Groups try to spur dialogue, healing between gays, Mormons

San Jose Mercury News/March 20, 2011

Cupertino resident Laura Compton, 42, an active Mormon who supports gay marriage, waits and wonders whether the LDS Church, its gay members, and the gay community will be able to heal their tenuous relationships.

She's not the only one. Many Mormons are also asking, especially more liberal members. She said the LDS Church is likely to stay conservative regarding homosexuality, but that it may move a little to the left. In the meantime, Compton does her best to spur a dialogue on both sides.

"Not that long ago, church leaders actually counseled gay men to marry straight women as a way to cure their homosexual tendencies," Compton said. "Thankfully, that practice has been officially discouraged, but teachings about the importance of traditional marriage continue to be emphasized."

What is the future of the relationship between gays and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Current and former Mormons and theologians offer a range of answers.

The Church's conservatism on a wide range of political and social issues is irritating to members with a more liberal bent, and could lead to alienation, said Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California and author of the biography, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."

"But I doubt that Proposition 8 alone will lead to a wholesale departure," Bushman said. "For gay men and women themselves, of course, it is a very serious problem. They worry a lot about their position in a church that seems to deny them privileges. A lot of that group are likely to leave, and their friends will likely be affected. This will be an ongoing problem, but it is not an immediate churchwide crisis."

Church leaders may support gay marriage someday, said Lisa Fahey, 47, a San Francisco resident who works in Palo Alto. She is Mormon and supports gay marriage.

"I'm hoping this happens in my lifetime," Fahey said. "It will take longer, and maybe never, for the church leaders to allow gay marriage in our temples, which is marriage for eternity."

Harsh public views of the church will influence leaders, said Donna Banta, 51, a San Francisco writer and former Mormon. "The church is very image conscious," Banta said. "I wouldn't be surprised if there is a policy shift in the future."

Others are less hopeful. James Kent, a gay former Mormon, said he doesn't expect the church to change views in his lifetime, and that it only will if the public asks for it.

"Eventually the leaders' attitude toward homosexuality would change if enough church members stood up to general authorities to get them down on their knees, asking for additional revelation, rather than simply assuming they know the answer," Kent said.

Meanwhile, several people are working to keep the lines of communication open between gays and the church. Clark Pingree is one of them. The 34-year-old former Mormon, who is gay, meets regularly with the Oakland Stake president for dinner talks about homosexuality. About a dozen gay and straight Mormons attend the meetings, which they call, "cottage suppers."

"People walk away with the complexity of what it means to be gay, and gay and Mormon, and they think, 'There's so much more to this than I ever thought,' " Pingree said. Meeting "dispels the us-versus-them problem between gay and members of the church."

Alyssa Johanson, 29, a research scientist, Mormon, and Union City resident, said she doesn't know what will happen between Mormons and supporters of gay marriage.

"I wish and hope that changes will take place," Johanson said. "Right now there is a great deal of tension between these two groups. "...I feel that there were many members in the church, especially those of us in our 20s and 30s, that were very torn over this issue. Many of us have family or friends in the gay community. "...It was hard for me to realize that people would not accept me for who I was, and it certainly helped me to understand the hurt that anyone experiences when they feel discriminated against for their beliefs."

Johanson hopes a middle ground can be found where gays can have civil unions with 100 percent full legal rights that straights receive, and that Mormons can be guaranteed that they won't have to provide gay marriage ceremonies.

"But, as the issue stands currently, it does appear that we are at an impasse," she said. "My pessimistic side tells me that we will stay that way because too many people are unwilling to listen to the other side."

There needs to be more conversation, said Robb, 31, a San Jose graphic designer and Mormon. He asked that his last name not be printed because he worked to get Proposition 8 passed and fears retribution.

"We don't get anywhere when this goes to the Supreme Court, and I think it will go there," Robb said. "When you stop dialogue, you stop progress. I hope both sides can see that a compromise needs to be made."

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have big decisions to make about whether they will publicly defend traditional marriage again. If they abandon the topic, Mormons may appear weak or inconsistent, and if they stay involved, they may never escape rumored bigotry. Plus, fighting gay marriage takes resources from other church projects such as growth and charity.

The church moves from top to bottom. The church president, who is also the church's prophet, will not move directions unless god tells him to support gay marriage. In such case, church President Thomas Monson would likely tell church leaders and the call would move downward to the average Mormon. The church as a whole would make a dramatic shift, just as it did when it changed views on polygamy (1890) and allowing blacks full church rights (1978). But don't hold your breath.

Latter-day Saints were less involved in same-sex marriage campaigns in other states and Washington, D.C., than they were in Prop. 8, which predated those battles. This could imply a breather, an about face, or may mean the church is stepping away from state campaigns in order to drum up for a bigger battle: support of a national Constitutional amendment that will forbid gay marriage.

"The time has come in our society when I see great wisdom and purpose in a United States Constitutional amendment declaring that marriage is between a man and a woman," Elder Oaks said in an internal interview available on the church's website. "There is nothing in that proposed amendment that requires a criminal prosecution or that directs the attorneys general to go out and round people up, but it declares a principle and it also creates a defensive barrier against those who would alter that traditional definition of marriage."

Elder Lance Wickman agreed.

"The fact of the matter is that the best way to assure that a definition of marriage as it now stands continues is to put it into the foundational legal document of the United States," he said. —...It's going to be decided as a matter of federal law one way or the other."

Besides these interviews, LDS leaders are quiet about the church's future stance on gays. Liberal Mormons such as Compton and Fahey wait, crossing their fingers, hoping that Mormons, gay Mormons, and gay-marriage supporters will treat each other better, regardless of what Mormon leaders decide.

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