Proposition 8, Mormonism, and the Other Fight for Alternative Marriage

8: The Mormon Proposition, a documentary polemic detailing the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in support of California’s Proposition 8 opened nationally June 18. The general storyline will be familiar to anyone who followed the 2008 controversy and watched as Californians voted to amend the state Constitution so that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” [see also Joanna Brooks’ “8: The Mormon Proposition Gets it Right” —Eds.] But while the details of the story can still astonish, more surprising is what the film misses on two key topics: Mormon beliefs about the afterlife, and polygamy. 

The Cost of Mormon Homophobia

Director Reed Cowan, who grew up Mormon and gay in Utah and served an LDS mission, documents the LDS Church’s efforts to ban gay marriage; as well as its efforts to screen its involvement in that fight. He makes the case that the LDS Church approached the issue according to a template used successfully to fight gay marriage in Hawaii in the 1990s. Specifically, well aware that the church is viewed overall with more suspicion than respect, it formed a coalition with churches and organizations with better images, then bankrolled the coalition’s work.  

By the time the California Supreme Court ruled on May 15, 2008 that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, the fight to amend the constitution was already well underway—thanks to the money and effort of the LDS church. Petitions bearing over 1.1 million signatures (400,000 more than necessary) were submitted to the state’s election division in the spring, and on June 2, 2008, two weeks before a single legally binding gay marriage was performed in the state of California, Proposition 8 qualified for the November 4, 2008 ballot.

The movie addresses the cost of Mormon homophobia, not only in California but elsewhere. It’s narrated by Academy-award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who grew up gay and Mormon in Texas and California. Black has talked candidly about the fact that the church’s virulent anti-gay rhetoric made him contemplate suicide. The documentary relates the story of Stuart Matis, a 32-year-old gay Mormon who, in February 2000, shot himself on the steps of the LDS chapel in Los Altos, California. Matis’ parents issued a statement saying that after their son’s suicide, they finally felt at peace.

During the account of Matis’ death, the stillness in the Salt Lake City theater where I saw the film was punctuated by sobs from the audience. Weeping and exclamations of grief were also audible during the discussion of homelessness among LGBT youth in Utah, many of whom are rejected by their families when they come out; the overall result is an extremely high rate of suicide among young people in Utah. Gay Mormons who survived their suicide attempts were interviewed in the film.

The movie examines why Mormons not only in California but across the country obeyed the command to donate their time and money (including huge sums from families of modest means) to fight gay marriage. Members and former members of the church describe a culture of ingrained acquiescence, even (especially?) when it involves sacrificing one’s self-interest or hurting beloved family or friends. Watching the cheerful enthusiasm with which single, childless, twenty-something Mormons go about protecting their nonexistent marriages and unborn children from the threat posed by tolerance toward gays, it’s hard not to see them as naive, slightly ridiculous, and cruel. That of course is not how they see themselves: they would say that they are dutiful servants of God and his chosen proxies here on Earth, wise enough to obey without question directives from the leaders of God’s one and only true church.

Polygamy, the Many-Headed Elephant in the Room

In order to explain the virulence of the Mormon anti-gay agenda, the film delves into Mormon theology. Mormons have an elaborate concept of the afterlife. As I know well (having been taught this doctrine from infancy and taught it to others as a missionary), Mormon theology contains many levels of heaven, the highest of which, the Celestial Kingdom, is reserved for those who accept the ordinances of LDS baptism and temple marriage. Family relationships will not only be preserved in the hereafter, but are the means by which one achieves exaltation. By marrying and procreating, human beings can become like God, who is also married and who is literally our spiritual father in heaven: with his many wives, he not only created but procreated the spirit of every person born physically onto this Earth. Proving oneself worthy of the right to do the same thing in another corner of the universe is, in Mormon belief, the goal and purpose of our mortal existence.

The film argues that because gay people cannot procreate on their own, they have no place in the LDS Plan of Salvation, so the church works to deny them and their relationships’ social or political legitimacy. This is certainly true. And yet, because I am conversant in Mormon belief, I cannot accept this as the full story. Many things that fall outside Mormon ideals for the next life are tolerated during mortality. For instance, temple marriage is also called “eternal marriage”—spouses will be together for all eternity, and there will be no divorce or remarrying in the Celestial Kingdom. However, the church not only makes no effort to legislate against divorce in this life, it allows its own members to divorce and remarry. The church has strict dietary codes, prohibiting coffee, tobacco, and alcohol, which presumably will not be available in heaven, but sees no need to legislate against their sale, even in Utah. There is the assumption that however wicked or wrong a certain behavior might be, it need not overwhelm the efforts of the Latter-day Saints to be righteous, and that, furthermore, God can adequately judge and punish those whose behavior he finds abhorrent, no matter how legal or acceptable it might be here on Earth.

Tyler Barrick, whose June 17, 2008 marriage to Spencer Jones is depicted in the film, is descended from Mormon polygamists forced to flee their home because society refused to grant legitimacy to polygamous families. LDS pleas for understanding and tolerance of their own marriage practices in the 19th century are certainly in sharp contract with the church’s intolerance of alternative families in the 20th and 21st, but making that point is as far as the film goes in discussing the church’s involvement with polygamy. I believe that polygamy is central to an understanding of the church’s attitude toward gay marriage.

Several years ago, at a gathering comprised primarily of faithful Mormons, I heard an LDS lawyer state quietly that one reason the church was so anxious to institute bans on gay marriage was that the leaders knew that if gay marriage ever became widely legal and accepted, polygamy would subsequently be brought before the courts for legitimation. The church hierarchy simply didn’t want to deal with the difficulties and embarrassment that would provoke.

Polygamists Working for LGBT Rights in Utah 

It is difficult to imagine the coercive, exploitative form of polygamy practiced by the likes of Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist LDS (FLDS) church ever gaining social legitimacy. Few people would want a world in which 14-year-old girls frequently become the thirty-second wife of men old enough to be their grandfathers. But there are those who, though they see no appeal in polygamy, feel that legalizing it might actually protect and help the women who end up in these marriages. If the ceremonies are performed under the auspices of the state, the state could ensure that any brides involved are indeed old enough to give legal consent. Also, if a plural wife subsequently decides to leave a marriage, she would have recourses and rights granted and recognized by the state.

While Jeffs and his followers avoid interaction with the outside world, not all Mormon polygamists are so xenophobic. Straddling the Arizona-Utah border, in an area of breathtaking beauty and almost no potable water, are the interlocking towns of Hildale and Colorado City. The polygamists there who rejected Warren Jeffs in the 1980s reorganized under the name Centennial Park. The Centennial Park Action Committee, or CPAC, is made up of dynamic, vibrant women dedicated to decriminalizing polygamy: think Big Love. They wear modest but modern clothing; they are often educated and work as teachers, accountants, and office managers. They take their kids to Disneyland and get responsible relatives to babysit for a week while they visit Lake Louise in Alberta. They run an award-winning charter school and send children to college. They stress that because polygamy is very difficult—socially, spiritually, economically, emotionally—not everyone can and not everyone should practice it. They just want the legal right to do so openly.

During a meeting in March 2010 with five members of CPAC, I asked if they saw any similarities between their situation and that of LGBT citizens whose families are not recognized by the state. One nodded solemnly. “This is a civil rights issue,” she said. To my surprise, the women went on to tell me and my companions that they work with Equality Utah, an organization dedicated to “[securing] equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families.”

“We just hope they don’t forget us or throw us under the bus after their marriages are legal,” one of them said, laughing.

“We fully expect that we will be one of the last groups in this country to achieve full civil rights,” another added. While I had no desire to adopt their lifestyle, I couldn’t help respecting these women, the clear-eyed choices they had made, their willingness to work with people whose lives and ideologies were so different from their own. I also couldn’t help coming to the conclusion that their marriages didn’t hurt me or anyone else, really, in the slightest, any more than cohabitation or west coast polyamory or gay marriage or adultery in the suburbs hurt me.

If and when these women succeed in decriminalizing polygamy, what will it mean for the Mormon church? For one thing, the church will have to decide whether to accept on Earth what its theology still claims is a central aspect of marriage in heaven: namely, men having multiple wives, each of whom must bear her husband as many children as possible. What will be the consequences for its image, its missionary efforts and the morale of its members if it does so? How will it address attacks on its doctrines or the charge of hypocrisy if it does not? One can see why the church would prefer to avoid these issues. But one also feels confident that given what the church has already weathered, it can find a way through that challenge.

While it’s impossible to be certain exactly what the motives of the LDS hierarchy are in the matter of gay marriage, mere homophobia doesn’t, in my mind, adequately account for it. At least there are promising signs that LDS homophobia has softened in the wake of the PR disaster Prop. 8 became for the church: in November 2009, thanks in part to the explicit endorsement of the LDS church, Salt Lake City passed legislation making it illegal to evict or fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many LDS feel stung by the criticism leveled against them in 8: The Mormon Proposition, even without seeing the film. It is, as I stated, a polemic, an indictment, and Mormons feel they are too often and unfairly the subject of those. As the fight for gay rights is not over, and as the LDS church, although willing to make overtures of support to the LGBT community, has not reversed its position on gay marriage, it is likely that criticism will continue. So efforts to understand the root of Mormon attitudes and actions toward homosexuality should continue as well, as should efforts by rank and file Mormons—not just their leadership—to understand the complexity of alternative marriage, and the ways that tolerating the choices and recognizing the families of others will and will not affect their own.