and congregation members, the Mormons, based on this analysis, would seem to regressing. (Also wondering what effect all this has on Romney's plans. He ran as the darling of the far right--despite their reservations about his religion, he was the best they had; Mormonism will doubtless have found new respect among the Christian Right for this win, butin another four years, I suspect the whole thing is going to look ridiculous). (BTW, if you see this, Mr Rampton, thanks for what might be the most depressing book I've ever read--"Toxic Sludge..." Depressing as it was, I've read it twice now...) Michael Horan. my site: http://www.nosuppertonight.com

The last commenter wants to split hairs and mix up categories. OK, yes, technically, homophobia is not the most immediate cause of Mormon policy. Simple political oppression of human beings is. Gays, like all other humans, are covered by the Declarations of Independence and Human Rights. One person, one vote, everybody holding equal rights. So Mormons are working to take those rights away from gays, and daring to call themselves "sacred" in the process. Disgusting. Homophobia is the underlying psycho-analytic diagnosis of why Mormons, at least as an organization, are so stupid and wrong and ill on this matter. And, of course, the secret to why the Mormon Church even cares about this issue is that letting it go would deprive it of its bread and butter, which is the militant insistence that morality is a matter that begins and ends within the four walls of one's family dwelling, to hell with society and the maldistribution of power and larger affairs. I look forward to the day when the blatantly anti-Christ and anti-American hypocrisy of this hoary medieval trick starts to sap the strength of Mormon recruitment drives amongst/against the world's poor and uneducated. Then, we'll get to see the Catholic syndrome kick in.

Good article. One correction: You wrote regarding the discriminatory "Negro doctrine", "Mormons actually believed that blacks could go to heaven. They just couldn't have the priesthood." Since black Mormons could not have the priesthood prior to 1978, they could not be married in a Mormon temple and, consequently, were considered by Mormon's to be ineligible for the "Celestial Kingdom" (heaven). Sadly, the Mormon view of marriage and heaven once excluded blacks as it now excludes gay people.

Interesting point, but not quite correct. You're right that the priesthood prohibition also prevented black Mormons from being married in the temple, which is a prerequisite for entering the "Celestial Kingdom." However, there was a loophole. Remember, Mormons practice baptisms for the dead and other religious ordinances by proxy. It was therefore possible in theory for black Mormons to expect that they would get into the Celestial Kingdom, provided that someone performed the marriage by proxy for them after their death. I remember this scenario coming up in discussion once during a church meeting that I attended. And it's not just theory. I suspect that once the "Negro doctrine" was abolished, the Mormon church went ahead and conducted temple marriages by proxy for all of its black members who had died before they were able to take advantage of the new rules. Of course, this isn't a scenario that any self-respecting black person should have considered acceptable. It basically meant that they would have to join a church that treated them as second-class citizens, endure that discrimination patiently throughout their entire life, and then wait patiently in the afterlife until the priesthood ban was lifted so they could get their ordinances performed by someone else. The point, though is that the priesthood ban wasn't an absolute barrier to entry into the Celestial Kingdom. Here's another another minor point of clarification: Mormons don't regard the Celestial Kingdom as synonymous with "heaven." They believe that heaven contains three different kingdoms -- the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial. Of those three, the Celestrial is the highest. However, the other kingdoms are still parts of "heaven," and just anyone can get in. Even murderers, thieves, fornicators and people who drink Mountain Dew can get into the lowest one. (I guess it's kind of like public housing, only with harp music.) Using this expanded definition of heaven, therefore, blacks certainly <i>could</i> get in and were almost guaranteed admission. According to Mormon doctrine, in fact, the only souls that <i>don't</i> get into heaven are those that actively and intentionally ally themselves with Satan. It feels silly to be discussing all these rules here, but Mormonism is full of rules. I remember discussions about whether it was okay to eat chocolate, to drink Coca-Cola, or to use wine in cooking. (Mormons aren't supposed to drink alcoholic beverages, but the alcohol boils off when you use it to cook, so some of the more daring members thought French cooking was therefore okay.)

<blockquote>...but Mormonism is full of rules.</blockquote> That, plus all the intricate doctrines, divisions of heaven, elaborations of this, that and the other -- it's probably part of the attraction for a lot of converts. You'll never run out of fascinating new things to learn. ;-)

It would be interesting to know how many temple marriages by proxy were performed for black Mormons before the 1978 "revelation" further legitimized them as members. I suspect very few but I understand your theological point. As for the different degrees of heaven, right. But Mormons believe that achieving anything less than the "highest degree of glory" is a hell of its own. The "administering angels" that populate lessor heavens are the brunt of Mormon jokes. I guess to be more clear, a black Mormon prior to 1978 could hope to be (1) an angel in a lessor heaven who administers to white couples married in a temple or (2) the beneficiary of Mormon white guilt after their death. In essence, the Mormon concept of heaven and marriage excluded them.

I don't ever recall Mormons telling jokes about angels in lesser kingdoms of heaven, but other than that I agree with your assessment. Regarding the number of temple marriages that were performed by proxy for black Mormons prior to 1978, I think the number was actually zero. (I'm not 100% sure on that point, but that's what I would expect.) The point is not that a black Mormon who died in, say, 1964, could expect that someone would go do the ordinances for him in 1965. Rather, he would have to wait until whenever the priesthood ban was lifted (which turned out to be 1978) before he could get his ordinances done. This would mean that there was a backlog of dead black Mormons, none of whom got their temple marriages performed until after the "revelation." However, it probably wasn't a very large backlog. Only a few blacks joined the church back when the Negro doctrine was in force, for reasons that I think are self-evident. Wikipedia has an article that discusses some of this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blacks_and_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints#Temple_marriages_denied Apparently someone has made a documentary about black Mormons, titled "Nobody Knows": http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com/trailer_lg.html Judging from the trailer, it looks to me like the movie is largely pro-Mormon in tone, but it still seems to have some interesting insights and perspectives. One of the people involved in the project is [[w:Richard Dutcher]], who was seen until recently as a leading Mormon filmmaker. Last year, Dutcher announced publicly that he has stopped believing and practicing Mormonism, but I think he's still still pretty friendly to the church.

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