TAG | Dan Savage
This post has been in the works for far too long.
It might save some time to just suggest that anyone who disagrees with the idea that a church contributes to gay youth committing suicide to go watch Prayers for Bobby (or maybe I should send all my family a copy), but here I am.
In the past two weeks, the topic of how the Mormon church bullies gay youth exploded on a Facebook thread of comments between myself, my friends, and my family (my mother and my aunt).
The thread started with a simple status update by me: “Just got a random call from the 1st Ward (Mormon church) in Lakewood California asking if I wanted to give the opening prayer next week. I think I’ll pass.”
What followed was some hearty laughter from friends with comments about how the church needs to give it a rest in trying to get me to go back to church, jokes about magic underwear, and sarcasm about how I should have known that offering the opportunity to give a prayer in church was something I needed, not them.
Then, my mother chimed in: “so pete, why do you and your friends continue to persecute the mormon church? that is exactly what you accuse people of doing to gays.”
I responded, challenging her use of the term “persecuting” to describe what we were doing and to express my malcontent with her comparing that behavior to what the church does to the gay community.
From there, the conversation exploded, especially after my aunt jumped in, on the topic of the church’s connection to gay rights and bullying.
(If you want to see the thread, and are not my Facebook friend, feel free to send a request.)
To get to the root of why write today and the source of this conflict, we have to backtrack to the beginning of this “conflict.”
On October 5, 2010, in response to the Mormon church’s semi-annual general conference, especially the anti-gay remarks made by Boyd K. Packer, a higher-up in the church, I wrote about how those types of remarks hurt me as I grew up in the church and how I hated that the church still made them, considering the suicide epidemic in the gay youth community.
The post was one of my most personal outpourings, and naturally, my family responded in tow.
In chronological order: my sister Julie commented on 10.6; my aunt Leslie (the same one from the Facebook thread) sent me an email on 10.9; my sister Kristi commented on 10.11; my dad sent an email letter on 10.18; and my sister-in-law sent a Facebook message on 10.24 (she is the only one that didn’t post publicly or express willingness to do so, so I am keeping her note private).
The most contentious point of my original post, and what my aunt challenged in the recent Facebook debacle, is my stance that the Mormon church is a significant contributor to gay youth committing suicide.
Thus, with that as the backdrop, I’m going to go back to that original Elder Packer talk and really dissect (1) how hearing his words would be devastating to any closeted gay youth in the congregation (note: these “general conferences” go out to the entire church body, approximately 14 million people) and (2) how the words contribute to culture that accepts demeaning, devaluing, and bullying the gay community.
Here is the portion of Elder Packer’s talk on the subject. I’m going to break it up into three parts for my analysis.
(Note: the church changed the transcript of this talk online in an honest, and appreciated, effort to reduce the damage of the words. They also issued an excellent statement showing progress in their stance on the issue. Unfortunately, I highly doubt this type of statement reached any of the youth struggling with the issue that had to sit through his talk.)
We raise an alarm and warn members of the Church to wake up and understand what’s going on. Parents be alert, ever watchful, that this wickedness might threaten your family circle. We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes and counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the Gospel must be wrong. In the Book of Mormon we learn that “wickedness never was happiness.” Some suppose that they were “pre-set” and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and the unnatural. Not so. Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father.
Now, imagine you’re a 14 year old closeted gay youth listening to that. You are wicked and you are a risk to your family unit. You are wrong. You cannot be happy. Further, you are not born with it and it can be overcome. Then there is the patronizing remark about “Would God do that to you?”
The guilt and depression those remarks instill is palpable. You cannot be happy unless you change. You try and try and try to change, but you cannot. It is who you are. So, you cannot change who you are, and who you are cannot be happy.
I struggle to follow my aunt’s contentions that this does not contribute to a youth committing suicide, but I will continue.
From my own experience, I remember sitting in the congregation as an adolescent boy and dreading when the conversation would change to this subject. It happens at almost every General Conference and at countless other times during the regular Sunday services.
Why did I dread it? Because I became paralyzed with fear.
I worried that any sort of reaction, or non-reaction, would out me. If I didn’t laugh at the jokes, they would know. If I focused too intently, they would know. If I didn’t focus, they would know. If I went to the bathroom—something I would do during any other time without worry, they would know. If I made any sudden movements, they would know. If I looked nervous, they would know.
How could you not look nervous when you are thinking about all of that?
Years ago, I visited a school in Albuquerque. The teacher told me about a youngster who brought a kitten to class. As you can imagine, that disrupted everything. She had him hold up the kitten in front of the children. It went well until one of the children asked, “Is it a boy kitty or a girl kitty?” Not wanting to get into that lesson, the teacher said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a kitty.” But they persisted. Finally one boy raised his hand and said, “I know how you can tell.” Resigned to face it, the teacher said, “How can you tell?” And the student answered, “You can vote on it.”
*Insert uproarious laughter from the congregation*
This part of the talk is the most irritating.
First, the analogy makes no sense. The “vote” he is referring to is the vote for any sort of gay rights. His analogy suggests that the gay community is seeking to redefine something that is innate, like a kitten’s biological sex.
Any issue that goes to a vote in the political process for gay rights relates to equality: in military service, in housing, at the workplace, and in marriage. None of those votes are analogous to the “vote” from Elder Packer’s story.
Yet, the congregation joins in laughter. I would like to think they are laughing at his horrible analogy, but alas, I’m fairly sure they’re laughing at how silly they think it is is that the gay community actually tries to get people to vote for their equality.
That laughter tears any gay youth apart, I can assure you. They are being laughed at as outcasts, as a group of people that is ridiculous for trying to make progresses to equality.
And the worst part is, the gay youth will feel obligated to laugh along. Because if they don’t, someone will see into their closet.
You may laugh at the story [about voting about the sex of a kitten]. But, if we’re not alert, there are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change lives that would legalize immorality. As if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws of nature. A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. For instance, what good would the law against – a vote against – the law of gravity do? There are both moral and physical laws irrevocably decreed in Heaven before the foundation of the world that cannot be changed. History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day
To defend his previous illogical analogy, Elder Packer makes an even more illogical analogy: that voting on gay rights will “alter the designs of God’s laws of nature . . . [that] would be impossible to enforce.”
What? Really? That makes no sense. None.
Do you want to know what will happen if gay marriage is legalized?
Gay people will get married. That’s it.
With their rhetoric and fervent opposition of equality in the political process, the church validates and condones anti-gay ideas and behavior.
And rather than ramble, I love how eloquently Dan Savage answered a question from a purportedly well-intentioned Christian around the time of my original post on this subject:
The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from the lips of “faithful Christians,” and the lies about us that vomit out from the pulpits of churches that “faithful Christians” drag their kids to on Sundays, give your children license to verbally abuse, humiliate, and condemn the gay children they encounter at school. And many of your children—having listened to Mom and Dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry—feel justified in physically abusing the LGBT children they encounter in their schools. You don’t have to explicitly “encourage [your] children to mock, hurt, or intimidate” queer kids. Your encouragement—along with your hatred and fear—is implicit. It’s here, it’s clear, and we’re seeing the fruits of it: dead children.
Oh, and those same dehumanizing bigotries that fill your straight children with hate? They fill your gay children with suicidal despair.
I don’t know how else to connect the dots from the church’s conduct to gay suicides.
Actually, wait, I do (but won’t fully elaborate on these points, since it’s late):
I could cite to how high the statistics of LGBT homelessness and suicide are in Utah (higher than the national average).
I could cite to the rates of suicide and anecdotes of Mormon youth and young adults that were forced into electroshock therapy.
I could cite to the church’s massive involvement, filled with lies and deceit, in the Prop 8 political movement and case and other political fights gay equality. (I was 14-15, at the beginning of my struggle with my sexuality, when the church embarked on a national campaign to combat marriage equality in Hawaii and remember having to hear about how important it was to be involved in protecting marriage, how the homosexual committing was a threat to society, etc.)
The connection is undeniable, unless, of course, you’re illogical and live by a blind, reckless obedience to a faith that preaches against the gay community and refuses to be accountable.
This past weekend, the Mormon church held its 180th Semiannual General Conference – a conference that is broadcast to all its members across the globe. The leaders of the church reiterated the churches stance that allowing gay marriage would be “legalizing immorality” and that same-sex attractions are choices that can be changed.
Boyd K. Packer, president of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, added that the church would continue to oppose marriage equality: “Regardless of the opposition, we are determined to stay on course.”
Some of my thoughts are easy to transcribe on this blog; this is not one of those cases.
I am the “black sheep” of my family. Every single person in my family went to BYU – both parents and all 7 siblings. My four brothers served two-year missions for the church, as required. One of my three sisters did as well. I did not. My path has been different, obviously. When I was 18, my mother gave me the ultimatum: start going back to church or move out. My response: okay, bye.
Yet even as I have become more confident and assertive, I have not pressed the issues with my family. I have never challenged them. I’ve consider it a futile exercise where nobody wins. In a brief conversation about Prop 8 with my most open-minded sister, she told me that she would have voted for it. I was crushed by her words.
I can’t let it slide any longer. I cannot ignore the damage these messages cause.
When I hear that message of hate, bigotry, and intolerance proliferating to the entire church, I can only think of two things:
(1) How does my family receive those messages?
I am sure that my entire family heard it. When they do, how do they take it? Has my coming out changed their perceptions? Do they doubt the messages at all? When Boyd K. Packer, speaking on gay marriage, asks, “A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. Do you think a vote to repeal the law of gravity would do any good?” does my family realize how stupid that analogy sounds? Seriously, it doesn’t make any sense.
And how do they think of me now? The foundation of the Mormon faith is the idea of an eternal family. Do they consider me the one that screwed it up for everyone? I wonder how much they still pray for me. I can just hear it now, casually tossed into a pre-dinner prayer, “And bless Pete to open his heart to the Savior so he can change his ways. Amen.”
Honestly, I can deal with all of that on a personal level. Those are little issues. But, more importantly, when I hear about the message to the entire church, I can only think of:
(2) All the GLBT youth in the church.
It’s tough thinking back to those days sitting in church, hearing the anti-gay rhetoric. I remember being a young teenager, probably 14, and going to one of these conferences and hearing these same messages. They said I was confused. I needed help. I was a sinner. My thoughts were not natural. I was betraying God’s plan. They said I could change. I remember going home and spending weeks, months, and years trying to pray to be fixed. At 17, I remember thinking I had an epiphany when I considered homosexuality my one big temptation that if only I could overcome it, I’d be rewarded by God.
I am saddened thinking about the hundreds and hundreds of youth in the church who are having those same feelings after attending General Conference sessions this past weekend. They feel less-than, they feel ashamed, they feel despair. They want to change, they try to change, but they cannot change. Because it cannot be changed.
Undoubtedly, there are youth who heard that message who will commit suicide. The church knows that. How could it not? There have been plenty of documented suicides by Mormon youth. Think about that. The church leaders deliver a message that they know will lead to the death of a segment of its membership, and they deliver that message anyway. That absolutely disgusts me.
In a recent interview with CNN, Dan Savage, who is leading the “It Gets Better” YouTube campaign to help struggling GLBT youth, says the religious right needs to be held accountable for these suicides. I agree.
BYU student Cary Crall submitted a letter to the editor of the school’s student paper “The Daily Universe” challenging the churches support of Prop 8. While the letter was published and then pulled, it is available in its entirety here. Crall writes:
“It is time for LDS supporters of Prop 8 to be honest about their reasons for supporting the amendment. … We must be honest about our motivation, and consider what it means to the delicate balance between our relationship with God and with His children here on earth. Maybe then we will stop thoughtlessly spouting arguments that are offensive to gays and lesbians and indefensible to those not of our faith.”
I wonder if the church will ever change. They “believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” (It’s their 12th of 13 Articles of Faith.) So if gay marriage becomes the law of the land, will it be okay? Sadly, no, not to them. That law will be a mistake of man going against the natural law of God. Sadly, I imagine that the church will remain our strongest opposition until we get equal rights (and after).