Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The LDS Church and Gays--The Long and Winding Road

As I stated before Thanksgiving, it seems that the Church's about-face on housing and employment rights is indicative of a wider change of attitude toward recognizing that sexual orientation actually exists. The following is from a paper I wrote while I was in law school that documents some of the changes:


The present attitude toward homosexuality seemed to begin in about the late 1950s. Before this, it had been common practice to simply “drop them from positions they held,”1 to use J. Reuben Clark’s words. Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Mark E. Petersen were called to counsel homosexual members in about 1961,2 and Brigham Young University began electroshock aversive therapy to “cure” homosexuality.3 In 1962, the Church issued a directive that “no one will be admitted as a student at the B.Y.U. whom we have convincing evidence is a homosexual.”4

The rhetoric of Church leaders became harsher as well. President David O. McKay declared homosexuality in his view to be “worse than [heterosexual] immorality . . . , a filthy and unnatural habit.”5 Spencer W. Kimball called homosexuality a habit based on selfishness and caused by masturbation,6 declared that it was contrary to the nature of God and therefore unnatural,7 and concluded that no real love could spring from homosexual coupling.8 He also believed it could be cured, and suggested that those who had failed had simply not tried hard enough: “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.”9 Boyd K. Packer, in a talk in a 1976 general conference, cited with approval the assault of a homosexual by his missionary companion for “self-protection.”10

Church leaders’ abhorrence of homosexuality is not all that surprising given the dominant paradigm of homosexual culture at the time. In the late 1960s and -70s, the sexual revolution was just gaining momentum, and gay culture was at the forefront of a movement that seemed to have abandoned any semblance of morality in favor of a hedonistic existence. Gay journalist and scholar Jonathan Rauch recounts: “The master narrative for gay life was: come out, leave home, gorge at the banquet of sexual liberation. Gay men celebrated their image as sexual rebels; straight America was happy to consign them to that role.”11 Is it any wonder that Spencer W. Kimball questioned gay members of the church that he counseled: “what would [your homosexual partner] do for you . . . should you suddenly fall victim to a dread disease, an incurable disease? Suppose your body shriveled; suppose you could no longer satisfy or get satisfaction sexually; suppose you could no longer be ‘used.’ How long would the alleged friendship or friendly ties last?”12

Kimball’s words were prescient. The dread disease did come; the AIDS epidemic changed the narrative of gay culture “from ubiquitous sex to ubiquitous death . . . . For the stricken there were lesions, chills, wasting, death; for friends and lovers, there was grief compounded by despair.”13 But this culture of death provided a crucible out of which was forged a culture of life. “Lovers, friends and AIDS ‘buddies’ were spooning food, emptying bedpans, holding wracked bodies through the night.”14 Many gay couples proved that same-sex love was more than the pursuit of pleasure; it was love and community as real as that found in traditional society. This shift in gay culture has not gone unnoticed by Church leaders, who have more recently softened their rhetoric regarding homosexuality. The focus of many general authorities when discussing the subject has tended to emphasize the difference between orientation and behavior and admitting that for many, homosexuality may be a lifetime condition.15


  1. D. Michael Quinn, Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example 376 (1996).
  2. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball 85–86 (2005). Kimball and Petersen reported counseling almost one thousand individuals between 1961 and 1968. Id. at 86 n.4.
  3. Quinn, supra note 1, at 379. While some documentation suggests that this practice was ended in the late 1960s, see Gary James Bergera & Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith 82 (1985), there is evidence of these practices continuing on well after that time, see Rocky O’Donovan, “The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature”: A Brief History of Homosexuality and Mormonism, 1840-1980, in Multiply and Replenish 123, 157 (Brent Corcoran, ed. 1994) (citing several doctrinal dissertations from BYU students on electroshock therapy conducted in the 1970s).
  4. Quinn, supra note 1, at 379.
  5. Id. at 376.
  6. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness 78 (1969) [hereinafter Miracle of Forgiveness]; Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball 275 (Edward L. Kimball, ed. 1982) [hereinafter Teachings].
  7. Teachings, supra note 6, at 276 (“‘God made me that way,’ some say . . . . This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God, and does he think God to be ‘that way’?”).
  8. Id. at 274.
  9. Miracle of Forgiveness, supra note 6, at 82.
  10. Boyd K Packer, To Young Men Only (1976) (“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 . . . . After patient encouragement he finally blurted out, “I hit my companion.” . . . 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.”). This talk has been excluded from the Ensign and Conference reports, but is produced as a pamphlet and published by the Church.
  11. Jonathan Rauch, Families Forged by Illness, N.Y. Times, June 4, 2006, § 4, at 15.
  12. Spencer W. Kimball, New Horizons for Homosexuals 28 (1974).
  13. Rauch, supra note 11, at 15.
  14. Id.
  15. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Issues Resources: Same-Gender Attraction (Aug. 14, 2006), http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/public-issues/same-gender-attraction (the 2006 interview with Elders Oaks and Wickman).

1 comment:

Evan said...

I'm new to your blog and have enjoyed reading some of the articles. Thank you for your research and contribution!