Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Of The LDS Church’s Continuing Assault On Sexual Minorities And In Praise of Love

Health and sanity warning:  This post is another rant - and a long one at that.  Although reasonably well-informed through extensive reading and personal experience it is not in any sense an academic study.  However, if anything in the following paragraphs prompts anyone to research further I would consider my work here is done.

In my previous essay I tried to explain why I still find myself fascinated by some of the behaviours of the LDS/Mormon church, its leaders and the direction in which their policy pronouncements are taking the organisation.  If this sort of thing irritates or bores you I suggest you move on.  There’ll be nothing for you here and I promise I shall get back to music and boats soon. I would sincerely like to think that I could finally leave Mormonism behind me in a past I could forget.  Unfortunately, people I love and care about (including children and  grandchildren) are still very much caught up in what I have previously referred to as a “cult”.  More recently I have attempted to avoid using this emotive term and tried to describe the Mormon church as a  “high-demand” group.  I came across this term in in Luna Lindsey’s interesting study, “Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control”.  She reasoned that the word “cult” tends to close off discussion no matter how many of the criteria the LDS church fit when examining the characteristics of cults.  With some reluctance I find myself having to agree.

That the Mormons (along with a number of other religious, quasi-religious, political and campaigning groups) have been in an ongoing campaign against the rights and freedoms of sexual minorities cannot be contested.  While they have mainly targeted gay men and lesbians, many - if not all - people who shelter metaphorically under a rainbow umbrella have been in their sights.  Mormons have always had a rather idiosyncratic view of appropriate sexual behaviour and sanctions for any who deviate from their rules have been fierce.  From castrations and enforced marriages in the nineteenth century midwest, through to the superstitious lies of much of the twentieth century, the torture of outed students at Brigham Young University in the 1970s who were coerced to undergo experimental psychological conversion involving vomiting and electric shock treatments, to the snake-oil of so-called reparative therapy of more recent times, Mormons have been on the front line of a manufactured battle against the caricature of a threat from homosexuals.  From their beginnings and up to the present, formal and informal expulsions have been a more or less effective means of encouraging discipline in the ranks.

The church, and the campaigning groups they have organised and funded to mask their direct involvement, has lost battle after battle as human rights have become more equally distributed in many western democracies during the past few decades.  Grassroots LDS members have lost life savings with no chance of compensation when they have contributed in faith and as "requested" to misguided homophobic campaigns that have failed as the law has quashed proposed amendments to constitutions and equality legislation.  Even so, the hard-won rights of sexual minorities remain under continued attack.  The Mormon church has generally cloaked its loathing of homosexuality beneath its demands for chastity.  The church has tried repeatedly to control the most intimate aspects of people’s lives in its attempts to consolidate its power and influence.  It is currently facing lawsuits over the one-to-one interviews bishops (the equivalent of a parish priest - Mormons always trade-up the levels in their rigid hierarchy) are “required” to hold with everyone.  Even children and teenagers can be quizzed about personal and sexual matters and parents may not be invited to be present.  I have recently paid the fee and undergone investigation to update my certification with the Disclosure And Barring Service for any work I undertake with children.  I don't know whether Mormon adults working with young people are now required to submit to being checked. They never used to be. Tragically, some bishops have allegedly attempted to cover some suspiciously creepy ground when interviewing young people.  Anyone, child or adult, might be asked to describe intimate thoughts and behaviour as part of a process of determining "worthiness" or perhaps “repentance”. should they be found wanting.  I remember being interviewed by our bishop in the 1970s when my wife and I were asked if our bedroom activities included oral sex or “funny positions like animals”, both apparently on the unapproved list. At the time I thought it odd, embarrassing and intrusive, but I hadn't yet reached the stage where I considered such inappropriate inquisition as being part of the ammunition of control and such was my lifetime of compliance that I accepted it was within the bishop's remit. 

Having eventually lost California’s Proposition 8 after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and having seen equal marriage become reality in many places, Mormon leaders have continued to try and make the harassment of sexual minorities seem like a worthy cause.  Last November, the church’s Handbook of Instructions for their ecclesiastical leaders was quietly revised to confirm that, should there be any children in a family with same-sex parents, they should be denied access to parts of the church’s programme that peers would normally be expected to enjoy (including, for example, baptism and ordination to the priesthood - all males over the age of twelve are expected to hold the priesthood - defined as an authority to act in the name of God).  The attempt to slip the new clarification in quietly did not go according to plan and the church has probably found the ensuing publicity inconvenient. It has had to send in the apologists to limit the damage.  I suspected that this policy change wouldn’t affect many people, but it seems that, at 26%, Salt Lake City has the largest number of same-sex partnership households with children of any metropolitan area in the USA (see here) However, since this policy appears to contravene their second “Article of Faith” - "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins … "etc - it is yet one more inconsistency that the apologists have to explain.  What is more, the policy change also states that once the children reach the age of eighteen, and are legally able to make their own decisions they may be baptised and receive the priesthood (if they fulfil other worthiness criteria) providing  (unless the policy has been recently modified ... it happens) they disavow the relationship of their parents, agree with church policy to condemn same-sex relationships and move out of the family home.  Nice.

The latest information to cause a bit of a stir is a videoed q & a with “apostle” (I said they always trade up!), David A. Bednar.  He may be following orders, but he seems to have drawn a short straw in becoming an LDS spokesperson on lgbt issues.  Following the recent death of the arch-homophobe, Boyd K Packer, and the recent relative silences of others like Dallin H. Oakes, “Elder” Bednar seems to be proving an intellectual lightweight trying to justify the unjustifiable.   If, however, you want to try and get into the mindset of one of the most powerful lobbying organisations on the planet here’s a little taster.  You can find it on this Facebook post if you are interested.

I shall also add my transcription of his answer to the end of this essay in case you feel moved to study his comments in more detail.  His answer covers a lot of the same ground as this blog essay from 2011.

The question that set his discourse into motion was, 

“How can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel?”

The first thing that struck me about the question is that it seems manufactured.  Embedded in the question is an assumption that staying in the church is worthwhile.  I have seen figures guessing that between fifty and ninety-plus percent of gay Mormons leave.  Why stay aligned to an organisation that despises you, fails to affirm you as a person of equal worth and opportunity and undermines all your attempts to construct a fulfilling life?

However, following the best political practice he starts by changing the question into a form that places him on familiar territory.  Instead of being truthful and saying from the outset that there is no way that gay and lesbian Mormons can live openly, normally and remain steadfast members of the LDS community, he falls back on the old LDS Newspeak stunt of denying that there is any such person as a homosexual; there are (as LDS leaders have often said) only "homosexual behaviours".  He claims we are not defined by sexual behaviour, but he’s wrong.  As a species we are hardwired to sort and classify as strategies for making sense of our world.  We assume that someone is part of a society's majority unless told otherwise.  Defining by sexual orientation is just one of a number of ways we relate to others.  By claiming otherwise he is flying in the face of the common use of language, scientific research and legally accepted definition.  Of course, we may not be defined solely by orientation, but it is a huge part of who we are and spills over into much of the rest of our lives.  David Bednar goes on to talk about gender being an essential characteristic, the difference between male and female spirits and how differently men and women think and observe as though the Venus and Mars options are fixed.  If people's characters really conformed to these binary definitions I wonder why a church president would need two counsellors, or why there are "quorums" and "high councils" set up to oversee and advise?  The world is never simple and there are often many answers.  We may not be defined solely by sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, intellectual capacity, physical appearance, race, colour, culture, beliefs, circumstances, class, caste, age or any other single description, but we do classify according to situation and circumstance.  For some people it is important to know whether another has been unfailingly law-abiding and while that characteristic may not define them it is one that helps to build a picture.   To claim that we are not defined by sexual behaviour or inclination is misleading.  The church would have no problem defining someone as unworthy if they did not meet the so-called standards and set up home with a lover of the same sex.  Weirdly he starts to talk about beautiful or handsome people. Does this have any relevance or any bearing on the issue, or even reality?  Whatever point he was trying to explain using this odd analogy seems to have missed the target.  Whether "good-looking" or not, anyone might experience the same challenges and despair as anyone else.  If he thinks having acceptable bone structure leads to shallowness of character one of us is missing something important.  Just as perception of physical beauty and other defining characteristics can be placed on a sliding scale so can sexual orientation.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to orientation being influenced by a variety of factors, including some that occur in the womb.  He talks of what he calls same-sex attraction as a “limitation”.  I have trouble seeing this as any more of a limitation than the limits experienced by those who can only love and desire people of the opposite sex - although, I suppose I should admit that straights have more choice given their relatively greater numbers.  Apart from the biological drive to procreate which is clearly felt more strongly by some than others, what completes us as people is not the fact that we feel more strongly attracted to our own sex, the other or both, but surely the fact that we find we have a capacity to love and be loved.  To point out that we are not victims of homosexual attraction, because we have “agency” is another red herring.  Being gay is not in itself a problem. The attitudes of other people though are sometimes a different matter. We act with agency when we have developed the appropriate intellectual and motor skills.  It is nothing to do with any mystical construct such as “atonement”.  Besides, the only evidence that there was a divine being who was sacrificed as an atonement for the sins of mankind are ancient writings of men and women who needed to find ways of explaining the world in terms that made sense to them.  These days an “atonement” has little meaning to most people beyond that of consolidating power in the hands of a minority, of inducing guilt and encouraging compliance through investing unwarranted power and authority in ancient texts of desert nomads and the insistence of self-appointed leaders who have a clear interest in keeping the money flowing in. 

The main theme of his talk is that church approved relationships are all about “chastity”.  Here is where trotting out the same old lines begins to unravel.  The LDS church spins around the whole concept of “family” - defined as a father/mother/children unit where the husband/father (effectively the family’s patriarch) is obedient to the laws and commandments of God while the wife/mother/children are obedient to the righteous leadership of the family patriarch.  Chastity, according to Mormons, can only allow for sexual relationships between a legally married man and woman.  Anything outside that definition is “sinful”. Outside of the worship services there are numerous social activities in the LDS church designed to bring men and women together so that they will eventually team up as married couples and bear numerous tithe-paying LDS offspring.  There are single young adult groups (for 18-26 year olds) and separate single adult (for the over 26s) activities in every LDS community designed specifically for this purpose.  Whilst, of course, sexual contact between unmarried couples is frowned upon and may, if discovered, lead to disciplinary action (though not always) modest displays of affection are accepted and indulged.  If not (or not yet) partnered, single, heterosexual Mormons live in hope that they can meet their eternal partner and marry in the temple.  Courting couples can sit through church services holding hands and it is appropriate to exchange kisses at other times.  Holding hands is not considered a contravention of the law of chastity.  In contrast, lesbian and gay Mormons have no such hope for any kind of fulfilling future.  They can only anticipate unrelenting celibacy.  They are not even permitted to enjoy the simple comfort of holding the hand of one they love.  The twelfth article of faith states that Mormons are subject to the laws of the land.  Even if a same sex couple can be legally married respect for the law doesn’t apply on Planet Mormon.  A gay couple getting married would lose their church membership.  As has happened in the case of the law of consecration, plural marriage and the institutional racism that has pervaded Mormon history, God changes his mind when the the going gets tough.  Were the church to come under sufficient legal and financial pressure as encouragement to treat gays on a par with straights it is quite possible God would find way to let gay couples marry, live in peace and remain (should they so wish) fully fledged members.  When same sex marriage became legal the law gave the LDS church a way through the challenge.  David Bednar’s rhetoric makes it quite clear that the issue is therefore not about chastity at all. 

How lucky we are that in recent years LDS leaders have begun to teach that  “simply being attracted to someone of the same sex” is not a sin.  That has not always been church doctrine as victims of the “Strengthen Members Committee” or the “Standards Office” at Brigham Young University would testify. This article gives a history of the behaviour of the moral police at BYU.  Spencer W. Kimball’s fire and brimstone book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness” had a harder edge.  Biblical quotes also suggest differently.  Proverbs 23:7 “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…”
Matthew5:28 “…whosever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”.  That the attraction is now not in itself the sin is a modern construct and one that attempts to compromise in order to curry some favour and somehow prove that church leaders are listening.  Again, to suggest that tagging someone with the label, “homosexual” is “inaccurate” makes no sense for reasons I’ve already suggested.  Many church leaders have labelled men and women “homosexuals”.  If you doubt this look again at chapter six of “The Miracle of Forgiveness”.  Anything else is playing a semantic game.  Kimball (whose hand I once had to shake and who gave me the creeps) displays his poor grasp of what homosexuality is when he argues in the same chapter that being gay is wrong because the world’s population would die out if everyone were gay!  Gay relationships have historically been recorded in pretty much all civilisations and have, as far as evidence can be found, remained a fairly consistent and small minority of any of those civilisations.  There would appear to be little danger of the world becoming depopulated as a result of everyone going gay.  It didn’t happen in Ancient Greece and it certainly isn’t going to happen now.

David Bednar claims that Mormons don’t discriminate, he isn’t a bigot and that the LDS church extends “Christlike love to all sons and daughters of God.”  This is simply more evidence that Mormons continue to mangle the English language to try and make it mean whatever they decide it means.  Somebody please buy the man a dictionary.  Of course they discriminate as the November policy clarification continues to show.

He talks of “the Father’s plan for the eternal destiny and happiness of his children”.  Again this is manipulative fantasy.  Because he read something in a book, whether it be two hundred or two thousand years old, or because he has good feelings about something (the recently past president/prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley's definition of how God talks to his prophets) doesn’t provide sufficient evidence that he is right and everyone else is wrong.  I may say the same about this blog post, but the difference is that I am pretty sure that others may have different opinions from me and that does not make either of us good or bad; simply different.

So, he is not a bigot (yes he is); the LDS church does not discriminate (yes it does); neither Joseph Smith nor Thomas Monson created the plan (I’ll give him that one, since it has evolved over the years by committee decisions made by many, many men); “the Saviour, through his atonement makes the plan operational, effective in our lives and the father has not changed his mind about how the plan should operate” (meaningless, self-referential, manipulative and delusional).

His comments about the necessity for male and female spirits in a relationship is cute but again shows a wilful ignorance and shameful lack of understanding.  I am, as anyone with the patience to have read this rant will realise, writing from a personal and anecdotal perspective.  I have been in two long-term relationships - a straight marriage (or rather one that I came to realise was a mixed-orientation marriage) and a gay partnership of well over a decade.  I suspect that I shall never quite be able to shake off the sorrow, the shame and the guilt for the failure and pain caused to people I love through the failure of my marriage.  I shall, however, always be grateful to have been in a relationship with P, with whom I have discovered how to love and how to be loved, how to support and how to allow myself to be supported.  P and I are two individuals who love and trust each other.  We don’t agree on everything, but we talk and we discuss and we can accept and respect points of view that are different.  We don’t shout, we don’t accuse, we don't coerce or manipulate and we really are able to talk about anything.  I have to conclude, contrary to Elder Bednar’s assertions, that these priceless bits of self-knowledge are unlikely to have come to me during my marriage.  I am almost certain I am a better person, absolutely certain I am happier, better balanced and more fulfilled for knowing and loving P.  My family relationships have been through difficult and sad times, but we have all emerged on the other side stronger than before, each loving the others and all in regular contact again.

I would love to see a time when all members of my family are free of the control of the high-demand group that is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I missed my window opportunity to have much say when I recognised the futility of trying to change anyone's beliefs. I decided it was more respectful, courteous and grown up to let my loved ones make their own choices. That's not to say it isn't important to be prepared to account for ourselves and our actions. I see, though, no need to have respect for particular ideas and belief systems. All beliefs should be subject to serious scrutiny and, having passed muster, not be let off the hook of continued examination. Ideas come from people and beliefs are there to be challenged.  I can, though, accept and respect my loved ones for having made good choices.  They will, of course, have to live with whatever consequences ensue - as shall I. As for good, that remains undefined in this exercise.  I am relieved that, through whatever twists and turns of mental gymnastics they need to perform, the committed Mormons in my family show their love and interest in me and my life along with whatever respect I may have earned as father, grandfather and father-in-law. In the unlikely event that any of them read this, my antipathy to the organisation that plays such a significant part in their lives does not diminish in the slightest my love and respect for each of them.  In the end it is not about obedience, or chastity, or the money, or atonement or any other myth or system of control.  Isn't it about love?

I hope THAT is responsive to the response.

Here is the text of David A. Bednar's answer to "a question from Chile", 

“How can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel?”

“First I want to change the question.  There are no homosexual members of the church. We are not  defined by sexual attraction.  We are not defined by sexual behaviour.  We are sons and daughters of god and all of us have different challenges in the flesh.  There are many different types of challenges.  Would it be a challenge to be very beautiful or very handsome and in the world in which we live never develop deep character because we are able to open doors and have success just because of our physical appearance and we become shallow and superficial in many aspect of our lives?  That can be a challenge in the flesh.

Some people have physical limitations.  They may be born with a body that is not fully functional or we may have an inclination to be attracted to those of the same sex.  Through the atonement of Jesus Christ we are blessed with moral agency.  Agency is the capacity to act and not simply be acted upon.  (Holds up bottle)  This is a bottle of water.  It is an object.  It has no capacity to act. It is an object that can only be acted upon.  So this object moves if I cause it to move or if some other force causes it to move … You and I are not objects.  We are agents blessed wth agency because of the atonement of Christ.  And with that agency we are to act and not be acted upon.  That agency gives us the capacity to determine how we will respond to the variety of challenges we experience in the flesh.  So you choose - you act in accordance with the teachings of Christ.  Simply being attracted to someone of the same gender is not a sin.  There are many members of the church who may have some manifestation of that attraction.  They honour their covenants.  They keep the commandments.  They are worthy.  They can receive the blessings of the temple and they can serve in the church.  It is when we act on the inclination or the attraction, that’s when it becomes a sin. So, the reason I began my answer as I did is that in this question the word “homosexual” was used to describe or label a member of the church. It’s an inaccurate label. We are sons and daughters of god and we determine how we respond to the variety of challenges that we face in mortality through the proper exercise of our moral agency.

Now I want to speak very directly to you. The world teaches that we must be tolerant and accepting. There are some things we do not accept or tolerate. We love all people with whatever challenge any person faces. The purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of the Saviour’s church is to assist people in receiving the strength to deal with the challenge. So we do not discriminate and we are not bigots. We extend Christlike love to all sons and daughters of god. But what is the purpose of the father’s plan?  We come to the earth, we are blessed to receive a physical body.  Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and the family is central to the father’s plan for the eternal destiny and happiness of his children. That plan is halted in anything but a marriage between a man and a woman. Now Joseph Smith didn’t create the plan.  Thomas Monson didn’t create the plan. God, the eternal father created the plan. The Saviour, through his atonement makes the plan operational, effective in our lives and the father has not changed his mind about how the plan should operate. So please do not let the voices of the world confuse you or lead you in a different direction as you come to better understand the Father’s plan then you will understand the purpose for marriage between a man and a woman. I hope that’s responsive to the question …

See a related point is that there is a divinely designed difference between a female spirit and a male spirit. You need to read and study over and over again the Family Proclamation.  It teaches that gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose. So whenever you take those divinely designed differences the capacities and talents of a female spirit and of a male spirit and they are sealed together by the power of the priesthood it creates a unity and a oneness, it creates a whole that cannot be achieved any other way. Sister Bednar and I have been married for forty-one years.  She is (other than the Holy Ghost) … the greatest teacher I have ever had. She does not think like I think. She does not see what I see and I learn a lot from the things she sees and thinks that are different from me. Sometimes men and women get frustrated with each other because they don’t see things the same way. They are not supposed to see things the same way and the education that comes with a man and a woman in a marriage ordained of God is one of the richest blessings of this life. Now we’ve taken a long time responding to this question, but hopefully you can sense that the length of this answer emphasises the importance of this topic in the world in which we live.  That’s why we have taken quite so long.”

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