There were two notable words the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints haven’t yet said: “We’re sorry.”
Earlier this month, leaders with the Salt Lake City-based denomination said the Mormon church would be reversing a three-and-a-half-year-old policy that branded individuals in same-sex marriages as “apostates” and banned their children from being baptized in the LDS faith. Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor to President Russell M. Nelson, said in a statement that “children of [LGBTQ parents] may be baptized without First Presidency approval,” claiming the new policy would be “effective immediately.”
But what frustrates and confounds LGBTQ Utahns is that the Mormon church’s concession did not include regret for the consequences of the announcement of its now-repealed policy in November 2015. Although it is difficult to verify specific numbers, in the three months after the release of the “apostasy” doctrine, the LDS parent support group Mama Dragons claims that more than 30 young people took their own lives.
Samy Galvez, a former Brigham Young University student who has since left Utah, was with other LGBTQ Mormons when the policy was first leaked. He recalls that a tide of disbelief washed over the room. “This can’t be true,” they said among themselves. “We’d been making so much progress.”
“It didn’t make sense that they would turn their backs on us like this after all the work we’d done,” Galvez tells Rewire.News.
Those familiar with the policy claim its language was intended as a compromise on queer and trans inclusion in the church following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges. It was designed to say: LGBTQ people can still come to church, but if they get hitched, there will be consequences.
Compromise, though, is a loaded word in Utah. Just months before the rollout of the apostasy policy, lawmakers signed a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment. That made Utah the first state with a Republican governor to pass LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights legislation. The legislation offered broad exemptions to entities like the LDS church to assuage concerns a nondiscrimination bill might erode their “religious freedom.”
According to the New York Times, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints personally “sent two of its leading apostles to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City … to endorse the anti-discrimination bill” in March 2015. Upon signing the bill that month, Gov. Gary Herbert noted its historic nature. “I have no doubt that the eyes of the nation are upon us,” he said.
The idea that the “Utah compromise” (as the bill is often called) could be a template for other states has certainly stuck. Although we have yet to see a state legislature pass a bill similar to Utah’s nondiscrimination law, then-Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) called on lawmakers to “strike such a balance” on LGBTQ civil rights by passing a federal version of Utah’s legislation in his farewell address to colleagues on the Senate floor in December 2018.
“There are some who would treat this issue as a zero-sum game … and in my opinion, this is a mistake,” he said. “Protecting religious liberty and preserving the rights of LGBTQ individuals are not mutually exclusive.”
But as the Mormon church attempts to chart a middle path on equality, some LGBTQ people in Utah and their allies have found the route—whether reversing the November 2015 policy or passing an inclusive civil rights bill—to be anything but a happy medium. Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney who was excommunicated in 2014 for advocating for gender equality in the LDS church, says any claims of a “compromise” on LGBTQ rights in the state is a “misnomer.”
“The Mormon church does not compromise,” Kelly tells Rewire.News. “In Utah, they get what they want.”
At the Mercy of a King
To understand frustration among queer and trans Mormons regarding the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues, it’s critical to understand the immense power the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wields in Utah. Although roughly 60 percent of the state’s population is LDS, about 90 percent of the state’s legislature is occupied by members of the faith. Utah hasn’t had a non-Mormon governor since J. Bracken Lee, who left office in 1957.
June Hiatt, a member of the activist group Queers Divest, tells Rewire.News that Utah’s government is functionally a theocracy. She says there’s little separation between church and state—or any other aspect of public life in Utah.
“You can’t buy alcohol, and there’s no Victoria’s Secret in the mall downtown [in Salt Lake City] because that’s how much control the church has,” Hiatt says. “The Church supersedes capitalism in Utah. They dictate what our markets can sell, and the mall is closed on Sunday.”
“It feels like you’re always at the mercy of like a king,” Galvez adds. “They can just decide whatever they want.”
Members of the Utah legislature have long rebuked claims they receive their marching orders from Temple Square, which rests at the bottom of a steep slope from Capitol Hill. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville) told the Associated Press in January that it’s “very rare” for the LDS church to weigh in on legislation. Seconding his assessment, Rep. Patrice Arent (D-Millcreek), who is Jewish, claimed some lawmakers are “more influenced by their religion than others.”
Despite making occasional exceptions like denouncing a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in September 2018, trans activist Lorcan Murphy contends the LDS church doesn’t need to engage in direct action to pull the strings of political power in Utah.
Rather than engaging in the on-the-ground canvassing efforts that elicited intense criticism after the Mormon church went door-to-door to advocate against marriage equality via California’s Proposition 8, Murphy claims the Mormon leadership of today prefers a “soft power” approach to exerting its influence.
“The vast majority of everyone in [the Utah legislature] believes the same thing, and they are being influenced by the same church,” Murphy tells Rewire.News. “They still have their own offices and can still do what they want, but it’s very clear the church holds an enormous amount of influence over state politics.”
The Mormon church’s long shadow is omnipresent in Utah—influencing everything from tax policy to how restaurants in the state pour their liquor. Members of the faith are prohibited from drinking alcohol, and until 2017, restaurants that serve liquor in Utah were forced to fill drinks from behind a partition. Eight years earlier, the state had reversed a policy requiring any individual who wishes to patronize a local bar to fill out an application and sign up for a membership to the establishment first.
The invisible hand of the Mormon church isn’t always so invisible when it comes to LGBTQ issues. While the “Utah compromise” shielded certain types of anti-LGBTQ bias—like landlords evicting gay tenants because of their sexual orientation or employers refusing to hire transgender people—it did nothing to target one of the state’s biggest offenders, the LDS church.
Two of the state’s five biggest employers are affiliated with Brigham Young University. The LDS church is the top employer of tech workers in Salt Lake City. Zions Bank, which was founded by Brigham Young himself, comes in second.
The law also did not include LGBTQ protections in either education or public accommodations. Thus, even with a nondiscrimination bill on the books, transgender Utahns can still be prevented from using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity in schools or buildings that are open to the public. To date, no city in Utah has passed a trans-inclusive civil rights ordinance.
Because of these gaps in the law, LGBTQ students at BYU still face being kicked out of school or expelled from on- or off-campus housing. While the college mandates all students—gay and straight—must remain celibate if they wish to stay enrolled, the honor code places special restrictions on “any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature.” That could include something as small as a hug. Kris Irvin, a transgender student at BYU’s Provo campus, made national headlines in 2018 after he was threatened with expulsion for considering gender-affirming surgery.
While Murphy claims that proposals like the 2015 nondiscrimination law represent some positive momentum for Utah, she says it often feels as if the state is backtracking on equality at the same time that’s moving forward.
“It’s one step forward and one step back, but that step is on your neck,” she says.
Attempts at Common Ground
This month’s announcement is not the LDS church’s only attempt to find common ground with the LGBTQ community in recent years. In January, Mormon leadership announced that—for the first time in history—the church would not oppose a pair of long-gestating LGBTQ rights bills. The measures sought to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under Utah’s hate crime laws and ban anti-gay conversion therapy. Although that’s hardly an endorsement, it’s as close to an outright stamp of approval as it gets.
But the hate crimes bill signed by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this month still bore many of the same flaws as the 2015 nondiscrimination law. In addition to adding religion as a protected class, the legislation also includes protections based on “political expression.” In other words, if a Trump supporter is attacked while making a “Make America Great Again” hat, the individual can press charges.
This wasn’t the first time the Mormon church had weighed in on hate crimes legislation. In 2016, LDS leaders came out against a proposal that they felt strayed too far from the “balance” struck by the “Utah compromise.”
“The Utah legislature achieved something extraordinary last year in arriving at legislation that protected both religious liberty rights and LGBTQ rights,” a spokesman for the LDS church told The Daily Beast at the time. “Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained.”
When the Mormon church opposes legislation in a lawmaking body that’s 90 percent LDS, it’s effectively dead. Activists note that in fear of that enormous veto power, bills are often written to avoid offending the church’s sensibilities. Earlier this year, the effort to ban conversion therapy on LGBTQ youth stalled after lawmakers significantly watered down the bill. Amendments to HB 399 added in the house judiciary committee would have narrowed its scope to prohibiting shock treatments, which are rarely employed. More common methods like talk therapy would have remained legal.
In March, language on gender identity was also stripped from the bill, meaning it wouldn’t have stopped trans youth from being subjected to conversion therapy.
While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn’t explicitly push to defang the conversion therapy bill, critics say it’s hard not to see a connection to its rhetoric on trans issues. The Book of Mormon never explicitly mentions transgender people, but that technicality didn’t stop Dallin H. Oaks—who also issued the statement announcing the reversal of the “apostasy” policy—from claiming trans activists are doing the bidding of Satan in an October 2018 speech.
The devil “seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing, especially by parents who will raise children in truth,” Oaks said at the time.
Oaks has not apologized for those remarks either, and Murphy believes that’s telling.
“The thing about soft power is that there’s not a lot of evidence to point to, but when the church makes statements saying people like me are like ‘inherently sinful’ and a ‘transgression against God,’ it can stick,” Murphy says. “I cannot think of a single time that the church has really come to bat for us. Well, they’ve come to bat for us, except that they’re bringing a bat to hit us.”
While carve-outs in the hate crime law faced little outcry, the blowback to the decision to effectively neuter the conversion therapy legislation was fierce. The original sponsor of HB 399, Rep. Craig Hall (R-West Valley City), denounced the amended version and pulled his support for the bill. Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams, who has been a leading advocate to ban “pray the gay away” treatments at the statewide level, quit the governor’s Youth Suicide Task Force over the rift. In a statement issued in March, Williams called the substitute legislation an “absolute sham.”
“It will not protect one LGBTQ youth from suicide,” he said. “Not one. In fact, it will protect conversion therapists in continuing their harmful and discredited practices.”
Calling it an “enormous misunderstanding,” the governor apologized for Utah’s failure to pass the conversion therapy bill and pledged the state would soon revisit the issue. The measure will likely resurface in a special session of the legislature later this year.
What Would Real Progress Look Like?
Amid the LDS church’s pained attempts to compromise on LGBTQ rights, queer and trans Utahns this month say they felt a familiar melange of emotions earlier this month: a twinge of happiness mixed with anger, disappointment, sadness, and grief.
Moroni Benally, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, says he had hoped to see a “recognition of the lives lost” in the church’s statement.
“My first gut reaction was, ‘So what?’” he tells Rewire.News. “The second reaction I had after I thought about it for a few seconds was: ‘Where is the acknowledgment of the hurt and suffering that the policy induced in the last three and a half years? Where’s the accountability for the church as part of that?’ I was looking for a sense of humanity and Christ-like empathy for the pain they know was a consequence of that policy.”
That pain has been widespread, and it has had a major impact on membership in the LDS church. A survey conducted in 2016 showed that LDS millennials are leaving the faith in droves. Although around three-quarters of people who grow up LDS typically remain members of the church into adulthood, young people are increasingly bailing out. Slightly less than half of Mormon millennials stick with the church as they grow older, according to survey researchers Jana Riess and Benjamin Knoll.
According to Queers Divest’s Hiatt, the mass exodus from the LDS faith was led by “young, progressive Mormons” who are either LGBTQ or who have friends and family members that are part of the community. Nearly 50 percent of LDS millennials believe marriage equality should be legal across the country.
“It’s really hard in 2019 to not know someone who’s gay, trans, or nonbinary,” Hiatt claims. “Part of the reason we’re seeing the LDS church in this position where they seem to be trying to do things to protect the LGBTQ community is they’re losing membership, and money talks. The Mormon church has a stance that you pay 10 percent of your income to tithing. If they’re losing members left and right, they’re losing revenue.”
Kelly describes this month’s announcement as the Mormon church’s attempt to “have its rainbow cake and eat it too,” rolling back the November 2015 policy to keep more members from leaving without acknowledging why they would choose to do so. Other than a brief reference to “affected families,” the April statement from Oaks does not mention the parents who lost their children. While he claimed the revelation is intended to “reduce the hate and contention so common today,” Oaks does not address any role Mormon leadership has played in fueling anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
But it’s not merely the LDS church’s refusal to apologize that has irked some. Oaks also reaffirmed the religion’s stance on homosexuality, saying it would continue to be treated as a “serious transgression.”
While same-sex couples can now choose to have their children baptized at the age of 8—which is standard in the LDS church—Oaks actually warned LGBTQ families that their kids may grow up hearing their parents’ marriage is a “sin.” He claims “custodial parents” must be aware of “both the doctrine that a baptized child will be taught and the covenants he or she will be expected to make.”
River June August, an activist and community organizer who identifies as agender, says the announcement has left the community “divided.”
“A lot of the faithful Mormon members view it as a celebration,” they tell Rewire.News. “I don’t feel like it’s a move toward anything better because I believe the Mormon church’s presence—especially in Utah—is extremely oppressive and abusive. Abusers just don’t take from folks. They also give to keep them in this cycle.”
While Benally calls the decision a “small step in the right direction,” Galvez argues it’s one that serves to reaffirm the status quo instead of moving forward.
“It’s just coming back to where we were at three years ago,” he says.
When envisioning what real progress looks like for the LDS church, there’s no easy answer. Murphy compares it to a “fish trying to imagine land.” Many claimed it would take a radical rethinking of Mormon doctrine, which has occasionally evolved in the nearly 200 years since Joseph Smith allegedly transcribed The Book of Mormon from gold plates written in “reformed Egyptian.”
For instance, LDS policies long barred Black men from seeking ordination in the Mormon church. The guidelines were changed in a 1978 proclamation known as “Official Declaration 2,” in which LDS President Spencer W. Kimball boasted that the “long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.” While leaders often cite these policy changes as a result of the religion’s belief in “continuing revelation” from God, the announcement served a more practical purpose. A 1969 protest in which Black players on the University of Wyoming football team refused to play BYU brought national scrutiny on the church.
LGBTQ people hope that continuing pressure on LDS leadership will inspire those in power to recognize the struggles of other groups who have long been marginalized and shut out, even as the church purports to be listening and evolving.
But according to August, the reality is that little will change unless the Mormon church no longer has so much power over LGBTQ lives in the state of Utah. That’s why the nonbinary activist has pushed to bring the Poor People’s Campaign to Utah by opening a chapter in Salt Lake City. Billing itself as a “national call for moral revival,” it’s a grassroots movement committed to challenging “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation.”
While LGBTQ issues aren’t explicitly stated in that mantra, the campaign intends to back fully inclusive legislation—without compromise—and help elect lawmakers who will further those goals. If the Mormon church and the politicians who represent them won’t be part of the solution, August wants them voted out.
“We’re trying to put the right people in the right places,” says August, who acts as a steering committee member on the Utah Poor People’s Campaign. “If we can all band together, then we have a shot at taking down the system, but it takes a lot of work and the people that we’re trying to mobilize together the most oppressed. Most of those folks are already in survival mode. Trying to do something else other than just survive is really almost impossible.”