Black-White, Gay-Straight: A Perspective on Perspectives

(Admin note)
No More Strangers is a new forum seeking to advance the dialogue regarding LGBT people and Mormonism.  As such, it has the good fortune of having bloggers who have made significant contributions to Latter-day Saint LGBT people, their families, their congregations, and to the Mormon Church itself. Collectively, contributors have helped make the Mormon community a much safer and more enlightened and hospitable place for LGBT people. 

The purpose of No More Strangers is to encourage dialogue about the issues that impact LGBT Mormons and their friends, families, and congregations.  This dialogue is essential for educating, for encouraging conversation, and for promoting change. Some aspects of this subject are easy to explore; others are more difficult. While the contributors to No More Strangers are united in their concern for the LGBT cause, they represent different points of view and speak with individual voices. 

The following special blog presents explores the relationship between the issue of blacks and the priesthood, including the 1978 revelation granting priesthood to blacks of African descent, and the current issues regarding LGBT individuals and the Church. The six authors present different perspectives on this subjects. Our hope is that both individually and collectively they can help advance understanding and provoke thoughtful dialogue.


Scott Holly, Tom Montgomery and John Gustav-Wrathall have offered personal perspectives as to whether the issue of homophobia and denial of marriage to gays and lesbians can be analogized to racism and the denial of the priesthood to blacks of African descent. I may be in a unique position to comment on the discussion since for many decades I have been intimately involved in both issues in the modern Church. I was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the sixties and seventies and have been active in the LGBT movement for nearly four decades.

At the outset, it is important to note that on some level all analogies break down; that is, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between two things—otherwise an analogy would be unnecessary. Thus, we can look at both similarities and differences between the Church’s attitude toward, treatment of, and resolution of doctrinal issues concerning the two groups. What follows is my own assessment as to the value and legitimacy of the comparison.

In Mormon culture both blacks and gays have been or continue to be seen as less than normal and, in extreme characterizations, as broken and even less than fully human. Thus, for centuries blacks were considered as somehow unequal with whites in terms of intelligence and other capacities and gifts—and unequal in the mind of God. In the Latter-day Saint lore that prevailed until the priesthood ban was lifted (and still is alive in some dark corners of the Church), blacks were believed to have been less than valiant in the preexistence and as a result cursed or limited in mortality. The argument went that blacks might eventually be given the priesthood, but only after everyone else (those more worthy) received it. They clearly had to stand in the back of the Celestial bus. While gay men have not been considered a priori unworthy to hold the priesthood, like blacks, they have been seen as flawed in their natures or flawed by deliberate choice. Thus, gays have been characterized as mentally or morally deficient, perverted, promiscuous, licentious, and even evil. Both blacks and gays have been seen as hypersexual and therefore highly threatening.

Historically, in the Church, contrary to basic gospel principles, both blacks and gays have been treated in unkind and unchristian ways, sometimes decidedly so. This is a matter of record, not opinion, and, as Tom Montgomery notes, there is still considerable racist and abundant anti-gay sentiment in the Church. Such sentiment has led to both groups feeling unwelcome and unaccepted in full-fellowship.

A primary difference between blacks and gays is that until 1978, blacks had no choice as to whether they could be considered worthy to receive the priesthood or participate in temple endowment and sealing ordinances, whereas gay men willing to abide Church standards have had no restrictions on priesthood and both worthy gays and lesbians can enjoy full temple rights if they are willing to marry someone of the opposite sex (whether they feel true intimacy is possible or not). On the other hand, just as blacks had no choice regarding priesthood ordination, gays living a lifestyle at variance with Church standards cannot at present have their marriages recognized by the Church.

With both groups, evolution of societal norms has led to liberalization of attitudes, behavior and even policy. Thus, before blacks were allowed to hold the priesthood there was an increasing recognition, sparked primarily by the Civil Rights Movement, that they deserved all of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The same thing is happening at present with the campaign for full civil rights for gays, including, in some countries and states, marriage. With a number of foreign countries as well as states recognizing gay marriage or civil unions and with the Supreme Court poised to hear arguments in favor of gay marriage, some Latter-day Saints believe that Church-approval of gay marriage is likely at some point in the future, in spite of official pronouncements that would lead one to believe otherwise.

Perhaps a closer analogy to gay marriage was the establishment and subsequent rescinding of plural marriage at the end of the nineteenth century. In both instances the Church made a radical departure from established doctrine and social norms (respectively, American and Mormon norms). With this precedent and the principle of continuing revelation, gays and lesbians might hope for a similar change, although, given the recent reiteration of existing policy, that seems unlikely in the near future.

Tom Montgomery argues that the Lord is slow in giving revelatory direction to the Church over the gay issue because the members may not be ready for what the Lord desires. He cites the possibility that the tardiness in granting the priesthood to blacks may have been related to the fact that some members might (and then did) resign their membership when the revelation was finally given, citing as his only evidence his own brother’s experience in overseeing some such resignations while a missionary in Ohio in the 1980s. It would be interesting to know exactly how many members actually resigned their membership over the change in doctrine as opposed to those who resigned over this issue before the change was made. It would also be interesting to know how many members have resigned over the Church’s present policy on gays. My guess is that many more have resigned over the gay issue than did over the black issue. At any rate, Montgomery’s argument is speculative. One could also consider the fact that the decision to rescind polygamy in the nineteenth century could have been seen as draconian (and certainly high risk given the number of women and children who were disenfranchised from their families by the Manifesto), especially when it happened so precipitously—and yet seems not to have led to a large exodus from the Church by those practicing “the principle.” Since that change did not lead to a large exodus from the Church, one might argue that a similar bold change in the policy for gay marriage might not either.

Another similarity between the two issues is that both seem influenced by a growing body of scientific and sociological research that challenged (or, in the case of gays, is challenging) tradition, established policy and existing social standards. Thus, by 1978, American culture had moved in a direction in relation to race that had left the Church behind. As someone observed, the last two institutions to grant full rights to blacks were the apartheid government of South Africa and the Mormon Church! The Church defended its position on race as scriptural and doctrinal in the same way it is defending its current position on gay marriage. When, as editor of Dialogue in the seventies, I published Lester Bush’s landmark article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” (Spring 1973), I knew that the ground was about to shift dramatically on this subject. In dispassionately laying out the tragic, labyrinthine history of the practice of denying priesthood ordination to blacks, Bush dismantled the scaffolding that had held it in place for over a century. The change that came five years later seemed inevitable.

A significant difference between these two issues in the Church is that during this time, some general authorities, including the prophet and some members of the Quorum of the Twelve, influenced by Bush’s study as well as other factors, seemed both to be open to and deliberately petitioning the Lord for revelation that might lead to a change. As far as anyone knows, at present there is no indication of such openness or similar petitions from Church leadership in regard to LGBT intimacy and marriage; this seems confirmed by the declarative statements on the Mormonsandgays website. Nevertheless, the mounting scientific exploration of the gay experience, along with accelerating social change, especially among the rising generation, keeps hope alive for those working for change on this issue.

Another important difference between the two issues is that there is no evidence I know of in the modern Church that the treatment of blacks within the Mormon community, including the priesthood ban, led to suicide, whereas a significant number of LGBT Latter-day Saints have taken their own lives (the Provo Daily Herald for 12 February 2012 reports that Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation).

Thus, between John Gustav-Wrathall’s assertion that the issues of blacks and gays are “completely different” and Scott Holly’s argument that they are very similar, I find a middle-ground, just as I find a middle ground between Tom Montgomery’s argument that the Lord is waiting to move when we are ready and Scott’s suggestion that things are more in our hands than in the Lord’s. In both ancient and modern history, one can find evidence to support each of these arguments. For example, in ancient Israel, God substituted the Law of Moses (the lesser law) so as not to leave the Israelites under condemnation for not living the higher law. It was, in Paul’s words, designed to bring them to Christ. When Christ came, however, he both taught milk before meat and introduced radical teachings that divided the early Church as with a sword. When he introduced the sacrament to his disciples, some said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60), and when he taught them, “No man can come unto me, except it were given him of the Father” (John 6:65), we are told, “Many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” Thus, it seems that at times God is willing to wait on our righteousness and at other times he is not. What also seems clear is that God seems willing to respond to urgent pleas for change, as illustrated in the parable of the persistent petitioner (Luke 18:1-8) and the lifting of the priesthood ban.

The essential question raised by this discussion is: what is our response to a condition in the Church that we find at variance with our own understanding of the gospel and our own deepest spiritual insights and longings? Some decide to leave the Church and others to stay. Some work for change outside and some inside. In Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Ulysses sees his role as explorer as different from that of his son, Telemachus, who has stayed at home tending the household gods while his father has been on his extended journey. Returning home at the end of his odyssey and realizing that his restless spirit drives him to go down to the sea in ships once more, Ulysses says of his son, “He works his work, I work mine.” As free agents, we each have the right and privilege of choosing what work we do—and for whom we do it—for ourselves, for Christ, for others—or for some other cause, entity or institution . It is by the purity and charity of our hearts and the extent to which we choose to live the two great commandments which the Lord of mercy will judge us. In the meantime, we all have work to do and it is better if we find a way to work together. As the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem, “A Tuft of Flowers,” says “Men [and women] work together . . . whether they work together or apart.”

In another poem, “Two Tramps at Mudtime,” Frost sets the proper context for our work:

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done 

For Heaven and the future’s sakes.


Hopefully, all of us working for change on this issue work together out of love and need—and do it for both “Heaven and the future’s sakes”—that is, for ourselves, for our brothers and sisters and for the kingdom of heaven.

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