Racism and Homophobia in the Church
Stumbling Towards Zion
Second Place, 2003 Affirmation Writing Contest
By Connell O'Donovan
In 1980, just a few months prior to my departure for a mission to southern
Brazil, I was a dancer and singer in two large musicals that were being
put on by the LDS Church as part of its "sesquicentennial” (150th
anniversary) celebration. Promised Valley and Within These Walls
were both about the Mormon quest for a latter-day Zion — the place of
peace for the "pure in heart” where the Saints could dwell in
safety. During that magical summer of 1980, some 100,000 Mormons and Utah
tourists saw me in these two plays as I sang and danced my way toward
that promised land. The experience was astounding for me. The casts were
filled with wonderful people and I really took our message about Zion
to heart. Before every performance, the whole cast would gather together
in the "green room” to offer prayers of gratitude for the privilege
of sharing redemption stories from Zion with so many people from all over
the world. I desperately needed to believe that I had found that illusive
Zion. My own turbulent life as a severely depressed, oft-suicidal, Gay
LDS teen left me famished for a landscape of tranquility and stability.
In my naiveté, I had no idea what excruciating trials this church
would put me through during the next decade, or how deeply Mormonism's
failure to deliver on its promised Zion would affect the rest of my life.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James
That same summer of 1980, I was also finishing up a research project
through the LDS Church's Historical Department on "Blacks and the
Priesthood." As part of my research, I had the privilege of holding
in my hands the manuscript autobiography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James,
a black woman who became a Mormon in Connecticut in 1842 and a year later
walked barefoot from Buffalo, New York, to Nauvoo, Illinois, then the
headquarters of the Mormon Church. Upon arrival, she was met by the Mormon
founding prophet, Joseph Smith, who embraced her and said, paraphrasing
a passage in Revelation 7:17, "Welcome to Zion, Jane! We wipe away
all tears here!” Her story — and especially Joseph's words to her
— left me on fire! Like Jane James, I was a marginalized member of society.
Like Jane, deep in my soul I was seeking that place of certain refuge,
that sure and safe space where I could be healed and have all my tears
of sorrow dried. Like Jane, no price I could pay to find that place would
be too high.
When I went to Brazil on my mission, I often shared Jane's story with
local congregations (especially when welcoming new converts into the church),
but always ending there — Jane in Joseph's embrace, having her tears
wiped away in Zion.
But that's not all of her tale. My own need to find refuge in Mormonism
blinded me to certain unsavory facts about Jane's life. For example, the
reason Jane walked to Nauvoo was because white Mormons would not allow
her to ride with them or assist her in paying for passage. And once she
arrived in Nauvoo the Beautiful, that "Zion on the Mississippi,”
she was either rebuffed or ignored by her fellow Saints, until finally
someone pointed out Joseph Smith's home to her. Once she finally did meet
Smith, he made Jane his house servant, and when Smith was murdered in
1844, Brigham Young then took in Jane James as his servant as well. Despite
her faithful service to the church and its wealthy presidents, she lived
most of her life in abject poverty. She arrived in the new Zion of Utah
among the first of the Saints in September 1847, the first free black
woman in the territory, only to find that slavery was already being practiced
there — even Mormon Apostle Charles C. Rich owned slaves in Utah, which
must have been a great trial of her faith (and certainly was to mine when
I found out).
Many years before Jane died, she began writing letters to prominent Mormon
leaders (including apostles and church presidents), begging them to allow
her into the Salt Lake Temple to be sealed to Joseph and Emma Smith as
their child; she claimed that Emma had asked her personally but she had
hesitated at the time and then Joseph had been murdered soon thereafter.
Despite her unwavering faith in the Latter-day Saint religion, since men
of African descent were not allowed to hold Mormon priesthood at that
time, Jane James and all blacks were denied entry into the temple, a painful
reminder of her most inferior status within the Mormon ecclesiastical
hierarchy — basically that of any eight-year-old child.
But Jane James was persistent in her request to be sealed to the Smiths.
And finally, in the spring of 1894, she received word that she would be
sealed to Joseph Smith and his family in the Salt Lake temple on May 18
of that year. But once again, she was refused entrance into the "House
of the Lord.” Instead, church leaders had arranged for a white woman
(Bathsheba W. Smith) to stand in for Jane James as a proxy, because the
mere physical presence of this strong, faithful black woman would irreparably
sully the sanctity of the newly completed Salt Lake temple.
Then to add injury to insult, instead of being sealed to Joseph Smith
as a daughter as she expected, Jane was sealed by proxy to Joseph Smith
as his eternal "Servitor” (the only time in the history of Mormonism
that this kind of sealing ceremony has been performed between a master
and a servant). The words recited at this ceremony were that she was "to
be attached as a Servitor for eternity to the prophet Joseph Smith and
in this capacity be connected with his family and be obedient to him in
all things in the Lord as a faithful Servitor.” In essence, an eternal
slave, bound to service a white master for eternity. Undeterred by this
humiliating gesture, she continued to press LDS leaders to be allowed
into the temple, until her death in 1908 at the age of 95. When I read
her heart-felt yet unsuccessful pleas to church leaders, I know that Zion
had not dried up her tears as promised but increased them by magnitudes.
Zion not only failed to deliver its promise to both of us, but in fact
made the wounding even worse; those who promised and professed Zion bound
us with fetters of injustice and then made a parade of our captivity.
Where was Zion for this beautiful, long-suffering, faithful woman?
* * *
I received a phone call late one May night this year (2003) from an old
acquaintance in Salt Lake informing me that my e-mail buddy, whom I'll
call Daniel, apparently committed suicide in Salt Lake on the previous
Tuesday evening. I say "apparently” as Daniel had been dealing with a
severe case of pneumonia and after being released from a hospital stay
had died. Later it was determined by the coroner that the cause of
death was pneumonia.
Daniel's mother is a psychotherapist who currently does "reparative
therapy” on Gays. Daniel's father is a prominent Mormon psychologist
who, in the late 1970s, became affiliated with the Values Institute at
Brigham Young University. The primary objective of the ironically named
Values Institute was to produce a "secular,” anti-Gay book which would
carefully explain all the reasons that homosexuality is sick and
wrong. Fortunately, after spending some $150,000 in church funds to
produce this book, the Values Institute was disbanded and Daniel's
father was released from his position because the institute was unable
to attain its goals with any credibility.
In 1992, I published a history of homosexuality in Mormonism, revealing
publicly for the first time the unsavory role Daniel's father played in
the Values Institute. When 32 year old Daniel read my paper some four
months previous to his death, he e-mailed me and we began a really nice
correspondence. He was understandably upset to learn of what his father
had tried to do, which resulted in a nasty confrontation with him. His
parents then left Utah to be missionaries in California and after they
left, Daniel went through his father's private papers and found even
more written evidence implicating his father in this unethical
business, further exacerbating their deteriorating relationship. He
wrote me an anguished, heart-wrenching e-mail soon afterwards, begging
for some support and guidance, which I happily gave to the best of my
Daniel was a vivacious, friendly, sweet guy with so much going for
him. While his death was accidental, he struggled with suicidal
thoughts for many years, just as so many other LDS Gay folks, including
myself. He had reached out to me as someone who had the overcome the
debilitating despair and fear cultivated by Mormon guilt, and had
turned my life around to find joy and strength.
Where was the promised Zion for this beautiful, magical man? Why
weren't his tears all wiped away by the Saints?
* * *
About four years ago, I was walking through the Castro district of San
Francisco, the quaint Victorian neighborhood and business district populated
mainly by Gays and Gay businesses (a Zion for us, of sorts). A delirious
homeless man was shouting extremely caustic and homophobic things at all
the Gay men and Lesbians who were strolling by him on that beautiful Saturday
afternoon. I was sickened by his words. I then had what I can only call
a mystical feeling of incredible power well up inside of me, and without
even thinking about what I would do or say, I walked up to him and shouted
right into his face with all the power of my six-foot-five frame, "KNOW
YE NOT THAT WE ARE ANGELS AMONGST YOU!!!??” My words must have cut
him to the quick, because for one brief moment this man became completely
lucid. He meekly begged my forgiveness, quickly packed up his few possessions
and walked off, glancing back at me in apprehension as though I might
call lightning down from the heavens or turn him into a pillar of salt.
I don't know where that statement I shouted came from, but ever since
then, I have contemplated it regularly and have come to several interesting
conclusions, only one of which I will share here.
Just like the angels sent to report to God on the hostility of Sodom
and Gomorrah, I firmly believe that somehow, in an ironic twist of fate,
we Queer folks are in fact angels, here to test the hospitality of the
"cities of the plain.” Here to probe how the world with its
governments, polities, and religions treats us. From just my own experience
(and not counting the histories of so many Queer folks who have gone before
me, crushed under relentless heterosexism and homophobia), I must report
that the Mormon faith is failing miserably in its responsibility to love
the unloved, to bind the wounds of the broken, to liberate the captives,
to feed our starving souls, to wrap the tent of Zion around our trembling
Although it is a religion based on angelic restoration, Mormonism is
unable and unwilling to see that it is "entertaining angels”
in its very midst. Instead of embracing us and the wondrous gifts of spirit
we bring to the Feast, Mormon leaders hunt us down, then punish, excommunicate,
and exile us to the terrible wastelands of Sodom. Yet somehow out of the
ashes of our pain, I know we can till this forsaken soil with our passion;
we can sow it with the seeds of our stories, water it with our tears and
our very blood if need be. We can make the desert wastes of Sodom blossom
into fragrant roses of every rainbow hue, dressing and keeping gardens
of love, beauty, balance, and delight!
As I contemplate my own life-long quest for Zion (one of the very few
remnants of Mormonism that I yet cherish), my best and most certain wisdom
is that Zion can only be found within the pales of our own hearts. So
keep telling your stories and singing your songs of redemption, of liberation.
Love yourself fiercely, proudly, joyously. Find a circle of people who
also love you fiercely, proudly, joyously and become a community of lovers
in the Garden. I am most blessed, for here in Santa Cruz, California,
I have found a magical community of beautiful, vibrant, healthy souls
who nourish me beyond my greatest dreams. Unlike the Latter-Day Saints,
the circle of my friends here, my beloved "family” in the deepest
sense of the word, never ever promised to wipe away my tears of
sorrow. They simply DID IT.
- I send out prayers to all those seekers of refuge, whose tears
fall in the Garden — may they water the flowers of the soul.
- I send out prayers for all who get lost on the road to Zion — may you
see through false promises and find authentic places of safety.
- I send out prayers for our community, that we may strive to
be open to those who need rest from the awful failings of our world; that
we may assist each other when needed, and remember to love honestly and
- I send out prayers to rededicate myself to finding refuge when
I am in need and providing refuge to others in need.