Mormon Leader: ‘I’m Sorry’ For Hurtful Legacy of Prop. 8

It was, according to those who witnessed it, a historic event for LGBT Mormons and their allies.

On the morning of Sunday, September 19, about ninety members of the Oakland, California stake (diocese) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met with Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the Church’s historian and a prominent member of the General Authorities, the ranking hierarchy of Mormon leaders.

Stake President Dean Criddle had invited Jensen to the special meeting, advising him that many Mormon families in the area continued to feel hurt by the Church’s deep involvement in the Proposition 8 campaign. He hoped that Elder Jensen would be willing to hear their stories. Elder Jensen agreed.

During the one-hour meeting, thirteen gay and straight Mormons came to the microphone. Many expressed their love for the faith, as well as the profound pain caused by LDS Church actions toward gays and lesbians. Gay Mormons recalled years of prayer and fasting, attempted heterosexual marriages promising to “cure” them, and Church-prescribed aversion therapy. Gay and straight Mormons spoke of how their families and neighborhoods had been divided by the Yes on 8 campaign. And some expressed their anger over the Church’s leading role in a political campaign that gave California and the Mormon community a “license to hate” homosexuals.

There was sobbing. There were tears. Elder Jensen also shed tears as he listened and took notes to share with other General Authorities back in Salt Lake City. At the conclusion of the hour, he apologized for the pain he was witnessing.

According to attendee Carol Lynn Pearson, a Mormon author and longtime advocate of LGBT concerns, Elder Jensen said, “To the full extent of my capacity, I say that I am sorry… I know that many very good people have been deeply hurt, and I know that the Lord expects better of us.”

An apology. An apology from a General Authority. A rare thing—no, an exceedingly rare thing—in an institutional LDS culture that prefers to leave its historical missteps and mysteries quietly behind. It was not, to be sure, an apology for Proposition 8 itself. It was not a renunciation of Mormon doctrine on homosexuality. But it was a significant acknowledgment of the experience of gay Mormons and their allies, an instance of dialogue between Church leadership and membership. It was, in short, a reason for hope.

Within a few days, news of the historic meeting and Jensen’s apology zoomed by email, text message, Facebook, and blog across Mormon networks from Oakland to Salt Lake City to Southern California and then to points throughout the Book of Mormon-belt and beyond.

Some received the news of Jensen’s apology as an answer to prayers. Others hoped that it might serve as an occasion for renewed reflection among Mormons over what exactly happened in the fall of 2008, when entire congregations were mobilized as precinct-walkers and phonebankers in the service of a political strategy that portrayed gay and lesbian civil marriage rights as a threat to religious freedom and “traditional” families.

Still others debated the wisdom of publicizing the apology and the event, worrying aloud that within the highly disciplined LDS Church hierarchy, Jensen—a favorite among liberal Mormons—might suffer some consequence for his display of compassion, or that too much publicity would lead to renewed retrenchment and another round of setbacks.

But behind the buzz stands a deeper story of how a committed group of Mormons is working to heal the rifts created by Proposition 8 and the even larger story of how faith communities slowly come to terms with the legacies of the political battle over same-sex marriage.

Adversaries Break Bread in Oakland

Back in late August 2009, the lay priesthood leadership of the Oakland, California Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took initiative to address the lingering rifts and hurts their congregations experienced as a result of the Proposition 8 campaign.

Stake President Dean Criddle and his assistants convened Sunday meetings with each of the ten congregations in their charge to present a syllabus of readings from both LDS scriptures and leaders urging compassion and understanding for gays and lesbians. Local leaders also facilitated presentations by gay Mormons and Mormons with gay children and gay spouses. (To access the Oakland Stake’s syllabus and related materials, click here.)

There were, according to those who attended the meetings, many tears shed—always the sign of a productive Mormon meeting. Members who had proudly displayed Yes on 8 lawn signs embraced LDS parents of gay children, weeping. “We never knew,” they said.

It didn’t stop there. Members of the Oakland Stake individually convened cottage meetings and dinner parties to bring together Mormon gays, non-Mormon gays, and non-gay Mormons to break bread.

And on July 6, 2010, the Berkeley LDS ward (congregation) hosted a community meeting featuring GLBT people from a number of faith traditions sharing their testimonies of faith and stories of their marriages as a form of “spiritual practice.” [For more on Mormons and marriage see From Here to Eternity: Of Mormons and Celestial Marriage.]

What this series of events demonstrates is that the apology from Elder Jensen was, in fact, the product of a context of honesty and fellowship created by months of on the ground work initiated and directed by rank-and-file LDS Church members.

It’s a rare glimpse of how Church members in a conservative and profoundly hierarchical faith tradition are changing the quality of the discourse about homosexuality at the local level, making it practically impossible for their communities to ever again return to the tense, difficult, invective-filled days of the Fall 2008 Yes on 8 campaign season.

The Thaw on LGBT Issues Spreads

Now, two years after the Proposition 8 campaign—as marriage equality remains an open question in the courts of law and public opinion—the wheels of self-examination are turning within LDS communities too, even as Mormons maintain a unique theology that sacralizes marriage as an ordinance necessary to salvation.

In August, a BYU student named Cary Crall who had half-heartedly participated in the Yes on 8 campaign read Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling in Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, noting especially the failure of Proposition 8 proponents to mount evidence in support of their claims that gay and lesbian civil equality threatened religious freedom, child welfare, and “traditional” family life. Crall wrote an editorial for BYU’s Daily Universe student newspaper calling upon Mormons to stop using “indefensible” and “offensive” rationale for their support of Proposition 8 and to “admit” that they supported the measure because Church leaders asked them to. On September 7, the Daily Universe published the editorial, then pulled it from the web 24 hours later, calling it “offensive” to some readers.

Just a few weeks later, on September 23, also at Brigham Young University, Professor William Bradshaw (a member of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology) delivered a lecture entitled “The Evidence for a Biological Origin for Homosexuality,” something of a challenge to common LDS views of sexual orientation as something that can be changed through spiritual devotion or therapy. “In our LDS community there is not much discourse on this issue,” Bradshaw has said. When there is, it is “not usually civil and it’s not always informed.”

Subtle changes are even detectable in the arguments presented by high-ranking Church officials like Elder Dallin Oaks, a former University of Chicago law professor and Warren Court clerk and jurist who often covers legal issues in his public addresses. On September 17, Oaks spoke in honor of Constitution Day at the historic Mormon Tabernacle, arguing that a ruling on same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court would constitute “a significant constitutional reallocation of lawmaking power from the lawmaking branch to the judicial branch and from the states to the federal government.” (Legal scholars responded to Oaks’ comments by pointing out the precedent of the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia overturning state bans on interracial marriage.) Still, Oaks’s effective “states’ rights” approach to same-sex marriage seems to signal a subtle shift from his earlier public arguments framing anti-same-sex-marriage activism as a total defense of religious freedom comparable to Civil Rights-era activism.

Stories like these and the news from Oakland reveal that Mormons in many places are struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the Proposition 8 campaign and the longer history of Mormon attitudes towards homosexuality.

As Carol Lynn Pearson, the Mormon LGBT advocate who attended the September 19 Oakland meeting, observes:

I think the people who didn’t see [Proposition 8] as a problem then are now in two groups: those who still don’t see it as a problem, and those who say, ‘Wait a minute. What did we just do? Why did we do it? Why is my neighbor so cold to me? Why am I still looked at differently at work? I thought this would just blow over. Is there something here I haven’t thought about?’ And those who experienced it as a significant problem two years ago still experience it as a significant problem. A problem that to many is even exacerbated because the church wants to just do Business As Usual. I know plenty of LDS people who are in no mood to do Business As Usual.

Even in the heart of institutional Mormonism, many LDS people remain conflicted, sensitive, unclear, ambivalent, and tender about why the Church became so involved in the Proposition 8 campaign; what was lost, what was gained, and what purposes it will ultimately serve.

In tenderness, there is reason for hope.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.