Racism and Homophobia in the Church
Challenging LDS Attitudes on Homosexuality
By Rick Fernandez
Affinity, September 1993
Over the last six months, I have been maintaining a stimulating, often spirited exchange with other LDS, both gay and straight, through the Prodigy on-line service. For those who don't know what an on-line service is, it provides a way for anyone to communicate with other people electronically through their computers. Many predict that this type of communication will be the norm in the future, rather than the novelty that it currently is, because it is much faster than regular mail, is easy to use, and allows you to reach many people at once.
Prodigy offers a Religion board, where various faith groups, including LDS, are able to create public discussions on whatever topics interest them. I have been posting on a variety of topics, but my favorite hangout has been the "Gay Mormons" section. It seems that given the somewhat anonymous nature of electronic communication (though real names must be used), people feel freer to ask questions and make statements that they might not otherwise make in a regular church setting. It has been a singular opportunity to raise issues, foster tolerance, explore ideas and combat prejudice among Mormons. I have also had the chance to make (and meet) some new friends, including straight Mormons who are accepting and supportive of our issues.
I'd like to share some of these responses that I have posted, partly because I had to do a lot of homework to make my comments and answers substantive and worthwhile, and partly because committing them to paper further expands the potential for others to hear them.
One frequent writer who is somewhat more open-minded, though still defensive of church policies, wanted to know whether I thought homosexuality was inborn or acquired. She thought that if it could be proven to be inborn, then the church might have to start extending more of a welcome to lesbians and gays, though celibacy would, of course, have to be the condition for such a welcome. To this, I wrote the following:
I have stated it before and I'll state it here again: whether homosexuality is inborn or acquired is simply irrelevant to the issue of whether it is immoral. You pointed out quite lucidly that there are many things that may be biologically or genetically based, but that this alone does not make them permissible. You are quite right. I am not making the case that biology equals morality. That argument is a dangerous one, and has created much mischief and unnecessary suffering in churches that use it (as the Catholic church does to outlaw all contraceptive activity). I bring up the issue of the permanence of sexual orientation for one purpose and one only: to show that the church, which would hold itself up as a reliable guide and aid in this complex issue, is not the repository of all truth that we have been led to believe. Why do I say this? Because this very church used to teach, with the same zeal that it now teaches that to be gay is in itself not a sin, that simply being gay was a terrible sin, and, that to stop being gay, one simply had to repent, and it would go away.
Countless lesbians and gays were given that advice and many lives were needlessly pained thereby. I point it out because the church no longer teaches that homosexuality is just the result of some reprobate choice. And if it was wrong then, what reason do I have to presume they know more now? Especially given the fact that in the midst of all the continuing rhetoric about the need to repent, not one person in the church, not one person on this board, has given one concrete step in the apparently simple road to heterosexuality.
As I said before, I myself wrote Elder B. Packer, the apparent church spokesman on all issues gay, for the specific steps that the church gives on how to be straight (the "answer," in other words). All I got back was a form letter thanking me for my letter. If this apostle has the answer, why didn't he share it? My bishop with whom I have spoken sure as heck doesn't have it. Finally, the morality of homosexuality will not be decided, I am convinced, by biology, genetics, biochemistry, scripture, or the presumptuous, essentially arrogant pronouncements of heterosexuals who haven't the first clue what it means to be gay. The morality of homosexuality will be decided on the same grounds that heterosexuality is morally validated: is it mutual, is it enriching, does it bring strength and growth to the partners, does it benefit society, does it express fidelity and enhance spirituality, is love given and received, and does love flow out toward others? Anyone who would deny that all this is possible for lesbians and gays is simply laboring under willful delusion. Anyone who thinks that such love between men or between women is impossible has closed their mind from any further word that Heavenly Father may have, at a time when we so obviously need more light and less heat. The church guidelines on homosexuality (4/92) close with the following: "Repentance leads to healing, peace of conscience, and joy. Added strength and comfort come through service in the Church. In some cases, heterosexual feelings emerge leading to happy, eternal marriage relationships." Note the "in some cases." So much for the church's "answer."
Another member who is staunchly orthodox in all respects, wrote to declare that church leaders don't need to study, read or educate themselves in any of the research currently taking place on homosexuality in scientific and psychological circles. She believed that since they are prophets, the inspiration they receive from the Lord provides them with all the knowledge they might need to know on any subject. Science is untrustworthy because it was based on the findings of uninspired humans, whereas the leaders get their knowledge directly from God. This kind of thinking is so prevalent in the church, that I couldn't resist a reply:
I read your interchange with [another Prodigy member] and was interested in something you said. You said that the prophet gets his information from the Lord and doesn't need recourse to scientific information or to the results of historical analyses of scripture. I think this poses an unfair opposition between these sources of truth. I don't believe it is either directly from God or it comes from other sources. I believe one can be listening to God by listening to the results of human research and investigation. I believe that the glory of God is intelligence, and that he gave us intelligence so that we could use our own and become more as he is, independent in our sphere one day. I do believe that one can receive truth from God without benefit of research or study. But I think that is not the normal way it's done.
Nor do I think that one can receive truth from God that is manifestly in opposition to other truths than have been discovered from human research and investigation. History gives us many examples of religions that tried to do just that—just think of the persecution Galileo endured for daring to say that the earth revolved around the sun, when it was "plain" that the scriptures taught that the sun revolved around the earth. Religious truth and scientific truth should not be in conflict, but can be when both refuse to listen to each other. Hence the need for creative, positive dialogue.
It is not because I think the prophet is not a prophet that I challenge the church's current policies on homosexuality. It is because I see underlying the policies assumptions and prejudices that may be clouding our leaders' ability to hear what it means to be gay or lesbian instead of all the strident, misguided lies that are so rampant in our homophobic culture. It is because what the church has thus far offered lesbians and gays in the church is not working, is not helpful, and usually ends up driving us from the church. It is because despite the kind words exhorting compassion, what we too often receive is irrational hostility, baseless calumnies, and impossible conditions placed upon our acceptance (e.g., become heterosexual and then you'll belong).
I pray fervently that our prophet, because he is a prophet, may rise beyond the obvious prejudices that almost everyone in our society has imbibed of when it comes to homosexuality, that he may be able to see the person, the child of God, behind the caricature that we are made into. I pray that he may come to see that we in the church seek only to be loved and to give love. We are not fiends or monsters. We wish only to have the same opportunities for growth that everyone else has.
Even if one thinks of it as some inexplicable handicap, comparable to some birth defect, what society teaches its members to scorn those who have such defects? What society tells those born deaf or mute that they must never validate themselves as deaf or mute people, that they must fight the temptation to think that they are OK as deaf or mute people, and that they must never seek to express themselves in ways that are only right for hearing and speaking people? What healthy society, in fact, doesn't encourage the deaf and mute to band together, and to see themselves not as "defective," but as different? So it is with gays and lesbians—we are different, not bad.
I also found many notes from LDS who repeated the old line that the church's position on homosexuality will never change, since it is based on scripture and revelation. Several said it was foolishness to question or even discuss it. Those these I wrote the following:
It has been said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As a "blast from the past," I'd like to present a text from our LDS past that bears a striking resemblance to these notes: (from John L. Lund's, The Church and the Negro, 1967, pp. 45-58)
"Brigham Young revealed that the Negroes will not receive the Priesthood until a great while after the second advent of Jesus Christ, whose coming will usher in a millennium of peace.
In view of what President Young and others have said, it would be foolish indeed to give anyone the false idea that a new revelation is immediately forthcoming on the issue of Negroes receiving the Priesthood . . . our present prophets are in complete agreement with Brigham Young and other past leaders on the question of the Negro and the Priesthood . . .. Social pressure and even government sanctions cannot be expected to bring forth a new revelation. This point is mentioned because there are groups in the Church, as well as out, who feel that pressure on the Prophet will cause a revelation to come forth. It would be wise to emphasize that all the social pressure in the world will not change what the Lord has decreed to be. Let those who would presume to pressure the Prophet be reminded that it is God that inspires prophets, not social pressure . . .. It is not the responsibility nor the stewardship of any person on earth to dictate to the Lord or the Lord's servants when a revelation should be given . . .. The prophets have declared that there are at least two major stipulations that have to be met before the Negroes will be allowed to possess the Priesthood. The first requirement relates to time. The Negroes will not be allowed to hold the Priesthood during mortality, in fact, not until after the resurrection of all of Adam's children. The other stipulation requires that Abel's seed receive the first opportunity of having the Priesthood
. . . the last of Adam's children will not be resurrected until the end of the millennium.
Therefore, the Negroes will not receive the Priesthood until after that time . . ..This will not happen until after the thousand years of Christ's reign on earth."
Despite the fact that this book was published and accepted by scores of LDS as gospel, and was in many places the "standard work" given to inquirers on the policy, the Mormon "apologia pro vita sua" for the ban against blacks, and despite the fact that it relates with surety and absoluteness what the prophets and leaders of the church taught (and they most certainly did teach what was ascribed to them), despite all that, the book was wrong. This is an important lesson as we read posts by those decrying any who would urge greater light and knowledge on the issue of homosexuality. The cries raised against this quest have an uncanny resemblance to the warning issued by Bro. Lund against those who "foolishly" hoped for a new revelation about black men and the priesthood. I think we have clear historical precedent that suggests strongly that those who oppose asking new questions and seeking for new insights by revelation will find themselves in the same boat that Bro. Lund's book did after the 1978 revelation, stranded in a sea of outdated orthodoxy.
There were still other notes from LDS who believed that it was wrong ever to question anything a General Authority says. Their office apparently relieves them from the limitations and foibles to which other human beings are subject when making statements or expressing views. Thus, they should be exempt from evaluations that one might reasonably make of the statements of non-inspired persons. I thought it would be useful to do a little educating by presenting some quotations from church leaders, in order to help demonstrate that it is not only possible, but necessary, to raise constructive questions about the current policy on homosexuality.
Jedediah M. Grant, second counselor to Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v.2, pp. 13-14, Feb 19, 1854: "When the family organization was revealed from heaven—the Patriarchal Order of God, and Joseph began on the right and on the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel. Says one brother to another, 'Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants; now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?' 'I would tell him to go to hell.' This was the spirit of many in the early days of this Church . . .. What would a man of God say, who felt aright, when Joseph asked him for more money? He would say, 'Yes, and I wish I had more to help to build up the kingdom of God.' Or if he came and said, 'I want your wife?' 'O Yes,' he would say, 'Here she is, there are plenty more.'. .. Did the Prophet Joseph want every man's wife he asked for? He did not . . . If such a man of God should come to me and say, 'I want your gold and silver, or your wives,' I should say, 'Here they are, I wish I had more to give you. Take all I have got.'"
What does this statement reveal to us about the 19th century mentality that this church leader had toward women? Do we believe today that this is how God looks upon women, or that he ever did? Is it not rather that given the culture in which Grant and others lived, that their view of women as property that could be traded and exchanged by men, even if not ever really practiced, was a function not of religion or revelation but of religion colored by their own presuppositions and worldviews? Can anyone imagine a similar sermon being given at Conference today? Does anyone imagine that Grant, while giving the sermon, thought he might be saying anything that was inappropriate or inadequate? Do you think he might have thought that one day we would look upon women differently? I'm sure our concepts of equal rights for women would have been unthinkable to him, since only a very few people in 19th century America felt anything was wrong with the status accorded women by men at that time.
This appeared in the Oct 28, 1865 issue of the church newspaper, the Millennial Star: "It is time that members of the Government and the public at large should understand the true state of the question, and the real issues involved in these propositions. The doctrine of polygamy with the 'Mormons' is not one of that kind that in the religious world is classed with 'non-essentials.' It is not an item of doctrine that can be yielded, and faith in the system remain. 'Mormonism' is that kind of religion the entire divinity of which is invalidated, and its truth utterly rejected, the moment that any one of its leading principles is acknowledged to be false . . . The whole question, therefore, narrows itself to this in the 'Mormon' mind. Polygamy was revealed by God, or the entire fabric of their faith is false. To ask them to give up such an item of belief, is to ask them to relinquish the whole, to acknowledge their Priesthood a lie, their ordinances a deception, and all that they have toiled for, lived for, bled for, prayed for, or hoped for, a miserable failure and a waste of life. All this Congress demands of the people of Utah. It asks the repudiation of their entire religious practice to-day; and inasmuch as polygamy is, in 'Mormon' belief, the basis of the condition of future life, it asks them to give up their hopes of salvation hereafter . . .. To return to our starting point, the great question of what Congress demands. We have shown that in requiring the relinquishment of polygamy, they ask the renunciation of the entire faith of this people. No sophistry can get out of this. 'Mormonism' is true in every leading doctrine, or it is as false as a system altogether . . .. There is no half way house. The childish babble about another revelation is only an evidence how half informed men can talk. The 'Mormons' have either to spurn their religion and their God, and sink self-damned in the eyes of all civilization at the moment when most blest in the practice of their faith, or go calmly on to the same issue which they have always had—'Mormonism' in its entirety the revelation of God, or nothing at all. . . 'Mormonism' allowed in its entirety, or 'Mormonism' wiped out in blood."
Later practice and policy obviously changed. The faithful ascribe that to new revelation from God. Whatever the source (and I obviously believe in new revelation being possible), it appears that in every age there persists a tendency to assume that what is is what ought to be, and that it cannot change. There is a tendency to assume that God's will is always clearly apprehended and that it is folly to seek to understand more clearly ("childish babble about another revelation"). What do you think?
Following the same purpose as above, I also posted this note:
Mark E. Petersen, Aug 27, 1954, speaking to the BYU Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level: "Is there a reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life? . . . can we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes in India, while some of the rest of us are born in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with the established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds . . .. Let us consider the great mercy of God for a moment. A Chinese, born in China with a dark skin, and with all the handicaps of that race seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. In spite of whatever they might have done in the pre-existence to justify being born over there as Chinamen, if they now, in this life, accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation. Isn't the mercy of God marvelous?
Think of the Negro, cursed as to the Priesthood . . . This negro, who, in the pre-existence lived the type of life which justified the Lord in sending him to the earth in the lineage of Cain with a black skin, and possibly being born in darkest Africa—if that negro is willing when he hears the gospel to accept it, he may have many of the blessings of the gospel. In spite of all he did in the pre-existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory."
Was anyone else disturbed by the outright racism present in this speech? Does anyone think that the fact that Mark E. Petersen was himself a white, LDS, American male had nothing whatever to do with the way he thought God saw black people? Was Mark E. Petersen wrong when he said these things about black people? Do we think today that our race and social class is a reward or punishment for unknown sins in the pre-existence? Did Petersen for a moment wonder whether he might be wrong when he gave this speech?
My most recent note on this topic made reference to a quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith's, The Way to Perfection, pp 101-102:
"Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse was placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures. Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of Priesthood and the fulness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain. Moreover, they have been made to feel their inferiority and have been separated from the rest of mankind from the beginning . . . we will also hope that blessings may eventually be given to our Negro brethren, for they are our brethren—children of God—notwithstanding their black covering emblematical of eternal darkness."
In the Church News section of the Deseret News, Jun 14, 1962, this editorial by the same Joseph Fielding Smith appeared:
"The ignorance on the part of writers who do not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in relation to the view of the 'Mormons' on the status religiously or otherwise of the Negro is inexcusable . . . The Latter-day Saints, so commonly called 'Mormons' have no animosity towards the Negro. Neither have they described him as belonging to an 'inferior race.'"
Two observations on the foregoing:
I suggest that while blacks, like gays today, were also described as "brethren" and "children of God," the fact that they were viewed as cursed and as members of an inferior race by many LDS probably allowed them to feel no more love and compassionate concern and support for their special needs than do gays today feel from the larger body of the church.
In any authoritarian society, where dictate alone makes right, there is a tendency to suppress and rewrite its history to make it appear always consistent. Why? Because authoritarianism's survival depends on its ability to create successfully the illusion that it never makes mistakes, and never changes its mind. We have only to look at Soviet history to see how quickly and frequently the encyclopedias and textbooks were changed, how whole histories and biographies were either deleted or fabricated, and how no one was allowed to notice or comment on these changes, to give a recent example. So too in the Catholic religion, one of the most frequent phrases heard in the Vatican's official statements was "as Holy Mother the Church has always taught," despite glaring evidence to the contrary on any number of issues. Are we as LDS exempt from such a temptation? What else can account for Joseph Fielding Smith's apparent dissimulation in denying what he himself had earlier written?
Until we begin dealing with these types of issues in an open, adult, honest way, facing facts that may make us uncomfortable and are not always readily perceived as "faith-promoting," I fear that we as LDS will not be able to deal with the realities and truths we need to learn from gay and lesbian LDS about their lives and needs. We will continue acting as though we have all truth on this subject, that we are free from any prejudice or hostility, and that we are, after all, only speaking for God. History would suggest that a little more humility, a little more tentativeness would be in order.
The response to these posts and others from me has been mixed, and is probably a good indicator of where church members tend to come down on this subject. As would be expected, most of the responses were negative and critical. There was, however, a minority that is supportive of us. It is important to remember that there are good people in the church who are on our side, and who are willing to take some risks to stand with us.
Those who were critical tended to challenge my testimony, sidestep my statements or call me to repentance. Several people wondered if my bishop knew and one suggested that I seek membership in another denomination. The most disturbing note was written as an open letter to the Prodigy board editor. The writer wanted to have me banned from posting, because, as he saw it, I was openly attacking the LDS faith. It was gratifying, however, that no one else backed him on this. Even those who disagreed with me the most supported my right to continue to share my perspectives. Interestingly, not one response was ever written that attempted to deal with the data that I presented from church sources and history. This is indicative, I believe, of a growing trend in our church to deny and rewrite our own history. A know-nothing attitude makes conflict easy to resolve, since anything that might cause conflict is in principle ignored. From this, I am convinced that one of our most powerful resources will continue to be a thorough knowledge of our history. We need to know more than our correlated manuals tell us, if we are to function as a constructive, positive "alternate voice."
On the other side, there were a minority of people who wrote to state that they agreed with my views and who wrote in support of greater openness and acceptance of homosexuals in the church. Interestingly, almost all of these notes were written by people who said they were themselves heterosexual. These people either had friends or family members who were gay or lesbian, or were experiencing difficulties dealing with authoritarian, unresponsive church leadership on other matters. Some saw the church's policies on homosexuality connected with other issues such affecting women, singles, intellectuals and other groups that tend to be marginalized, underserved or treated with suspicion. Others felt that whatever the particular issues might be, the common problem was an underlying philosophy that granted church leaders a presumptive right to rule by decree, in isolation from any explicit mechanisms for accountability or consultation.
Not everyone wrote me public replies. On Prodigy, you can also send private e-mail that only the person to whom it is directed can read. Some of the most moving notes I received were sent to me in this way, from gay or lesbian LDS who wrote to thank me for writing. They were glad that I was speaking out because they could not. Fear of negative consequences from family, work or church outweighed their desire to join the public discussion. Many of these were experiencing significant pain and confusion, which my posts, they said, helped to relieve. I know of at least one person who found out about and joined Affirmation as a result of my posts. When I got notes such as these, I felt more determined than ever to continue combating ignorance with my writing.
Communicating with other Mormons on-line has been fun, challenging and thought-provoking. We have had exchanges that probably could not take place in any standard LDS forum. Since an essential part of Affirmation's mission is to provide education to the non-gay members of our church, I am pleased that my posts have helped to extend that mission. I would encourage anyone else with access to an on-line service to use it to help this mission too.