By Christian Frandsen
In the last several days I’ve had many conversations with straight friends about my reaction to the now infamous press conference of this past week. A day or so after the conference, I posted the following thoughts on Facebook, in hopes of helping my straight friends understand why so many members of the LGBT Mormon community were upset and hurt by the press conference. This post only addresses my reaction to the press conference; at the time I hadn’t listened to the subsequent interviews on Trib Talk and in other forums. Certain statements broadcast in those other interviews have given me the impression that the press conference was meant in better faith than I originally believed, but the emotions and ideas which follow are still valid and true for me.
Please don’t misconstrue my thoughts as a unilateral condemnation of the church or a rejection of church leaders. What I say comes from a place of personal experience, pain, and frustration with certain aspects of the church. Despite these negative feelings, I have not lost sight of the many positive elements of the church and my church membership. In the spirit of acknowledging both the good and the bad, I will discuss the positive as well as the negative in the press conference.
Positive Points from the Press Conference:
–Church leaders finally said “LGBT” in a formal setting! This is very significant! Until now, church leaders have always referred to gay people as “those who experience/struggle with/suffer from same-sex attraction.” To me and many others, the phrase “same sex attraction” is extremely distasteful because of the historical baggage it carries and because of the way it makes homosexuality seem temporary and insignificant. By contrast, each of the letters in the acronym LGBT stands for an identity-based word chosen by the community. These words are affirming and help queer individuals find peace with who they are. The fact that church leaders said the letters LGBT is a small detail, but one that will hopefully lead to a more persistent trend in church rhetoric as other church leaders notice and follow suit.
–During the question and answer session following the conference. Elder Christofferson reemphasized that active church members in good standing can STILL support gay rights, including gay marriage. The ambiguity about how much advocacy is too much advocacy remains unclear, but I hope that this statement will give the “closeted” straight allies in the church more encouragement to come out in support of the LGBT community and their rights. I also hope this will inspire members who have not previously given much thought to LGBT issues to really take a good look at things and educate themselves. This statement is, in effect, an invitation from an apostle for church members to learn and come to their own conclusions.
–Sister Marriott very eloquently articulated the crucial raison d’etre of the LGBT rights movement and acknowledged its roots in the history of oppression, persecution, and violence towards gay people. This was so very gratifying because it too often feels that the church leaders and members don’t realize what gay people as individuals and a community have gone through. It was reassuring to hear a high-ranking church leader communicate her awareness of our troubled past. She also acknowledged that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for things like housing and employment is simply wrong. The simplicity and directness of her statement was amazing and I really hope that church members were listening. Her language was compassionate and loving and is just the way that members should be talking about LGBT people and their place in the Church.
–Church leaders finally spoke out in support of statewide (in Utah) and nationwide non-discrimination legislation and implied support of similar laws on the national level (later on they stated explicit support of non-discrimination legislation on the national level). They have used this as “proof” that they don’t hate gay people for six years since they supported non-discrimination legislation for Salt Lake City, and now they’re actually walking the walk with a broader statement of support. I am optimistic that when specific non-discrimination laws have been drafted, the Church will be there to stand up for it. Many people feel that this sort of statement is coming too late, but there is still a majority of states without statewide non-discrimination legislation, so this issue is still quite current.
Negative points from the press conference:
–It was repeated multiple times that the church wishes for freedom of religious expression as long as no threat is posed to public health or individual safety. This was difficult to hear (especially since it was repeated several times) because it sends the message that the church leaders are either unaware or don’t care that church teachings, rhetoric, and policies at the institutional and local levels as well as the cultural norms which emerge from official teachings are causing problems of public health and individual safety. The high levels of suicide, suicide attempts, and depression among LGBT youth and young adults—particularly in the church—are public health concerns. LGBT youth homelessness, which is particularly high in Utah, is a public health concern. Refusing to acknowledge and publicly address this is an insult to the lives that have been lost and damaged. To my view, this is one of the greatest dangers of discussing LGBT rights and religious freedom with “us versus them” language. It more deeply entrenches suspicion of gay people in the Mormon psyche. Mormons as a whole see gay people as a threat. The result is that gay Mormon young people internalize this and develop profound self-hatred and individual families crumble because their ingrained misunderstanding of gay people prevents them from accepting a loved one who comes out. This problematic “us versus them” mentality came out very strongly in the press conference. Thankfully it was tempered and amended in the follow-up interviews.
–Continuing on the idea of the Church’s positions and policies harming LGBT people, it’s not just current church rhetoric that has negative impacts on individual and public health in the church. Current school policy at BYU creates an environment that is primarily responsible for the mental health problems of LGBT BYU students. Speaking of BYU, previous university policies have ruined lives. Just one example among many; in the 70’s, the BYU administration recruited university counselors as well as bishops of local singles’ wards to report students who disclosed concerns about homosexuality. Police officers were charged with raiding local gay meet-up spots and roommates and other students were encouraged to discover and report gay students. These students, once reported were given a choice to submit to electroshock aversion therapy or to be expelled. A BYU PhD candidate even did his dissertation on the results of the electroshock therapy. Outside of the context of BYU, President Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness (which is still widely read today) contains false and damaging claims about the origin and nature of homosexuality and Elder Packer’s talks “To Young Men Only” and “To the One” likewise contain wildly false information about homosexuality and condones (one could say) encourages violence toward gay people. Many of the readers of this blog are certainly familiar with and maybe even lived through some of these horrors. The Church, however, has never acknowledged or apologized for these things. A statement of regret and apology from church leaders about these things would go a long way, and yet Elder Oaks expressly said that the Church makes no apologies. That stings, even for me, and it must be so much more painful for my gay brothers and sisters who dealt with this in the 70s and 80s.
–It is because of the way the Church has hurt its gay members that Elder Oaks’s victimized language is so hurtful. It once again paints gay people as the enemy in church members’ eyes, which is a false paradigm—LGBT rights are not at odds with constitutionally protected religious freedom. The two are not mutually exclusive and you don’t have to write broad religious exemptions to protect both. It’s so frustrating to me to see the history of personal and communal pain that gay people have faced minimized and ignored while the so-called threats to religious freedom are inflated and exaggerated. Frankly, this kind of rhetoric makes church leaders sound whiny. I do not defend the acts of vandalism that occurred following Prop 8. That kind of action is not at all justified. Furthermore, public humiliation and professional blacklisting of private individuals are scare tactics that are not at all effective at remedying systemic or institutional discrimination. But protests, articles, and boycotts in response to the church’s involvement in Prop 8 are totally legitimate and justifiable reactions to an effort to take away a civil right that has nothing to do with religion. Additionally, accusations of bigotry—while unfair when universally applied to individual members (i.e. “you’re Mormon so you must be homophobic”)—are true of the institutional church in its attitudes and policies toward the LGBT community. That is simply fact. The church does discriminate against LGBT people and the natural result is that the church’s policies in this area are going to be unpopular and criticized, but church leaders protest this criticism by calling it religious discrimination.
–The whole press conference felt like this—like the church is trying to convince people that it has changed its attitudes and policies toward gay people without making any significant changes for the sake of popularity. It seems like the church is trying to cover up its current anti-gay policies so that it can save face and improve its public image. That is such a slap in the face to actual gay Mormons who feel like their experiences and stories are being swept under the rug. It feels duplicitous and hypocritical. In fact, Elder Oaks said that the church can only support non-discrimination legislation if it includes religious exemptions. Thus the communicated message is that church leaders don’t actually care about what is right for improving the lives of gay people—they only care about preserving their own legal ability to discriminate against them. I am positive that there are church leaders who care deeply about gay people and their rights, but the overall message of the press conference is negative in this regard.
–Additionally, it is unfair and incorrect to even put protection of religious freedom on the level of the protection of gay rights. Even in cases like the LDS church—which is not just a church to go to on Sunday, but a whole community, culture, way of life, et cetera—religious affiliation is ultimately a matter of choice. You choose to be a part of it or not to be a part of it. On the other hand, sexual orientation is not a choice—it is an immutable biological reality for everyone. Straight people have a sexual orientation that is a part of them—they are born straight and they can’t change that. Likewise, gay people are born gay and they can’t change that. It’s just like race–you’re born black, or white, or Latino, or anything else, and you can’t change that. Because it is not a matter of choice, non-heterosexual orientations (which have historically been disadvantaged) deserve to be put on equal legal footing with a heterosexual orientation and deserve protections. Non-discrimination laws do not put gay people in a privileged class. They even the playing field—straight people are already in a position of privilege. Religious affiliation, however, is within your control and therefore does not figure into the discussion of privilege, protections, and rights in the same way. While I absolutely believe that religious freedom should be protected, it should not be prioritized above the rights of gay people because religion is not as fundamental to identity as gender, race, or sexual orientation. So should a justice of the peace have the right to refuse to perform a same sex marriage for religious reasons? No, because that person is a civil servant who represents the US government and thus must treat everyone equally. As for questions of business, a bakery that refuses to serve gay customers and a landlord that refuses to rent to gay tenants is the modern day equivalent of business owners and landlords who wouldn’t serve or rent to black people or other people of color just a few decades ago. The principle is the same—it is discrimination based on a factor that is beyond someone’s control.
–This leads me to my final point of frustration with the press conference. Based on Elder Oaks’s remarks in the press conference, as well as the history of recent church rhetoric surrounding LGBT issues, it seems church leaders are not aware of what is and isn’t discrimination. Regardless of what church leaders say about God’s will concerning gay people and the (im)morality of homosexuality and same sex relationships, gay people are restricted to a status of second class citizen within the church. It is measurable, factual, and undeniable. Despite the fact that being gay is not a choice, gay people are by and large restricted from the opportunities for service, growth, and recognition within the church that straight people are given. The church lauds the merits of marriage and teaches that marriage and family bring the greatest degree of happiness in this life, and yet gay people are taught not to enter into a heteronormative/mixed orientation marriage (thankfully the church officially discourages this) and are institutionally prohibited from entering a same sex marriage. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The church is effectively saying “sorry gay people, even though you didn’t choose to be gay, you can never be as happy as we straight people are in this life because it would be sinful for you to get married and have children” even when the possibility of legal marriage is readily available (because same-sex marriage is legal in so many places, the comparison of gay members to single straight members is fallacious). Furthermore, marriage is the gateway to church service. Openly gay men can never be bishops, stake presidents, or general authorities/general auxiliary leaders because all these positions require being married. Additionally, openly gay members can and often do have their membership records annotated so that they are not allowed to serve in callings with children or the youth. Even worse, the cultural distrust of gay people makes it so that many LGBT Mormons cannot comfortably participate in the normal social intercourse of church meetings. Sharing a testimony, giving a talk, or making a comment in class becomes so much harder for out gay Mormons. It is a Mormon version of the caste system and LGBT people are the untouchables. The message gay people get is “it sucks now, but you’ll be cured and made straight in the next life, so just tough out your miserable life now.” No wonder LGBT Mormons have high rates of suicide if the doctrinal message is that everything will be better when they’re dead. It is the church’s prerogative to determine its own doctrine and policies, but to say that current church doctrine and policy isn’t discriminatory and unfair is simply untrue. Change or don’t change, but please call a spade a spade.
If it’s not already clear, I and many others were upset and hurt by the press conference. The good things were very good, but the bad things were very bad. It hurts so much to once again be painted by the institutional church as the enemy to everything Good and to have my feelings, experiences, and pains (and even more so, the experiences, feelings, and pains of my LGBT brothers and sisters of whom so many have had a much harder time than I) minimized, ignored, and discounted for the sake of a botched PR stunt.
I am grateful that Elder Christofferson and Elder Oaks elaborated on their original messages on NPR, Trib Talks, and other programs. Their words in the follow-up interviews were soothing and reassuring in many ways. Particularly admirable is their call for a civil and engaged dialogue. I hope that in my reaction to their words I have contributed to the atmosphere of respectful and reasoned conversation. I am certainly grateful that church leaders are trying to take steps forward and I want to be positive about that, but it behooves no one for the LGBT Mormon community to say nothing when that “step forward” still lands on your metaphorical bruised toes. Church leaders need to know that we’re happy about their willingness to act, but that they’re still stepping on our feet.
So then why do I stay? Do I like anything about the church? Yes, I love lots of things about the church. In the church I have met some of the best people I have ever known. In the church I have learned about honesty, integrity, work, the importance of developing talents. I can thank the church for my love of music. I can thank the church for my love of reading and language (listening to my mom read King James English from the Bible and Book of Mormon every night definitely expedited the development of my reading comprehension). I love the church’s humanitarian efforts and the emphasis they place on education and learning. I love the church’s sense of beauty that can be seen in the architecture and landscaping of every temple and church building. I love the strong sense of community. I love firesides. I love conference. I love prayers that the numerous (and fattening) refreshments will nourish and strengthen our bodies. I love my local church leaders and the amazing examples they are. I love the people I go to church with every week. I love the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. I love the Mormon idea of eternal progression and infinite potential. I love the word of wisdom. I loved my mission. I love fasting. I love Mormonism. So even though I have been very hurt by the church’s policies about LGBT people and have that hurt renewed with each Mormon Newsroom press release on LGBT issues, I stay.