I was twelve years old when Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line and started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Two years before this, my father had come home from World War II, rescued me from a foster home, taught me the gospel, and baptized me in the font of the Mesa Temple. Dad was a Dodger fan and so, of course, I became one too. I remember listening to the games on the radio and being depressed over every loss and cheering over every win. When I was ordained a deacon that same year, I had no idea that neither Jackie Robinson nor any other black man could have received the priesthood. It took nearly thirty years before they could.
Watching 42, the new movie about Robinson’s courageous, pioneering break of the baseball color line, I couldn’t help thinking about where we are today as a nation and Church in relation to gays. It is astonishing (and heartbreaking) to witness the degree and depth of prejudice Robinson faces at every level of society—and the pain and humiliation he has to endure as he is forbidden from eating at the same restaurants and sleeping in the same hotels with his teammates, experiences multiple kinds of injustice, and endures racial taunts and insults from opposing teams, fans, strangers and fellow teammates—all of which he realizes he has to submit to without response or retaliation.
In a recent blog on this space I spoke of the comparison between gay people and racial prejudice: “In Mormon culture both blacks and gay people have been or continue to be seen as less than normal and, in extreme characterizations, as broken and even less than fully human.“ Throughout the film I kept thinking of how gay men and lesbians have faced (and continue to face) the opprobrium and debasement that Robinson and other blacks faced during that time. I also couldn’t help but think of the mantle of racist and homophobic attitudes and behaviors I took on as both an American and a Mormon during my formative years. There was a time when as a teenager I had a strong visceral reaction to blacks and gay people that bordered on repulsion if not hatred and, I now realize, under the right conditions, could have manifested itself as violence.
What saved me from that was the gospel. At some point I began to realize that there was a disconnect between what I had been taught at home, at school and at church and what I found in the verses of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. The injustice that I had seen and tacitly assented to slowly invaded my heart and I began to shed those prejudicial cultural and religious overlays. That was a slow process, to be sure, but eventually I was able to free myself from their grasp. In 42, Jackie Robinson finally asks Branch Rickie, the General Manager of the Dodgers who brought him into the major leagues, what explained his opening baseball to blacks. Rickie, a deeply religious man, recounted the story of a black member of his high school football team who had been treated badly by others, including Rickie himself. He then says, “I arrived at a point in my life where I couldn’t do that anymore,” which is how I felt.
Shedding prejudice against blacks was easier than shedding prejudice against lesbians and gay men because the prejudice against the latter has a deeper, more complex sexual component and sex always adds levels of tension and ambiguity to any issue. Thus, from my culture, including my Church culture, I came to believe that there was a potentially perverse and even dangerous component–and on some level a personal threat to me–from gay people. This was made even more intense by my own budding sexuality, which was clearly heterosexual but nevertheless confusing amidst the great swirl of erotic images and desires that every adolescent experiences. That is, I was aware of homosexuality in a way different from my awareness of race, and the messages I heard from many quarters, including especially in the church, made it a much more morally charged issue. Nevertheless, just as with racial issues, I arrived at a point in my life where I could no longer hold prejudice against LGBT individuals in my heart. Beyond that, as had been true of my changing attitudes about blacks, I began to work for change, especially within the Church. Thus, for the past forty or so years, I have been committed to working for greater understanding, broader acceptance and more compassionate treatment of LGBT Latter-day Saints.
Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player and a great human being. In the film, at a point when Robinson is discouraged and ready to quit, Rickie tells him of seeing a group of white kids playing baseball who are imitating and identifying with Robinson—who see him as a baseball player, not a black baseball player. In a recent article in the New York Times, titled “Major Sports Leagues Prepare for the ‘I’m Gay’ Disclosure,” Jeff Klein and Judy Battista discuss the growing sentiment for opening major sports leagues to openly gay athletes. Jackie Robinson’s story suggests that this won’t be easy. I just hope that it won’t take thirty years before BYU teams have openly gay players or before some straight kid in Orem thinks nothing of imitating the batting stance of a gay baseball player or some girl in St. George perfects the jump shot of a lesbian basketball player. One can hope.