26 July 2011

"Has It Injured Me?"

Recently in reading about LDS history, I ran across a quote from Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the church. He was no doctrinal liberal by any means. Yet in no less a prominent venue than LDS General Conference he defended the sale of coffee, liquor and tobacco by ZCMI (Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution) the church-owned department store in Salt Lake which was started back in the 19th Century.

I couldn't help but notice the parallels between what this LDS church president said about Mormons selling booze and what marriage equality supporters say to modern Mormons who oppose same-sex marriage. The argument is the same, but when it comes to civil, non-religious marriage--which carries none of the theological connotations drinking does for modern Mormons--the analysis no longer applies to the church? If anyone can explain that one to me, please do.

Here's the original quote. I believe Smith was a member of the LDS First Presidency at the time:

"Some of our pretended pious people, a few years ago, were shocked and horrified by seeing the symbol of the All-Seeing Eye and the words 'Holiness to the Lord' in gilt letters over the front of Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution. Especially was this the case with some of our brethren when they found these letters over the drug department of Z.C.M.I. Why was it? Why some of these pious (?) Mormons found that Z.C.M.I. under the symbol of the all-seeing eye and the sacred words, 'Holiness to the Lord,' sold tea and coffee, and tobacco, and other things possibly that Latter-day Saints ought not to use; and at the drug store, Z.C.M.I. kept liquors of various kinds for medicinal purposes. It was terribly shocking to some of the Latter-day Saints that under these holy words liquor should be kept for sale. Has it injured me, in any sense of the word, because Z.C.M.I. drug store kept liquor for sale? Has it made me a drunkard? Have I been under the necessity of guzzling liquid poison? Have I made myself a sot because liquor was kept for sale by Z.C.M.I.? I am not the worse for it, thank the Lord. And who else is? No one, except those pious Mormons (?) who in open day or under the cover of night would go into the drug store and buy liquor to drink.... Those who were the most horrified at seeing the All-Seeing Eye and 'Holiness to the Lord' over the front door of Z.C.M.I., I will guarantee are the ones that have bought the most tea and coffee, tobacco and whiskey there.... It does not matter to me how much tea and coffee Z.C.M.I. sells, so long as I do not buy it. If I do not drink it am I not all right? And if the poor creature that wants it can get it there, that ought to satisfy him. If he could not get it there, he would not patronize Z.C.M.I. at all, but would go some where else to deal." (Conference Report, April 1898, page 11)

Now, try this version:

"Some of our pretended pious people, a few years ago, were shocked and horrified by seeing the [Church stop its opposition to marriage equality] . . . Why was it? Why some of these pious (?) Mormons found that [the church, which uses] the symbol of the all-seeing eye and the sacred words, 'Holiness to the Lord,' [no longer opposed same-sex civil marriage]. It was terribly shocking to some of the Latter-day Saints that under these holy words [marriage between two persons of the same sex should be allowed]. Has it injured me, in any sense of the word, because [the church recognized that gay persons should be able to enjoy the same legal rights, privileges, and all the personal benefits of marriage as straight persons]? Has it [hurt my marriage]? Have I been under the necessity of [abandoning my wife in order to find another man to marry myself]? Have I made myself a [promiscuous party boy] because [a gay person, whether or not they were a member of the church, was allowed to marry the person of his or her choice]? I am not the worse for it, thank the Lord. And who else is? No one . . . It does not matter to me [whether gay people marry each other] so long as I do not [leave my wife or husband, which I would never consider just because someone else was allowed to marry who they wanted]. If I do not [marry a person of the same sex, since I am not attracted that way,] am I not all right?”

18 July 2011

The Real Rainbow

I had a wonderful childhood with loving parents, a classic suburban neighborhood with soccer moms and kids on bikes and skateboards and lots of green grass and the occasional backyard swimming pool. The beach just minutes away. I remember realizing there were kids who lived in the middle of the country a thousand miles from a beach, and honestly not comprehending how they could endure it.

I grew up thinking pretty much everyone’s life was like mine. That everyone looked and lived basically like I did. There were virtually no ethnic minorities in our area; it was as WASP-ish as could be. Even the kids who went to school at St. Bonaventure’s instead of the public schools all looked like the rest of us, except for those school uniforms. I went to church every Sunday where everyone looked like me too, and was taught there that God loves everyone throughout the world. As far as I knew, the world looked like my neighborhood. Things seemed pretty good. God was in his heaven, all was right.

Then I grew up and left home and went on an LDS mission and encountered real poverty for the first time. The first house I was ever invited into was so small that I had to crouch down and literally squeeze through the door. Inside were two rooms that totaled maybe 200 square feet. For a whole family. Later I met a very old grandfather who had outlived everyone else in his family and was so poor he slept in a niche of bare rock in the corner of an unfinished basement of a large apartment building on a hillside. No heat in the winter, and winters were very cold. I learned pretty fast that the world did not look like my home neighborhood.

Fast forward some years. Everyone at church still looks the same. With very few exceptions that I noticed usually didn’t last long before drifting away, it was the same WASP-ish middle and upper middle class nuclear family types I grew up with. The ones that fit the church-approved mold for what you had to do in order to go to the highest heaven. But I also noticed that virtually nobody new came in the door, and when one occasionally did, they didn’t stay long. Hmmmm. Wonder why.

Emerson said “give me truths, for I am weary of the surfaces.” And last weekend I had a massive dose of truth, of what the real world looks like. Of what all of God’s children look like, in their incredible, amazing, magnificent, blazingly colorful variety. A true symphony of diversity. I was a volunteer at the San Diego Pride Parade & Festival. For two days I watched as the most incredible parade of humanity walked past. Every conceivable size, shape, age, color, appearance, dress. White-haired grandpas and grandmas, little kids in strollers. Skin from the palest to the darkest, and every shade in between. Dress from the most prosaically conservative to the most outlandish.

The coolest thing was that everyone was accepted just as they were. No opprobrium, no pejoratives, no prejudice, no raised eyebrows or harrumphing about more than one piercing per ear or pressure to make everyone look like everyone else. Mr. Normally Fairly Conservative me was delighted to get a picture with the most fabulously dressed and beautiful African-American woman. I think she was a woman. Whatever. Didn’t matter.

What also didn’t matter was stereotypes or orientation. I met guys there dressed in the most wildly outlandish stuff who I know for a fact are straight, and guys who I knew were gay yet dressed in the most ordinary “straight guy” clothes, and without a hint of stereotypically gay mannerisms. Lesson: Don’t judge. Orientation doesn’t matter. They are all children of God, with the right to live free of prejudice and fear and homophobia and to have their lives and the way they love respected.

If there was one group there larger than any other, it was the regular, ordinary-looking people. Grey-haired men with scruffy beards in cargo shorts and t-shirts, who looked like they could be truckdrivers capable of beating the crap out of you in a bar fight, were holding hands and kissing each other tenderly. Women couples who looked straight out of the suburbia I grew up in, holding hands and pushing strollers with their kids. So many kinds of families. The outlandish types were the minority. Most were just regular folks. So much for "the gay lifestyle."

Honestly, I wish every Mormon ward and stake would have the courage to bring their comparatively cloistered and sheltered youth to the Pride Festival. Let them walk around and see the rainbow of diversity that is really what God’s children look like. They’ll learn things from that which no officially sanctioned lesson manual recited in a plain brick classroom could ever teach. Jesus went to church, of course, but I think afterward he didn’t go home to nap or shut himself away in a room and do nothing in order to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” My bet is that he went right back out amongst the people wherever he was, talking, teaching, visiting, helping, observing, eating, drinking, healing.

On Saturday there were reportedly some 200,000 people watching the parade, and I think all of them must have flooded into the festival at the park afterward. It was astounding to see. All celebrating diversity and being proud of who they were. Though some folks don’t quite know it yet, the battle has been won. This progress can’t be stopped. What a great thing to live in a time when I can see it all happening.

13 July 2011

Nails It

It's always interesting to read comments to Utah newspaper articles about gay issues. Normally they're the predictable mix of personalities and perspectives, with a shifting cast of characters re-hashing basically the same point-counterpoint. After one reads enough of such stuff, one begins to see the patterns and to draw some conclusions.

And one develops an eye for particularly insightful, perceptive analyses too. I just ran across two such comments in a Salt Lake Tribune article on an upcoming film by Kendall Wilcox about gay Mormons. I think they're spot on, about as insightful as any I've seen, so I thought I'd save all of you the time of hunting through the comments yourself, and share them here.

Comment One:

Many church members don’t understand how the church’s position is homophobic and damaging. I will lay it out for you.

The LDS church’s position is: “same-gender attraction is not a sin, but acting on those feelings is—just as it would be with heterosexual feelings.”- (from Helping those who struggle with same-gender attraction by Jeffery R Holland.)

Holland goes on to say “‘We do not reject you,’ he said. ‘… We cannot reject you, for you are the sons and daughters of God. We will not reject you, because we love you.’”

This is how the members are taught to react to gay loved ones. It is not overtly homophobic, but here’s the catch – while ‘acting on homosexual feelings’ – presumably engaging in homosexual sex – is characterized as no more condemnable than ‘acting on heterosexual feelings,’ straight people are able to, within the doctrinal framework, find suitable life partners, marry, and consummate their marriages with a meaningful sexual bond. No such mechanism exists for gay individuals, and they are relegated to a life of loneliness and insufferable longing.

The church doesn’t just deny them sexuality, it denies them intimacy and companionship – such an integral part to the LDS experience. Additionally, and though the official position is acceptance and understanding, most gay LDS people experience at least a lack of understanding and at worst –and frequently - experience bigotry, vitriolic and callous rhetoric, and a decent amount of institutionalized, or at least institutionally-condoned hate.

Living as a gay person within the framework of LDS-think invariably becomes insufferable. It is quite simply impossible for most individuals. When the circumstances become unbearable, some end their own lives. Others GET OUT. Mr. Wilcox seems part of the latter group, it’s just taking some time.

Comment Two (in response to Comment One):

I think you are right. I don't know if this is correct but I also understand that masturbation is not ok either in the Church so they do not even have that outlet. I have met some who have left for the very reasons that you state. It just became incredibly unbearable for them but many still do believe in God and have faith. They just choose to not be setup for failure anymore. It seems they have opportunity to become more healthy emotionally when they leave and free themselves of all the shaming and setup for failure they experience in the Church. As a parent, I would rather encourage a gay child to be who they are in a responsible and caring manner and do good with their life. It still seems odd to me that all of these men and leaders that are telling them what they must go without to be ok with God are men who have all those things and aren't willing themselves to make those kind of sacrifices to go without all of that. It is like a rich person not sharing with a poor person and telling them they must be poor and should be happy and rejoicing in their poverty. Strange.

03 July 2011


Sunday again. An appropriate time to write about a church service. But you're not expecting the kind I'm going to write about.

In my early teens I discovered a recording of what was called a mass, and which had some of the features of the Roman rite I was learning about. But other parts of it were very different. There was a rock band, a jazz band, and at one point the priest threw the bread and wine to the ground. It shocked me, even though I wasn't Catholic.

But it also fascinated me, because it talked about faith in very blunt ways I never heard at my own church. Soft bluesy riffs with lyrics like "I believe in one god, but then I believe in three. I'll believe in twenty gods, if they'll believe in me. That's a pact, shake on that, no going back." Imagine something like that alongside a very neo-classical and exuberant Gloria Patri, Gloria Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, sung by the celebrant and a children's choir. The mix of medieval, classical, modern, jazz, rock all jumbled together was like nothing I'd ever heard.

And the early teenage boy in me loved the catchy and edgy song about the creation of the earth and how humanity had gradually become more and more corrupt: "God said let there be light, and there was day to follow the night, and it was good brother, and it was good brother, and it was good brother, and it was goddamn good." Youtube vids of the Mass are surprisingly few, but here's a video of that particularly delightful part, done admirably by a Lithuanian orchestra and chorus of all things! And the lyrics are worth reading since you may not understand everything from the chorus. Some delightfully cynical stuff (e.g. "God said it's good to be poor. Good men must not be secure. So if we steal from you, it's just to help you stay pure.")

It's no secret to anybody who reads this blog that I have had growing differences of opinion with the Mormon tradition in which I grew up. How could I not, having come out of the closet a few years ago. Most gay Mormons end up leaving the church entirely because they realize if they go along with the church's demands for personal belief and behavior, it becomes impossible for them to live happy fulfilled lives. I've seen many friends, gay and straight, decide the LDS church isn't for them, and they end up agnostic or even atheist. This is logical; if you leave one strict, authoritarian, demanding religious tradition and don't trust it anymore, why would you want to find and affiliate with another? How could you trust any of them after you'd decided one was not credible?

So it's been interesting for me to explain to friends like this why I retain my Christian faith. It's not the same as it used to be, certainly. But those basics still make more sense to me than any other explanation for life and the eternities, and I still try to live by them. Like so many other paradoxes in life, I find my faith becoming simpler and more complex at the same time. Simpler in that I feel myself gradually focusing on a smaller list of fundamentals; faith, hope and charity. And more complex in my increasing comfort with ambiguity, incompleteness, different levels of meanings, different sources of truth. With not knowing, after being raised in a church that relentlessly stresses knowing and certainty and shames any confessions of doubt. Today I said out loud "Is it possible to be a Christian Buddhist?" It was a serious question. Yeah, like I said, simpler and more complex at the same time.

And after all these years I've realized that's what I liked about Leonard Bernstein's Mass. It throws everything into the pot, everything in life. The high church classical, the street musicians, the formally robed celebrant, the scruffy busker and sultry lounge singer. All are children of God. All at different stages of life and faith. They're not all in white shirts and suits and floral print dresses. And in the Mass, even the celebrant experiences a loss of faith. But then starts to find it again. Maybe that's the message that resonated with me back in my teens, when I couldn't quite articulate why. Life is so much more complex than I was being told at church, but it's possible to keep your faith even in the rough and tumble that is the real world.

So here is one of my favorites from Bernstein's Mass, it's called A Simple Song. I loved it the first time I heard it, and have sung it a lot myself ever since. Still do. BTW, "lauda laude" means "praise, highest praise."