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 panel’s 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 I’ve 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 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 don’t 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 “ Even after deleting all the original ranting, my own PTSD-fueled Facebook response at the time was pretty damning:.” 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.
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, I’d 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.”
REAP’s 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, I’m 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.