Behind the Great Mormon-Gay Divide

by Roger Brigham

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 27, 2009

For most of us, a kiss is an expression of affection or a prelude to passion. For Judas, it was the signal of the end for Jesus on the mortal coil. For the Mafia, it signals time to get ready for swimming with the fishes.

For the queer political consciousness, it has become a symbol of protest and hope for resolution.

Three "kiss-ins" have been held in July, the most recent being a peaceful one outside a Mormon temple in La Jolla, Calif., near San Diego, Wednesday evening that drew about 40 lip-locking participants. A. Latham Staples, executive director of Empowering Spirits Foundation, said the group wanted to organize the protest earlier to show support for a gay couple in Salt Lake City. They didn't do so because of the just-completed San Diego Pride.

Matt Aune and Derek Jones, who had been arrested July 9 in the Utah capital city on trespassing charges brought by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints security personnel, who had wanted them not to kiss on a public-use plaza owned by the church.

"We felt this was the perfect opportunity to support those two guys and also to engage in dialogue with the church," Staples said. "We just couldn't get this one off the ground fast enough."

There will be another, even bigger, kiss-in, one held nationwide. It's planned for Aug. 15. The Great Nationwide Kiss-In will take place in seven cities, from Boston and New York to three California cities.

Staples said the kiss-in was part of an ongoing (but thus far futile) effort to get church leaders to come to the table to talk about its stance on the civil ceremony of same-sex marriages. Staples used to work for Equality California, which has been a leader in the fight to overturn the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban.

He left Equality California because he thought it and other organizations were counterproductively pitting gays and Mormons against each other.

"I grew tired when they kept attacking Mormons and other groups," Staples said. "It's time people start focusing on the similarities we have, not our differences. My feeling is when you put a wall up, you end any chance at dialogue." And you get characterizations of the church as victimized by unfair portrayals.

As for the massive influx of money from Mormon supports of Prop 8 into the campaign for its passage, Staples said, "In a way, I actually kind of admire it. They are standing up for a belief that they have. But it makes you realize the same intolerance they have shown to the LGBT community before."

In the San Diego kiss-in, efforts were made to encourage to confront--but not outrage--Mormon sensibilities.

"The two kiss-ins in Utah brought in a lot of negative attention," Staples said of the earlier kiss-ins that attracted in an estimated 100 participants and resulted in shouting matches with anti-gay protestors. "That's certainly nothing that we want to have here. We only want people who are showing positive public displays of attention -- nothing over the top. We want to reach out to the Mormon Church. Obviously that's our main intent."

"I think it's an excellent way of showing a bit of protest on the way the church treated people who were may have been doing something fairly innocent," said Micah Bisson, media relations director for Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons. "We've been very supportive of the kiss-ins that have occurred."

Mormon-Gay Divide's History
The perceived battle between Mormons and gays over same-sex marriage has its earliest roots in previous support for the earlier Prop 22 ban and the influx of individual Mormon contributions for the Prop 8 campaign. In that campaign, ads erroneously reported Prop 8 would not strip away anyone's Constitutional rights and would force clergy to conduct religious services in violation of their faith and played on homophobic fears.

The flood of money, which was largely credited with Prop 8's passage, stemmed from a June 29, 2008 letter from LDS Church First President Thomas S. Monson that was read in California congregations to enlist their support of Prop 8.

"Local Church leaders will provide information about how you may become involved in this important cause," the letter read. "We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage."

Besides eliciting contributions, the letter inflamed a divide among church members and would seem to violate a 1907 top church directive that reads, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state; the non interference of church authority in political matters; and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties. If at any time there has been conduct at variance with this doctrine, it has been in violation of the well settled principles and policy of the Church."

Former bishop Robert A. Rees, wrote an op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune after Monson's letter, saying the directive created a conflict for many members of the church. "While some members see the letter as a test of their willingness to "follow the brethren," he wrote, "others feel that it is their civic and moral duty to vote against an amendment which they see as violating the central democratic principles of non discrimination and equal civil rights."

Rees also wrote, "The dilemma for members who have allegiances as both church members and citizens is that when there is a conflict between the two, they cannot satisfy both. In such instances they must feel free to make moral choices based on their best judgment without fear of censure, reprisal or retribution."

Church leaders can't say they were not warned about becoming embroiled in the same-sex marriage battle. "We encouraged them not to get involved," Bisson said. "It is unfortunate they did get involved. It really put a focus on them."

Bisson said many of the 800 members of his group were "gay and lesbian members within the church still trying to be active and still trying to live the 'good church life.' It's hard for them to reconcile an already difficult task of reconciling the what the church teaches."

Bisson said the Mormon church has a history of focusing on key states for political battles.

"Essentially they got involved because they knew that if in some place or form, if California didn't pass Prop 8 and its marriage definition, more states would follow suit," he said.

"We are not after any hard doctrinal changes. We are concerned with how they treat gay people in the church and out of the church."

Bisson said he had hoped the church would be more tolerant on civil law same-sex marriage based on progressive and human values it had shown in the past, but for him, the church no longer holds a place.

"I have made a decision not to attend church meetings any more," he said. "My 'reconciliation' is that I have accepted who I am."

And in another twist, a group plans to present the church with a petition to rethink its stance completely on gay issues. More than 1,360 signatures since it began circulating in June are on it.

The Committee for Reconciliation plans to deliver the petition to leaders of church this November. Cheryl Nunn of Santa Cruz, Calif., told AP that Proposition 8 was the catalyst but that she is also seeking an apology for church policies that have marginalized gay Mormons and their families.

Affirmation will hold a national conference Sept. 18-20 in Salt Lake City. Chad Hardy , whose creation of the "Men on a Mission" calendar cost him his place in the Mormon Church and his bachelor's degree in communications from BYU, will present his experiences and have a fashion show. The movie "Voicings" will also premiere and composer David Naylor will stage an original choral work for Affirmation.

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.

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