Thursday, September 30, 2021

I Heart Harry Styles

My daughter Eleanor is fixated on her first pop star. She’s gone full Teen Beat. Except nowadays it’s more like going full TikTok, SnapChat, Instagram, MySpace…. 

A few years ago, Seattle Men’s Chorus did a concert called “Heartthrobs” as our salute to boy bands. I couldn’t identify most of the singers or song names in the medleys. Apparently I stopped paying attention somewhere around Backstreet Boys to Men. 


Eleanor’s crush Harry Styles previously sang in a British group called One Direction. I’m unfamiliar with their oeuvre. However, I have seen Mr. Styles and his fabulous hair – but only because I subscribe to the BBC Comedy feed on Facebook, which sent me a clip from the Graham Norton show. Harry unsuccessfully tried to keep a straight face while Graham confronted him with various tabloid rumors, such as the news that Harry and his former bandmate Liam caught chlamydia from a koala; that Harry had a sexual relationship with Barack Obama; and that Harry’s lovely complexion involves a daily regime of sheep placenta. 

Harry on Graham Norton

Eleanor is obsessed with Harry. In particular, Eleanor is obsessed with seeing Harry in concert. She’s only been to one concert so far – the Jonas Brothers last month – but she’s convinced seeing Harry is the one thing that can make her life complete. She’s willing to spend her entire summer job savings on tickets and merch.


Originally Eleanor and a friend were going to travel together to see Harry somewhere back east. The logistics proved impossible. Then they learned he’ll be performing at the Tacoma Dome next month. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s friend can’t go because she has college stuff that weekend. Many tears were shed on FaceTime.

Last weekend Eleanor woke me up to share her new two-part plan. She’s been monitoring the concert ticket resale market, and had a lead on a single general admission floor ticket in “the Pit.” That’s where the true Harry fans gather. The second part of the plan? She’d buy me a cheap nosebleed ticket and make me drive to Tacoma at the crack of dawn, with her gushing and obsessing all the way, so she can spend the day in line for premium entry to the Pit. Ill spend the day in Tacoma trying to find decent coffee shops where I can write.


I’ve learned the key to happy parenting is “Getting to Yes,” so of course I said yes. As Eleanor pointed out, just last week I’d taken Oliver and his thirteen-year-old classmate to Evergreen Speedway for my first NASCAR race, and I quite enjoyed myself. The people were all so nice – they reminded me of a gay chorus festival. Even the old guy who gave the opening prayer. Plus the young woman who sang the Star-Spangled Banner had such an great voice she made me weep. Or it could be I was staring wistfully at the Canadian flag through the whole song.

Sadly, Eleanor’s hot lead on a scalped Pit ticket fell through. She turned to her vast social media network for more options. Eventually she connected with the friend of a cousin of a friend who offered a good price and seemed legit.


This is where I became involved in a non-chauffeur role. Eleanor’s summer savings are paying for the Harry experience, but she needed to use one her father’s online accounts to make the transfer. Eleanor started with a list of several popular payment apps I’d never heard of. I told her Harry isn’t cute enough to justify setting up a new account. Then we tried Apple Pay, but discovered I’ve never finished setting it up. We’ll have to wait till I get an iPhone 17.


Eventually we identified a match with the free payment service “Zelle,” which I’d used once before to transfer money to a friend from my Chase account. 

Before Harry's tour dates were Covid re-re-rescheduled,
the Tacoma Dome was his first North America concert venue

Last week in “I am Karen” I wrote about what it feels like when something or someone triggers a PTSD episode. These experiences used be a frequent consequence of wretched customer service. Particularly Comcast’s.  


Eventually I learned to modulate my reaction to frustrating interpersonal encounters. But because of the specific nature of my youthful traumas among the Mormons, I still react excessively to terrible service with a reality-denying totalitarian bent. It turns out the only economic sector with worse customer service than telecommunications is banking. 


After I sent the Harry ticket payment via Zelle, I got a text message from Chase saying the bank canceled my transaction. After a few frustrating attempts to figure out the problem, we switched to PayPal, which is also linked to the same Chase account. Once again I got a cancelation message from the bank. 


Chase has a particularly hellish phone tree. There are at least four separate call centers, presumably scattered across the Indian subcontinent, handling credit cards, checking accounts, online transactions, and fraud. We spent an hour talking to each, or rather we spent an hour sitting on hold with each, only to be told we needed to be transferred to another department we’d already talked to. Each then dropped the call and made us start over. Eventually I became too incoherent for the phone and had to gave up.


I spent the rest of the afternoon on the couch in a post-PTSD coma. When I woke up, Eleanor and I agreed we were scam victims. Eleanor figured out there was never going to be a Harry ticket after the bank transfers failed to go through, and the seller suggested we go to the grocery store and purchase gift cards for her instead.

The Eleanor & Harry story has a happy ending. So far.


A few hours later, Eleanor was on FaceTime. Her Harry-resistant friend just started college in a neighboring state. Across the collegiate living room, one of the new roommates was FaceTiming with her high school friend, who was supposed to be another roommate. Instead she changed her mind and went to college in the Midwest. Shed just seen Harry Styles live in Detroit, and was trying to sell her Tacoma Dome Pit ticket. This is how life works in Eleanorland. 


Every time I drive on I-5 through Tacoma, I hear a Monster Truck announcer say the words “The Tacoma Dome” in a rumbling voice in my head. I’ve never actually been inside. Supposedly the wooden rafters in the Tacoma Dome’s ceiling create excellent acoustics. Next month I’ll be close enough to judge. 


I just hope I’ll be able to see Harry’s sheep-placenta-infused face from my nosebleed seat.

(Photos selected by Eleanor)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Living with a Disability

The summer after high school graduation I went to Switzerland on a foreign exchange scholarship. I lived with a family near Geneva who had a son near my age. We bought rail passes and traveled all over his charming compact country, staying with his relatives in Zurich, Basel, and Lucerne. I toured castles and practiced my French. We visited Iseltwald, the picturesque town that my non-Scottish ancestors abandoned when they met the Mormon missionaries in the 1850s. 


One of my most vivid memories from Switzerland at age seventeen came after a trilingual dinner at a home in Geneva. As I looked around the table, I noticed our hostess was holding her coffee cup oddly. Then I noticed the woman sitting next to her was also gripping her cup with a twisted thumb. So was the person next to her. And everyone else at the table. Except me. I suddenly realized I’d been holding things “wrong” my whole life – because I was born without the middle joint in each of my thumbs. 

Even before I officially became an English Major, I always was a voracious reader. As a child I would read for hours under the bedcovers or sitting on the heater vent in the living room. I once negotiated with the Tooth Fairy to get the next installment of my favorite Enid Blyton series instead of cash. Reading infused me with the fantasy worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth, and the almost-fantasy worlds of L.M. Montgomery, Enid Blyton, and E. Nesbit. 


Growing up in Canada means you have a world of books to choose from. I was a devotee of the Brits:  C.S. Lewis, Joan Aiken, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Lloyd Alexander, Malcolm Saville….  If you asked me what I expected junior high school to be like, I would probably have described something resembling English boarding school with Tom Brown, Billy Bunter, and the Pevensie children.  


The Pevensies are the English school children who travel to Narnia in the classic series by C.S. Lewis. As an earnest Mormon youth, I also devoured his Christian apologetics, literary criticism, and other works. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote that both he and his brother Warren shared the same mild thumb deformity. Ironically, I’d probably read this passage a dozen times without making the connection to myself.

Doctors and lawyers use various definitions of “disability” for different purposes, from longterm disability insurance and Social Security payments to eligibility for particular treatments or accommodations. Here’s the definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibition of discrimination in employment and public accommodations


any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual” 


The ADA’s nonexhaustive list of “major life activities” includes “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working,” as well as “major bodily functions. Some impairments might be an ADA disability for one person but not another. For example, Carpal tunnel syndrome occasionally interferes with my writing. But for my ASL sign language interpreter friend Steve, chronic Carpal tunnel meant finding a whole new career.


Four decades after my deformed thumb discovery, what have I learned about the various ways the quirky disability I share with C.S. Lewis interferes with my major and minor life functions?

In his memoir, C.S. Lewis blames his defective thumbs for the fact that he was terrible at sports in school. I would embrace his explanation – if hadn’t already graduated from high school before I noticed my thumbs diverged from the norm. 


Maybe both the thumbs and the sports aversion are caused by an English Major gene mutation. 

The first time I noticed my thumb impairment interfering with an activity was when I tried to sign the letter B. I don’t bend that way. 


My daughter Rosalind studies ASL in high school. We’ve tried to identify other examples of sign language that are beyond my ability. I’m not sure whether I have the deaf equivalent of a lisp, a stammer, or a sexy accent.

When I was in law school, my dormmates and I mingled with townies at weekly Midnight Bowling. I discovered I could only bowl one game before it was all gutter balls. 

I surmised that my thumbs and missing tendon only had so much mileage in them. My theory was corroborated by my increasingly sore hands as the night went on, something I subsequently observed in other intense manual tasks. However, my ableist classmates still blamed the pitchers of beer.

Although I’ve never smoked a cigarette, over the years I’ve had various occasions to operate a lighter or torch. They never work for me. 


This summer a visiting smoker friend asked for a light. I showed him the utility drawer where I’d tossed the various defective lighters that had found their way to the house over the years. They all worked for him. Apparently the engineers who design torches are willing to accommodate both left- and right-handers, but not people with semi-opposable thumbs.

As I recently wrote in “Dr. Heuristic, Foot Whisperer,” debilitating plantar fasciitis has prevented me from enjoying my daily walks with Bear. Ordinarily we average over ten miles a day. That much exercise is good for our physical health. It’s also essential for my mental health as well as my productivity as a writer. 


Several years ago I realized my big toes have the same missing knuckle and tendon as my thumbs. The foot exercises my doctor assigned to treat my plantar fasciitis require me to plant my heel on one end of a towel and pull the other end with my toes. I can’t do it. My big toes are too feeble.


Unless you count smoking pot, until now I had never identified a major life function that is limited by my deformity. But because the ADA includes both “walking” and “working” in its disability definition, I can now fit within the definition of a physical impairment. Maybe lawyers who don’t believe in mental illness will finally give me some respect.

September 25

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

I am Karen

Last week one of my healthcare providers and I were chatting about the challenge of explaining Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to people, particularly when you don’t seem like a typical victim. 


PTSD can happen to anyone. Trauma tangles the neural wiring that connects a wide variety of brain functions, including memory, fear, rage, reason, and motor control. Two people can endure the same traumatic event or experience, but only one might develop PTSD. Days or years later, you might encounter a particular feeling, person, or experience that flips the switches in your brain and triggers a cascading response from your body.


One of my friends in Bellingham developed PTSD after serving as an Army Ranger medic in Afghanistan. I told him I feel sheepish sharing the same DSM-5 category as him. He told me not to worry, and that soldiers feel lucky they get so many folks’ respect. They’re more concerned about the many children and women who are scarred by the impact of domestic abuse and do not have access to the help they need. 

In November 2015, my Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic sent me to a specialized PTSD therapist. She helped me identify how my symptoms were rooted in traumatic events I experienced thirty years earlier as an overachieving gay student at Brigham Young University and as an earnest Mormon missionary in Korea. 


In my recent blog essays “Move On” and “Blink,” I described the Mormon church’s relentless campaign against LGBT dignity and inclusion. Throughout my lifetime, Mormon leaders have insisted on embracing junk science, such as pray-the-gay-away “reparative therapy.” Perhaps most insidiously, the Brethren deny our very existence – refusing to use words like “gay,” “lesbian,” or “transgender,” and instead insisting we’re merely weak sinners who struggle with what they refer to as “same-sex attraction problems.” When you also consider my family’s wrenching move from Vancouver to Utah when I was an adolescent, plus my coming out as a gay man at the height of the AIDS pandemic, it’s no wonder I ended up with PTSD.


Because of the nature of my underlying traumas, my most serious individualized PTSD symptoms are triggered when I feel a sense of powerlessness, repression, being silenced, or rendered invisible once again. As result, my disability makes me particularly vulnerable to gaslighting lawyer tactics. 

Looking back at my writing about mental illness over the last four years, I realize I’ve focused primarily on the physical symptoms, such as trichotillomania, insomnia, and bruxism, that emerged after my abusive former employers triggered my body’s response to ancient traumas. Because of Defendants’ and their co-conspirators’ subsequent misconduct and their continued stonewalling delays, I remain trapped in a vicious cycle of stressful triggers, re-traumas, and re-triggers. I’ve written about the resulting plagues of boils, MRSA, auto-immune dysfunction, depression, anxiety, but not frogs yet.


I’ve also referred several times to triggers leading to “PTSD episodes,” but I haven’t yet described the mechanics of the experience. In some ways it’s like the arrival of a migraine – you realize it’s happening, but there’s nothing you can to do to stop the buzzing and pressure on your brain. Soon it becomes impossible to think and communicate clearly. 

When I began reporting about life with mental illness, my examples of PTSD episodes all involved wretched customer service. I had a short fuse, and I ran into a lot of bad service. Eventually I learned to modulate my reaction to frustrating encounters. Now I react excessively only to terrible service with a reality-denying totalitarian bent, not your day-to-day consumer abuse. For example, just last week I made an embarrassing scene in a bank lobby. Not my fault.


When my disability was still new, I was constantly surprised by the wide variety of triggering events that somehow resonated with my thirty-year old traumas. Things have mellowed since then. My biggest PTSD epiphany this year came when I was playing a family board game at my parents’ house, and I became so frustrated I had to go into the other room and give myself a timeout. (It turns out there are trauma-based reasons I haven’t been able to play chess since I was a child, much to my son’s disappointment.)


Despite the progress I’ve made with my disability, I continue to endure another very predictable trigger:  gaslighting lawyers. In May 2017, I filed a lawsuit in state court against the attorney-investigator firm my former employers hired to cover up my wrongful termination. Attorney General Bob Ferguson assigned two lawyers from the Attorney General’s Tort Division, Assistant Attorney General Suzanne LiaBraaten and Assistant Attorney General Janay Ferguson, to represent the State’s interest in the investigator lawsuit. Ferguson and LiaBraaten obstructed discovery, made frivolous privilege assertions, and abused the legal process. In 2019, Ferguson and LiaBraaten violated the Ethics in Public Service Act and the Rules of Professional Responsibility when they made false representations in their co-workers’ lawyer discipline proceeding. Ferguson herself is the subject of a pending ethics complaint, and is a named defendant in my federal lawsuit against the State and its representatives. 


Nevertheless, Attorney General Ferguson insisted on assigning Defendant Ferguson as lead counsel on behalf of the other defendants in the federal lawsuit. Her conduct of the litigation has been an outrage. Here’s what I said in a sworn declaration about how it feels when dishonest government lawyers trigger a PTSD episode:


Responding to the first motion Defendant Ferguson filed in my federal court case one year ago was one of my most harrowing experiences in years. For every ten minutes I spent working on the brief, I had to spend at least an hour on soothing activities like talking with my children, walking the dogs, meditating, exercising, etc. Now that my kids are back from visiting my ex during the summer, the presence of other observers in the house makes my AGO- triggered PTSD symptoms even more noticeable. Over and over as I was forced to confront the State’s lies, I would read or write a single sentence. Then I would compulsively leap out of my chair and pace ten or twenty laps around the house, grinding my teeth from bruxism and rubbing my scalp raw from trichotillomania. When my teenaged daughter who wants to go to medical school heard my involuntary wheezes and groans, she thought I was having a heart attack. 


Every one of Defendant Ferguson’s court filings and each of her communications to me over the past year was triggering. (Fortunately, her good cop co-counsel politely handled all the administrative stuff.) For example, on multiple occasions she took the position on behalf of the State of Washington that for the last six years I’ve been faking a disability to cover up for my professional incompetence and my sexism.


I asked the State’s lawyers to accommodate my disability by assigning a lawyer other than Defendant Ferguson to communicate with me. They refused. Eventually I asked the judge to order this reasonable disability accommodation. On September 15, 2021, Judge Jones granted my request. I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders.

Defendant Ferguson’s counterpart in my state court lawsuit against the private investigator firm is Claire Martirosian, a junior partner at the grinding insurance defense firm whose apparent goal is to provoke me into pulling out the last hair on my forehead.


Ms. Martirosian has been involved in the case ever since the summer of 2017 when the investigators fired their first, even less smart insurance defense firm. In contrast with the division of labor between the boy-girl legal team in my federal lawsuit against the State, Ms. Martirosian is handling everything solo. That means she plays both the good cop and bad cop roles. In “Secret Agent,” I wrote about how Ms. Martirosian triggered a PTSD episode in the middle of oral argument in the Court of Appeals two years ago when she blatantly lied in response to the key question from the bench.


Last Friday two letters from Ms. Martirosian arrived back-to-back in my inbox. The good cop first letter responded to the proposed deposition schedule I had circulated earlier in week. Of course Defendants didn’t agreed to the schedule, or propose an alternative. But the letter wasn’t triggering, merely another round of familiar litigation Kabuki.


In contrast, Ms. Martirosian’s bad cop second letter was a tissue of lies. She blatantly mischaracterized the Washington Supreme Court’s recent ruling, and triggered another PTSD episode.  Once again I alarmed the dogs by leaping out of my desk chair and pacing around the house. I lost count after 87 laps. 

If I were a Republican congressman, I could announce “As the father of two daughters, I condemn the Attorney General’s scurrilous accusations of sexism.” But I believe in mindfulness and empathy. When someone else’s model of reality diverges so far from my model (and from reality), I wonder why.

Here is Defendant Ferguson most recent accusation that I am an unrepentant misogynist:

Mr. Leishman elected not to respond to the Defendants’ requests for conferral because it was not made by the male attorney with whom he prefers to communicate…. Defendants will not recount the many, documented instances of Mr. Leishman’s personal attacks on Ms. Ferguson and other women, parties and not, attorneys and not, because that issue is beyond the scope of this motion. When they do, Defendants will submit evidence, not conclusory allegations, proving that Mr. Leishman disproportionately demeans, attacks, and underestimates women – particularly those who disagree with his subjective view of events. Avoidance of female counsel is not a reasonable accommodation.

Washington tax dollars paid for this deranged rant, which appears on page two of the State Defendants’ Reply in support of their Second Motion to Stay Discovery. 

My eyes were drawn to the word “disproportionately.” Perhaps Defendant Ferguson is referring to the fact that woman outnumber men in the captions of my lawsuits. That’s because most of the middle and lower level managers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office and other State agencies are women – but all the top brass are men. The federal defendants include the office of Governor Jay Inslee; the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson; Bob’s two top lieutenants, the Chief Deputy Attorney General (Defendant Shane Esquibel) and the Solicitor General (Defendant Noah Purcell); and the former president of Western Washington University (Defendant Bruce Shepard). These important gentlemen are joined by seven female underlings who personally interacted with me or were directly involved in misconduct and coverups. Only one defendant is actually named “Karen.” I could have sued two more female defendants, my unprepared novice “Team Leader” and her passive-aggressive supervisor. But I don’t need to make everything personal.

Behind every powerful man is a harem of less powerful women. Look at Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, or Andrew Cuomo and Melissa DeRosa. One definition of a “Karen” is someone who is not quite privileged enough to avoid doing the dirty work herself, and takes it out on the unprivileged. Or maybe a Karen is just someone who likes dirty work.

Although Bellingham is blessed with amazing public schools, shepherding three teenagers through Zoom School was a challenge for everyone. At the height of the pandemic I had to deal with one of those bureaucratic tangles that would have been triggering even at the best of times. 

I’ve always been terrible at talking on the telephone with strangers, and PTSD just makes things worse. This phone conversation with an assistant principal was excruciating, a combination of Abbott & Costello & Kafka. The school administration had ignored my communications for weeks, and instead kept asking me to do administrative tasks that made no sense. I tried desperately to remain calm. It was a blunt yet incoherent calm, as I kept flirting with entitled-lawyer global nuclear destruction mode. The bees were buzzing in my head. Late in the phone call we figured out the reason no one had paid attention to my messages was that the school’s spam filter had tweaked itself to eliminate me. Nothing I said was getting through. 

The assistant principal took a deep breath, I sorta de-escalated, and we shared an awkward chuckle. When I finally ended the telephone call, I looked around and realized my son Oliver had been listening. His observation:

“Papa, you sound like a Karen.”


Tuesday, September 14, 2021


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