09 June 2010

Unintended Consequences: How Prop 8 Pushed A Gay Mormon Boy Out of the Closet and Made Him an Activist

With Reed Cowan's film 8: The Mormon Proposition now hitting theaters, I thought it'd be a good time to reflect back on my own experience at that time. It really was a turning point in my life. Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Bottom was transformed into an ass one midsummer's night. Kafka woke up as a cockroach. And one letter read from one pulpit on one otherwise ordinary Sunday transformed this questioning but relatively complacent Mormon boy into The Enemy Within (or so most of my fellow Mormons would think).

As a closeted gay Mormon husband and father, I'd spent a lifetime trying to contort my heart and mind into what the LDS Church said I had to be in order to be good enough for heaven, good enough for God. My Mormon resume was rock-solid, gold-plated. But the charade wasn't working, and inside I was miserable but determined, resigned to believing that was my destiny: keep the mask on, play the part of a faithful straight guy even if it cost me a lifetime of unhappiness. On stage 24/7, never free. I knew how the Church and its members treated The Gays and was sure I just couldn't endure that.

The Mormon Church isn't just a religious denomination. It's a complete way of life, a world view. The cultural current carries you along and if you do what you're told, you don't have to think much. Being an active Mormon can occupy almost every waking moment outside work if you let it. No bandwidth left for non-Mormon pursuits or questioning anything about the Church. Sometimes I've wondered if that's not by design.

But the Law of Unintended Consequences sometimes surprises even big corporations. And when my bishop, a good and kind man, stood in church to read the letter which opened the floodgates of Mormon money and muscle that turned the tide to put Prop 8 over the top, somebody else was caught up in the flood too. Me. Only the current carried me in a completely new direction.

I had done legal work for the Church and knew the strict rules against using Church property or assets for political purposes. Don't do it, we were told, you could put the Church's tax-exempt status at risk. Yet suddenly, for this issue, week after week of worship time was transformed into political training meetings. Sign-up sheets were passed around to schedule neighborhood walks, ostensibly just to "talk with our neighbors about marriage and find out what they think." Precinct captains were selected. Donations were strongly urged, week after week, with amounts "suggested" based on tithing records. Training was given on how to make the pitch. We were admonished time and again never to argue, no matter what. We must be nice. We must never disrespect others. Don't wear white shirts or ties, we don't want to look like the regular missionaries, it'll send the wrong message. We don't want people to know we're Mormons engaging in politics. But the message was clear, and everybody knew it. The preparation training was consistent, detailed, and relentless, with all the massive precision and focus of which the Mormon Church is capable when The Prophet speaks.

As the campaign got underway, church time on Sundays began to include reports back on these neighborhood walks and campaign activity. Stories were shared of persuading the undecided that children had to be protected from the militant gay agenda that would be forced on them in schools if Prop 8 didn't pass. We could be sued and forced to open our sacred temples' doors to perform gay marriages which would mock everything holy. The Church could lose its tax exempt-status if it refused to perform gay marriages. On and on. No one was outwardly hysterical, but everybody seemed to believe all of that and more. It was a siege mentality, and my fellow Mormons saw themselves as rising up in response to the call from God's Prophet to defend truth and righteousness.

And there I sat, a closeted gay Mormon boy, stunned into silence by the ignorance and prejudice that the prophet's letter had now legitimized for expression. Who were these people that professed to be my friends yet had such incredible fear and distaste not for what I did--because I hadn't done anything--but simply for who I was? I had never felt more alone in my life, more disconnected from the faith I was raised in.

One Sunday as the planning and scheduling and horror stories flowed freely, a young woman raised her hand. I'm a high school English teacher, she said, and I work with gay kids all the time. I have to say that Proposition 8 is scaring them to death. They are already insecure and frightened and vulnerable, and to see our church and others put millions of dollars into this campaign scares them even more. They are more afraid than ever that Prop 8 will legitimize more bigotry and hate. They fear the beatings and mockery will increase. They fear never being able to just live peacefully with someone they love. This campaign is making their lives even worse than it was before. You all in this room may not see that, she said, but I do. So I'm afraid that the best I can do in response to the prophet's letter is to simply not openly oppose Proposition 8. Because I see what it's doing to these kids.

She finished. The room was silent for a brief moment. The presiding authority muttered a brief, pro forma "thank you" and called on someone else, who began hyperventilating over how a friend told her they'd heard from a lawyer who said the church could be forced to marry gay people in the temple if Proposition 8 didn't pass and she was so scared of the temples being thus desecrated that she was going to do all she could to pass the proposition. And so it went.

The English teacher was ignored. And there I sat, disgusted with myself for not having the strength to speak up. Because as a lawyer, I'd studied all the arguments and stories and rumors and warnings of doom if Prop 8 failed, all the myths that everyone around me seemed to swallow without a second thought, and I knew they were completely bogus. I had never been more ashamed of myself.

And looking back, that's when it started. That was my tipping point. When the meeting ended, I went and found that high school English teacher in the hall and said Thank you for sticking up for those kids and for raising a voice of reason amidst all that fear and prejudice. Trust me, you're not alone. She almost started to cry from relief and said Oh I am SO glad someone else gets it! Thank you for telling me!

That day I went home, permanently changed. Soon after, I came out. I started blogging. Reaching out to other gay Mormons, growing stronger myself as I share time and experiences with others like me. There is a remarkable community of gay Mormons nationwide which has blessed my life immeasurably, and in many ways I have never been happier. Our stories are all remarkably similar. We are caught in an impossible situation between what our hearts and minds tell us about ourselves and the way we know God created us, and what the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says we must do in order to qualify for the privileges of eternal life which it alone can bestow. The way the Church currently defines these, there is no way they can be reconciled. One or the other must give way.

It's no wonder that the great majority of gay Mormons end up leaving a church which basically tells them that in order to qualify for God's greatest blessings in eternity, they must lock their hearts for their entire lives, stay strictly celibate, and never allow themselves to experience the love and companionship and opportunity to build a family of their own which the Mormon Church so aggressively urges its straight members to pursue. And all of that for a reason and reward which the Church itself can't really define, but can only guess at.

So where does that leave me? Well, it's ironic that my church's zealous "defense of traditional marriage" prodded me to finally come out, assert publicly who I've always been, and become just as vigorous a proponent of marriage equality. How do I reconcile my faith with my orientation? It's not been easy. But I believe in Jesus' words that "by their fruits ye shall know them." Much of the fruit of Mormon teaching about Jesus and His gospel is good, and I hold to that. I've seen it in my own life. To me, the basics of Christian theology make sense: the commands to love God and our neighbor, do justly, love mercy, be humble, forgiving, patient, caring for others. The world is brutal enough and would be far worse without the Christian faith to inspire such behavior.

Just because my own church is fumbling around in the dark about how to treat God's gay children doesn't mean I have to abandon everything it teaches about everything else. I will judge it as I judge anything, by its results. When I see the hurtful and damaging results of Prop 8, I can't accept that the Mormon effort to pass it was inspired of God. But when I see my fellow Mormons, or anyone else, reaching out to strengthen and serve, to care for others as Jesus did, I have hope that fairness and justice will eventually correct the Prop 8 error that began that Sunday, with that letter that changed this Mormon boy's life.


Scott said...

it's ironic that my church's zealous "defense of traditional marriage" prodded me to finally come out, assert publicly who I've always been, and become just as vigorous a proponent of marriage equality.

I'm inclined to believe that the church's opposition to gay marriage is nothing more than an expression of its leaders' phobias and biases...

... but I have wondered off and on ...

... because I've seen so many stories like yours (and experienced my own first-hand) that if I wanted to believe that our leaders were inspired I could almost imagine that God told them to do what they did because He knew it would help so many closeted gay Mormons come to terms with who they are, and draw attention to the bigotry and prejudice that are, in the end, the only motivations behind an anti-gay-marriage stance.

Sort of a "it is better that the reputation of the church should perish than that an entire nation continue to persist in denying basic rights to a subset of its population" thing?

T.J. Shelby said...

What a story! I think I'm going to have to write a companion blog post...but from a heterosexual perspective.

Let's see if I can give a synopsis. Prop 8 had unintended consequences for me as well. As a fairly ardent liberal in an openly conservative GOP dominated church, I stuck out enough as it was.

However, as a strong supporter of the Constitution, an opponent to Prop 8 and not being a fan of Mitt Romney, the 2008 elections were a troublesome time.

I had always had questions, doubts, concerns etc, that I had faith would eventually be answered and bring sense and continuity to my testimony in God's own time. After Prop 8, my patience in waiting 10+ years with no resolution on those matters, wore thin and broke.

I stepped away and have been all the more happy for it.

Quiet Song said...

Some other time when I have more energy I shall comment on self reinforcing sterotypes within the LDS culture which I believe have little basis in reality. For example I know many Mormons here locally who are at least members of the democratic party if not liberal. Being a Democrat makes you automatically liberal in the minds of some LDS republicans. I choose to remind any all that I AM a moderate mormon democrat and not a liberal regardless of their desire to distort reality.

Sean said...

A very articulate post. I think I will have to pass it along to some family.

I find it ironic in the current political climate of our country and certainly within LDS politics, that common sense has be come a "Liberal" philosophy. My how paradigms shift!

Joe Conflict said...

When you experienced this, I was experiencing my marriage falling apart because my wife had found out I was gay. I heard about prop 8, but I had no time or energy to listen carefully or even exert my own tidbit of political viewpoint in public.

But now that I've met many of my fellow bloggers, I can see it was the literal push over the cliff for many of you. Had I been stuck in those meetings, I would have likely just walked out. Or I would have gotten myself into a shouting match. I don't have quite enough emotional control to deal with idiots too well.

Thank you for sharing this.

Stevie D said...

Interesting. I'm 51, never married, and have been a member since 1981 baptized in Mission Viejo CA now in UT. Never once, not ever, have I been approached by any leader at any level to urge me, or even remotely suggest, that I should be married and having children. Not once. I have heard plenty of talks about how rewarding it is etcetera, but never has anyone aggressively urged me to pursue building a family of my own. Never. Not once.

As far as being an active Mormon, occupying almost every waking moment outside work - I have never let it! And if you have or do, that's your fault. No bandwidth left for non-Mormon pursuits? Again, your fault.

I was once asked (called) to be a boy scout leader. I said, "Sorry, no, I can't do that." He asked me three times in disbelief. It's pretty easily to say no three times. It's a very simple word.

Where I live in Utah, not one single word was said about prop 8 over the pulpit or in any meeting. Not one single word. I kid you not. I was there. Not one single word.

Rob said...

@Stevie D:

Thanks for your comments. If you've never once been urged or pressured or "counseled" to get married by someone at church, then great. But you are in the minority, I promise.

Re being active in the Church taking up all spare time, you are correct. It's a choice. That's why my post said "IF you let it." Don't forget, though, that the Church really does make incredible time demands on its members if they "actively" pursue everything the Church tells them they should. That's why senior leaders are so continuously concerned about reducing the amount of time members need to spend on Church stuff at the expense of time with their families, particularly at the local leadership level.

And since you live in Utah, I wouldn't expect you to have heard anything about Prop 8. Your local leadership decided to ignore it, and that's totally understandable. It was not so here in California.

Gay LDS Actor said...

I really enjoyed your post. I related to much of it.

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

For a moment, I thought you were referring to me in the title. In many ways, I feel Prop. 8 prodded me along as well. Much for the better.

I tend to think that this was the case for many more. Looking at the attendance figures for the Utah Pride Festival, it seems one might find a correlation between the huge jump in attendance this year and a generation of gay Mormon boys being forced out of the closet as the fault line between Mormonism and sexuality begins to quake.