Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Blink


Before I acquired so many children and dogs, I used to collect antique maps and prints. Above the stereo cabinet in our living room is a poster with the slogan “Strengthen Liberty.” It commemorates my time in Chicago as a gay rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. 


The poster was actually printed for the Boy Scouts of America’s fortieth anniversary in 1950, the year that also marked the ACLU’s thirtieth anniversary. BSA and the ACLU share a comically similar taste in patriotic graphic design.

 

I keep this picture of the Statue of Liberty, an American flag, a Boy Scout, a Cub Scout, and an Explorer to remind me that some things change, and some things don’t. Because some people won’t change.


John Hammell and Keith Richardson in Windy City Times

When I arrived in Chicago in 1995, I inherited an appeal defending the ACLU’s victory in an employment discrimination case against the local Boy Scout council. John Hammell, the founder of the ACLU of Illinois LGBT Right Project, had filed suit on behalf of Keith Richardson under the City of Chicago’s antidiscrimination ordinance. John and Keith were both Eagle Scouts. (I think I made it to Second Class Scout.) After the Chicago Area Council rejected Keith’s employment application because he was an “avowed homosexual,” the Chicago Human Rights Commission determined the Boy Scouts violated Chicago’s ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

 

Sexual orientation has nothing to do with Scouting. Nevertheless, decades ago the Boy Scouts adopted an internal anti-gay policy excluding LGBT youth and adult leaders. BSA acted at the behest of some of its major organizational partners, including the Mormon church. For many decades, the Mormons sponsored more Boy Scout troops, Cub packs, and Explorer posts than any other organization. Scouting was the churchs official youth program for boys when I was growing up.

 

The First Amendment guarantees the right of “expressive association,” which means a private organization like the Boy Scouts can exclude members whose statements or presence would prevent the organization communicating its chosen message. Until advocates like the ACLU and Lambda Legal came along, most people didn’t know about BSA’s exclusionary policy. After critics began speaking out and LGBT rights lawyers began challenging the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy, BSA started identifying homophobia as one of its core values – preaching that it’s impossible for a gay individual to live up to the Scout Oath’s promise to be “morally straight.” In June 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in Dale v. Boy Scouts of America that the First Amendment protected BSA’s exclusionary policy from the application of local anti-discrimination laws. 

 

In hindsight, the Boy Scouts of America won the battle but lost the war. A year after the Dale decision, Lambda Legal’s Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said “I’m disappointed that we lost the court ruling, but never have we lost so successfully. It must be driving the Boy Scouts crazy - to keep thinking this is going to die down, and yet it doesnt stop.” Gregg Shields, the Boy Scouts’ longtime spokesman, told another reporter that despite winning in the Supreme Court, it felt like BSA lost.


The Advocate (March 17, 1998)


When I was working on the Richardson v. Chicago Area Council appeal, I could see the writing on the wall. The Boy Scouts were absolutely committed to their anti-gay policy. Eventually the mounting evidence of BSA’s homophobic statements and conduct would demonstrate to any court that the phrase “morally straight” should be taken literally as one of the organization’s core expressive values. At some point the excruciatingly principled folks at the ACLU would have to start defending BSA, just like we would with the First Amendment rights of Ku Klux Klan marchers or Nazis parading through Skokie.

 

It was time to redirect pressure toward the partners and sponsors of Scouting whose own values embraced LGBT inclusion. Because the Richardson case had generated a full trial record, I inherited a mountain of documents showing how Scouting works. The Girl Scouts are like Starbucks – GSA owns and operates each individual Girl Scout troop. In contrast, the Boys Scouts are organized like McDonald’s – BSA and its regional councils franchise or “charter” local organizations to operate each youth group in accordance with BSA’s policies. The charter approach greatly expands BSA’s reach.

 

The Richardson case file included a printout identifying the organization holding the charter for each of the 400+ Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout packs, and Explorer posts chartered by the Chicago Area Council. Many of the chartered organizations were schools and other governmental entities, as well as various private groups and churches. For example, a substantial share of Explorer posts in Chicago and nationwide were operated by government agencies.

 

So I filed a lawsuit against the Chicago School District, instead of against the Boy Scouts. I argued that the government cannot exclude youth or adults from taxpayer-funded programs just because someone signed a homophobic charter agreement with a discriminatory private organization. Our plaintiffs were a Methodist minister and Kevin Poloncarz, a gay law student. After a few months of litigation, the school district agreed to voluntarily end its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory programs. 

 

The next week BSA announced it was opening its Explorer posts nationwide to every youth, regardless of sexual orientation or religious belief. That earnest teenaged Explorer saluting in my vintage poster?  As of 1998, it was ok for him to be gay.


Every religion has its little quirks. Transubstantiation. Lutheran hotdish. Yarmulkes. Usually these peculiar beliefs do not interfere with adherents’ ability to participate in ordinary society. Since the LDS Church’s founding in 1830, Mormon doctrine has dramatically diverged from the American mainstream only three times. 

In the nineteenth century the divisive issue was polygamy. Joseph Smith, who claimed to see God and later produced the Book of Mormon, was the first Mormon Prophet. Brother Joseph was a charismatic, visionary, strange man. Before an Illinois mob shot and killed him, Joseph told his closest confidants God had revealed that the highest degree of heaven required a man to marry multiple wives. (It’s not clear whether Joseph ever told his wife Emma this, even after Joseph secretly married the nanny and several other attractive young women.) 

Joseph Smith led the church for its action-packed first fourteen years. His death in 1844 amid continuing attacks by their neighbors left the Mormons in disarray. Characteristically ambiguous, Joseph sent mixed messages about who would succeed him, and the saints split into various factions. The largest group followed Brigham Young, the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 

 

Brother Brigham was God’s dude on Earth for the next thirty-three years. He was a very different kind of leader compared to Joseph Smith, yet exactly the shepherd his demoralized flock needed. Young took Joseph Smith’s wild visions and translated them for a practical world. He held his grieving people together, then led them across the prairies and mountains all the way out of the country. After the United States stole Utah and the rest of the West from Mexico three years later, Brother Brigham pragmatically became territorial governor. History recognizes Brigham Young as an American Moses. 

As with many other aspects of Joseph Smith’s creative theology, Brother Brigham organized and systemized polygamy. Brigham himself married fifty-five wives. Despite my Mormon pioneer heritage, I only have one polygamous ancestor. Leishmans are bad at multi-tasking, and as marginal family farmers they couldn’t meet the strict financial requirements for polygamy anyway. 

By the time Brigham Young died in 1877, the United States was targeting polygamy for extermination. Within a few years Church leaders were in hiding or in prison. The federal government seized the Salt Lake Temple and other church property. Families like the Romneys crossed the border to found Mormon colonies in Mexico and Canada.  

In 1890, Brigham’s successor Wilford Woodruff announced “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice.” He issued a Manifesto that abandoned and denounced the previously eternal principle of plural marriage. Nowadays you’ll only see polygamists on HBO in Big Love, or in Northern Arizona compounds where folks in quaint outfits still believe everything Joseph Smith and Brigham Young said.   

Seventy-five years after the Utah branch of Mormons abandoned polygamy, the church found itself in conflict with evolving American values regarding race.

During the nineteenth century, the Mormons picked up a lot of racist myths and folk theology. As a result, no one with a “drop” of African blood could be ordained to the priesthood, or participate in the Church’s most sacred rites. Like so many other Americans since 1619, one generation of Mormon leaders after another were flawed human beings who embraced and perpetuated structural racism. 


The church’s anti-Black doctrine became increasingly untenable in the 1960s and 70s. Missionaries found it heartbreaking to turn away enthusiastic converts in multiracial nations like Brazil. College athletes refused to play against teams from BYU. Ordinary Mormons found the dissonance between their Christian values and the Brethren’s out-of-touch dogma unbearable.

 

One of the advantages of a rigidly hierarchical organizational structure is that a single person has the power to end centuries of evil. In 1978, when I was a Boy Scout, the Mormon Prophet was Spencer W. KimballAfter “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” President Kimball “received a revelation extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.”

Like his predecessor President Woodruff, Spencer W. Kimball chose people over dogma. Because of his humility and vision, Mormons and their church finally began the long process of emerging from a century and a half of entrenched systemic racism.

Other supposed Christians were even slower than the Mormons on race. Conservative evangelical Bob Jones founded his eponymous university in 1927. His grandson Bob Jones III was president of the university in 1971 when it admitted its first Black students. Nevertheless, the Joneses and the university were convinced God had forbidden miscegenation, and therefore retained their rules against interracial dating and marriage.

In 1976, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status on the grounds that it practiced racial discrimination. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled against the university in an 8-1 decision. (Justice Rehnquist dissented. Typical.)

Last week in “Move On,” I wrote about the work of REAP – the Religious Exemption Accountability Project – which was founded last year by my former law firm colleague Paul Southwick. REAP seeks to apply the logic of IRS v. Bob Jones University to private colleges that accept government funding, yet insist on discriminating against LGBT students. Religious organizations should be free to practice their discriminatory beliefs – but not if they want to accept the benefits of being part of a civilized community.  

Bob Jones III abandoned the university’s interracial dating ban in 2000, after a campus visit by presidential candidate George W. Bush provoked intense media scrutiny. In 2008, Bob Jones University finally apologized for having allowed “institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.”

With the Mormon church, the good news is that interracial couples have been permitted to marry in the temple since 1978. The bad news is that the church still hasn’t apologized for its racist past – just like the Brethren have yet to offer a word of apology for their decades of abusively homophobic words and deeds. 

Rachel Maddow on the Bob Jones University apology

In the decades after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dale, the Boy Scouts faced increased internal and external opposition to its anti-gay policy. Membership and donations plummeted. As CBS News reported

In 2013, after heated internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. Several denominations that collectively sponsor close to half of all Scout units – including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church and the Southern Baptist Convention – have been apprehensive about ending the ban on gay adults.

Just two years later, the Boy Scouts of America announced a compromise that “ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders, while allowing church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.”

But the Mormons were already on their way out the door.


In 1913, the Mormon church became the Boy Scouts’ very first sponsor in the United States. For the next century every Mormon congregation chartered at least one Boy Scout troop, and every Mormon boy was automatically enrolled in Scouting. Even me. The immediate past president of the church, Thomas S. Monson, was a member of BSA’s National Executive Board, and a recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, BSA’s highest honor.

President Monson died on January 2, 2018. His successor, Russell M. Nelson, is a 97-year old former heart surgeon. President Nelson has focused his tenure on getting everyone to stop using the word Mormon. (The formal name of the church is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been rebranded.

One of the most interesting items I found in the Richardson v. Chicago Area Council files twenty-five years ago was a transcript from the deposition of Jack H. Gosalind, then the Mormon church’s Young Men’s President. Elder Gosalind testified that the church’s two top ecclesiastical bodies – the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles – had each adopted written policies stating that if BSA ever backed away from its anti-gay policy, the church would end its relationship with Scouting. 

Four months after President Monson’s death, the Mormon church announced that it was following through with the Brethrens threat, and terminated its 105-year relationship with the Boy Scouts.


Last week in “Move On” I responded to a recent speech by Mormon apostle Jeffrey Holland, who used to be the president of Brigham Young University and my English professor. Afterwards several friends asked me how long I thought it would take before the church backed away from its anti-gay message and dogma. 

My prediction:  decades. In the meantime, thousands of LGBT Mormons and their families will continue to suffer, and a generation of would-be saints will drift away from the Brethren’s perplexing and unchristian fundamentalism.

The panel that made me weep the first time I saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt 

Here are three reasons for my pessimism. 

First, as Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The Brethren have history of taking their marbles home to Salt Lake to sulk. At the conclusion of his recent anti-gay speech to BYU’s assembled faculty and staff, Elder Holland issued a threat that echoed Elder Gosalind’s deposition testimony in the Boy Scout case:

We could mimic every other university in the world until we got a bloody nose in the effort and the world would still say, “BYU who?” No, we must have the will to stand alone, if necessary, being a university second to none in its role primarily as an undergraduate teaching institution that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the process. If at a future time that mission means forgoing some professional affiliations and certifications, then so be it. There may come a day when the price we are asked to pay for such association is simply too high, too inconsistent with who we are. No one wants it to come to that, but, if it does, we will pursue our own destiny….

I pity BYU students and graduates as they try to explain why they went to an unaccredited Bible school. Fortunately, like Elder Holland I have a degree from Yale to compensate for my B.A. from Bob Jones University of the West.

Second, the Mormon church is a rigid gerontocracy. Ever since Brigham Young seized the martyred Joseph Smith’s mantle, the church presidency has automatically gone to the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The current church president fills each apostolic vacancy with a thoroughly vetted disciple. Nowadays no one with the prophetic spark that inspired Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Spencer W. Kimball can sneak into the Quorum.

President Nelson just turned 97. His presumed successor, legalistic bigot Dallin Oaks, is 88. Next in line is Russell Ballard, age 92, followed by Jeffrey Holland. Although Elder Holland is a relative youth at age 80, his recent speech at BYU demonstrated his homophobic bona fides. As with the Trump-skewed Supreme Court, religious political extremists will retain control over Mormon doctrine for the foreseeable future.


Third, Mormon hostility to LGBT dignity and equality is inescapably tied to the church’s doctrine about gender roles, including their extraordinary and inspiring belief that we have both a Father and a Mother in Heaven.

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a “Proclamation on the Family” in 1995, at the height of hysteria over the mere possibility of marriage equality. Many states rushed to pass “Defense of Marriage Acts.” You will not be surprised to learn Utah’s mostly Mormon legislators won the race to pass the first DOMA in the country.

 

The Proclamation insists on a very narrow vision of what a family looks like:

 

Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.… By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children…. God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

 

Apparently our Mother in Heaven is the kind of wife who sits in silence while staring up adoringly at her husband. Like the church’s all-male gerontocracy itself, the language of the Proclamation on the Family comes directly from the era of Ozzie and Harriet. Nevertheless, I barely notice the Proclamation’s pervasive sexism. Instead, I’m inevitably drawn to these words:

 

Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

 

As I wrote in “Our Family,” the Mormon authors and readers of the “Proclamation on the Family” didn't realize “gender” is not the same thing as “sex.” These are not Women’s Studies majors. Instead, they probably thought “gender” is just a euphemism for “sex” that doesn’t sound so, well, sexy.

In the New Testament, Jesus says “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” Matt. 22:30. Where other Christians have stuck with this bright-line rule for 2000 years, I’ve always appreciated the Mormons’ openness to creative theology. Nevertheless, as applied to the reality of LGBT experience, Mormon doctrine is on a collision course with itself.

I’m a humble English Major, not a theologian. I’m not here to fine-tune Mormon eschatology, just to point out the lessons of history. The current Mormon doctrine privileging eternal male-female couples only goes back as far as President Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto. Before that, Mormons believed God only loved polygamists. Before that, Mormons who wanted to get into Heaven were “sealed” in the temple to a righteous man. Surely God can also find room at the heavenly family reunion for His and Her lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children.


For many of us, the most offensive and abusive aspect of the Mormons’ anti-gay campaign has been their insistence that LGBT people do not even exist – we’re just weak sinners who struggle to overcome what both Mormons and their allies in the discredited field of “reparative therapy” insist on calling “same-sex attraction.” For example, this quote comes from an influential 1996 sermon by Dallin Oaks, currently President of the Quorum of the Twelve and heir to the Prophet’s mantle: 

 

We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. 

 

A quarter century later, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Elder Holland’s recent anti-gay speech to the BYU faculty is his inability to say words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender.” Instead, he referred to “those who live with this same-sex challenge.” Elder Holland’s homophobic dog-whistle is painfully familiar to survivors of the Mormons traumatizing “pray-the-gay-away” preaching. 


Galileo before the Inquisition

One tragic irony of the Mormon’s multi-decade campaign against LGBT dignity and equality:  the Brethren were halfway to the truth all along. Here’s the next sentence from Dallin Oak’s 1996 sermon:

It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice. 

You can find similar statements from Spencer W. Kimball, Boyd K. Packer, and every other Mormon priesthood leader who has offered his non-expert opinion about the scientific basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2021, the rest of us recognize these traits are essential and immutable aspects of individual identity.

As Galileo pointed out four centuries ago, sometimes the way to see the truth is to stop thinking you’re the center of the universe. It took 359 years before the Vatican hierarchy finally admitted Galileo was right and they were wrong. Hopefully it won’t take that long for someone in Salt Lake to embrace God’s love and recognize the truth about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. 

On the left: Copernicus and Galileo's heliocentric model of the solar system
On the right: what it takes to live a lie

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Dr. Heuristic, Foot Whisperer


Fall has arrived, and the kids are home and back in school. After a four-year slog, last month I finally won the appeal in my lawsuit against the sleazy attorney-investigators who conspired with my former employers to deprive me of my civil rights and to destroy my health and career. Days are filled with hope, work, and productive dog walks. 

 

As I wrote last year in “First Fall Walk,” I depend on my time on the trails with Bear to get a lot of my thinking and writing done. Buster used to be the weakest link. Unfortunately, now the weakest link is my right foot.

Years ago my Seattle physician referred me to a podiatrist who prescribed custom orthotic inserts for my shoes. By the time I acquired the perfect Comfort Animal and began walking at least ten miles a day, my ancient shoe inserts were in tatters. My feet always hurt. So last summer my doctor gave me a referral to foot specialist.

 

Sadly, one of the unfortunate consequences of longterm unemployment and disability is having terrible health insurance. No podiatrist within a hundred miles will take me as a patient. I tried salvaging the remaining scraps of shoe insert with duct tape, but that didn’t work. Plus my shoes didn’t fit. By this summer I couldn’t walk any further than Buster without excruciating heel pain. 


My Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic keeps saving my life. When we met he immediately figured out my weird symptoms added up to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He recognized my underlying problem with codependency and sent me to Codependents Anonymous. He’s much nicer than Dr. House, the abrasive but insightful head of TV’s fictional “Department of Diagnostic Medicine.” Dr. Heuristic doesn’t laugh at my jokes about suing people for malpractice, but doctors never do. 

A “heuristic” is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. Over the last several years, I’ve figured out my doctor’s heuristic for me. Whenever I show up with some new complaint, he will generally select from a repertoire of three standard responses:

 

1.       Its just another typical stress response/PTSD symptom.

 

2.       It’s a common side effect of my medications.

 

3.    It’s what happens when we get older. (He calls these “barnacles.”)

 

Dr. Heuristic might as well prepare three tape recordings. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by his visible excitement several years ago when he got to step outside of the box and diagnose me with keyboard-induced Tennis Elbow. Together with Dr. Practical and her colleagues at the Urgent Care Clinic, Dr. Heuristic has guided me through a series of Biblical plagues, including boils, MRSA, tinnitus, and the time a bunch of vicious Canadian drag queens caused me to lose consciousness and fall down the stairs.


At our annual check-in last month, I told Dr. Heuristic about my inability to find a foot doctor willing to take my terrible insurance. Rather than continue my hopeless quest, he told me to go to Fairhaven Runners & Walkers and drop his name. I’m happy to announce I finally have shoes that fit correctly, as well as the appropriate Superfeet inserts, which are manufactured right here in Whatcom County.

 

During my physical I also described the chronic pain in my right foot. I could tell Dr. Heuristic was ready to interrupt as soon as I reported my heel pain was always worst first thing in the morning. I have “plantar fasciitis,” i.e., inflammation of the plantar fascia, which is the tendon on the bottom of your feet connecting your heel and toes. Dr. Heuristic printed out instructions for simple exercises and told me to apply ice as needed.  



I conscientiously did all the foot exercises on Dr. Heuristic’s instruction sheet several times a day. I iced my heel. I put new inserts in my slippers. (My Canadian sister-in-law’s mother said the worst part of having plantar fasciitis was her doctor made her wear shoes in the house for the first time in her life.) Coincidentally, Bear had recently injured his paws jumping out of a car window, so we both took a break from walks and rested our feet. 

 

After a few weeks of responsible footcare I could keep up with Buster on the trail. Bear and I could even make the four-mile loop down to the Boardwalk and back. Beyond that the pain was still too much. At this rate I’d never be able to finish all my briefs, blog posts, and book chapters.

 

Then as I wandered through the foot section of the drugstore I saw a box labeled “Foot Support for Plantar Fasciitis.” The exercise instruction sheet had mentioned something like “Your doctor may prescribe overnight foot splints.” I’d seen similar references in my online research. A night brace keeps the tendon stretched.

 

I replayed Dr. Heuristic’s diagnosis in my mind:  “You have plantar fasciitis. Some people benefit from a night brace….” Then I heard his unstated “but your insurance probably won’t pay for it.” The box cost $35.

 

The next day felt like a miracle. Bear and I walked for seven miles. After five miles my other heel started to ache, but only a little. Instead of the piercing heel pain of plantar fasciitis, I’m back to the normal background blisters, aches, and pains of someone who walks a lot and can’t afford to replace his shoes often enough. Bear and I can live with that for now.



After dropping off the kids for their first day back at in-person school, last week the dogs and I stopped in Fairhaven for our short morning walk. (Buster inevitably poops out after a couple of miles, but Bear and I still try to include him once a day.) Near the train station we passed a runner, a lean guy about my age. He stopped, spun around, and said, “Roger, right?”

 

He looked vaguely familiar, but my PTSD-addled brain couldn’t make the connection. I stared. Then I remembered. One of my original lawyer colleagues in Seattle had the good sense to find a legal job in Bellingham long ago. Amy’s husband Gib is a physician at PeaceHealth Medical Group. When we moved here six years ago, I asked Amy if Gib could suggest a new doctor who would be a good fit for me. That’s how I met Dr. Heuristic, who quickly diagnosed me with PTSD and codependency, and has managed my recovery ever since. 

 

I stammered “You’re my doctor’s partner.”

 

Gib laughed, and said “That’s not how I think of myself.”

 

Nevertheless, that’s how I will always think of Gib. Because I’m grateful for the blessing of healthcare providers who listen. 

 


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Move On


When I was a young litigation associate at my first law firm in Seattle, I came out of the closet and embarked on a lifetime of adventure as an advocate for LGBT dignity and equality. Eventually I quit my day job to spend five years with the ACLU of Illinois as the Director of the LGBT Rights/AIDS & Civil Liberty Project. I continued my advocacy pro bono when I returned to private practice back home in the Pacific Northwest, where I was the ACLU’s co-counsel in Washington’s marriage equality litigation, and argued other important civil rights cases in the Washington and Alaska Supreme Courts. 

 

In 2014, I attended Lavender Law, the annual conference of LGBT attorneys, not as an activist speaker but rather as a legal recruiter at what had become a mammoth job fair. My interview partner was a young gay litigation associate from our firm’s Portland office, Paul Carlos Southwick. Like me, Paul endured ecclesiastical abuse growing up in a fundamentalist church and going to a homophobic religious college.

 

I’ve attended Lavender Law numerous times over the years, but 2014 in New York is the only keynote session I vividly remember. We had recently won stunning marriage equality victories in the courts and before voters in multiple states, including Washington, and successfully challenged the odious federal “Defense of Marriage of Act.” The plenary panels topic was “What Next?,” and their answer was clear:  Queer Youth. LGBT kids are coming out younger than ever, at an average age of thirteen. As one speaker put it, “We’ve made it possible for them to come out, but we haven’t made it safe.” Each speaker challenged us to return to our communities and work both individually and systemically on behalf of the disproportionately at-risk queer youth in schools, homeless shelters, foster care, and the juvenile justice and mental health systems.

 

In 2020, Paul Southwick left private practice to become a full-time LGBT advocate. Paul founded REAP – the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a program sponsored by the nonprofit Soulforce. REAP is currently litigating a nationwide class action that challenges federal rules permitting institutions of higher learning to accept federal funds without complying with the laws prohibiting discrimination that must be followed by every other accredited educational institution. Three of REAP’s plaintiff class representatives are from Brigham Young University, my alma mater.



Several years ago I wrote about the challenge of explaining BYU to normal people. Brigham Young University is the Mormon church’s flagship educational institution, and the largest private university in the United States. The Y attracts talented faculty and students with top credentials from around the world. BYU offers excellent programs in many areas, including a respected law school. It looks just like a real university, except with creepily immaculate landscaping. (I once saw a groundskeeper climb a tree to vacuum leaves before they could fall.) But the university’s actual mission is to facilitate youthful heterosexual marriages within the faith. BYU helps God join together each generation of recently returned Mormon missionaries with their blushing virgin brides. 

 

BYU was in the news last week because its former president Jeffrey Holland, now the fourth-ranking official in the Mormon church, delivered a homophobic and self-pitying speech to the University’s assembled faculty and staff. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, “On the same day that Brigham Young University announced the creation of an ‘Office of Belonging’ to combat ‘prejudice of any kind, including that based on race and sexual orientation,’ Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland sharply criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage. He also questioned why a BYU valedictorian would choose his 2019 commencement address to come out as gay.” [In hindsight I wish I had enough insight and courage to come out during my own BYU valedictory address in 1986.]

 

Elder Holland told BYU’s faculty and staff they should be taking up their “muskets” to defend the Church, especially “the doctrine of the family and marriage as the union of a man and a woman” as applied to the purely secular institution of legal marriage. According to Elder Holland, BYU professors who instead speak out on behalf of their LGBT students are attacking the Mormon church from within with “friendly fire — and from time to time the church, its leaders and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly — wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means.” 


Elder Holland urged BYU’s faculty and staff to “stay in harmony with the Lord’s anointed,” rather than questioning the Mormon hierarchy’s pronouncements about human sexuality. He quoted an earlier speech at BYU by the senior Apostle, Dallin Oaks, who said “I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning,” especially “defending marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”




Violence and violent language directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals are nothing new for BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 

Other than the Brethren in Salt Lake City, there are no paid clergy among the Mormons. Instead, every worthy male member is eligible to hold the priesthood and to participate in voluntary church leadership. I was ordained a deacon in 1976 when I turned twelve years old. Twice a year the men all gather for a Priesthood General Conference, beamed by satellite from the Tabernacle. I attended for the first time in October 1976, just a few weeks after my family moved from Vancouver to a small town in Utah. It was a memorable session.

 

Apostle Boyd K. Packer delivered a notorious address about the Law of Chastity. The name of the sermon was “To Young Men Only,” although it’s generally referred to as the “little factory” speech because of Elder Packer’s extended metaphor about the risks of masturbation revving up hormone production. Like every other church spokesman then and now, Elder Packer recklessly dismissed the reality of sexual orientation as “a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind.” One horrifying passage stood out:

 

It was intended that we use this power only with our partner in marriage. I repeat, very plainly, physical mischief with another man is forbidden. It is forbidden by the Lord. There are some men who entice young men to join them in these immoral acts. If you are ever approached to participate in anything like that, it is time to vigorously resist.

While I was in a mission on one occasion, a missionary said he had something to confess. I was very worried because he just could not get himself to tell me what he had done.

After patient encouragement he finally blurted out, “I hit my companion.”

“Oh, is that all,” I said in great relief.

“But I floored him,” he said.

After learning a little more, my response was “Well, thanks. Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way.”

I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself.

 

Elder Packer’s message was so important the church distributed it in pamphlet form for the next forty years – only to boys, of course. These words terrorized generations of young Mormon men, especially the queer ones. 


The church finally stopped printing the To Young Men Only pamphlet in 2016. The transcript of Elder Packer’s original sermon was silently scrubbed from the church’s official General Conference archive in July 2020, but his harmful message can still be found online. More importantly, it lives on in the words and deeds of today’s Mormon leaders.

 

1981 Kimball Scholar finalists at BYU. Can you believe only John, Bill, and I turned out to be gay?

I first met Jeffrey Holland in January 1981, when he was in his first year as BYU president. I was visiting campus as a finalist for BYU’s prestigious Spencer W. Kimball Scholarship. Mormon youth from around the world apply for the university’s top honor, named for the current president of the church. BYU flew the finalists to Utah for an intense long weekend of competitive bonding before they selected twelve winners and two alternates. (The girl finalists had their turn the following week – God forbid the sexes should intermingle before marriage.) Being chosen as a Spencer W. Kimball Scholar remains one of the great honors of my life.


President Kimball served as the Mormon Prophet from 1973 until his death in November 1985. He bore a strong resemblance to his contemporary Yoda – short and ancient, with a croaking voice that could move mountains. He was one of the most godly individuals Ive ever encountered.  

 

In the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, Elder Price’s big number is “I Believe.” The song is a catalogue of accurate yet outlandish-sounding tenets of the Mormon faith – such as “I believe … that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.” 

 

That’s President Kimball’s legacy. During the nineteenth century, the Mormons picked up a lot of racist myths and folk theology. As a result, no one with a “drop” of African blood could be ordained to the priesthood, or participate in the Church’s most sacred rites. After this purportedly essential doctrine became increasingly untenable in the 1960s and 70s, President Kimball was the one who finally had the vision to open the temple doors to everyone, regardless of race.


Spencer W. Kimball (1895 - 1985)


One of the great tragedies of my life is that my personal hero was also one of my first abusers. President Kimball single-handedly did more damage to me and countless other LGBT Mormons than anyone or anything before the church's shameful role in the Prop 8 campaign. As Bryce Cook wrote in his comprehensive history of the divide between the Mormons and the gays:

 

Spencer W. Kimball’s popular book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, first published in 1969, devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality, entitled “Crime Against Nature.” As one LDS historian explained, “[This chapter] is the earliest and most comprehensive treatment on homosexuality by an apostle, and the foundation from which Mormon thought, policy and political action on homosexuality grew for the past 45 years.” 

 

Kimball described homosexuality and homosexuals using terms such as, “ugly,” “repugnant,” “ever-deepening degeneracy,” “evil,” “pervert,” deviant,” and “weaklings.” He taught that it was a spiritual disease that could be “cured,” and to those who felt otherwise, he responded: “How can you say the door cannot be opened until your knuckles are bloody, till your head is bruised, till your muscles are sore? It can be done.” 

 

This “curable-disease” mindset – based on obsolete psychological thought from the 1950s and 1960s – was embraced by Kimball and other church leaders because it aligned with their spiritual views of homosexuality. They believed that homosexuality was a psychological or spiritual malady that could be cured through intense repentance, self-mastery and even marriage to the opposite sex. This belief informed the church’s ecclesiastical approach and training of leaders, as well as Mormon mental-health therapists, for years to come – and it was probably the most psychologically and spiritually damaging of all the church’s teachings on homosexuality. 

 

I read The Miracle of Forgiveness multiple times when I was a teenager. I carried the book around for years, before finally throwing it out when the kids and I moved into our current house. Nevertheless, I don’t remember a word of what President Kimball said about gay people, in his book or anywhere else.

 

I had to have known. But I couldn’t associate the man I loved and admired with this ignorant and hateful message. So I repressed or disassociated my memories of the Prophet as homophobe. No doubt that made the experience all the more traumatic.



Unlike the Mormons’ ban on ordaining blacks, finally lifted in 1978, the Mormon church’s anti-LGBT bias is no relic of the past. I’m living proof. Mormon church leaders not only caused my original trauma three decades ago, but they also helped trigger the strange new PTSD symptoms that disabled me and ended my legal career five years ago.

 

In November 2015, just as I was struggling to understand my body’s excruciating reaction to a toxic work environment, news reports emerged of the Mormon church’s vindictive response to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings. Mormons dont believe in infant baptism. Instead, they place the “age of accountability” at eight years old. Getting baptized is a big deal for any Mormon child. Nevertheless, the church issued a policy denying baptism to all children of married gay couples. Just the legally married ones – not gay single dads or couples living in sin, as we used to call cohabitation.

 

In a Washington Post op-ed commentary about the new Mormon policy, my longtime civil rights colleague and former Utah neighbor Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called it “repugnant and deeply stigmatizing.” Like Kate, I thought I had made my peace with the Mormons long ago. Nevertheless, family and friends remarked at my over-the-top reaction when news broke about the church’s new baptism policy. Even after deleting all the original ranting, my own PTSD-fueled Facebook response at the time was pretty damning:

 

The Gospel of Matthew describes an occasion when Jesus’ disciples, like paparazzi-weary security guards, attempted to block a group of little children from coming to hear the Master. Jesus rebuked his own disciples, saying with uncharacteristic harshness that “whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Matt. 18:6.

 

In their public statement defending the leaked policy of denying baptism to the children of married gay couples, the Mormon Church said “We regard same-sex marriage as a particularly grievous or particularly significant, serious kind of sin.” Because of this stance, they refuse to allow children with approving but married gay parents to follow Christ into the waters of baptism – out of a “desire to protect children in their innocence.” 

 

The ludicrousness of the assertion that a couple’s public affirmation of commitment to each other is a more grievous sin than murder, rape, or child abuse speaks for itself. In the face of Christ’s actual statements about children, it is breathtaking.

 

I was thirty years old before my parents and I finally had our coming out chat. I drove up from Seattle to confess I was gay, Id quit my law firm job, and I was moving to Chicago with my boyfriend to be an LGBT rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. (We agreed on a cover story to tell my fathers’ Republican friends:  I’d been disbarred and gone away to prison.)

My daughter Rosalind represents the new generation. She came out in middle school, in a text. Actually two texts:

#1:  “Papa, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been going to the Queer Student Alliance after school.”

#2:  “Don’t make a big deal about it.”

For her sixteenth birthday this summer, Rosalind requested a pair of Converse custom Pride hightops. Last week she confidently wore her big gay shoes on the first day back at in-person high school.

I will never forget the Lavender Law speakers’ challenge to do whatever we can to make the world safe for every child. In hindsight, perhaps the most important action I’ve taken personally has been to keep my own children as far away as possible from the unrepentantly sexist, racist, and homophobic Brethren in Salt Lake.  

"What's a Mama Dragon?"

When Paul Southwick and his colleagues organized the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, they chose an acronym for the organization – REAP – that intentionally invokes a familiar New Testament metaphor. The hopeful motto on REAP’s homepage comes from sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Galations: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” As the Apostle Paul warns in the previous verse “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”

 

REAPs imagery also resonates with another Biblical metaphor, from the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told the multitude

 

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

 

Matthew 7:15-17, 20 (King James Version).



When I first heard about Jeff Holland’s recent speech at BYU, I didn’t want to rush to judgment. Fortunately, both the church and the Salt Lake Tribune made the complete transcript available. It turns out Elder Holland’s actual words are even worse than their description in the press.

 

First, his violent imagery in asking the faculty to take up “muskets” against proponents of LGBTQ inclusion was not a misplaced or misunderstood metaphor. My BYU classmate and fellow Student Review alumnus Michael Austin, now the academic vice president of a Methodist university in Indiana, was quoted in the original Salt Lake Tribune article about Elder Holland’s speech. As Mike subsequently wrote

 

The nature of our metaphors is important because words are important. Language has enormous power to wound and to heal. Using a martial metaphor to describe discussion and disagreement introduces an unnecessary level of violence into the discourse. It makes it harder, not easier, for us to understand each other and work together in love to solve conflicts.

 

Elder Holland’s call to arms was at the center of the entire speech. Chillingly, he justified his choice of words with an explicit appeal to the authority of even more senior Mormon apostles who had previously used the same violent language. (“My brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today.”) And he demanded “loyalty to prophetic leadership and devotion to revealed doctrine.”

 

Second, like so many abusers, Elder Holland insists on wrapping himself in the mantle of victimhood. He complained about the Brethren’s “scar tissue” from being criticized about their position on “the whole same-sex topic.” Elder Holland acknowledged with crocodile tears that “Too often the world has been unkind, in many instances crushingly cruel, to these our brothers and sisters.” Yet not once has Elder Holland or his gerontocratic brethren ever publicly acknowledged responsibility for the crushing cruelty they have inflicted on LGBT Mormons and their families, or for the impact of the church’s relentless political and legal campaigns against purely secular rights for LGBT citizens.

 

Finally, you will search the text of Elder Holland’s speech in vain for words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” or “LGBTQ.” Instead, he refers to “those who live with this same-sex challenge.” His odious homophobic dog-whistle is painfully familiar to survivors of discredited reparative therapy and traumatizing “pray-the-gay-away” preaching. Nevertheless, just like Spencer W. Kimball, Boyd Packer, and pathologically legalistic senior apostle Dallin Oaks, Elder Holland is so blinded by bad science and worse dogma that he is incapable of acknowledging the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender children of God – recognizing only weak sinners who struggle with what the Mormons insist on calling same-sex attraction.

 

Jeffrey Holland should know better, both as an English Major and as an apostle charged with proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I urge Elder Holland to ponder his own words at the conclusion of his disastrous recent speech to the BYU faculty:

 

“Light conquers darkness. Truth triumphs against error. Goodness is victorious over evil in the end.”


Like the out-of-touch Brethren who lead the Mormon church, Im fond an ancient Middle Eastern proverb:  The dog barks, but the caravan moves on. (It rhymes in both Turkish and Armenian.)

After I left the Mormon church thirty years ago, Elder Holland sent me a sincere and thoughtful private letter in which he described me as perhaps the “biggest disappointment” of all his students and friends at BYU. 

 

When I first read Elder Holland’s letter three decades ago, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. That’s the same way I used to feel every time I heard the Mormons’ message that gay, lesbian, and transgender youth are hopelessly broken and unworthy of love. Despite the progress I’ve made, the church’s ugly attack on gay families five years ago once again triggered debilitating PTSD symptoms.

 

Fortunately, it gets better. This month as I read Elder Holland’s speech and observed the justifiably outraged response, I felt only pity – for the queer youth subjected to the Brethren’s hateful, violent, and dishonest message; for the countless lives lost to suicide, loneliness, and self-destruction; for the parents forced to choose between their children and their faith; for the deluded couples pressured into doomed heterosexual marriages, and for the children of their broken homes; for the abuse victims who believed the false promise they could pray the gay away; and for the BYU students and faculty who thought they were investing in an academic degree, and instead find themselves on the road to pariah status as the Mormon version of Bob Jones University. 

 

I even pity the blind old men in Salt Lake who cannot see any way to untangle the knot they’ve tied themselves in. Nevertheless, today I can say that Jeffrey Holland is definitely the biggest disappointment of all my professors at BYU, Yale, and the University of Washington.