I get lots of questions along the lines of, “What made you – a heterosexual, LDS-since-forever, woman/wife/mother – become an activist for LGBT rights/same-sex marriage?” The short answer is: I could not live with myself if I weren’t doing this, it’s the right thing to do, and it may be genetic – I can’t help myself.
The long answer is: All of my life experiences led me here to this time and place, and I’m not sure how to account for everything. But these are some of my reasons.
As a child and pre-teen, I was an anomaly. While my friends’ radios were tuned into the local rock or pop stations, my dial was set for KGO-AM 810, the largest newstalk radio station in the San Francisco region. They followed AC/DC or Foreigner, Styx or The Police. I followed Ronn Owens and his cohorts bantering about the latest political scandal or economic crisis. And while I did notice the Cassidy brothers and the Osmonds, I was more likely to be paying attention to gas rationing or protest rallies.
So when the news media started covering young gay men getting unusual diseases and dying in epidemic numbers, I heard the stories. Men spoke of watching friends and lovers waste away to nothing. Helplessly, they tried to keep one another comfortable and fed. Funeral processions were everyday occurrences and thousands were unable to even visit their significant others in hospitals because they weren’t related by blood or marriage. Imagine being forced to sit in a waiting room while the love of your life was dying on the other side of the wall. There is something inherently, horribly wrong about that.
Then came whole new levels of discrimination and fear – is it okay to hug someone with AIDS? To touch them? To be in the same room with them? To play with them? It took a lot of education and fear quelling to overcome the urban legends and rumors fueled by religious conviction that God was heaping punishment on sinners in preparation for a global cleansing. But I learned to cheer critical thinking methods knocking over logical fallacies and knee-jerk insanity every morning on the AM airwaves. Being a child of the 70s, particularly a child of a Mormon feminist supporting the ERA in the 70s, I was particularly attuned to the plight of the “out groups” and also recognized from personal experience the fear behind the eyes of prejudice.
I heard the pain and saw the damage, but what to do about it all? My mother set the example: Serve and educate. Serve those who need help: she used her legal training to provide estate planning services for gay couples so they could care for each other in sickness as well as in health and so they could pass belongings from one to another. Educate: she spoke up for rationality and cut through emotional dogma and fear-mongering wherever it reared its ugly head.
And for some reason, there was a lot of fear-mongering in those days.
On the cusp of the 21st century, California Mormons were standing on a political brink. A ball put in motion a few years earlier in Hawaii was about to come crashing down the slope, gathering dozens in its wake, and leaving behind a trail of broken lives, dreams and promises. General Authorities and BYU employees who’d been intimately involved in opposing same-sex unions in Hawaii stepped in to California’s same-sex marriage debate. But the world was not aware.
LDS Church leadership involvement in the ERA was not well-known until after the fact – donations and letters to legislators truly appeared to be grass-roots driven. At our house, we learned about priesthood leadership involvement a bit earlier than the media, mostly through activism with Mormons for the ERA. Similar involvement by the church in Hawaii’s SSM activities became public knowledge just as the campaign wrapped up, but we learned about it in our house via email distribution lists, phone calls and house meetings. In 1999-2000, church involvement in passing DOMA legislation in California was publicized a bit earlier, but not until after a string of very public suicides linking church leadership to anti-SSM politicking.
If the world were watching all along, would Church actions have been different? If Church leadership influence and connections were publicly available, would lives have been saved? If the media were watching, would a PR-savvy organization be more careful about its footprints? If there were even a slight chance that fresh air and sunshine could make a difference, I needed to open some windows and shine some light. After all, Sunshine Laws are the bedrock of keeping governments in check – that’s what I learned as a journalist. And when you follow the money, you follow the influence.
In the summer of 2008, a First Presidency letter directing members to do all they could to support Prop 8 in California was leaked to the internet. Many of my internet and real-life friends joined with me in saying, “Oh no. We cannot do this again. We cannot live with the division and politicking from the pulpit again. I go to church to hear about Christ, not to have my pocketbook picked.” I’d already lost enough friends and seen enough stable gay couples raising children that the idea of “protecting families” by preventing same-sex couple from creating them, was absurd. This time would have to be different.
And different it was: The internet made communication across geographic boundaries immediate, and isolated members found strength to stand up for equality and justice despite being alone in their wards and stakes. In reality, 2008 was 1999-2000 on steroids. The rhetoric was more charged and divisive, the walls built up between Us and Them were higher, the money changing hands was phenomenal. And in the end, California ended up with a Constitutional amendment and the country ended up with a lawsuit which is finally on its last legs with a U.S. Supreme Court hearing in March.
But despite the craziness and the pain, in some ways Prop 8 was the best thing that’s ever happened to the LDS LGBT community and their allies. People are talking. Closet doors are opening. Church rhetoric is being softened and updated.
We have a long way to go still. But we’ve taken the first steps along the way. And we cannot get there without one another – we all have roles to play to make this world a better place. At some point during the 2008 election cycle, a friend pointed out to me that we were all, perhaps, looking at the issue of same-sex marriage wrong. It was not a question of whether or not people should get married, it was a question of how we choose to treat people who are Other. And I cannot stand by and watch my brothers and sisters be shoved into corners and relegated to less-than status.
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