Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dueling Documentaries

MoHos are being confronted with two documentaries which attempt to explain something about what it means to be gay and Mormon. The approaches are quite dissimilar.

Far / Between

The first effort, and the one that has been in production the longest. Here's part of the mission statement for Far Between:

The purpose of this site is simple — to better understand what it means to be homosexual and Mormon. Please know that this site is neither “anti-Mormon” nor “anti-homosexual”. It’s just a place to listen and consider, for a moment, what it’s like to be someone else. We hope the experience will move you to engage in constructive conversations about reconciling your empathic responses to the videos, with the doctrines and policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.
We have spent over a year in production on a documentary, gathering information and filming interviews with those who have been touched in some way by the lived experience of being homosexual and Mormon.While compiling the footage, we have felt compelled to break from the typical practice of sequestering the wealth of information and first-person interviews until after the film debuts. We feel it important to share them now with the hope that it will help to improve the conversation about homosexuality and Mormonism sooner rather than later.
Our intent is to provide, through Far Between and its sponsor, Empathy First Initiative, a space for people to share their story, holding equal space for people of all stripes to share their lived experience, no matter the differences, without judgement.

Read about the Far Between Project here

Voices of Hope Project

The second effort - just announced - is a product of North Star, and is an extension of an earlier anthology of stories published by Ty Mansfield. Here's part of their promo:

...There are many, many other stories out there that need to be told, and there’s a growing number of people ready to share them.

In order to best solicit, curate, and promote these faithful voices, North Star International, along with some motivated sponsors, have decided to launch a Voices of Hope website that would include video testimonies as well as an expanding collection of written personal essays.

We have engaged an Emmy-nominated videographer/producer to help with the project and on Friday, August 31st, began filming the first set of individuals. Our initial goal is for the website to be a repository of a thousand voices of faithful Latter-day Saints dealing with these issues, sharing their stories and their faith—why they’ve chosen to embrace the restored gospel and how they’ve found peace and resolution in that decision.

Read about the Voices of Hope Project here

So what is my take on these two very different efforts? First, I think there is room for multiple approaches and multiple points of view on any subject, and I think we should all be willing to entertain and respect varying approaches. Each documentary will likely appeal to a different audience. I think Far / Between is trying to take a neutral position as to Church orthodoxy and allow people to tell their story from their own perspective and experience. As such, I think it will ultimately portray a more realistic cross-section of gay Mormon experience.

The Voices of Hope Project is decidedly approaching the subject from a 'you can be gay and be a faithful Mormon' angle. This is an important point of view, and one that has been attacked and marginalized in the past. From his previous comments, its evident that Ty Mansfield caught a lot of unwarranted flack from the gay community when he married a woman. Other faithful Mormon gays have experienced a similar backlash when they have come out. This is an opportunity for them to speak up in a supportive setting.  However, the goal of having 1000 video segments portraying faithful Mormon gays is, in my mind, overkill. But I do think stories like this need to be told.

In the end, the public will decide which of these documentaries is the most valuable. Both projects are asking for donations (and thus competing with each other) to fund the rather expensive task of filming MoHo interviews. I'm sure its not cheap, considering all the time and travel involved.

  • What do you think of these two projects? Are they valuable in telling the gay Mormon story?
  • Is it more important to portray the cross-section of gay Mormon experience, or just stories of faithfulness?
  • Would you make a donation to help fund either of these projects? If yes, which one?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


September has slipped up on me! Its time, once again, for the White Shirt Rebellion!

I'm happy to report that I have not worn a white shirt to Church for an entire year. And other men in the Ward have also begun to show a little color now and then. So don't think you can't have an influence. The other day there must have been 15 colored shirts amid the sea of mundane white. It was thrilling!

So, try to wear something colorful to Church during the month of September. Be bold! Be different! Be amazing! And be sure to smile about it. :)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Mormon Stonewall

There was a pivotal moment in Gay history where homosexuals fought back. The Stonewall Riots are remembered every year as that event. As a direct result of Stonewall, the modern Gay Movement had its genesis, and gay rights groups and organizations were formed around the world. Every gay person - even those Mormons who may call themselves 'SSA' or 'SGA' - owe a debt of gratitude for Stonewall. The world we live in is more free and more equal now because of it, and gay people in the Church are treated a little more kindly.

But back to history - gay Mormon history is somewhat obtuse, defnitely less well documented, but no less peppered with drama. I've been intrigued lately by a couple of events that could figure as the 'Mormon Stonewall'. They have had a major influence on how the Church has approached the issue of homosexuality over the years. They also tie in to my previous post about The Elephant in the Room.

First, a little background. Up until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and by some as a 'contagious' one.  Take for example former BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson's remarks at a BYU assembly in 1965:

"We do not intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly. ... We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence."
At that point in time, homosexual 'perverts' were widely feared, homosexuality was considered criminal, and people thought it was a choice. In the Church, simply being homosexual could result in excommunication. As science began to debunk the myths and misperceptions surrounding homosexuality (and as gay activists insisted that mental health professionals reassess earlier assumptions), both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the list of known mental disorders; concluding "homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexual orientation". A lot of controversy surrounded that action, especially from conservative and religious groups. Churches tended to see homosexuality as a moral issue - a deviance; a weakness that could be 'cured' by applying the appropriate religious principles. Our Church was no different (reference The Miracle of Forgiveness, chapter entitled 'The Crime Against Nature').

The Values Institute

So, jump forward a little to 1976. The first event I want to mention was the formation of a fuzzy, mysterious insitution on BYU campus called The Values Institute (documentation here). Its exact purpose and mission was not announced at its formation; either at the Board meeting where is was presented by Dallin H. Oaks, nor later in the BYU newspaper article formally announcing the new Institute. The only purpose put forth was to conduct "research that would assist in preventing and changing problem behaviors which lead people away from eternal life" and "attempt to harmonize professional concepts with a religious approach to human problems".  Nowhere was homosexuality mentioned. BYU Psychology professor Allen E. Bergin was immediately installed as the Institute's director.

The real purpose of the Institute, as would be revealed later by internal documents, was in fact to 'combat' what was percieved as the growing threat of homosexuality. The Institute was to develop treatments and conduct research around homosexuality based on assertions in scripture and the pronouncements of modern Prohpets, to study the ways homosexual activists 'indoctrinate' Church membership, to create materials members could use to support legislative actions against homosexuals (shades of Prop 8?) and to reject and disprove 'secular attitudes and philosophies' on the subject. In addition to Professor Bergen; Victor L. Brown, Jr. played a major role in the Institute. Administratively and ecclesiastically, Dallin H. Oaks, Thomas S. Monson, Jeffrey R. Holland, and Boyd K. Packer would play key roles. The stage was set for the second event.

The Payne Papers

In 1977 a BYU student, who we now know was Cloy Jenkins, was taking his beginning psychology class from Dr. Reed Payne (a member of the Values Institute). As it just so happened, Cloy was also a closeted gay; and much like the events that sparked the Stonewall Riots, Dr. Payne's inaccurate and misleading lectures on homosexuality became the tipping point for Cloy. The ignorance and prejudice within the Church on the subject of homosexuality had become so unbearable something had to be done to set the record straight. What ultimately flowed from the pen of Cloy Jenkins was an exceptionally well-written and scathing 53 page rebuttal addressed directly to Dr. Payne and to leaders of the LDS Church - the Payne Papers. What made the Papers so powerful was not just their boldness or well documented content - it was the way in which they were delivered. Cloy was able to have copies of his rebuttal anonymously and simultaneously mailed to all the General Authorities at Church Headquarters, and to administrators at all Church Universities. It was a bombshell. Copies eventually appeared in regional newspapers and even in national magazines.

The response of the Church to this "attack" was annoyed and immediate. Dr. Bergin was tasked with writing the rebuttal, but it was so poorly written that it was later "recalled". Victor L. Brown, Jr. made an attempt, but his effort was never published. The Values Institue seemed to be floundering in its response to the Papers, and ultimately the task of rebuttal fell to Elder Boyd K. Packer who, in March of 1978, gave his famous 'To The One' speech at a BYU Assembly. Among the ideas postulated in this address were assertions that homosexuality is casued by 'selfishness', and that even 'talking about it' can actually cause one to become gay. Elder Packer only used the word 'homosexual' once in the entire 4000 word speech - and that was to assert that it is "an adjective to describe a temporary condition". In the eyes of the Church, homosexuality was considered totally curable.

The Final Word

After the Payne Papers (now called Prologue) made a splash, the Values Institue set about on a new project. The goal was to produce a book that was to be the seminal work on homosexuality and human behavior. This book, funded by tithing dollars, would be on a par with 'The Articles of Faith' . And interestingly enough, there was a decided effort in making this a work acceptable to the secular community. Plans called for the book to be a 'New York Times style' publication by an eastern publisher unconnected with the Church or the University (see this memo ,Oaks to Monson). Drs. Bergin and Brown were to co-author the work. However, as is clear from the memo, the book fell upon difficulties, and was ultimately abandoned. Soon after, Bergin resigned and the Values Institue was eventually dissolved.

The publication of the Payne Papers and the subsequent failure of the Values Institue marked the beinning of a shift in thinking on homosexuality in the Church, although the changes were very slow in coming. The Payne Papers challenged the prevailing teachings and policies of the Church. Over time, many of the assertions in the Papers were shown to be correct, and earlier teachings and practices of the Church were modified in the face of new evidences which contradicted Church policy. Even today, however, one can see evidence that the old ideas have a long shelf life. In 1995, James E. Faust of the First Presidency said that if homosexuality were inherited, this "would frustrate the whole plan of mortal happiness". Elder Packer caused an outcry in his 2010 Conference remarks that essentially asserted some of his prior ideas from 'To The One'. They were later 'revised'. One can imagine the difficulties these leaders face leaving behind notions that they had been indoctrinated with for decades. It really takes a leap of imagination going from homosexuality being a disease of the mind and its practitioners 'perverts', to accepting and embracing open participation by homosexuals in the Church. Because of this, the answers we all hope for will, in all probablility, be a long time coming. Stock up on peanuts, because the elephant may not be leaving the room any time soon.

NOTE:  I am extremely grateful for Connell O'Donnovan, whose meticulous documentation on gay Mormon history I have linked to liberally throughout this post. The Payne Papers, now called Prologue, are copyrighted by Affirmation.