25 February 2010

Why We Commemorate Stuart Matis

"Good morning," said the silver-haired gentleman with a smile as we shook hands while walking through the parking lot of the Los Altos Mormon chapel just after dawn today. "Why are the parking lot entrances coned off?" I asked. "We're expecting demonstrators," he replied. "And President Monson [president of the Mormon Church, like the pope for Catholics] instructed our stake president [like a Catholic archbishop] to have someone here throughout the day to keep an eye on the Lord's property just in case things get out of hand. We don't want to come here tomorrow and find that everything's been spray-painted."

Forced, secret electroshock therapy in BYU basements to "cure" homosexuality. Excommunications for simply saying you were gay. Then a shift to "as long as you don't act on it, you can go forward as all other worthy members of the church" because the church "loves and honors [you] as sons and daughters of God." Then a swing back again to massive organizational and financial muscle by America's original proponent of "alternative marriage models" to legally withhold from everyone regardless of religious belief any form of marriage which Mormon theology doesn't approve. Then back the other way, with publicly stated support for Salt Lake City ordinances that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Then back again, with speeches by prominent leaders claiming that marriage equality threatened religious freedom. And now instruction directly from the top in Salt Lake that the Los Altos chapel, where Stuart Matis took his own life ten years ago in despair over the Mormon Church's aggressive fight against marriage equality, should be safeguarded by "the priesthood" because the Church expected confrontation and vandalism from perhaps two dozen somber friends who gathered on the sidewalk to quietly remember Stuart.

This see-sawing presents the picture of a church that has no idea how to explain or what to do with homosexuality, after decades of wrestling with it. Theologically the Mormons have no more basis to denounce the gays than any other Christian denomination that relies solely on the Bible, because the uniquely LDS scriptures never mention the subject. Every statement by LDS leaders on the topic ultimately rests on the Bible, which ultimately rests on a single verse in Leviticus. In sum, the Mormon Church, whose bid for legitimacy resides entirely in its claim of new and continuing revelation for our day, fights furiously against acceptance of homosexuality based solely on a 4000 year old verse from a time when as far as we know, even the concept of homosexuality was unknown. This is like pointing to an ox-driven waterwheel in the Holy Land as evidence that God hates the Hubble Telescope.

More disappointing, though, was the smile and gentle manner with which my friend in the parking lot showed his no doubt innocent ignorance of what those shortly to arrive at the chapel to commemorate Stuart's passing were all about. Overt confrontation and shouted hostility are one thing. But how do you get inside and defuse the bigotry of someone so apparently well-intentioned and kindly, when they obviously don't even recognize it in themselves?

When I greeted those who'd walked quietly from a nearby park with flowers and candles in memory of Stuart, I told them of my conversation with the chapel sentinel. They smiled but were a bit incredulous, and understandably so. What threat could this couple of dozen people possibly present, with roses and candles in their hands? No cans of spray paint, no big signs with hateful slogans, nothing but reverence, smiles, hugs, solemn and quiet pondering over the tragedy that occurred on this day ten years ago. A table was set up to display a mounted photo of Stuart's gravestone, and behind it was a larger trade show type display with photos and biographies of other gay children of God who'd taken their own lives in despair that they could never reconcile what their Church taught them with what they knew themselves to be. There were flowers, notes of remembrance quietly placed on the table before Stuart's headstone. The group stood on the sidewalk (never venturing onto Church property) and visited quietly. The display remained throughout the day with someone there to watch it and answer questions from any passers by. I renewed acquaintances with some of the group, but couldn't stay as long as I wanted; office responsibilities wouldn't wait, and I was catching an earlier flight than usual that afternoon.

But I thought as I drove away about the silver-haired gentleman in the parking lot who believed himself to be God's sentinel, protecting the Lord's property against threatened vandalism. I thought of Stuart's parents, whom I've never met, and whose pain I can't imagine, publicly asking that nobody mark their son's death with any kind of public display or remembrance, that he not be made a "political cause," and stating that they firmly believe the Church to be correct on all counts as regards God's gay children.

And with all due respect, and no rancor, I completely disagreed with them both. I disagreed with the silver-haired gentleman's assumption that anybody who was going to publicly differ with the Church was likely to be a vandal bent on destruction of property. Once reality stared him in the face, I would hope he'd see those who were remembering Stuart on the sidewalk were anything but threatening, and he'd learn that maybe he didn't need to be frightened. And at the risk of offending the Matises (which I sincerely don't wish to do), I disagree with anyone who urges that Stuart not be remembered publicly or that his death not be the catalyst for the kind of change he himself urged us to pursue. I think the note he left behind pushes us to do just what was done today: speak truth to power, point out that the emperor has no clothes, inspire younger ones to be more confident, assertive, secure and proud of the way God made them. They--we--aren't broken and don't need fixing.


What needs fixing is the fear, the misunderstanding, the myths clung to like barnacles because they're familiar. What needs fixing is the innocent ignorance that keeps spreading the bigotry, the kind that my nephew apologized to me for helping perpetuate after I came out to him when on reflection he saw for the first time just how steeped in homophobia Mormon culture is. Stuart made himself a public figure for a reason. He didn't want us to be silent anymore. Squeaky wheels get grease. I believe we do his memory a disservice if we don't speak out. If we don't try to shove the Church out of its 4000 year old rut and forward to a point where it can stop see-sawing, learn something new about God's gay children, and find a consistent place for them at the table without driving them to suicide.

So on this 10th anniversary of the death of Henry Stuart Matis, I'm renewing my resolve to do what he asked. So that maybe next time a memorial is set up outside the Los Altos Mormon chapel, the sentinels will not stay barricaded inside, fearing violence, but will come out and talk, smile, join in the remembrance, and really walk the Church's talk of love and acceptance. And if I have to wear out the rest of my life fighting to get us all there, then so be it. Bring it on.

17 comments:

Steven B said...

Thank you for posting this.

j4k said...

Weather or not your other disagreements with the church are valid, I don't see how you can take the church to task for having one man watch their property. We really aren't that far removed from the demonstrations of Prop 8, when property was damaged.

Having one man watch to make sure participants of a political demonstration respect their property is just a smart move.

Rob said...

@j4k:

Read more carefully. I don't take the church to task for having someone watch their property. That's a prudent thing for anyone to do.

I take the church to task for continuing to nurture its persecution complex and convince its members that THEY are the ones under attack when, in fact, it is the CHURCH who picked the fight over Props 22 and 8 and rallied its members and their money to revoke an existing civil right from a specifically targeted minority group for theological reasons.

As long as this perspective persists within the church, it will be unable to have meaningful dialogue with those who disagree, no matter how quiet and respectful they are.

It's clear that Salt Lake knew all about the memorial that morning. It was not a "political demonstration." Anyone could go to the Mormons for Marriage Web site and see exactly what was planned, and could see it was totally non-threatening.

I should also point out that the Los Altos Chapel's parking lot is used by a nearby hospital for overflow parking, and the hospital runs a shuttle from there to the hospital. So the church's choice to cone off the lot meant it feared a small, peaceful memorial service for a gay suicide victim more than it cared about seriously inconveniencing many hospital workers that day. That again demonstrates to me the depth of unjustified fear here.

Tshepo said...

I appreciate your call for more dialogue and tolerance on this issue, however, one of the main points of your argument is completely false. You state:
"the Mormon Church, whose bid for legitimacy resides entirely in its claim of new and continuing revelation for our day, fights furiously against acceptance of homosexuality based solely on a 4000 year old verse from a time when as far as we know, even the concept of homosexuality was unknown"
This is not correct. The Mormon church has received new revelation which it published 23 Sept 1995 that addresses this issue specifically. It states:
"All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God...Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose...We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife."
How you chose to rationalize this revelation is another issue, but to state that nothing has been said on the matter is misleading and incorrect.

Sean said...

Excellent post Rob, thank you! It seems to me that there should be massive peacful candlight vigils surrounding the church office building and temple square until they do something.

Those of us outside the church realize the heavens of continuing revelation are shut to the leaders of the church. This issue just further demonstrates the "emperor's nakedness."

Kyle said...

Sums up most of my thoughts better than I could ever hope to--fantastic post. Thanks for this.

Rob said...

@Tshepo:

Thanks for taking the time to comment. My thoughts in response.

1. The Proclamation on the Family is not "new revelation." The Standard Works are "the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine," said Joseph Fielding Smith. Only the president of the church is authorized to bring forth new doctrine, and when he does, he will identify it as revelation and present it to the body of the Church for a vote of acceptance (see Doc. & Cov. 26:2, 107:27-31), as was done with Official Declaration #2 and Doc. & Cov. Section 138.

The Proclamation on the Family has not gone through this process. Nothing in it identifies it as revelation, per se. Senior church leadership has characterized the Proclamation not as "new revelation," as you claim, but only as a "declaration and reaffirmation" of standards. Thus, to the extent it contains anything that is not directly supported by the Standard Works (and there are a number of such things), those statements can be considered less than ultimately authoritative. While many Latter-day Saints like to treat it as such, in fact the Proclamation is not "new revelation," and it is neither official doctrine nor scripture that is binding on Latter-day Saints.

2. Nothing in your quote from the Proclamation has anything to do with homosexuality. You seem to have made the common mistake of assuming gender identity and sexual orientation are the same. They are not. They're completely different. As simply a "declaration and reaffirmation" of prior statements, the Proclamation would by definition say nothing about what kinds of gay relationships could be legitimate since, as I've already noted, the church's entire stance against gay relationships rests on Leviticus and there has been no new revelation on that issue. The Proclamation simply doesn't address the question. So your reliance is misplaced.

Jaykean said...

Rob, your an idiot, the Proclamation to the World on the Family IS SCRIPTURE and IS REVELATION Go ask your stake pres. You should have your recommend taken away.

Rob said...

@Jaykean:

Thanks for reading the blog and taking time to comment.

It's clear you still have more to learn about the Church and the Scriptures. So I'll let others assess you by your own remarks. Thanks again for stopping by.

Max Power said...

Jaykean, I believe that proper English for your statement is "you're an idiot" not "your an idiot".

Cheers.

MoHoHawaii said...

This is a wonderful essay. It really hits the target.

Every now and then you see an action that shows how tone deaf the leadership in Salt Lake is on this issue. They just don't get it. The insane persecution complex runs really, really deep.

Janeen said...

Thank you for documenting the experience that we shared on Thursday morning. We had actually contacted the Stake President and let him know of our peaceful intentions. But even if he didn't expect any trouble, apparently President Monson did. For me, the best thing about the memorial was the chance to meet and talk to so many people who are engaged in the process of helping to alleviate suffering and discrimination. I always feel enriched by that kind of community and it inspires me to renew my efforts at contributing what I can. Thank you Rob. Janeen Thompson, Foundation for Reconciliation

Tshepo said...

Rob, I don't think you're an idiot and your reasoning is obviously well thought out. And although I don't agree with you, I can see how you've interpreted the proclamation.

However, I do think that latter portion of the proclamation that I quoted "We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife." deals specifically with gay relationships and gay marriage, and explains why the church has gotten involved politically with such things as prop 22 and prop 8.

That said, I personally have a real issue with legislation of religious beliefs, something that leads to hate and intolerance of any that are not in line with the religious dogma, whatever it may be.

Thank you for the posts. It is always beneficial to learn how others are thinking of sensitive issues.

santorio said...

Another thanks.

Rob said...

@Tshepo:

Thanks for taking time to continue the dialogue.

I understand your point about the reference to "the sacred powers of procreation", etc. In my experience, LDS leaders are just plain uncomfortable saying the word "sex", especially in a document like this. They tend to use smoother euphemisms (I suspect so as not to upset the Relief Society).

Since the Church does not try to prohibit its members from using scientifically assisted methods of conception such as in vitro fertilization, which arguably is a use of "the sacred power of procreation" in a setting other than between husband and wife, I have to assume that this phrase meant, simply, "sex between married husband and wife."

In which case, it's clear that this sentence is likewise nothing new, but simply reiteration of an existing tenet. In which case, we are justified again in asking what's the basis for excluding sex between two married persons of the same gender. And once again, the basis is Leviticus. So we close the circle once again.

Like I said, no new revelation here. I promise, nobody's awaiting further light and knowledge on this topic more eagerly than me.

Dale said...

Outstanding article and an excellent summary of the thoughts and attitudes of our LDS brothers and sisters. Some of the comments to your post provide further amusing confirmation of the fear and intolerance many Mormons have of some of the most loving children of our Father in Heaven.

I was deeply moved by those who attended the memorial for Stuart. In addition to other Gay Mormons who have experienced the pain and rejection that led Stuart to suicide, there were friends who spoke of Stuart's great love and compassion, and there were both Mormons and non-Mormons alike who dared to dream of a day when love and understanding can overcome fear.

I know the members and leaders of the LDS Church better than most and I have great hope for the day when all of God's children will be comforted, held, loved and accepted by those who claim the title of "Christian".

Bradford said...

I am an inactive Mormon, inactive mostly because I have behaviors that are incompatible with the Mormon church holds as doctrine, so I can relate in a way to what homosexuals in the church may feel. I have felt suicidal feelings which I first blamed on God (essentially the church, since my perception of God has been shaped by it) but later learned have everything to do with me and what I believed about myself (feelings that were not inspired by God or the church). To blame the church for the suicides of those who cannot reconcile their personal lives with what they believe is expected of them is lazy. Tradition and culture are powerful ties but in the end, we determine our own fate, even if it is as simple as choosing to pull a trigger. I emphatically reject any attempt by pro-gay marriage Mormons or anyone to use these unfortunate victims as ammunition for a religious-political war. Sure, approach the issue but do it honestly.

I read from people with cynical opinions of the Mormon church declare how bigoted and hateful Mormons are to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe that, but I don't feel hatred toward homosexuals. I don't fear them. I honestly think that they're individuals. You assume that the guard at the church was bigoted. Did he say anything to you that indicated that he was intolerant? I admit that there are jackass Mormons that do hate homosexuals, but they're not justified by their faith and those feelings aren't Christian; there is absolutely no doctrine I'm aware of in the Mormon faith that promotes hatred of homosexuals. You may claim the denial of marriage to homosexuals as a hateful move but it isn't. Pro-gay-marriage advocates demand that others agree with their views or become bigots and homophobics. Is that what you believe?

You seem to criticize hypocrisy in the church, as if you have an expectation of perfect consistency in how it handles doctrinal issues. I assume you know enough of its history to know that it hasn't. This is new territory, like civil rights, polygamy.

I just can't comprehend sincerely believing that the church is so wrong on homosexuality, yet staying close to it and trying to change it. I know I wouldn't, I wouldn't look back if I felt that way. I would look for truth elsewhere if I couldn't find it where I was.