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Mormonism and LGBT rights: Some progress, even more questions

Gregory Prince’s new book Gay Rights and the Mormon Church is the most comprehensive treatment available about the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on LGBT issues.

I hope you’ll check out the book, which is now available from the University of Utah Press and from Amazon. Greg will be doing a book signing on May 15 at Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City. In the meantime, though, I was grateful to get a chance to sit down with him this weekend for an interview when I was in the D.C. area, where he lives. — JKR

 

RNS: Your book gives step-by-step details about many of the major changes that have happened in the Church regarding LGBT issues, including the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8 in California. You say that Church leaders were surprised by the backlash when the extent of Mormons’ involvement in Prop 8 became known. What was the long-term effect of Prop 8?

Greg Prince: The lasting effect was primarily external—it branded the church in the eyes of the public as the homophobic church. Prop 8 became known as “the Mormon proposition.”

But let’s look at the background. Before that, even though the church had been politically active starting in Hawaii in 1993, it was under the radar, and it happened at a time when society as a whole was still homophobic. What Hawaii did, and what Proposition 22 did [in 2000], was to preserve the status quo. So even though the Church had a substantial role, it was not the decisive role because the majority of people were already agreeing. There was almost no backlash for either effort.

When Proposition 22 was overturned [in May 2008], things had shifted in two ways. First, for a window of time, same-sex marriage became the new status quo in California. The second was that public sentiment was gradually shifting toward marriage equality. It had not achieved a majority yet, but it was moving in that direction.

So when Proposition 8 passed [in November 2008], it was a different world. More people supported marriage equality, and there were tens of thousands of people who had legally married. Marriage equality had become the new status quo. To take away something that had been legally theirs put it on a different level.

Here’s a factor that people haven’t paid enough attention to: It’s hard to say that somebody dying at 97 had died prematurely, and yet if Gordon B. Hinckley had lived another 5 months it would have been a different world. [Hinckley passed away on January 27, 2008.] That’s because he had cautioned his colleagues for years to stay in the background, keep a low profile, etc.

Now he was gone, and when Archbishop Niederauer wrote to the church asking for help in California, the new Mormon president, Thomas S. Monson, jumped in with enthusiasm. The church sent a delegation of general authorities and public affairs people right after Niederauer sent his letter in early June of 2008. In less than a week they did their assessment and reported back to Salt Lake, and by the end of June the letter came out [instructing all Mormons in California to support Proposition 8 with their donations and volunteer hours].

That’s lightning-quick for a bureaucracy to move, which emphasizes how impulsive this decision was. They had not thought it through, probably because they had gotten a pass the first two times around.

By the time the dust had settled after the election, there was enormous pushback against the church. It was immediate, intense, and durable. There was also damage inside the church—congregations that were divided, people that were deeply wounded.

RNS: In the book you also discuss how the Church’s own position on homosexuality has changed over time, from claiming that it was a choice to conceding that it does not appear to be a choice, that some people are born non-heterosexual. I was surprised by the fact that you credit Dallin Oaks with having admitted that homosexuality is based in biology.

Gregory Prince, author of “Gay Rights and the Mormon Church.”

Prince: He has waffled, though. In his 1996 article in the Ensign, he at least opened the door to biology without embracing it. And when he and Lance Wickman did their 2006 interview on the church’s website, he seemed to also.

But in the October 2018 General Conference, he for the first time tried to discredit science: You can’t trust the findings of science; you have to trust only the revealed word of God. I think he is worried about where biology is going, and since he can’t control the message, he is going after the messenger. I don’t know that he is the only voice for homophobia among the brethren, but he is the highest-profile one. In that General Conference, he was the only one who spoke against gay rights. In this month’s, Neil Andersen briefly addressed the subject, but in terms of admiration for LGBT members who were living a celibate life.

When the MormonsandGays.com website came out in 2012, the most remarkable statement on the website was that gay is not a choice. It was immediately clear that the expectation was celibacy, but that was the Church’s first real admission that homosexuality is biological. That notwithstanding, the body language and words of some of them suggest that they still think it is a choice, and that people should make the opposite choice and get back in the fold.

RNS: What are some of the scientific findings about sexuality and LGBT identity?

Prince Biology is more and more speaking to the nature of sexuality in general. It’s complicated by two things. For one thing, there isn’t a “gay gene.” It’s much more complex than that. For another, there are many flavors of sexual expression, both in terms of sexual orientation (who do you go to bed with?) and gender identity (who do you go to bed as?).

Think of a two-axis graph—and in reality it’s probably three or four axes—but each one of those has multiple options, not just two. So you develop a multi-dimensional matrix, such that sexuality becomes an array, not a spectrum. A spectrum connotes linearity, and sexuality isn’t linear. The term that’s more and more being used is “non-heterosexual” rather than homosexual to account for terms like asexual, intersex or bisexual. Gradually, biology is informing more and more of those flavors.

There is also a birth order effect—each subsequent male birth from the same mother has a higher likelihood of being gay. And that is epigenetic rather than genetic.

It’s complex, and it’s nuanced, but the march of progress is in one direction. In the end, sexual orientation and gender identity are in the brain. Sexual orientation is permanent and can’t be changed. Gender identity is even less understood than sexual orientation. The brethren have been virtually silent about transgender, and I wasn’t able to find anything in church publications even mentioning intersex.

RNS: One thing that comes through clearly in the book is that the Church seems to take two steps forward and then at least one step back in dealing with LGBT issues. Do you see progress overall?

Prince: It depends on when in the timeline. Homosexuality first showed up in the handbook in 1968, when “homosexual acts” were denoted as sinful, but during the Kimball years [1973–1985], just being gay was the sin. That’s when BYU security was staking out gay bars in Salt Lake, and students who were caught there were hauled into the honor office and given the option of either ratting out their friends or being expelled and excommunicated. And you had the specter of conversion therapy, which was practiced on campus. It doesn’t get much darker than that.

By contrast, for over a decade openly gay missionaries have been allowed to serve full-time proselytizing missions, something unthinkable in the Kimball era, when the sin was simply being gay.

So it has not been a straight line of evolution. We started in one place, went to a worse place under Kimball, and then have made some fitful progress since then. With transgender, we’ve actually taken steps backwards. There used to be no policy, and then there was a harsh one.

RNS: Where were you when you found out about the reversal of the LGBT exclusion policy?

Prince: I was heading to Utah and was just about to go to the airport. I got an email from a good friend saying there would be an announcement later. When I was on the tarmac, I got a message from a reporter at the LA Times who was working on a story. So I was in the air when this all went down, and that was interesting because several years ago I was also flying to Utah the day the policy had been leaked.

I was pleased by the reversal, but there had been so much damage done that I couldn’t be happy. Nobody knows how many people walked away from the church because of this. So it was hard to be jubilant about it. It was like laying a cowpie in the road, stepping in it, then finally stepping out of it. Even if you’ve stepped out of it, you’re not really the same as you were in the first place.

RNS: What do you see happening as we move forward?

Prince: They’ve constructed an interesting dilemma for themselves. In announcing the reversal, they used language that says they are going to treat homosexual and heterosexual transgressions the same way. Does that mean they’re going to stop excommunicating gays, or start excommunicating heterosexuals? If you do the latter, you’ll thin out the pews.

And they still have not adequately addressed the conundrum of obeying the law of the land as an article of faith, and yet condemning marriages made legal by that law. That question is hovering unanswered.

 


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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