Book review: “Gay Rights and the Mormon Church” by Gregory Prince

This is an important book. Even where I think Gregory Prince is wrong, I still think the subject matter of his Gay Rights and the Mormon Church can potentially do a lot of good. One of his stated intents of his book is that an accurate rendering of how we got to where we are now [regarding LGBT issues] will serve to inform the church leaders who eventually take those steps. But I think it can benefit just ordinary lay members as well in the meantime.

I wanted to read Prince’s book right when it came out, but it didn’t immediately have a Kindle version available. After reading Colin Hilton’s review, I found that the Kindle version is available, so I jumped right in.

Before reading the last four chapters or so, I wanted to post that I think Conor went a little harsh on Prince, that Prince was entirely fair in his presentation of events. For me, the parts that were hardest to read were direct quotes from Church leaders more than anything else such as:

Marriage between man and a woman in ordained of God, but same-sex marriage is only a counterfeit. It brings neither posterity nor exaltation. Although his imitations deceive many people, they are not the real thing. They cannot bring lasting happiness.

by Seventy Larry Lawrence. And the infamous Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball:

Certainly it can be overcome, for there are numerous happy people who were once involved in its clutches and who have since completely transformed their lives. Therefore to those who say that this practice or any other evil is incurable, I respond: ‘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.’… Let this individual repent of his perversion, force himself to turn to normal pursuits and interests and actions and friendships with the opposite sex, and this normal pattern can become natural again.

As a gay Latter-Day Saint, hearing these things from Church leaders hits close to home. Because they directly impact our lives. There is no room for riffing it when it comes to something so personal, but it feels like that is what has been done.

Prince also covers several moments of grace, where you knew church leaders did the right thing. For instance, when Marlin Jensen visited a stake in California and listened to the experiences of LGBT church members:

There was not a dry eye in the room while this was happening, including Elder Jensen. He was facing the congregation as people stood up, one at a time, and he was weeping openly, along with just about everybody else. Then it was Jensen’s turn. After relating some of his own experiences, he made an extraordinary statement:

I have very limited authority. I’m called a General Authority, but the scope of my authority is a sliver. But I do have some authority, by assignment, when it comes to stake conferences. So that’s what brings me here today. You have to understand that in this narrow scope of limited authority, almost on a personal level, I want to apologize to all you people for what you had to endure over these years. I just feel like I need to give you my own, personal apology. It’s not up to me to apologize for the church, but I feel that that’s what I should do today.

But there were obvious moments where you could tell that Prince wasn’t entirely making good-faith arguments. There were two in particular that were glaringly obvious to me. The first was his response to Ty Mansfield’s position. Ty is a psychologist. He teaches down at BYU. He is a former president of Northstar, the support group for LGBT Mormons who wish to live in harmony with gospel teachings. He is married to a woman, despite being gay, although he may not use that term. Mansfield enters Prince’s narrative when the Church refused to endorse the Family Acceptance Project:

Ty Mansfield, a marriage and family therapist and openly gay Mormon in a mixed-orientation marriage, who expressed concern that ‘the way the pamphlet is framed is unhelpful and may even do subtle harm. The pamphlet’s assumption of a predetermined and rubber-stamped “LGBT” identity is problematic.’ In other words, neither Mansfield nor the church was yet willing to acknowledge that homosexuality is biological.

Prince is entirely convinced that it’s all biology, and if the Church would just admit that, we could all move on. But that’s not what Ty was saying at all, and he would know that if he engaged with Mansfield a little more. But Mansfield– nor I, for that matter– doesn’t fit into Prince’s overall narrative. He explains happy mixed-orientation marriages away as people who are actually bisexual. We may as well not exist, according to the narrative Prince has constructed. Prince only mentions Northstar once in reference to the dissolution of Evergreen, the now infamous organization that used to encourage reparative therapy. Mansfield believes there is a little more nuance than attributing LGBT identity entirely to biology, that there are different layers, so to speak. In his essay, Homosexuality and Desire in the collection of essays A Reason for Faith, Mansfield tries to parse out four layers of sexuality: attraction and desire, orientation, behavior, and identity. Specifically, I will quote from the section on identity, since that is what’s at issue here:

“Being gay” is not a scientific idea, but rather a cultural and philosophical one, addressing the subjective concept of identity. Our sense of identity is something we negotiate with our environment, which can include our biological environment… While there have likely always been homoerotic attraction, desire, behavior, and even relationships among humans, the narratives through which sexuality is understood and incorporated into one’s sense of self and identity is subjective and culturally influenced. The “gay” person or personality as we might conceptualize it today didn’t exist prior to the mid-twentieth century.

I want to be careful here though. This may sound an awful lot like Elder Bednar’s recent statement that There are no homosexuals on the Church, meaning that sure, you have attractions to people of the opposite gender, but you don’t have to go construct an identity around them. I disagree with Elder Bednar’s assertion. I also, unlike Ty, choose to use the word gay to describe myself. Finally, I think there is a lot of good that has come from an LGBT identity, even developing its own set of cultural norms and institutions. This comes from Prince’s book:

Until Stonewall, we didn’t have an organized LGBT community. We didn’t have health institutions, recreational sports, faith-based settings, that would welcome. There wasn’t the foundation of a civil society for LGBT people. There was nowhere for them to fit in.

All Ty is saying is– that isn’t biology. And from a member of the Church who is gay, I had strong reservations from being fully immersed in the LGBT community, because there were certain cultural aspects that didn’t mesh with what I viewed as my primary identity as a Mormon. I like how Ty said that identity “is something we negotiate with our environment”, which is exactly what I had to do with my religious identity and my sexual orientation. I came to a different place than other people, and I’m OK with that. Ty is saying the same thing. And I think it was disingenuous of Prince to attribute Mansfield’s statement to his refusal to accept the biological basis of homosexuality.

The second moment that really caught me off guard was Prince’s discussion of LDS doctrine concerning the afterlife and speculation on how our attractions will continue in the next life. Prince quotes from the Book of Mormon to establish how Mormon theology has evolved from an initial concept of universal salvation to a tiered three-kingdom:

A verse in the book of Mormon states, “And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.”

The theology soon began to evolve, driven initially by an 1832 vision, to a hierarchical, merit-based heaven with three kingdoms, the highest of which would be populated by those who received LDS baptism while living.

The thing that Prince fails to mention, which anybody who has actually read the Book of Mormon before, is that the quote is from Nehor, the anti-Christ. His doctrine that they need not fear nor tremble… for the Lord had also redeemed all men was never the Church’s position, and it certainly is odd that Prince, a Latter-Day Saint, would include this quote to back up his position. Either he is purposefully pulling the quote out of context, or he doesn’t know his scriptures. I would also think that most historians would disagree with Prince’s assessment of the development of LDS theology from one of universal salvation to merit-based kingdoms. According to the Revelations in Context essay on D&C 76, it was the opposite, proceeding from the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy inherited from Protestantism to the three-tiered kingdoms, which many early Church members, including later-prophet Brigham Young, initially rejected as being too universal.

These, along with other spots throughout the book, really call into question Prince’s attempts at presenting an unbiased narrative.

The other thing that concerned me about Prince’s book is the perpetuation of unhealthy conceptualizations of religion, particularly in his chapter on suicide. Prince does well to draw our attention to the serious problem surrounding teen suicide in the Church. And given all the narratives in the book of what people have experienced at the hands of Church leaders, I am not surprised. Somehow, I escaped relatively unscathed from bad experiences with local Church leaders, despite the insensitive things often said at the pulpit in general conference. Quotes that concerned me are ones like this:

Since Nelson has become the prophet, just in teh Mama Dragon group alone… we had twenty or thirty kids that have been in hospitals for suicide attempts, that are our children… Just the thought of him being prophet is sending people over the edge.

I don’t wish to minimize what the Church has done, nor am I attempting to blame the victims. But this, to me, is a dangerous approach to religion. But it’s one that we internalize as youth– that the prophet is infallible, and we should take everything he says as God’s word. If you took Spencer Kimball at his word that if you are gay, it is better that you hang a millstone around your neck and sink into the depths of the sea, you are inevitably going to deal with self-loathing and thoughts of suicide. I’m not doing the prophet any favors here though, as it seems I’m advocating that we shouldn’t take him 100% seriously. All I’m saying is that my approach to religion is a personal one. Before I take a prophet at his word, I filter it through my own knowledge of what is right and wrong, prayerful contemplation, as well as my knowledge gained through careful study. And there is even prophetic counsel to do so: Henry Eyring has reiterated Brigham Young’s counsel I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. To quote from a different faith tradition, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, has said, Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority, Scripture, tradition, or various kinds of experts (what I call the “containers”)– instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience itself (which is the “content”). In fact, most of us were strongly warned against every trusting ourselves… These were ways of discouraging actual experiences with God and often created passive (and often passive aggressive) people and, more sadly, a lot of people who concluded there was no God to be experienced. We were taught to mistrust our own souls– and thus the Holy Spirit! The only way I was able to re-establish a healthy relationship with my religion was to become a bit of a mystic and an existentialist.

The book itself as a history, as a narrative of events for LGBT members of the Church is an excellent resource. I am proud of it, and this book makes it that much more accessible. It’s flaws may limit its usefulness; I am afraid that Prince’s biases weren’t tempered enough that mainstream Church members will read it. But it is a step.

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