Saturday, November 14, 2009

Salt Lake City Enacts Gay Rights Ordinance with LDS Support: Reflections

I haven’t yet commented on one of the big stories this week—the decision of the Salt Lake city council to enact a gay rights bill with the support of the LDS church. I haven’t written about this decision because I’ve been thinking it through.

Steve and I had actually just returned from a week and a half in Salt Lake when this news broke. Steve had business there, and I tagged along to do some research at the LDS family history library. In the 1970s, as we prepared to head off to graduate school, I began to gather my family’s dusty old bibles and caches of yellowing letters and diaries in trunks in my grandparents’ attics, and to piece together what we knew of our family history. I began that project then because I had no certainty I’d ever be living at home again, and thought it was important for someone to record what we knew, the stories passed down by our forebears and told and retold at family gatherings, before this heritage was lost.

That assignment to myself has turned into something of a passion for both Steve and me, and for some years now, we have gone routinely to Salt Lake City each year to continue our family history research. We’ve watched the culture there slowly adapt to the growing presence of openly LGBT people, and have been fascinated by the process. We have also connected to a group of friends, several of them gay or straight but active in gay causes, who keep us up to date on what’s happening in Utah vis-à-vis gay issues.

Salt Lake City is and remains not so much a homophobic culture as a male-dominated heterosexist one. It’s not uncommon to see elderly couples walking up and down the street hand in hand—male-female couples, the wife always appearing to be in tow—just as it’s not at all uncommon to see young couples in their early twenties with a passel of children around them as they shop or walk up and down the street, the wife caring for the children as the husband, well, preens.

Utah is a culture in which being unmarried sets a person apart in a noticeable, and not favorable, way. It’s a culture in which men take their position of authority in every area of life for granted. And as a macho heterosexist culture, it can also definitely be homophobic. We’ve experienced overt homophobia in Salt Lake City, as straight couples at nearby tables in restaurants make ugly remarks about us in our hearing, for instance.

But things are changing in Salt Lake City—and for the better. We were in Salt Lake right after the big disturbances following proposition 8 and the revelation that Mormon money had significantly funded that assault on the rights of gay citizens of California. Things were exceptionally tense in the city and in Mormon circles following those disturbances.

I sensed not so much defiance as shame among many Mormons I knew or encountered in the weeks following the prop 8 upheavals. It was clear to me that quite a few Mormons in Utah felt embarrassed and even grieved by the revelation that money they had donated to their church had been used in an organized political machination to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens of another state.

This year, a year down the road from prop 8’s aftermath, we found a very different spirit at the LDS family history library, and among the Mormons we know there. There was a tangible, obvious attempt on the part of those staffing the library to be welcoming and friendly—scary friendly, in some instances. Something was clearly afoot. We could sense it. It made us a bit apprehensive, even when the new spirit was vastly preferable to the spirit of saint-gentile separation that normally prevails when Mormons encounter non-Mormons. And it had something to do, we felt sure, with what had happened following prop 8—with the embarrassment of at least some members of the LDS church at the revelation that they had given to their church, only to find that they were actually funding a political attack on their gay brothers and sisters.

At one point in the past two weeks, as we spent time in the LDS library, staff circulated a survey form among patrons, asking us to provide feedback about the services of the library. We’ve never encountered such a form on previous visits to the library.

In the section that allowed patrons to write comments, I noted that I was grateful to the LDS church for making its vast genealogical resources available at no cost to the public. But I also wanted to note that I was unhappy with the choice of the church to attack gay folks in California in the previous year. I appended that observation to my statement of gratitude for the church’s generosity in opening its library’s doors to the public.

The day after I submitted my form, one of the many Mormons who volunteer to assist patrons in the library approached Steve and me as we worked at microfilm readers. “Brothers,” she asked, “do you know that you can save time by noticing the numerical guides on each row of microfilm drawers? You don’t have to remember the precise number of your film to locate the drawer in which you found it, if you notice that number.”

This is something that had never happened to us in the LDS library—being called “brothers,” or being assisted in this particularly helpful way (though staff are almost always cordial and go beyond the call of duty to see that your questions are answered, if you approach them). Something is changing in Mormon culture, has changed, in response to the turbulence following prop 8. And that something is good for gay folks.

There’s a willingness to listen to and think about the experience of gay citizens of the state and gay Mormons that is, by contrast, simply not there at all in the Catholic church of the U.S. today. There has been a willingness in the LDS church to listen to the many Mormons who wanted an accounting from their churches and stakes for the money they thought they had given to the church, only to find that they had actually donated to a homophobic political cause—a willingness, I want to stress again, that is totally absent from the Catholic church and its leaders right now.

What many of us who are gentiles do not know and appreciate about the LDS experience is how strongly communitarian it is. That communitarian focus is definitely shaped by the us-vs.-them mentality of the saints-gentile theology. And it has been made sharper by the years of persecution that Mormons endured as a religious and cultural group set apart because of their peculiar notions of marriage and their non-mainstream theology.

At its best, however, the communitarian emphasis in Mormon theology and culture assures that the church (and civil society in Utah, which is dominated by the church) pay attention to the effects of important decisions on everyone. There is, at best, in Mormon theology and culture a strong concern not to overlook anyone, as a significant decision is made.

Mormons are also frankly sensitive about their image, and rightly so, given their non-traditional understanding of the Godhead and Christ, not to mention their defense of polygamy through a noteworthy formative period of their history. Many Mormons did not like the bad publicity that followed what the church did with prop 8, and have been willing to listen to criticisms and suggestions about how to approach and include the gay community in a more productive way—again, this in marked contrast to how the U.S. Catholic church is now choosing to behave.

One other point deserves attention, I think, as we assess the turn now taking place in Mormon thought about gay people. Harry Reid is a Mormon, and Utah is, on the whole, pulling hard for health care reform—and in this sense, for the success of the new administration, though the state remains overwhelmingly Republican.

While we were in Salt Lake, the local papers published a number of editorial statements in favor of health care reform. This reflects the state’s loyalty to Reid as a Mormon. But it also reflects that communitarian focus of the LDS church and Mormon culture, which wants to see everyone included and taken care of in the beloved community of the saints. There’s a strong—and an admirable—commitment among many Mormons to the right of everyone to health care, and, I would go further and say, a willingness now to take that particular recognition of human rights and apply it to other areas.

There’s a willingness to extrapolate from the commitment to rights like health care, to recognize that gay human beings have fundamental rights, as well, and that saints don’t build Zion when they trample on the rights of any group of human beings. There’s the recognition, flowing from the communitarian emphasis of Mormon theology, that we cannot build a really humane society for anyone if we savage and exclude a targeted group of human beings.

What’s happening in Utah now deserves attention. It deserves attention for what it says to the rest of the country about human rights, and about the kind of society we build when we ignore the rights of any group of human beings. There’s a troubling argument now emerging in some Catholic circles—including (and notably) centrist Catholic circles—that gays and lesbians are a small minority group, and those of us concerned about justice may just need to eat the injustice done to that small minority, in order to achieve greater justice for everyone in American society today.

The Mormons appear to be questioning that argument, and rightly so. That centrist Catholics can still play with it says a lot to me about a fundamental lack of commitment to human rights traditions, even when we talk about issues like justice, in liberal American thought in general, including liberal American Catholic thought. From its inception, this liberal attitude has vitiated the Obama administration and everything it has sought to do. It undermines the Democratic party right now, and will probably return the nation to Republican dominance in the 2010 and 2012 elections. We can learn from the Mormons now, and from their refusal to exclude anyone from the conversation as issues of justice and rights are discussed in civil society and in churches.

I would be less than honest if I ended this reflection on an entirely glowing note. I have to admit that I remain somewhat skeptical of the LDS response to the gay community. I see promise in the Salt Lake City developments this week. At the same time, I know in my bones (and from bitter experience) that churches—all churches—have a way of selling minority groups short, when it becomes expedient for them to do so.

I know that churches often engage in window dressing to make themselves look like good guys when they are anything but, and that they proclaim ideals which, in their own institutional life, they belie egregiously. As with any of the churches, I intend to adopt a wait-and-see attitude with the LDS church and its apparent shift to a more inclusive approach to gay persons. But as I stand waiting and watching, I’m also cheering the steps I'm seeing right now.

More commentary:

“Compare and Contrast,” Eduardo Peñalver, Commonweal

“The Mormon Move,” Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish

“LDS Church Supports Salt Lake LGBT Protections,” Jim Burroway, Box Turtle Bulletin

“Another Reason to Rejoice?,” Jim Burroway, Box Turtle Bulletin

“Will LDS’s Incremental Approach To LGBT Issues Someday Lead To Bigger Changes?,” Jim Burroway, Box Turtle Bulletin

“SHOCKER: Salt Lake City Passes LGBT Rights WITH Support Of Mormon Church, Joe Jervis, Joe.My.God

“More Right-Wingers Attack LDS Support Of Salt Lake City LGBT Rights, Joe Jervis, Joe.My.God