Thursday, June 26, 2008

The letter from Salt Lake

About a month ago I predicted that the church would be a bit lower key when it came to opposing marriage equality than it was in 2000. I was wrong. This prompted me to rethink the situation. Here's what I came up with.

Over the past century and a half the LDS Church has evolved from its freewheeling, charismatic 19th century roots into an authoritarian bureaucracy. Like all authoritarian bureaucracies, its primary motivator is self-preservation. For bureaucracies self-preservation will typically trump all other goals, including the organization's stated mission.

A good example of this is the case of the Roman Catholic Church and its abuse scandal. Some Catholic priests sexually abused children. The Catholic Church suppressed the evidence, quietly transferred the offending priests to other parishes (where many repeated their crimes) and engaged in a pattern of character assassination against abuse victims who spoke out. When all of this eventually came to light, many Catholics felt profoundly betrayed by their church. What had happened, in retrospect, isn't hard to understand: the Catholic church placed bureaucratic self-preservation above the needs and best interests of the people it was supposedly serving.

Despite its outsized, exclusive claims of inspiration, the behavior of the LDS Church can often be explained by the sociology of bureaucracy. I can think of several examples where the LDS Church has acted for self-preservation. One is the fairly widespread practice of secrecy and cover-up when high-ranking LDS men commit crimes such as sexual abuse. The Church would often rather keep up appearances than deal with a scandal, even if that means throwing victims of abuse under the bus. If you study authoritarian bureaucracies you can pretty much predict how this will play out. (It's really no surprise that the LDS Church is as open to self-criticism as the Kremlin.)

Now back to the marriage issue. I propose that the LDS Church's opposition to gay marriage is defensive, part of its impulse for self-preservation. The insight is that the rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with it. You can see this in the lack of coherence of the practical arguments against marriage equality. Pretty much everyone can see that gay marriage will be good for gay people. It will provide stability, comfort, companionship and economic benefits. Most can see that gay marriage won't hurt straight people, since they will be absolutely unaffected by their neighbors' new found ability to marry. The problem is that gay marriage will hurt the abstract idea of "traditional marriage."

The Church will absolutely be disadvantaged if their view of marriage no longer lines up with that of the mainstream culture. The more these views diverge the more the Church will be labeled as intolerant. Leaders of the Church are well aware that the tide of public opinion, especially among young people, is changing on this issue. They are under pressure similar to what they experienced in the early stages of the civil rights movement and the women's movement. This is bad PR. (Did I mention that authoritarian bureaucracies are very sensitive to bad PR?)

As they did with civil rights and equality for women, the Church wants to slow things down. Bureaucracies are followers, not leaders. This was certainly the case with the LDS Church and racial equality. It was (and to some extent still is) the case with equality for women. In both of these cases the hard work of moral self-examination and change was done outside of the Church. The Church only adopted these changes when the cost of not doing so became intolerable.

Thus, it should not surprise us that the that the First Presidency's letter contains no words of reconciliation, no sympathy for the LDS families with gay sons or daughters, no compassion for those who followed the Church's now discontinued advice to enter into mixed-orientation marriages as therapy. The recent letter mentions no compromise measures or ways to mitigate the impact of this issue on the lives of church members. There's a siege mentality going on here, and consequently no room for generosity.

The saddest part of this is that the Church now seems to be more accepting of gay promiscuity than same-sex committed partnership. You don't see the Church attempting to criminalize gay promiscuity, just committed gay families. Again, the reason is simple: PR. Gay promiscuity is good PR for the Church. It proves the Church's point that homosexuality is sinful and damaging. Stable gay families who take their children to kindergarten are bad PR for the Church. They show that Church's position is a bigoted relic of a bygone era.

So we are left with the paradox that Church is promoting policies that would destabilize gay relationships and push people back to the gay demimonde of decades past. This affects not only gay people; it affects their LDS family members and friends and children. In essence, the Church is prioritizing its own interests above that of its people. This is a betrayal. The Church is acting as if it values itself, its absolute authority and its institutions above the welfare of its members. No sermonizing about the sanctity of marriage can wipe away this unpleasant fact. The members of the church, and not just the gay ones, have been betrayed.

As with the clerical abuse scandal of the Catholics, it is cold comfort that the LDS Church's actions are easy to understand. We are still left with a jolting, almost breathtaking sense of betrayal by a trusted institution.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A horror story for June

The LDS Church speaks of the immorality of same-sex love. Their arguments are either of an abstract, theological nature ("God is displeased"), self-directed ("You won't be happy") or xenophobic ("Your existence 'threatens the family'").

This video, on the other hand, shows immorality of a more concrete nature. This is immorality that directly harms a young, vulnerable person. It is the immorality of the LDS Church's own actions-- pushing a young man into medically unethical aversion therapy and providing religious justification for a young man's parents to disown him. If the young person in this film had taken his life, as he nearly did, his blood would have been on the LDS Church's hands.

I am sick to death of sanctimony when grotesque, flagrant abuse, as witnessed by this young man's testimony, is quietly shoved under the rug.

We must not be silent. If you are gay, come out to your friends and family. If you are a parent or relative of a gay person, come out to your extended family and community. If you are a straight person who sees this injustice for what it is, don't be silent the next time you hear bigoted remarks. You don't have to be an activist. Just being visible in our own circle is the best tool we have to put the kind of cruelty shown in this video to rest forever.

Update:This video clip is part of a television program that aired on MTV in 2004. The abuse described in the video took place at BYU in 1995. The young man interviewed in the film, Jayce Cox, is now a suicide prevention coordinator working for a public health department in Helena, MT. We wish him well.

Monday, June 23, 2008

At church

Tobi had a sports competition this weekend in Vancouver, BC, so I decided to tag along as a tourist. We stayed with a friend of ours who lives in one of those big glass buildings in downtown Vancouver.

On Sunday Tobi was off being sportif (eventually winning a bronze trophy) and my friend wanted to go his Anglican church, as he always does on Sundays. So I decided to go to church.

It's been many years since I have been to church, Anglican, Mormon or otherwise. In fact, I had never been to an Anglican (Episcopalian) service before. I was interested but slightly guarded in my feeling.

The service was held in a beautiful chapel with stained glass windows. It was 'tasteful' and somewhat traditional. The music was great. (The Anglicans have better hymns than the Mormons. Sorry, guys.)

Completely out of the blue I found tears rolling down my cheeks. This lasted through most of the service. At the moment of communion (sacrament), they made a point of inviting all to participate "no matter where you are in your journey." In other words, there were no conditions placed on my participation-- they didn't demand that I believe in their church or that I cast away the man I love in order to be 'worthy' of the sacrament. They just said "Come and worship with us, as you are." This little act of kindness made me just lose it. I felt 'the spirit' strongly as the priest blessed the host and wine and distributed it. Tears streamed down my face.

I don't mean to criticize the church of my youth, but this Anglican service provided quite a contrast. The nagging undercurrent of fear and disapproval that I always felt in my own church just wasn't there. In its place was a feeling of respectful worship that was open to all.

After the service I shook hands with the priest. I'm sure he had seen my efforts to wipe away the tears without anyone noticing. I told him that I was a refugee of conservative religion and that I felt a sense of brokenness. We talked briefly about my religious background. He offered to meet with me sometime. I didn't have time to take him up on his offer, but I am tempted next time I am in Vancouver to give him a call.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Inlaws and outlaws

Tobi and I watched a documentary on TV this week called Inlaws and Outlaws. It's a interwoven set of interviews with couples who have been together for a long time. Most of the couples are gay.

I liked the film because it did not sugarcoat the challenges of having a successful long-term relationship. Tobi and I paused the movie a number of times and discussed some of the issues it brought up. It was very thought-provoking. It was inspiring as well, since many of the couples had built very strong and loving relationships.

A trailer can be found here. I can really recommend this film.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Coming out documentary

I watched a good documentary on public television tonight called Anyone and Everyone. It focuses mostly on religious families with gay kids, including one (impressive) LDS family. I found the stories to be believable and very touching.

The film will be broadcast on public television stations around the US this month. See here for a schedule. Recommended, especially for families and friends.

(Another documentary is being recorded right now on my DVR.... It looks good, but I haven't seen it yet. It's called Inlaws and Outlaws. It tells the courtship stories of some gay and straight couples.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

June brides

This weekend Tobi and I took the train to Portland, Oregon. The occasion was the Portland Rose Festival, possibly the only summer festival gayer than gay pride. The rose parade was a perfectly preserved slice of 1950s Americana. (Rodeo queens! Marching bands! Elderly 'rosarians' in cream colored suits!)

Portland is a great city; I could easily imagine living there someday. It's friendly, clean and has great public transportation. I like it a lot. Tobi and I did some of the usual touristy things there, including visiting Portland's beautiful Japanese garden.

On Saturday night we happened to walk by a drag show and on a lark decided to go in.

Little did we realize that we had run across a Portland institution that has been going on for more than 40 years. And we also didn't realize at first that we were there on "straight night" when the theater is filled with young women out for bachelorette parties prior to getting married.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Tobi and I were just about the only men in the theater when the show started. (Isn't drag a gay thing?) The missing piece of information was that the drag show was to be followed by a male strip show. The women were mostly there for the strippers. Mystery solved.

I have to say, the enthusiasm of the brides-to-be and their friends was fun to watch. The crowd was extremely boisterous and giggly. The show itself was a slightly naughty Las Vegas-style revue with male performers dressed as glamorous women. Overall the show was quite 'gay' in sensibility. I thought the drag queens were almost tender in interacting with the audience, teasing them gently about getting married and about being straight. There was really a good connection between the performers and the girls in the audience. (My favorite performer was Poison Waters, a warm and funny and glamorous diva if there ever was one.)

About halfway through the show I had a small revelation: the theater was filled with women in their early and mid twenties watching over-the-top camp and loving it. All of a sudden I thought: These girls would have no trouble at all with legalizing gay marriage. They're on our side. It was one of those moments when you realize you've seen the future.

Even the strip show was wholesome, in a silly, raunchy kind of way. Tobi and I stayed on afterwards for part of it but left halfway through because it was getting late. (Yes, we needed to sleep more than watch 'firemen' take off their gear. Pathetic, I know.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Gin, libraries and me

This is my 100th post, so I thought a bit of meta-blogging might be appropriate.

Assertion: Gin is to public libraries as TV sitcoms are to blogging.

Can you say why? (Think about it for a minute.)

For the answer, check here. It's a lovely essay on the phenomenon of blogging.