This past summer for the first time, Mormons marched in Pride parades in substantial numbers, a fact that deserves critical attention. I believe what follows provides some of that attention, as I consider the possibility that the Church's institutional heterosexism was extended more than disrupted.
Mormons in Pride Parades – A Critical Reflection
by Alan Williams
Written August 2012
Now that the Pride parades are almost done for the summer, I would like to address some concerns I have about the Mormon presence. One major theme I saw emerge among more liberal Mormons is an idea that “local organizing is good organizing.” The argument went as follows: Not everywhere in America has the same level of acceptance of gay people. Supporting same-sex marriage, for instance, would be a giant, unrealistic step for most Mormons in most cities. A lot of Mormons just need to feel they can publicly support their loved ones. Therefore, local organizing is good organizing. Some LDS Pride contingents did support marriage equality, while others showed love, which is also good.
I think we need to be critical of this logic given how the Church is not a local phenomenon. If we take a look at the policy of Mormons Building Brides (MBB), the group that marched in the Salt Lake City and Boise Pride parades, we find that the organization is basically correlated to the Church. Not only did MBB have a rule of no political signage (such as no marriage equality signage), but they also had a rule of no signage that contradicts church doctrine, namely the nonacceptance of same-sex relationships in the Church. The public received messages like “LDS loves LGBT,” which is positive but diluted by the fact that no messages were permitted to help neutralize the Church’s official policy of “love the sinner, not the sin.” MBB’s policy of “disciplined messaging” applied not only to the parades, but also to the ensuing discussion on their Facebook forum where—in an attempt to appeal to the least common denominator of “love” to draw the most Mormons—the moderators actively delete comments and remove people from the group who advocate marriage equality or discuss doctrine on the question of “sin.”
In essence, “love the sinner, not the sin” was expanded into Pride parades this summer! By forbidding signage against this paradigm while representing the Church, MBB grew the paradigm into a space that has traditionally banned it. In the past, a religious contingent would not have been allowed to march in Pride unless they made clear they didn’t consider same-sex intimacy a “sin.” These days the LGBT community is empowered enough to relax its borders a bit. Specifically in Salt Lake City, the Church’s support of the 2009 nondiscrimination ordinances in housing and employment helped pave the way for a Mormon presence in Pride this year. The LGBT/LDS relationship in SLC is unique, though. Other cities with LDS Pride contingents this year (such as in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, New York City and Washington, D.C.) were marched by Mormons for Marriage Equality (M4ME).
Although M4ME marched in more cities than MBB, it struggled to gain media recognition because of the Utah-centric nature of national reporting on Mormondom. The national media barely mentions M4ME and writes about MBB as though some of its members support marriage equality. What the media doesn’t report is how much supporting marriage equality (or more importantly, the idea that same-sex intimacy is not a sin) is marginalized by MBB. Similarly, since 2009, the media writes of the Church as if it supports employment nondiscrimination, but there is no such nondiscrimination in the Church (more about this below). In order for the Church to “fit in” in a country moving toward gay equality, certain half-truths must stick in the public’s mind about how “gay-friendly” the Church is.
There were cathartic tears of joy due to the Mormon presence in SLC Pride, but I also think there’s a risk that a gay Mormon youth somewhere is rationalizing that there’s “no escape. The Church is everywhere…even at a place like Pride.” Personally, I know one gay Mormon youth who, growing up, felt loved and supported by his ward and family, but eventually secluded himself and became suicidal, ultimately deciding he had to leave the Church for his own wellbeing. Institutional and theological heterosexism can drive a kid to hate himself even when surrounded by love. MBB’s “disciplined messaging” is an example of love put in service of institutional heterosexism.
Allow me to frame my concerns in the form of a metaphor that has floated around this summer regarding the matter of gay equality in the Church at the macro level (an equality whose only defining parameter, I argue here, is that same-sex intimacy is not a sin). Some suggest, optimistically, that as Mormons currently flow down different queer streams (some in support of marriage equality, more who “love the sinner, not the sin”), they’ll all eventually merge at the same ocean of gay equality. The idea is that if homophobic church members are shown "love" rather than force, they'll eventually see the light of equality. This logic might be described as "love the sinner, not the sin of homophobia," and just like how "love the sinner, not the sin" is bad policy, so is the former. What we’ve seen as a result of this neutral policy of "love" is actually diversions of streams in order to ensure they don’t merge and reach the gay ocean.
Here are two examples to illustrate this anti-mergence. The first is the SLC nondiscrimination ordinances. A decade ago, employment nondiscrimination was considered a “slippery slope” by the Church, but now the Church is supposedly okay with it after polite meetings with queer activists. In reality, the Church is not on board at all with employment nondiscrimination as it will fire any BYU teacher who has a gay relationship. The Church supported the ordinances only because they allow the Church to continue to discriminate via “religious exemption.” Take away this exemption and the ordinances would’ve received no support from the Church whatsoever. Thus, the SLC ordinances are not an example of moving toward a gay ocean. They’re an example of successfully diverted streams and the change in civil discourse required to make this come to pass.
Here’s the second example. At the beginning of the summer, MBB and M4ME were teammates. They both organized the SLC contingent, growing the number of attendees marching behind a single banner, MBB’s, and everyone followed the rules of correlated signage. There was an assurance that MBB would offer support to M4ME for later parades as the summer rolled on, at the very least in the form of social networking and hyperlinking. After the SLC parade, however, MBB backed out of the partnership and engaged in a full media blackout of M4ME, claiming that any connection between the two organizations would undermine the “neutral message of love.” I find this background drama telling of the fact that church members are diverting streams rather than moving toward an ocean of gay equality. Maybe this year was a trial run whereas next year MBB plans to relax its signage policies and allow Mormons to march with whatever pro-gay signage they want. If not, the organizers of Pride may very well deny their admittance given the continuing institutional heterosexism of the Church. Or worse yet, MBB may be allowed to march again with no change to their policy, given the overarching strides toward secular equality.
I informed my LDS mother that Mormons marched in Pride parades this year, and to my chagrin, she replied, “Sure, you’re supposed to love and support people even if you don’t approve of their—” and I had to let her know that some Mormons marched for marriage equality. What her comment made clear to me is that the average loving Mormon might march in Pride and not move one iota on the question of “sin.” While I’d like to view Mormons in Pride this year as a momentous development on the path to an ocean of gay equality in the Church, I can’t help but feel that one of the bridges built was the one that allows the Church to remain heterosexist longer.