Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Musings on Mormonism and Homophobia

Reading Sheldon Rampton’s article on Mormon homophobia to which I linked in my posting earlier today has me thinking about my impressions of Mormonism. I grew up in a town in which Mormons were not on the radar screen. I can recall one Mormon family in my school. The daughter of that family graciously endured many naïve (and impertinent) questions about who, how, where, and when she worshiped.

Like other families of religions our town considered non-brand name denominations (that is, almost anything outside the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian circles), Mormons kept a low profile in our community. I knew almost nothing about Mormonism from my growing-up experiences.

My first vivid recollection of encountering Mormonism after my formative years is sometime in the mid-1970s. Steve and I had made plans to go to graduate school, to complete graduate-level theological studies we had begun in New Orleans several years earlier.

As we prepared to head to Toronto, it occurred to me that no one had ever made a concerted effort to gather and record information about our family history. That topic had always interested me—history in general did so. I had been designated the family archivist by default, when my grandmother pressed on me memorial objects like my grandfather’s pocket watch, as well as old letters, pictures, and bible records.

I knew that the Mormons specialized in family history, though I had only a vague idea of the theological roots of that interest. So when I decided to record my family’s history in earnest, I headed for the nearest LDS family history center.

This was just north of Little Rock, near the military town of Jacksonville. At the time I went there, the President-Prophet of the LDS Church had just had a revelation about the need of the church to admit black men to the priesthood.

When I visited the Mormon family history center near Little Rock, I found the place in quite a dither over this revelation. The staff were, frankly, highly upset and vocal about the revelation and the way it required them to revise their attitudes towards people of color.

I had not heard such overt, roiling racism in years. This encounter with at least some Mormons at an important moment in the 20th-century history of their church, as the church responded to possible litigation against it for racial discrimination, gave me a certain impression of Mormonism—an unfavorable impression.

That impression shifted slightly over the years, as Steve and I both continued doing family history. Everywhere we lived, we made a point of spending time at the local LDS family history centers, which provide filmed copies of records useful to genealogists from all over the world. We also began making yearly visits to the LDS library itself in Salt Lake City.

Those visits to local family history centers brought us into contact with many generous, helpful Mormon staff members. We were impressed by the generosity of the LDS church in making records accessible to genealogists through branch libraries and at the main LDS library. We certainly knew the theological interest that Mormonism has invested in this topic, but we did not find any of the Mormons we met overtly proselytizing.

We did, however, find Mormons in general homophobic—acutely homophobic, we have concluded. This impression grew over a number of visits to Salt Lake, where we encountered more overt homophobia than we had ever encountered anyplace else we had been—ranging from rude stares and leers by teens on the streets, to ugly comments by heterosexual couples at nearby tables in restaurants.

The culture of Salt Lake has always struck me as macho in the worst sense of that word. The city itself is, in my view, a masculine city, one that does violence to its natural surroundings. The mountains and deserts around the city are strikingly beautiful. The city does little to fit into its natural surroundings, other than being there. It’s full of what gives pleasure to men—auto shops and parts places—on its wide streets laid out to permit a buggy and team of horses to turn around in. It’s a city built like a fort, at a time in which Mormons were persecuted by the mainstream culture and naturally sought to defend themselves.

Much of the homophobia in the Mormon culture of Salt Lake is, I feel certain, of the unconscious variety that goes hand in hand with presuppositions about male superiority and female subordination. It’s a culture in which those with alternative views in these areas don’t have a chance of making much of an impact, since the symbols that define the consciousness of Salt Lake’s inhabitants are heavily gendered, heavily “family-oriented,” and heavily male-dominant.

Everywhere one looks, there are men (men always in business suits) and women walking hand in hand, many of the couples far up in years. There are young families in which the parents appear to be barely out of their teen years, with several children in strollers. There are not, it goes without saying, many visible gay couples—not even many single people of any shade.

There are also, it always seems to Steve and me when we visit the city, clear racial and ethnic divides. In most hotels and many restaurants, almost all the service work is done by brown people. Much of the construction work going on in Salt Lake’s center for some years now—the bulk of that work—is done by brown men. African Americans are scarce. Native peoples are visible and fairly frequent in Salt Lake, and often appear to be living on the social margins. The church and its institutions are heavily white.

I have come to admire some Mormon values, including the concern members of the church express for each other, which is grounded on a strong communitarian ethic (though it also strikes me that this ethic is highly inward-looking and Gentiles are made to know their place as outsiders, and are not recipients of the communal concern). It interests me, too, that Mormons have an international flavor because of their missionary impulse, an interest in and familiarity with other cultures.

At the same time, I find Mormon homophobia and Mormon gender assumptions—such as I know them as an outsider—deeply off-putting. From what I have come to see of Mormonism in Salt Lake, and from some scarring experiences with a Mormon colleague at a previous job, who did all she could to undermine me and bent the truth blatantly as she did so, I have come to see that many Mormons have quite a bit of hostility towards gay and lesbian people. Some of that is overt hostility. Much of it is at the unconscious level.

Steve and I have also had the opportunity to meet a number of gay former Mormons. From them, we learn quite a bit about the “inside” of the church and how it receives gay folks. All are alienated from the church, though not from their families, who remain faithful Mormons while supporting these family members.

Some of these friends tell us that there is now discontent in many Mormon circles with the high-profile way in which the church fought for proposition 8 in California. Some of the families and friends of our gay ex-Mormon friends are unhappy that their church donations were used in this way. They are also unhappy at the sudden high profile (and negative image) Mormonism has achieved in the nation. Mormons have long lived quietly and tried to earn the respect of the dominant culture, and these families are aware that the church has given itself a black eye in the culture at large--or, at least, in the non-homophobic sectors of the culture.

These ex-gay Mormons hope that the backlash against the church for its support of prop 8 will lead to revision of Mormon attitudes towards gay people. At the same time, they see many Mormons of varying viewpoints pulling together as the backlash continues. They wonder what the future will hold for gay Mormons, or for gay Americans insofar as the LDS church can exercise control over the political process to affect the lives of gay citizens.

After what has happened with proposition 8, it seems to me two paths to the future face Mormons. One path is suggested by Tony Kushner's choice to make one of the sympathetic, gay-affirming character in "Angels in America" a Mormon woman. I remember being surprised by this choice when I first saw and then read the play. I wondered if something in Kushner's own experience had given him the insight that some Mormons were capable of developing accepting attitudes towards gay folks. I remember, in particular, being struck by the response of the Mormon character when a gay man assumed she would be homophobic: she indicated that she was full of surprises.

The other path is indicated by an experience I had at a conference at Purdue University in the 1990s, at which I was invited to present a winning essay on religion and American culture. I've blogged about that conference, and the bizarre way it was set up, so that the winning essays, all of which looked at American religion from a left-perspective, would be countered immediately by spokespersons from the right.

One of the latter respondents, who critiqued an essay calling for the churches to develop an ethic of inclusion for gay folks, was a Mormon theologian and church official. He assured us that Mormons are affirming of gay folks. He spoke about a member of his own community who had been sent away for aversion therapy and then accepted back into the community--graciously and lovingly, he assured us. None of us (at least none of the essayists to whom I spoke) believed him.

Mormonism could do with its homophobia what it did with its racism--ditch it as an impediment to the message the church proclaims. It could fulfill Tony Kushner's prophecy. I do not expect Mormons to take that path, however, not anytime soon. There is simply far too much support in the culture at large for the heavily gendered, heavily male-centric marrriage ethic of Mormonism, for Mormons to have much incentive to change. If anything, they have picked up some powerful allies in the recent culture-war battles, including evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

Changing the outlook of these religious groups regarding gender roles, regarding the foundational significance of male-female roles (and male domination) to our society, is not going to be easy. Only when we begin to realize that we pay a heavy price for our desire to privilege males and subordinate females, and to lock people into gender roles that are socially develped and not biologically dictated, will these religious attitudes begin to shift.