The Curious Case of Mormons and LGBT Rights

As the long-awaited resolution of California’s embattled Proposition 8 takes a step closer to reality, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is bracing itself for national civil same-sex marriage.

And they aren’t the only ones. Even LGBT activists in Utah are steadying themselves for the effects of a Prop. 8 reversal. For example, earlier this year when I asked someone at Equality Utah, the state’s largest LGBT rights organization, whether the possibility of federally-mandated same-sex marriage would hurt the “bridge work” gay rights groups have conducted in other areas of advocacy, the answer hinted at their concerns: their hope, they told me, was that Utah State Bill 262 (which would have made sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories under the state’s antidiscrimination and fair housing acts) would pass before then. 

They needn’t have worried. Earlier this month, SB 262 died shortly after making it out of committee for the first time. Its death may not seem surprising given that the Utah State Legislature is more than 80% Mormon. Yet in 2009, the Mormon Church publicly supported Salt Lake City’s housing/employment nondiscrimination ordinances, with LDS Apostle Jeffrey Holland suggesting they were a good model for the state. Mormons seem unable to make up their minds about LGBT rights, torn between an understanding that discrimination exists and a reluctance to endorse same-sex intimacy—much less same-sex marriage—which the Church considers a sin.

For decades, the conventional wisdom from the upper echelon of the Church was that LGBT rights are a slippery slope; any legislative provisions for sexual orientation or gender identity would mean eventual state sanction of same-sex intimacy and a blurring of gender. This was believed true not only with regard to the language of the law, but also the language of everyday life. For instance, in a 1978 address, Apostle Boyd Packer stressed that use of the word “homosexual” was dangerous because it might lead people to believe they really are homosexual.

Until quite recently “coming out” in the Church as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender could land one in a disciplinary council. Even the outspoken belief in equality comes with risks, as Joanna Brooks points out here on RD. The concepts of, and identities drawn from, sexual orientation and gender identity imply that one-man-plus-one-woman marriage, which the Church upholds as sacred and foundational to salvation, is not the greatest option for those not “oriented” toward it. Historically, the Church has had a strong interest in not encouraging ideas like “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” to stick, inside or outside the Church.

The Church’s response to queerness under its roof has been to draw a distinction between “the temptation of homosexual feelings” and “the sin of homosexual acts.” Gay and/or transgender feelings are believed to be a trial in this life that will be resolved in the next. With regard to public policy, Apostle Dallin Oaks’ 1984 internal memorandum, “Principles to Govern Possible Public Statement on Legislation Affecting the Rights of Homosexuals,” is still in effect: the Church opposes same-sex marriage, is apathetic toward anti-sodomy laws (gone in America in 2003 after Lawrence v. Texas, but certainly not internationally), and is cautious toward nondiscrimination ordinances and bills due to the aforementioned slippery slope issue.

Even protections based on “sex” have been understood by the Church to potentially lead to endorsing same-sex relationships—one reason why the Church came out in force against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s. The ERA, according to the Church, might have “forced states… to legally recognize and protect [same-sex] marriages,” because “if the law must be as undiscriminating concerning sex as it is toward race, [then]… laws outlawing wedlock between members of the same sex would be as invalid as laws forbidding miscegenation.”

Interestingly, this concern may have been prescient. In 2010, because Judge Vaughn Walker, the California jurist who struck down Prop. 8, did not have sufficient legal precedent to use sexual orientation as a vulnerable class, he advanced the logic of sex discrimination in his ruling, that “because of their relationship to one another,” gays and lesbians are “discriminated against due to their biological sex” (See Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 2010 US Dist [N CA], p. 120-21). Walker asserted that restricting marriage by sex was “nothing more than an artifact of a foregone notion that men and women fulfill different roles in civic life.”

Given its patriarchal structure and assigned gender roles, the language was a slap in the face of the Mormon Church; Mormon women, after all, cannot administer the Church. But it was also a statement that cut to the heart of the fight: patriarchy is an underlying facet to the debate over same-sex marriage that conservative faiths won’t touch.

Considering all of this, when the Church supported Salt Lake City’s 2009 anti-discrimination ordinances, it was a notable leap. Perhaps some of the upper echelon are less concerned with the legal slippery slope given that the Supreme Court will soon decide on the larger issue, the constitutionality of Prop. 8, in Hollingsworth v. Perry. If, at some point, Utah is federally mandated to authorize civil same-sex marriages, the Church would most likely shift fully into a narrative of religious liberty and cultural pluralism—a tale it already tells its members and the world: that the Church’s position on same-sex marriage and intimacy is “all right” because “reasonable people can and do differ.”

“Experimenting” with LGBT Rights

The Church has filed amicus briefs in Hollingsworth v. Perry every step of the way, but whatever its outcome, a sense of resolution for the slippery slope has opened up a possibility for the Church to approach LGBT rights from a different angle. After the backlash it received when its involvement in passing Prop. 8 was brought to light, the Church released a public statement asserting that it does not “object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.”

Conservative think tanks, like the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute, read this to mean that the Church has capitulated under national pressure. Instead, I would argue that internal factors—that is, queerness within the Church and emerging strategies to contain it—spell a new association with the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Church is “experimenting” with LGBT rights.

It’s now possible—in some quarters, even celebrated—to be a gay Mormon. The Church wants its LGBT members to stick around and be productive. Discrimination against the LGBT community is viewed by Mormons as a real phenomenon to the extent that anyone, regardless of their relationship status, can be harassed, bullied, and treated unfairly based on perceived queerness. In 2009, mid-level Church officials dialogued with members of Utah’s queer community with regard to legislation addressing discrimination, and the Church’s support of the SLC ordinances was partly a result of that dialogue. But the other part has to do with the Church’s interests.

In a 2009 article in The Nation titled “What’s Right with Utah?” Lisa Duggan wrote about feeling inspired by the state because, with a constitutional ban that keeps same-sex marriage off the table, LGBT politics in Utah does not “advocate domesticity and promote consumption under the name of equality politics.” It engenders grassroots, cross-party dialogue that takes into consideration the needs of various households—single, gay, straight, and other. This community-based politicking was embodied by the 2009 “Common Ground Initiative” (CGI) formulated by Equality Utah. Although the CGI is no longer Equality Utah’s stated mission, the organization still focuses on issues like bullying, youth homelessness, and housing/employment discrimination.

In contrast to this optimistic account, it should be emphasized that, legislatively-speaking, the CGI worked within the parameters laid out by the Church’s 2008 post-Prop. 8 statement. Passing the SLC ordinances didn’t challenge Mormon condemnation of same-sex intimacy; the ordinances are extensions of protections of privacy and private property, including those of the Church. Arguably, the ordinances strengthen the Church’s cultural heterosexism because the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity become integrated into the LDS lexicon as “challenges” gay Mormons must struggle against.

It’s About Private Property

Although religious institutions have been exempt from portions of civil rights law, unlike other conservative faiths the Church is approaching the exemptions proactively in order to facilitate a transition into a more LGBT-friendly nation. In 2009, following the passage of the SLC ordinances, Church spokesperson Michael Otterson told the Salt Lake City Council that the “issue is… the right of people to have roofs over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against.” But what he left unsaid is that the ordinances simultaneously codified the Church’s “right” to fire any Church employee (a Brigham Young University professor, for example) who has a same-sex relationship. Taking religious institutions’ exemption as a point of departure, the State Legislature debated whether Utah’s anti-discrimination bill SB 262 should include a religious adherent exemption, which would have potentially exempted all private holdings. Inclusion of this language would have gutted the meaning of “LGBT rights.”

The possibility of such a gutting concretizes what numerous scholars argue about all “rights” legislation: that they are in the business of shoring up difference in the interests of private property. The swath of Republican leaders who signed on to a February amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of marriage equality reveals how same-sex marriage is now squarely associated with the notions of limited government and the free market. (Ironically, because the Church views traditional marriage as a pre-governmental institution, it therefore holds that the “right” to same-sex marriage is less about loosening government intrusion than it is an expansion of government power over private lives, a critique it shares with radical queer thinkers—though the “alliance” goes no further than that.) 

A cautious ride on the LGBT rights train is only one important aspect of the Church’s new strategizing to contain difference it no longer wants to exclude. In December 2012, the Church launched the website “Mormonsandgays.org,” which points to a new tactic for a new generation; the “closet” is now considered an ecclesiastical hindrance. Openness about gayness can seem revolutionary on its face, but queer discourse is being sifted through church protocol with an aim to fortify “love the sinner, not the sin” ideology, rather than tear it down.

As an example, in the summer of 2012, Mormons marched in Pride parades in Salt Lake City, Boise, and other cities for the first time in large numbers, carrying banners that read “Mormons Building Bridges” (MBB). Donning Sunday attire and holding signs with messages of love, MBB forbade signs that criticized Church teachings—namely the notion that same-sex intimacy is a sin. Erika Munson, the founder of MBB, has assured me that the marches were a grassroots affair not in any way directed by Church leaders, but given the organization’s policies, they might as well have been.

MBB’s disciplined messaging applied not only to the parades, but also to the subsequent discussion on their Facebook forum where—in an attempt to appeal to the least common denominator of “love” to draw the most Mormons—the moderators delete comments and remove people from the group who advocate marriage equality or discuss doctrine on the question of “sin.” This is not to suggest that everyone in MBB believes same-sex intimacy is a sin, but to the extent that members stay silent (or are silenced) on the issue, they perpetuate the official Church position.

The Church probably could not have gained such representation in Pride prior to the packages of rights the LGBT community has received in recent years, or the sense of inevitability around national civil same-sex marriage. However, queer people who identify through the Church more than through a body of civil laws will continue to live in a world where same-sex intimacy is forbidden; now, they need only look to Pride to see this message on display.

On the other hand, underreported small groups of Mormons marched in various cities outside the Mormon Corridor behind Pride banners that read “Mormons for Marriage Equality” (M4ME)—recently renamed “Mormons for Equality” given how marriage is not the be-all and end-all of equality. Unsurprisingly, the Church publicly acknowledged MBB, but not M4ME.

When some participants of the latter asked their bishops and stake presidents whether they needed to worry about discipline, they were assured the Church is not in the business of dictating members’ personal politics. Currently, the Church’s protocol on the matter of “sin” is that those engaged in same-sex relationships or dating are welcome to attend church, but cannot be baptized, partake of Sacrament, enter temples and are usually not allowed to hold church “callings” (service responsibilities). The reality is, the situation is very uneven. One can still find new accounts online of those disciplined for merely “coming out.”

Conversely, I have a friend in Seattle who was called to the stake Sunday school presidency even though his stake president knows that he dates men. Negotiated cases like his are the result of a local service need for which a trusted homosexually-active member just happens to be the most qualified. Whether such atypical cases demonstrate any movement on the “sin” question is dubious.  

The Church is learning how to be an underwriter of LGBT rights, using their framework to carve out its own cultural space. Granted, if the rights did not include religious exemptions, the Church would continue to oppose them, but tossing out the separation of church and state is not an option, even in Utah where the distinction is laughable.

The curious case of Mormons and LGBT rights should give pause to a belief in the inherent goodness of “rights.” LGBT rights expand the purview of private property, bifurcating public interests into multiple private spheres including those in which same-sex intimacy is a “sin.” If this summer sees a positive outcome with Proposition 8, equality supporters should not lose sight of the hard work still ahead.

ninelegyak@gmail.com'

Alan Michael Williams is a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Washington. He’s the author of Ockham’s Razor (2009), a gay Mormon novel.