The LDS Church's Unequal Treatment of Gay and Feminist Activists

While it's remarkable and encouraging that the LDS church is reaching out to the gay community, it's distressing and depressing that it has not made similar overtures to the feminist community.
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My first piece here at the Huffington Post listed some of the Mormon "pioneers" I would like to see march in the Pioneer Day Parade of my dreams. On that list were Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter and gay rights activist, and Troy Williams, writer, radio-producer and all-round activist and agitator. While the two men have not yet been asked to participate in a parade commemorating the arrival of the Latter-day Saints in the Great Salt Lake Valley, they and several other prominent activists in Utah's queer community were invited to be special guests at a Christmas concert last December in the LDS Church's conference center.

Williams handed his cell phone to another concert-goer, who obligingly snapped a picture of the group, the beautiful pipes of the building's magnificent organ in the background.

Pictured, left to right, are Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah; James Dabakis, co-founder of the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah; Michelle Turpin, also co-founder of the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah; Bruce Bastian, co-founder of WordPerfect; Black; Williams; and Trevor Southey, an artist who was formerly faculty at Brigham Young University.

Williams, who served a mission for the church in England, posted the photo on his Facebook page. In subsequent comments, he wrote:

We are (I hope) helping them to see the humanity of LGBT individuals (and in turn we also need to recognize the humanity of LDS members even when we fiercely disagree). We discussed the many ways their teachings and actions have damaged families. And we are exploring possible next steps. I really am extremely uncomfortable with Mormon theology, politics and the male bureaucracy. But that is all the more reason to walk right in, shake their hands and bare your big gay testimony. It's missionary work in reverse.

The photo soon made the rounds on gay blogs, where it aroused appreciation and gratitude (as well as some incredulity) at the Church's willingness to engage in discussion and outreach with the gay community, especially in the wake of the church's involvement with the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008 and Boyd K. Packer's homophobic remarks at the October 2010 General Conference.

I recently met with Williams and discussed the event with him. It was very much a step in the right direction, he said, and he had nothing but praise and admiration for the goodwill and integrity of the individuals he talked to before the concert.

But, he acknowledged, laying groundwork for cooperation and reconciliation is not the same as actually accomplishing the reconciliation. And we agreed that while it's remarkable and encouraging that the church is reaching out to the gay community, it's distressing and depressing that it has not made similar overtures to the feminist community.

Williams, who identified as feminist even before he came out of the closet as gay, advocates for full spectrum social justice, and argues that many social justice causes should be a greater priority for the queer community, noting, for instance, that "when feminists enjoy legislative victories, queers are elevated."

Mormon feminism is a complicated issue. The LDS church is one of the few branches of monotheism to believe in a female deity, though she's not discussed in Mormon theology because she's supposedly too "sacred" -- so sacred, in fact, that praying to her publicly or writing about her are grounds for excommunication. In the early days of the church, LDS women were not merely allowed but encouraged to perform blessings and healings. That encouragement is gone. The Relief Society, the church's organization for women, once enjoyed considerable autonomy, but is now thoroughly under the control of the male hierarchy.

Moreover, the church's thorough opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment is well documented -- and indeed, its involvement in that battle helped form its strategy for fighting gay marriage. Some of the most prominent excommunications in the past 20 years, including several of the "September Six," have involved feminist scholars, chastised for writing about Mormon women's lives and their ideas about their own spirituality.

In October 2010, I attended the Mormon Women's Forum Counterpoint Conference at the University of Utah. A speaker there told the audience that she had it on excellent authority (the provenance of which she was not able to divulge, unfortunately) that 80 percent of the young women in the church are leaving it, frustrated by the church's restrictive gender roles, as well as doctrines and practices that speak neither to the challenges they face as women nor their desires and goals.

Williams and I hoped that at a Christmas concert in the near future, the church will invite some of the feminists it has excommunicated -- Janice Allred, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks, Paul and Margaret Toscano -- and, for good measure, Roseanne Barr as well, a Salt Lake City native whose career has involved critiquing Utah's gender roles. (I would also suggest that the church invite the president of the Utah Chapter of the National Organization for Women, but from what I can tell, no such chapter exists.)

It will probably be a long time before any such invitation is made. But at some point, the LDS church needs to listen to its feminist critics because they might be the only ones who can help it understand why young women by and large find the church so inhospitable and dispensable.

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