Two Degrees off Center: It Can Be Done
March 17, 2019
“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
by Rich Keys
Most of us remember the Proposition 8 campaign in California in 2008. Just a simple definition of marriage between one man and one woman inserted into the state constitution—but so costly, so ugly. So much fear, half-truths, working from the shadows, campaign law violations and fines. $83 million from every state in the nation and 20 foreign countries. i Church members made up only 5% of the voters, ii but they supplied over 50% of the contributions and up to 90% of the volunteer work. iii Contributions came in at the rate of up to $500,000 a day, iv and when that wasn’t enough, a code blue went out, and $5 million was raised in only a few days.v The Church recruited and organized an army to go door to door, precinct by precinct, armed with political information about every household, but the members were told to keep the Church out of it, meet somewhere else, split up and go with non-members, dress like concerned citizens and not like Mormons, use different scripts depending on the response of the neighbor. They were organized into Walkers, who made the initial contact, Sellers, who made the follow-up calls, and Closers, who arranged for rides to go vote. Still, others tabulated the results and updated the rest of the network.vi There were even rumors of out-of-state phone banks and people being bused in—and on and on.
Meanwhile, in a church that preached families are forever, some families felt completely torn apart. Parents with a gay son or daughter felt pressured to choose between faith or family, their child or their church. Young LDS teens would see the “Yes on 8” lawn sign in their front yard and contemplate suicide because they were sure their parents would kick them out of their family if they only knew. vii A “No on 8” sign could mean gossip and judgment from fellow members at church, viii while a “Yes on 8” sign or contribution could mean the loss of your job ix. With the polls so close and the intense pressure building, some members even felt threatened by their local and area priesthood leaders, being told their eternal salvation was in jeopardy if they didn’t do as they were told. x
When it was all over, the “Yes on 8” side prevailed, 52% to 48%, but the Church paid a heavy price for such a narrow victory that only lasted about two years before it was ruled unconstitutional. Mass demonstrations at temples from LA xi and Oakland xii to New York City, xiii fires and vandalism at LDS meetinghouses here in Sacramento and elsewhere xiv, members being shunned by neighbors, family relatives no longer speaking to one another, investigators canceling appointments with missionaries, xv a pummeling by both the press and the public—and when the financial disclosure information became public, the image of a church running itself more like a political action committee. xvi For a church that proclaimed itself to have the true gospel and be led by the Savior & His prophet, something had to change.
About two years later (9-19-2010), Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the First Quorum of Seventy met with more than 90 members of the Oakland Stake in an invitation-only meeting arranged by the stake president during stake conference. Elder Jensen spoke little, listened intently, took copious notes, and asked the members—both gay and straight—to be honest as they expressed their continued hurt and pain still felt from the fallout of the Prop 8 campaign two years earlier. They spoke of division in both wards and families, heartache, anger, frustration, and deep agony. Some expressed their devotion to the church in spite of the pain they experienced. Others expressed anger that the Church had given people a “license to hate” and violated its own principles, with no evidence of love or the Savior in the campaign. As the meeting went on, hearts were softened, and tears were shed. Elder Jensen finally stood, and through his tears, he said: “I know that never in my life will I experience an hour quite like this one.” He said he had heard very clearly the pain that had been expressed and that “to the full extent of my capacity I say that I am sorry…. I know that many very good people have been deeply hurt, and I know that the Lord expects better of us.” xvii He promised to take all his notes and what he had learned “back to the Brethren.” xvii
Three years later (March 2013), there was a major rally of Prop 8 supporters in front of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC while the court heard oral arguments in the Prop 8 appeal. Officials of the Catholic Church were there, as were the Methodists, the Evangelicals, and many other denominations, but the LDS Church was noticeably absent. xix Then, two years later, on January 27, 2015, the Church held a major news conference, officially announcing on the record that they supported non-discrimination laws for the LGBT community, coupled with a balance of religious freedoms as well. They said they realized neither side will get everything they want, but they want to build bridges and work together to create new common ground where there was none before. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve summed it up by saying, “Rights are best guarded when each person and group guards for others those rights they wish guarded for themselves.” xx
After the news conference, as expected, all the conservative groups said the Church had sold out, while all the liberal groups said it was just a PR stunt and nothing had changed. But one man, Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution who is gay, said that while everyone else was polarized at one end or the other, the Church did a very bold thing and put themselves right in the middle; and it was bold because there was no one else there with them. xxi
Then, just a month later, with the Church having worked behind the scenes with Equality Utah (the state’s major gay rights group), and the American Civil Liberties Union, a Utah bill was introduced that would provide the state’s first non-discrimination protection in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and sexual identity, balanced with reasonable protections for religious freedom. Similar bills had been defeated the previous seven years, but this one sailed through the legislature in only eight days. At the signing ceremony, Apostles of the Church shook hands and embraced leaders of Equality Utah.
Now, all of that is what happened in public, but here’s the big question: Behind the scenes, how did both sides go from open warfare during Prop 8, to holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Yah” at the signing ceremony, in only six short years? Here’s the answer—and the heart of my message.
Equality Utah had reached out to the Church several times before Prop 8 without success. But after the Prop 8 backlash, Church leaders agreed to meet with local and national LGBT leaders. They chose a neutral place in Salt Lake City, the home of a married couple who were members of the Church in good standing and supporters of same-sex marriage. The first meeting was awkward and uncomfortable—dark blue power suits on one side of the room, and khakis and tattoos on the other. The hostess broke the ice by telling everyone to play nice and get along. Both sides talked about their own personal journeys, families, gardening, growing up in a small community in Utah, being taken in and cared for by the Church when they were poor. Questions were asked, and there was a lot of listening. Ten people for 2½ hours. At the end of the evening, the Church leaders said, “We’d like to meet again next week.” Over the next several years, they shared music, jokes, and tears, feelings of love and respect, and a desire to make things better. They found common ground and empathy with each other. The LGBT leaders recounted how their people had been harassed, beaten, and vilified over the years with nowhere to turn, and that sounded familiar to the Church leaders, who explained the Extermination Order and how they, too, had been harassed, beaten, and vilified with nowhere to turn. They found similarities between a person coming out as gay, and a presidential candidate coming out as Mormon. Both sides shared a history of struggling for public acceptance. Along the way, the Church leaders invited the LGBT leaders and their same-sex partners as their personal guests in the VIP area at the annual Christmas concert at the Conference Center.
It became much less about politics, laws, and the definition of a family, and much more about shared values and how people should be treated. Minds changed on both sides. They began to trust. They refined their positions. The Church established an official website of the Church, mormonsandgays.org, dedicated to educating members and leaders, tearing down old fears and stereotypes, and building bridges based on accurate, up-to-date research and more Christlike attitudes and statements, including a revised official policy of the Church that sexual orientation is NOT a choice or a sin. They teamed up with the LGBT community to open a shelter for young homeless people in Salt Lake City, where about 40% of the homeless youth are known to be LGBT, because they’re forced out and abandoned by their families, even within the church. xxii When the group asked the Church for a specific amount to contribute to the shelter, the Church said they were prepared to offer a lot more. xxiii Elder Jörg Klebingat of the Seventy has said, “True knowledge—based on accurate information—can dispel fear,” xxiv and together, both sides showed that true knowledge—based on accurate information—really can dispel fear, and out of the ashes of Prop 8 came a tree that bore much fruit to share.
While he was suffering in the Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith opened up his heart to the Lord and admitted, “We have learned by sad experience” (D&C 121:41), and that includes the Church and its leaders as well as us individuals. There are plenty of examples of sad experience in the history of the Church, from the lost 116 pages of manuscript xxv to the history of Blacks and the Priesthood xxvi. But the Lord reassured Joseph that all these sad experiences would be “for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Now, I’m sure the Savior wishes sometimes that we’d do things differently, both individually and as a church. After all, it’s His name that’s on everything from the temples to the stationary, but having personally experienced both Gethsemane and His own crucifixion, He knows all too well that some things here on earth are best learned by sad experience and not just by a revelation to avoid it.
Then, less than a year after the announcement and press conference supporting LGBT non-discrimination, the LDS Church changed its policies regarding the status of same-sex married couples and their children. Old wounds that had begun to heal were again torn apart, with more hurt, more pain, more anger—a crisis of faith among both straight and gay members towards the new policy, and compassion and empathy towards those struggling with the changes. The lessons learned and demonstrated by Church leaders in building bridges after Prop 8 seemed to be replaced by a much more rigid, strident policy in both action and tone. However, it cannot be denied that the above events following Prop 8 did, indeed, happen, and that the results reaffirmed the power of Christlike love.
Many years ago, a member at church took me to task for something I said or did. I can’t even remember what it was, but she shook her finger in my face and angrily said, “Someday, God’s going to judge you for that.” My silly critters took over, and I smiled and said, “Isn’t that wonderful? God’s going to judge me for that, not you or anyone else, and I’m so grateful for that because only He has a perfect love, a perfect knowledge and wisdom, only He knows my strengths and weaknesses and where my heart is. Isn’t that wonderful?” She was speechless, a deer in the headlights, and she had no idea how to respond to that.
There are times when the Church and its leaders and members say or do things that are hurtful, painful, even cruel to the LGBT community, and packaging it in a sense of righteousness can make it many times worse. At those times, I want to do both fight and flight—lashing out at them and fleeing their hurt and pain—but if I give myself some time to calm down and ponder about it a little, I’m grateful that God will be the one judging us, not me or anyone else. He will judge prophets and peasants, presidents and paupers, the proud and the humble, even churches and individuals. He will use His perfect love, His perfect knowledge and wisdom, knowing where our hearts are, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of His Church, its leaders, its members both in and out of the Church, and all His other children, and we will all get more than we deserve.
i Proposition 8: Who Gave in the Gay Marriage Battle?—LA Times, 2/3/2009
ii Anti-Prop 8 Demonstrators protest near Mormon temple, Oakland Tribune, 11/09/2008
iii Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage, NY Times, 11/15/2008
iv Mormongate—The Church’s Cover-up of its Prop 8 Funding—Huffington Post, 03/05/2009
v Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage, NY Times, 11/15/2008
vi Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage, NY Times, 11/15/2008
vii The Family Acceptance Project on Thursday’s Access Utah, http://upr.org/post/family-acceptance-project-thursdays-access-utah, 04/09/2015
viii Ex-football star Steve Young and his wife Barbara put a No on 8 sign in their front yard in the East Bay area of California, showing support for a gay relative in Barb’s family. The sign was noticed and went viral online.
ix What Happens If You’re on Gay Rights’ Enemies List, Time, 11/15/2008
x Various anecdotal first-hand accounts from online member posts
xi Prop 8 Protesters Target Mormon Temple in Westwood, LA Times, 11/07/2008
xii Anti-Prop 8 Demonstrators protest near Mormon temple, Oakland Tribune, 11/09/2008
xiii Protests over Proposition 8 outcome getting personal, Deseret News, 11/13/2008
xiv The Price of Prop 8, Heritage Foundation, 10/22/2009
xv Prop 8 involvement a PR.fiasco for LDS Church, Salt Lake Tribune, 11/21/2008
xvi Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, 8: The Mormon Proposition
xvii Elder Marlin K. Jensen listens to pain caused by Prop 8, Carol Lynn Pearson, from her notes while in attendance
xviii LDS Elder Marlin Jensen’s Prop 8 “Apology”: We Need Clarification, Huffington Post, 09/27/2010
xix Mormon Church Abandons Its Crusade Against Gay Marriage, Mother Jones, 04/12/2013
xx LDS leaders reemphasize protection of religious freedoms, support for LGBT nondiscrimination laws, Deseret News, 01/27/2015
xxi LDS leaders reemphasize protection of religious freedoms, support for LGBT nondiscrimination laws, Deseret News, 01/27/2015
xxii Mormon Church Abandons Its Crusade Against Gay Marriage, Mother Jones, 04/12/2013
xxii Kent Frogley, Board President, Utah Pride Center, “Thank You, Mormon Church,” Advocate.com, 07-13-2015
xxiii Elder Jorg Klebingat, of the Seventy and member of the Europe East Asia presidency, speaking at the 5th Congress of Leaders of the World and Traditional xxiv Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan, 6/11/15, reported in Church News, 6/21/15, p. 10
xxv Keith W. Perkins, “Thou Art Still Chosen,” Ensign, 1-1993; see also History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, pp. 124-135
xxvi Race and the Priesthood, lds.org, 12/2013
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.