My Life Among the (Somewhat Gay-Friendly) Mormons

A recent article in Mother Jones offers an interesting take on the reason for the recent, heady success in the marriage equality movement. The Mormons, apparently, have given up the fight.

Well, some explanation is surely needed for the startling turnaround. It's hard to believe that things would have flipped so quickly without some kind of, um, divine intervention -- or maybe non-intervention. Consider that, just over six months ago, only six states recognized full marriage equality. But on Election Day 2012, voters handed first-ever wins to the movement in Washington, Maryland, and Maine. And now state legislators in our two teensiest states -- Rhode Island and Delaware -- have flipped from civil unions to full equality, within a week of each other, and less than two years after passing their civil unions laws. Minnesota is about ready to follow suit. (Here's a quick summary.) So while it took over nine years to go from one state to six, we're just about to double that.

We can't credit the Mormons' alleged disappearance from the fray for all of this, of course. The movement appears to have a hit a vital acceleration point, probably (but who knows, really?) owing to a combination of media saturation, personal familiarity and a buoying sense of inevitability.

But the Mormons were organized, rich, and motivated during the successful Prop 8 campaign, and now they're...gone, it seems. Funding, of course, makes a huge difference. So does the kind of organizational skill the Mormons excel at, as evidenced by their missionaries deployed around the world, and their consequently burgeoning numbers. The article points out that many LDS members didn't like the church's involvement in this issue. This is where my life among the gay-friendly Mormon comes in.

During my distressingly long career in the legal academy, I've had several Mormon colleagues. In general, I've assiduously avoided discussing LGBT issues with them. I mean, why? So imagine the squirmy feeling that crawled across and then into my body a couple of years ago when forced into such a conversation. I was in a van with one such colleague on the way from the New Orleans airport to downtown, for a conference of law professors. I might have made the mistake of answering his question about the subject of my presentation. (Answer: "gay, gay, gay...." Or at least that's what I'm guessing he heard.) Then he said something like: "I guess we've never talked about this."

"This"? Uh, oh.

And it didn't start well. He said something politely vague about the position of the LDS on same-sex conduct and relationships, and it seemed clear he agreed with that stance. I was looking for an emergency exit.

But then he knocked me back.

Some "of us," he said, were uncomfortable with the Church's involvement in Prop 8. After all, he added, Mormons should be more wary than most about the government's involvement in religious matters. He was alluding to the way the U.S. had strong-armed the Mormons into abandoning polygamy, of course. Recall that Utah's application for statehood was denied until the Church (which for this purpose we can treat as co-extensive with Utah) renounced the practice. He then suggested that I had the responsibility to think critically about not just whether same-sex couples should be able to marry, but about whether other restrictions -- notably including the ban on plural marriages -- was justified. (I'm still evolving on the issue.)

More recently, I was trapped in another confined space with a Mormon! In his office, a different LDS faculty member went out of his way to express eloquent thoughts about the value of us, the gays. Again, I didn't want this conversation. He brought up what he had to say to his (many!) kids about LGBT issues. I could see he was about to say something sympathetic, so I jumped in with "so you're teaching them tolerance....?" I was hoping to spit that out and then stride briskly away.

"No," he replied. And here I'm paraphrasing what he said next: "We're teaching them that gay and lesbian people are human beings with value and who should be treasured like everyone else." I know, the cynics are reading this and saying: "Sigh. It's a law professor's version of 'love the sinner, hate the sin.'" But it sure didn't sound qualified in that way to me -- whatever his moral view on same-sex intimacy. There was a certain emotional intimacy in the way he spoke that can't be dismissed with a catch phrase.

So I'm not completely surprised that LDS has withdrawn from the fight, leaving only the risibly inept and now underfunded National Organization for Marriage to carry the flickering torch for "traditional" marriage. (It was probably over for them when they made this video, the parodies of which are entirely superfluous.)

What's that you say? I'm extrapolating from two Mormons to an entire church? Guilty, but only to an extent. Recall that my colleague in the van claimed to be speaking for many others. If he's right, I'm grateful. Sometimes, it's enough to get out of the way.

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