Gay Rights Org Delivers 150,000-Signature Petition to LDS Church

On Tuesday in Salt Lake City, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solomonese delivered a 150,000-signature petition denouncing Elder Boyd K. Packer’s controversial October 2 General Conference declaring that homosexuality was “impure and unnatural” and may be overcome.

At a press conference, Solomonese, who was accompanied by representatives of the American Psychological Association, Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, Equality Utah, and the Utah Pride Center, called Packer’s claims “factually and scientifically inaccurate statements that put lives in danger.”

In response to the petition, Church spokesman Michael Otterson issued the following statement, which I’ll reprint in full:

My name is Michael Otterson. I am here representing the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to address the matter of the petition presented today by the Human Rights Campaign.

While we disagree with the Human Rights Campaign on many fundamentals, we also share some common ground. This past week we have all witnessed tragic deaths across the country as a result of bullying or intimidation of gay young men. We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.  Such actions simply have no place in our society.

This Church has felt the bitter sting of persecution and marginalization early in our history, when we were too few in numbers to adequately protect ourselves and when society’s leaders often seemed disinclined to help. Our parents, young adults, teens and children should therefore, of all people, be especially sensitive to the vulnerable in society and be willing to speak out against bullying or intimidation whenever it occurs, including unkindness toward those who are attracted to others of the same sex. This is particularly so in our own Latter-day Saint congregations. Each Latter-day Saint family and individual should carefully consider whether their attitudes and actions toward others properly reflect Jesus Christ’s second great commandment – to love one another.

As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman. However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel.  His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.

Further, while the Church is strongly on the record as opposing same-sex marriage, it has openly supported other rights for gays and lesbians such as protections in housing or employment.

The Church’s doctrine is based on love. We believe that our purpose in life is to learn, grow and develop, and that God’s unreserved love enables each of us to reach our potential. None of us is limited by our feelings or inclinations. Ultimately, we are free to act for ourselves.

The Church recognizes that those of its members who are attracted to others of the same sex experience deep emotional, social and physical feelings. The Church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other. It’s not a sin to have feelings, only in yielding to temptation.

There is no question that this is difficult, but Church leaders and members are available to help lift, support and encourage fellow members who wish to follow Church doctrine. Their struggle is our struggle. Those in the Church who are attracted to someone of the same sex but stay faithful to the Church’s teachings can be happy during this life and perform meaningful service in the Church. They can enjoy full fellowship with other Church members, including attending and serving in temples, and ultimately receive all the blessings afforded to those who live the commandments of God.

Obviously, some will disagree with us. We hope that any disagreement will be based on a full understanding of our position and not on distortion or selective interpretation. The Church will continue to speak out to ensure its position is accurately understood.

God’s universal fatherhood and love charges each of us with an innate and reverent acknowledgement of our shared human dignity.  We are to love one another. We are to treat each other with respect as brothers and sisters and fellow children of God, no matter how much we may differ from one another.

We hope and firmly believe that within this community, and in others, kindness, persuasion and goodwill can prevail.

It’s a remarkable statement after an eventful, sometimes brutal, and perhaps pivotal week in LGBT-Mormon relations. To be sure, the Church’s statement does not fulfill the HRC’s demands that Elder Packer rescind his talk. Nor does it expand institutional options for LGBT Mormons beyond celibacy, the closet, or excommunication. But it may in fact be the most important official statement on LGBT human rights and Mormon doctrine ever made.

Here’s why—those of us who closely watch LDS discourse on LGBT issues note the following:

1.  The statement uses the words gay and lesbian without scare quotes or the prefacing term “so-called.”  In previous statements, the LDS Church has used scare quotes or the phrase “so-called” to interrogate the reality of LGBT identity, opting instead to characterize homosexuality as a condition, i.e., “same sex attraction.”

2.  The statement defers to general public usage of the term sexual orientation to denote a protected category of identity.

3.  The statement acknowledges the HRC by name and identifies areas of political common ground.

4.  The statement demonstrates an unprecedented level of responsiveness on the part of the LDS Church to LGBT human rights concerns and advocacy issues and a willingness to join a larger current campaign by faith leaders to denounce anti-LGBT bullying. Going further, the statement originates and articulates a specifically Mormon reason for opposing LGBT bullying, based in our own historical experience as a persecuted minority group.

5.  The statement acknowledges the reality that gay people experience not just sexual but also profound “emotional and social” feelings.

6.  In stating the Church’s “doctrinal position” that “we define marriage as between a man and a woman,” the statement does not reiterate earlier arguments made by LDS officials that the health of American society or civilization as a whole depend upon excluding gay and lesbian people from the right to marry.  It also appears to prepare members to understand that the Church can safely maintain its doctrine on marriage even as nationwide opinion swings in favor of same-sex civil marriage rights. This would signal a tactical shift from the Church strategy in California in 2008, when Mormon officials and operatives depicted the legalization of same-sex marriage as a direct threat to Church doctrine and practices and mobilized members in their defense, to a position more like that adopted by the LDS Church in Argentina last summer, when members were not officially deployed or pressured into anti-same-sex marriage political activism and were instead counseled to review Church doctrine on marriage as articulated in the LDS Proclamation on the Family.

None of this public acknowledgement of the reality and dignity of LGBT experience or deference to mainstream usage of terms like gay and lesbian—none of this—was happening in 2008.

Back then, the LDS Church was so insulated that it managed to raise millions of dollars and generate thousands upon thousands of volunteer hours in support of Proposition 8 without mainstream news sources catching on to the full extent of the Mormon-led campaign until after election day.

Now, just in the last week, we’ve seen a Sunday morning General Conference talk make national headlines within hours, generate a massive national response from voices within and without the Church, be substantially revised for publication to better harmonize with broader LDS efforts towards understanding on LGBT issues, and have that revision covered in the national news media.  We’ve also seen the LDS Church adopt an unprecedented level of forthrightness in its response to the controversy engendered by Elder Packer’s talk and to efforts by national LGBT advocacy groups.

In short, I believe we’ve seen something of a break from the old Mormon patterns of insider-outsider double-talk and insularity we saw during the Proposition 8 campaign, patterns I discussed at some length in a previous post, and which some LDS scholars attribute to a century-old minority mindset and a culture of administrative secrecy rooted in the days when top-ranking Church leaders tried to outwit US government prohibition on the doctrinal practice of polygamy.

I welcome this statement as a demonstration of civility, public engagement, and moral responsiveness.

Of course, the statement does not go as far as many LDS LGBT people and their allies hope. It does not offer institutional welcome or affirmation to LGBT people who want to live full lives as LGBT people. It maintains that LGBT behavior is sinful. It does not create new space for LGBT LDS people to attend church on Sunday with their partners, as I am able to do every week. But it may signal an institutional retreat from Church efforts to intervene in the civil definition of marriage and block legal equality for LGBT people.

Movement is definitely happening.