The Struggle: Towards a Faithful History of Mormonism and Homosexuality, Part 2

Any thoughts of sexual experimentation died alongside polygamy.   The Saints had long been racialized and marginalized for their commitment to upholding a “deviant” marital system.  Pressured to leave behind this “relic of barbarism,” the Saints sought to remake their image.  They would no longer be deviants; they would be the child-bearers of America, the bedrock of a robust Anglo-Saxon society.  President Theodore Roosevelt had long been concerned that white Anglo-Saxons were on the wane. Excited by the Mormons’ birth rates, Roosevelt was happy to have the Mormons integrated into America.

Cut Them Off: 1900-1946 

But homosexuality did not leave the Saints; it was merely pushed into the backdrop.  In the Nauvoo heyday of sex scandals, talk of adultery, sodomy, and sexual impropriety were broadcast for all to hear.  Though never truly tolerated, its presence was widely-known and discussed.  By the turn of the century, the system of heterosexual monogamy established itself as normative in the Mormon community.  If there were struggles with homosexuality, they would need to be handled in the quiet of newly-corporate board meetings rather than on the wooden boweries of frontier towns.

It has become commonplace for authors on this subject to read romance into close same-sex friendships, especially of those who choose to live together (e.g. the first Primary President, Louise Felt and her counselor, May Anderson). Some scholars have suggested that John Taylor’s son, Arthur Bruce Taylor, acknowledged to Joseph F. Smith that he was homosexual, an identity they argue Smith identifies Taylor as an aikane–Hawaiian for male homosexual. I looked up the original source for this identification.  The key passage can be found below:

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(Joseph F. Smith Journal. November 16, 1879).  

Was he an aikane? Or was Joseph F. Smith calling him something else even more offensive: “coon”?  Racial epithets were regularly used to describe white people in unfavorable terms. Only four months earlier, Joseph F. Smith had faced an upset Elijah Ables, stubbornly insisting that he had the right to a temple endowment. Smith writes his lower case “a” with clarity in other words. No other evidence of Taylor’s homosexuality exists.  Taylor left the Church and went to Portland

Even still, when Joseph F. Smith learned of a group of homosexuals in Southern Utah, he ordered that leaders to “get the names of all of them & cut them off the church.” In all cases, once homosexuality entered the discussion (it never did with Felt and Anderson), it was depicted as violent, evil, and potentially reputation-ruining.

The Redemption of Joseph F. Smith: 1946-1957 

The first major struggle to assess the Mormon position on homosexuality was when President George Albert Smith called  Joseph F. Smith (grandson of the President of the Church) to be the Presiding Patriarch in 1942.  He was widely rumored to be homosexual with an arrest record. One scholar has drawn an inappropriate dichotomy in President Smith’s decision to call him: “Either God in fact did not care that Joseph Fielding Smith was an adulterous homosexual, or the presiding prophet at that time, George Albert Smith, was in fact not receiving “direct inspiration” from God in the governance of the Church. The extent of Smith’s homosexuality at this stage in life remains uncertain.  A drama professor at the Univesrity of Utah, Smith was widely described as “queer,” but his former student later made clear that “we were all a little queer back then.”

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President David O. McKay

D. Michael Quinn suggests that he had an active relationship with a student at Latter-day Saint University. But homosexual, he was.   In 1946, Smith succumbed.  Guilt-stricken, Joseph F. Smith confessed that he had engaged in homosexual conduct. When church leaders became aware of the situation, it left them “heartsick” and speechless.  Joseph F. Smith requested that he be relieved of duties; the First Presidency agreed.  He moved his family to Hawaii and was directed not to speak in church or participate in church ordinances (the sacrament, temple rituals, father’s blessings, etc.)  Joseph F. Smith’s candor proved to his credit.  Eleven years later,  President David O. McKay approved Smith’s restoration of priesthood blessings.    When apostle Richard R. Lyman was discovered to be having an affair only a few years earlier, he was swiftly excommunicated, having endeavored to keep the whole thing quiet. Though later rebaptized, he never again enjoyed his temple or priesthood blessings (see O’Donovan, “Crime Against Nature” more information on Smith).

Maturation: 1957-2008

Like most Americans, 1950s Mormons generally continued to see homosexuality as an attribute of predatorial men or murderous women.  Gendered boundaries were falling apart in business, government, and education, leaving men and women at liberty to define the parameters of their own gendered identity.  With increasing prevalence, homosexuality was coming to be seen as an acceptable lifestyle choice, particularly  within the university communities of Mormon youth. While Mormon leaders were trying to adapt to the rising youth movement of the 1960s (one manual encouraged youth by reminding that most of the early church leaders were under the age of 30), the gay rights movement frightened them.  Spencer W. Kimball’s widely-read Miracle of Forgiveness attacked homosexuality as “an ugly sin” and “dead-end.”   In 1977, one young homosexual Mormon described his orientation as a “vitiating disease,” four years after the American Psychological Association had removed it from its official manual of psychological disorders.   Evergreen International, a Church-subsidized support group, endorsed a variety of treatments to “cure” homosexuality.  Drawing on the research of other institution, Brigham Young University experimented with aversion therapy and electroshock treatments.  But all approaches failed, leaving behind a large number of gay Mormons feeling alienated and alone.

In 1979 (the same year that the television show, Police Woman, pulled an episode depicting lesbians as murderous schemers), a small group of gay Mormons at Brigham Young University organized themselves into an activist organization committed to redefining Mormon culture.  Insisting that they had no interest in changing Mormon doctrine, Affirmation sought to provide a support network for Saints struggling with their homosexual identity.  In the 1980s, Bishop Stanley Roberts pioneered the modern approach to Mormon-homosexual discourse.  With over 1/5 of his priesthood body being homosexual men, he provided them a safe space when others would have “kick[ed] them out of the Church.”  Though Roberts would not knowingly issue callings to “actively homosexual” members, he slowly gained gay Mormons’ trust and even sexually active gays/lesbians began to attend church again. Likewise, Church members avoided much of the anti-gay rhetoric that buzzed throughout conservative religious communities during the initial outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.  While other evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell were blaming the gay population, Mormon leaders confined the rhetoric to talk on sexual abstinence. Indeed, the crisis prompted the First Presidency to declare for the first time that homosexuality was an “inclination” rather than a practice and that marriage “should not be viewed as a therapeutic step” towards “solv[ing]” it. (see here and here).

The dawn of the twenty-first century marked the beginning of a new epoch for Mormon-gay relations.  It was a time of troubling paradox for Mormons and gays.  In 2000, the Latter-day Saints became politically involved in support of

Ty Mansfield

Ty Mansfield

Proposition 22, a campaign to confine the title of “marriage” to heterosexual unions; that same year, the Mormon single adult, Stuart Matis committed suicide on the doorsteps of the Church–a probing note attached to his chest.  Matis’s associate, Ty Mansfield–also homosexual–produced a biography of him and laid out a vision for celibate Mormonism, one that encouraged gay Mormon men to identify themselves by their citizenship in God’s kingdom rather than by their sexual identity. Earlier generations had conflated the two identities without a second thought; one’s membership in the kingdom was dependent upon one’s sexual activities.  Roberts had paved  the groundwork with his efforts to reach out to the San Francisco gay community, but Mansfield revolutionzed the discourse.  Now, a man’s sexual preferences served as only one part of his Mormon identity.  Mansfield publicly committed himself to a lifetime of celibacy before he would ever participate in a homosexual relationship.

Watershed: 2008-Present

In May 2008, the California Supreme Court struck down Proposition 22, essentially legalizing gay marriage in California.  Domestic partnership laws were already in place, and the California family code made it explicit that there should be no distinction between partnerships and marriages.  But gays throughout the state wanted the same legitimacy placed on their relationships that heterosexual couples enjoyed.  In response, the Mormons in conjunction with several other religious groups pushed for the passage of Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as monogamous and heterosexual.

The campaign was costly both in treasure and in tears.  Both sides spent over 40 million dollars paying for campaign materials and infrastructure.   Mormons felt heterosexual monogamy was a sacrosanct institution deserving of state endorsement.  In some ways, homosexual activists agreed, believing marriage to be a fulfilling  institution that should be available to consenting parties.  Faithful Mormons lost jobs for supporting the campaign.  Several gay Mormons left the faith, feeling ostracized and often hated.

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Ty and Danielle Mansfield

Since the Proposition 8 crucible, the gay and lesbian Mormon experience has become increasingly diverse.  Gay Mormon men such as Mitch Mayne have served in official church capacities, even as they openly acknowledge having past sexual relationships.  Ty Mansfield has since married a woman, noting that he “was drawn to [his wife] in multiple ways, but the spiritual feeling of ‘rightness’ seemed to be the driving force.”  Prominent blogger and father of three, Josh Weed, publicly declared his sexual orientation on the tenth anniversary of his marriage.  Women such as Laurie Campbell and Sarrah Groves have likewise married men, in spite of their attraction to women.  Some Mormon men such as Cedric Phan, Michael Sandberg, and Steven Wilson have sought to live lives of celibacy.  Modern gay Mormonism has many faces.

The negative backlash Mormons experienced prepared them to look at gayness in a new way. The searing aftereffects of the Proposition 8 campaign had prepared them for the likes of Mansfield, Weed, and Groves.  With Weed, Mansfield, Groves and myriad others  and  representing the faces of modern gay Mormonism, there is hope that straight Saints can reach out in turn in an effort to create a unified society of co-believers. In 2009,  Church headquarters supported fair hiring and housing acts passed by the Salt Lake City Council directed at protecting the LGBT community from discrimination.

But the wounds of a decade of political campaigns exacted a toll.  As the Saints zealously embraced the anti-gay marriage campaigns, the similarly adopted the rhetoric of other religious groups whose positions on homosexuality had been even more strident.  Having failed to develop the necessary language to address issues of homosexuality, the Mormon community (particularly those outside of California) relied on the tactics of those historically deemed to be the Saints’ theological antagonists.  The result was overheated rhetoric and reckless claims unbecoming the tone established by the First Presidency and church leadership.  The consequences of this excessive zeal have been grave for those gay Mormons who have sought to acknowledge their sexual identity while staying within the Mormon community.

This is a “faithful” history, so I’ll close with a comment about the place of homosexuality in a devout history of Mormonism.  I’ve had several friends ask “why we’re talking about *insert controversial issue X*”  The answer isn’t terribly complex. The Mormon tradition is based in part on the idea that a man can be filled with the love of God so much that he seeks to bless the entire human race.  In Moses 7, a prophet from Mormon lore, Enoch, sees the expansiveness of the human race, billions of people whom he did not know.   When he saw God weeping over them, he wondered why.  “We’re pathetic excuses for people,” he seemed to say; why waste God’s emotional energy on backsliders, murderers, and adulterers?

Why are we talking about it? Because they matter.

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