No More Strangers Panel, Sunstone 2013–Bob Rees

(This is part of a four part series including remarks made by four panelists at the Sunstone Symposium Session focusing on this blog–

2013 has been a landmark year as far as LGBT issues is concerned: the Church brought its website,, online; the Boy Scouts of America announced that it was accepting openly gay scouts; Proposition 8 was overturned, legalizing same-sex marriage in California; several additional states legalized same-sex marriage; Exodus International, one of the organizations most vehemently pushing change for gays, closed its operation and apologized for the pain and hurt it had caused for gay men and lesbians—and a group of Mormons started a new website: No More Strangers: LGBT Mormon Forum. No More Strangers has twenty-one official contributors as well as an occasional guest contributor.  My own, obviously biased, opinion of the site is that it has both broadened and elevated the discourse about Mormons and gays. In general, I have found the blogs interesting, informative, and respectful.

In the blogs I have posted on No More Strangers, I have been particularly interested in how issues relating to LGBT Mormons intersect with the wider world of politics, culture and religion. That is, the various tension points on this subject within Mormonism are reflected in and playing out on a national and international stage—and some of them, such as gay marriage and the Boy Scouts, have implications as to how individual Mormons and the Church itself respond to the changing landscape. As I see movies, watch television, read magazines and newspapers, and have conversations across a wide spectrum, my Mormonness both informs my perspective on this subject and it also challenges me to bring the perspectives of the wider world into dialogue with my faith. That is, I can’t help but see everything through my Mormon eyes and I can help but have a perspective influenced by a much broader range of experiences than those having to do with my being a member of the Church.

Thus, watching an episode of Downton Abbey, I was struck by how the character, Thomas Barrows, Lord Grantham’s valet, was treated after his homosexuality became an open subject. As despicable a character as Thomas is portrayed as being, I found a personal dramatic shift in my emotions when he was bullied and brutalized by others, not only strangers, but some of his fellow workers. As I wrote, “What I found interesting in this episode of Downton Abbey was how many of the negative attitudes toward homosexuality it presents are reflected in both contemporary American and Mormon culture. Now, as then, it is hard to fully imagine how dangerous it is to express love for someone of the same gender.” I was also touched in the episode by how kind and compassionate some people, upstairs and downstairs, were toward Thomas. (Out of the Downton Abbey Closet)

One of the controversies swirling around Proposition 8, the DOMA initiatives, and gay marriage in general has focused on the kinds of parents gays and lesbians are. As with many issues relating to LGBT individuals, there has been a lot of fear and misinformation as well as deliberate distortion and overt hostility to the very idea of gay men and lesbians being parents. After reading the cover story of the June 2013 Atlantic, “Gay Adoptive Parents Make Great Adoptive Parents” and a provocative article in the New York Times on the subject, I felt that social science had revealed what my observations had confirmed—gay and lesbian couples who have or adopt children, are no less nurturing and loving than straight parents. According to the Atlantic article, in some ways they make superior parents.

I felt this was worth writing about especially in light of a new UCLA study identifying Salt Lake City as having the largest percentage of same-sex couples raising children of any large metropolitan area in the United States. I concluded my blog this way: “In a world crying for leadership and competence, Mormons often are pioneers, setting the example, blazing the trail, circling the wagons. What gay and lesbian Mormon parents are doing in creating and nurturing strong families is a reflection of what they have been taught in and by the Church. That’s something to celebrate.” (Gays and Lesbians as Parents)

The reason so many Mormons are hoping for the acceptance of same-sex marriage by our Church is because we have personally found marriage so central to our own emotional and spiritual growth and wish all to have this experience that is at the center of our mortal and eternal lives. As Jonathan Rauch observes in his book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America, Marriage is the great civilizing institution. For all its failings in particular cases, and for all the stress it has borne lately, no other institution has the power to turn narcissism into partnership, lust into devotion, strangers into kin. What other force can bond across clans and countries and continents and even cultures?” And, one could add, across sexual identities.

Two other No More Strangers blogs on Proposition 8 deserve special notice. Morris Thurston’s “Prop 8 in the Supreme Court: The Church Weighs In” provides as clear, thorough and comprehensive overview of the background, history and principle issues of the case as one might hope for. As a lawyer Thurston understands the subtleties and intricacies of the case as well as the complexities of the Church’s involvement in it. His blog is a model of sense and sensibility on this landmark case.

Laura Compton, who spearheaded Mormons for Marriage, a pro Prop 8 Mormon support group, contributed “An Open Letter to Prop 8 Supporters.” Compton sympathizes with her fellow Mormons who were disappointed by the Supreme Court decision invalidating Prop 8 since, as she observes, their feelings mirror those of Mormons who were devastated by the proposition’s passage in 2008. She observes, “Would it have been nice to get to the place we are now without having had to go through the fire? Yes, but the fire made us stronger. And the pain made us more empathetic. And the stories we’ve shared remind us that you have stories too–that you have families and religions and traditions and children worth living for and worth fighting for.” Those troubled by the Church’s arguing for the supremacy of heterosexual marriage should read Micah Nicholson’s “Homosexuality, Mormonism, and Me” blog on the site. Nicholson quotes a number of leading polygamous prophets and apostles of nineteenth-century Mormondom who condemn monogamous heterosexual marriage as an inferior, degenerate and dangerous practice.

In a blog titled, “Still Straight After All These Years,” written after the Boy Scouts of America delayed their decision about admitting gay scouts, I remarked, “A gay scout is just as likely to make an oath to God and country, to other people and to himself as is a straight scout. He is just as likely to be trustworthy, loyal, courteous, kind, brave, clean and all of the other characteristics of the Scout Law. Given his likely experience with bullying and other anti-gay behavior, he is also more likely to be better prepared than his fellow straight scouts, and, for the same reasons, I would argue, more likely to Do a Good Turn Daily.” In other words, being gay doesn’t change a person’s character, integrity, or worth. If out dialogue about LGBT Mormons doesn’t teach us any more than this, we will have come a long way.

Over the past decade, a number of people have analogized the plight of gay Mormons to the priesthood ban for blacks. Four members of No More Strangers (John Gustav-Wrathall, Scott Holly, Tom Montgomery and I) each wrote about the extent to which these might be parallel. I observed, “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.“ I added, “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. . . . 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.” (Black-White, Gay-Straight: A Perspective on Perspectives)

After seeing the movie 42, based on Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier, I expanded my observations on this subject: “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 explains my own experience in relation to both racist and homophobic attitudes. (“42“)

As someone who teaches at a graduate theological institution and has long been engaged in interfaith work, I am interested in the ways faiths other than my own have dealt and are dealing with this issue. At times worshipping with other believers, I gain insights that help me negotiate the sometimes difficult terrain in Mormonism as it relates to LGBT issues. One of the first blogs I wrote for No More Strangers came after visiting St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles. My piece, titled “Epiphany,” was informed both by the fact that we had just celebrated Martin Luther King Day and by the service on this particular Sunday, which was a celebration of the feast of the Epiphany—the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi. On this Sunday, which was the second Sunday after Epiphany, the Episcopal service focuses on the wedding feast at Cana where Christ changed water into wine, thus revealing to his disciples his godly power to transform their lives and, ultimately, the world. As a professor of literature, I often allude to poems, stories and plays in my writing. In this blog, I cited Richard Wilbur’s lovely poem for his daughter’s wedding, and tied it into both the theme for this particular Sunday as well as to Martin Luther King and LGBT Mormon issues:

In his poem, “Wedding Toast,” Wilbur, uses Christ’s miracle at Cana to speak of the abundance love makes possible:

St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true . . .

This suggests to me that when as Latter-day Saint leaders and members we “elect [that is, choose] to bless” our gay and lesbian fellow saints with our love, acceptance and support, our love will “brim to a sweet excess” blessing us all with its abundance. What love we express in our daily lives in this way “is true,” and, as with Jesus’ miracle at Cana, “can without depletion overflow.” When this happens, to again quote Martin Luther King, “justice [will] roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Some of the contributions to No More Strangers stand out because they provide very practical advice. Daniel Parkinson, who manages the No More Strangers site, has contributed two important blogs: “Changes the Church can make without changing doctrines to improve the condition of its LGBT members” and “Celibacy and the Single Mormon (a place at the table)” In the first, Parkinson, lists twelve practical, common sense steps the Church could take immediately that would help Church leaders, congregations and families accept, support and fellowship LGBT members. It is a great list, and, as Parkinson points out, could be implemented without a change in doctrine. It will take some courageous adjustment in policy and practice, but that’s something the Church does all the time in the face of social, political and cultural realities. Let’s hope leaders read this list and begin acting on it.

Parkinson’s blog on celibacy and singleness also makes common sense observations, including the fact that singles, both gay and straight, suffer stigma and both formal and informal restrictions as far as callings and activities are concerned. As with his previously mentioned blog, here Parkinson offers suggestions for improving the lot of single and celibate members that would be fairly easy for the Church to implement.

Some of the most engaging blogs come from gays and lesbians and their family members. Because I am well acquainted with their personal story, I have found the postings by Wendy and Tom Montgomery of particular interest. Since they have been trying to negotiate the difficult terrain of active Mormons with an openly-gay son in a less-than-hospitable church environment, I have been moved, informed and enlightened by their postings. Tom’s blog on “Cool Tolerance” is particularly helpful since it describes the kind of middle-ground sentiment that is inevitable for a culture in transition on this subject. Wendy’s post, “What Helps and What Hurts,” provides suggestions in both categories. These lists should be part of every bishop and stake presidency trainings and they should be the subject of annual priesthood, Relief Society and young men and young women’s lesson materials.

Finally, I was deeply touched by Cary Crall’s “No Empty Chairs” in which he talks about this familiar Mormon image of having all family members at our table here and in the hereafter. He notes the many weddings, family reunions, and other gatherings from which LGBTQ family members are excluded. He closes with this plea: “So to the LDS families of my LGBTQ friends, may I once again challenge you to have no empty chairs. No empty chairs at our weddings, no empty chairs at your holiday tables, and no empty chairs for us when you picture your family in Heaven.  Instead, have hope that your Father in Heaven will be even more inclusive and loving than you could possibly imagine and let that hope motivate you to be the same. We’ll all be much happier when the table is full.”

No More Strangers is an important forum. I am proud to be a contributor and am grateful for others who contribute to the site and those who participate in the dialogue by commenting on various posts.

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