Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mormons and Gay Rights: 1995 Document on the Family Resurfaces as Marriage Equality Surges in Utah

Several points leap out at me as I read Andrew Sullivan's recent summary of Neil Young's discussion of the 1995 Mormon document "The Family":

1. As support for marriage equality surges in the very red and very Mormon state of Utah, the LDS church has just instructed its congregations to review the 1995 document.

2. As Young notes, Mormon leaders drag the 1995 document on the family out "at times of social crisis ever since" its publication in 1995. 

3. Young points out that "The Family" is rooted in a belief articulated by Mormon Apostle Boyd Packer in 1993 that the three greatest threats to the LDS church at this point in its history are "intellectuals, feminists, and the gay-rights movement."

In what I just wrote about Tom Roberts's critique of Michael Sean Winters on the issue of women in the Catholic church, I noted the strange (to me, at least) preoccupation of many Catholic men in the past decade or so with the notion of "orthodoxy." I noted the strange preoccupation of many Catholic men with believing that the Catholic church is under siege these days by people who would undermine its orthodoxy.

It seems to me no accident that this preoccupation with defending orthodoxy and declaring some ideas and some people heretical is occurring in the Catholic (and the LDS) church at the very moment in history in which women (and gay folks) are coming onto the stage of human history in an unparalleled way, as actors claiming a role in the drama occurring on history's stage, rather than passive spectators. 

The preoccupation of some Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals, and Mormons with establishing hard and fast boundary lines between what they choose to call orthodoxy and women and gay folks has everything in the world to do with trying to establish definitions of Catholic (or Orthodox, or evangelical, or Mormon) identity that rule women and gay folks out--definitions that demand obeisance and submission on the part of women and gay folks, if they're to take part in the life of these faith communities and are to be represented in what these faith communities call orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy is being defined by many people of faith these days over against women and those who are gay. Women and gay folks serve a powerful utilitarian purpose for many people of faith, in defining what they're against as people of faith--and who they are, as people of faith. They're the people against: against women's rights, against gay rights, etc.

I've mentioned on this blog that Steve and I have fallen into the habit of taking an annual fall trip to Salt Lake City, on which we spend a number of days doing research in the LDS family history library. These annual visits to the Mormon Mecca have given me a certain feel for what's happening in the LDS community, vis-a-vis gay folks. 

On our last visit to the LDS library in November 2013, I found the tensions around gay issues and gay folks at boiling point, especially in the LDS library itself. Many of the Mormon missionaries who staff this library and make their knowledge freely available to the public--as the library does in general, since it charges no fees at all for its use by anyone--could not be nicer, more professional, more helpful.

But on this visit to the library, for the first time ever, Steve and I encountered some pretty ugly, out-in-the-open hostility that was clearly directed at us as a gay couple--who rendezvous each year on our visit to the LDS library with another gay couple who do research along with us. The hostility reflects, I'm absolutely certain, the growing tensions within the LDS church itself as gay people in Utah refuse to live in the closet any longer. The hostility was so ugly that I spent part of our time on this visit to the library sending emails to the library's managers (via the library's online system inviting patrons to send feedback), asking them to deal with the homophobia of some of their staff members.

I spent a good part of our last week in the library sending emails about our encounters with several hostile staff members to the library management, and printing out these emails and dropping them into the suggestion box on the top floor of the library. As one of these sets of emails and printed complaints informed the library managers, on one day as Steve and I arrived at the library with our friends who are a gay couple, we passed by a row of young LDS elders at a computer bank who sneered and made sotto voce comments about the four of us as we passed them.

After I'd found a research booth and secured my computer, I went back to the row of elders, looked at each of them and called him by name (since they had on name tags), and asked if they are aware that they represent the LDS church and its values through their missionary work in the library. All acknowledged that they did. I then told them I had wanted to be certain of that point as I wrote a report to their supervisors about their behavior.

The young men then spent the rest of the week trying to avoid me and any eye contact with me as we passed each other in the library . . . . 

The LDS library managers chose to deal with my emails by informing me that the emails were spam. I responded with more emails and more printed complaints, telling them that 1) they actively solicit responses from library patrons by putting a suggestion box out in the library, 2) even if they chose to regard my emails as spam and ignore them, they'd still be getting copies of them in printed form in their suggestion box, and 3) they had a serious problem with homophobia among some of their library staff, and neither gay folks nor the problem with homophobia were going to disappear simply because the library managers chose to stick their heads in the sand about these matters.

I concluded on the basis of these experiences (and many other pieces of evidence) last November that things are getting exceptionally heated in LDS communities, re: the issue of dealing with gay folks. And here's another conclusion I'm inclined to reach as I read Neil Young's essay about "The Family" and the way Mormon leaders trot that document out at times of crisis: neither women demanding to be treated as fully human nor gay folks with the same demand are going to go away, no matter how much LDS leaders (or Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical ones) wave battle flags and draw lines in the sand to define themselves as orthodox and women and gays as threats to orthodoxy.

And so it might make a lot more sense to talk to rather than about women and gay folks, as these faith communities define orthodoxy. If, that is, these communities of faith want what they call orthodoxy to have much meaning to most of us who live in a real world in which the aspirations of women and gay folks to human rights simply aren't going to disappear as the orthodox define them as illicit aspirations . . . .

The graphic: David B. Baker's findings in a recent poll of Utah citizens regarding marriage equality.

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