Saturday, September 15, 2007

Out of the Mouths of Apostles

-L- recently posted on Northern Lights about Elder Boyd K. Packer's controversial statement regarding feminists, gays, and "so-called intellectuals." This sparked some conversation about the notorious 1976 conference talk (eventually published as the pamphlet For Young Men Only), which RealNeal quoted:
"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."

“I hit my companion….I floored him”

“Oh, is that all? Well, thanks. Somebody had to do it, and it wouldn’t be well for a General Authority to solve the problem that way.”

“I am not recommending that course to you, but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself.”

While I respect -L-'s position that we always have a choice about how we receive and interpret statements made by Church leaders, here's how I, as an LDS youth took this...

As a boy I idolized Elder Packer. He was (and is) a great orator. I admired his forthright, down-to-earth style. I was moved by his stories and metaphors. Most importantly, as an LDS youth growing up in an affluent, worldly suburb of Rochester, New York, I was inspired by the focus of so much of his teaching on what it meant as a Latter-day Saint to live "in the world but not of it."

I took this particular talk deeply to heart. In my High School Health Class, we had a teacher who liked to teach by sharing stories or scenarios which members of the class were then invited to comment on. One of the stories he shared involved a couple of young men going to a gay bar, where they identified potential victims and then later assaulted them. I raised my hand, took a deep breath, and then said, "If it helped teach them the error of their ways, I think it was a good thing." Then, as now, I abhorred violence, and rationally this seemed like an extreme position. But I specifically remembered that talk by Boyd K. Packer, and in my teenage mind, the logic of that talk compelled me to take such an extreme position. My own doctrinal innovation, I guess, was that it was for the faggots' own good.

Members of my health class were appalled. One by one they raised their hands and wanted to debate me, but I held my ground. Later, after class, I was approached by a boy who had remained silent throughout the debate. This was a guy I had never particularly liked, because he was a bully. He told me how much he admired me for taking the position that I did and defending it, even though it was unpopular. "I believe everything you said," he told me, "but I wouldn't have the courage to say it." I actually felt a bit sick to my stomach about that; I had a sort of "What have I done?" feeling.

It's still painful for me to reflect on that experience. I've wondered what relation this might have had to my later suicidal intentions as a junior at BYU. If I truly believed that violence against homosexuals was justified, was it a leap to direct that violence inwardly, toward myself?

-L- is right. As an adult, I have the power to reason, to question, and to think for myself. And I may take what Church leaders teach to a positive or a negative place. But how much independent thought is a young teenage boy capable of, especially one who idolizes the speaker whose thoughts he is supposed to be evaluating? And when we live in a culture where violence against gays is an all-too-pervasive reality (both my partner and I have been victims of it), what responsibility does a Church leader describing an incident of anti-gay violence have to provide context and explain exactly what he means by self-defense?

I have a testimony in relation to the leaders of the Church. It has been reinforced in numerous ways, through personal prayer and private spiritual experiences as well as through my renewed attendance at conference, where once again I am learning powerful lessons from Church leaders -- including Elder Packer. This story is not proof to me of a "fallen apostle" or a "fallen church." It's not my intention to add my voice here to the chorus of Elder Packer's critics, because I have learned so many positive things from him. In a sense, much of the moral courage I have learned over the years is attributable to the teaching I received from him. I do see this story, perhaps, as an illustration of the kinds of human shortsightedness we're all subject to, and of the responsibilities leaders and teachers in the Church have to those who are led and taught.


MoHoHawaii said...

John, you more than any other blogger make me cry.

I cannot go exactly where you go, but you bring a level of humanity to the discussion that makes me wish I could share your path. If there is such a thing as holiness, you possess it.

Beck said...

I was in the congregation as a very impressionable 16 year old boy when that talk was given. I have never forgotten the feelings I felt when the response to his story was outrageous laughter from the priesthood body.

I had a recent personal encounter with Elder Packer last month... L's discussion and your compassionate post here have triggered me to put that teenage experience and this most recent experience together in a strange juxtaposition.

J G-W said...

At the young age when I began to wrestle with my same-sex attraction (between 12 and 14), there were zero resources for Latter-day Saints to deal with this in a healthy way. And teenagers can be far more ruthless in their attitudes than adults, especially when they are in fear of judgment. Obviously I took Elder Packer's talk to places I'm sure he would have found appalling.

God Loveth His Children is a vast improvement over For Young Men Only I guess. Had I gone to my health class with Dallin Oaks' October conference talk on this subject still fresh in my memory, I think my response to the Health class scenario would almost certainly have been much, much different.

playasinmar said...

This post means a lot to me. I wish I could say more but I hope, "Thank you for writing this," will suffice.

Elbow said...

You are exactly right and I just want to add that I feel so passionately about this topic. Why are the leaders of the Church not saying more about love and tolerance towards gay men and women? Why do they continue to act like we can be swept under the rug? It feels wrong to me and I don't want to get all angry up in here, but your post made me think, and I'm glad you've shared this.

Anonymous said...

i asked a recent black convert, with whom i had a comfortable relatioship before he met the missionaries, how he felt about the church's past practices regarding race and priesthood.

he totally and without bitterness dismissed, saying, in effect, well, what do you expect from a bunch of old white guys; i'm just glad they finally woke up and changed things."

so, regarding BKP, what else do you expect from someone growing up in the west in the middle of the last century... i'm just glad with whatever change he's made

J G-W said...

I think I can say without bitterness that I too am glad things are changing.

I told the story because I think it is not possible to move forward if we are in denial about the harmful things that have been said and done. If we pretend that making statements like this do not cause damage, then what motivation would we have to seek understanding and make changes for the better?

In the end, when we rejoice together in the Celestial Kingdom, we will be entitled to that future fullness of joy because of the faithfulness we showed by sticking with each other here and now, even through the very painful hurts we have caused each other. Why else is there an Atonement, if not to heal those hurts?

bill mca said...

As an active, LDS male, I have two comments:

1. Perhaps some young men have such a violent reaction to homosexuality as a response to their own homoerotic tendencies, which I believe are considered fairly universal at the age John mentions (12-14).

2. I'm so thankful that there is such a thing as continuous revelation. The church has come a long way since 1976 (blacks didn't even have the Priesthood when Elder Packer's talk was given!).

Forester said...

We are bound to be offended some time by something a leader of the church says. I hope all of us can forgive and move forward with our lives. I personally don't think Elder Packer was inciting young men to violence. I felt it was more along the lines of defending yourself against possible abuse. If the person making the advancements is not taking "no" for an answer, then a smack upside the head may be what is needed. I also agree with the perception of the time period in which it was said.

J G-W said...

Bill - I agree... The less homophobic our culture becomes, the more people will be enabled to deal rationally with their own same-sex feelings.

Forester - I don't presume to know what Elder Packer was thinking when he made a statement like that. It's hard for me to imagine a real-life scenario in which a missionary companion would be forced to slug his companion so hard that he'd knock him to the floor, but that's just me.

There is a phenomenon in our culture called "homosexual panic." It includes the presumption that same-sex sexual advances are so devastating to the heterosexual male ego that they "cause" men to react to any male advance with extreme violence, including murder. "Homosexual panic" has been used as a defense in many murder trials, fortunately with decreasing success. Read more about it here. Elder Packer's story sounds an awful lot to me like "Mormon homosexual panic."

Tito noted that For Young Men Only is no longer distributed by the Church. And Jeffrey Holland is most recently quoted as saying, "When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of church membership, we fail them - and the Lord." The Northern Lights blog posted the Salt Lake Tribune article where this is quoted. This is probably about as close as the Church may ever come to issuing a formal apology for previous statements that have been made that have caused the kind of pain Elder Packer's statement has caused. The times they are a' changin'.

Anonymous said...

J G-W,

Again I thank you for your words. It is not just this one line of this talk in which BKP gives horrible advice and information. Taking the door off one's bedroom and tying one hand to the bed while sleeping with a copy of the BOM to keep from masturbating (which he said would make you gay) is horrible! How many boys thought they would grow up gay for having a wank when they were just a normal boy? This kind of language places fear and shame in the hearts of those that believe. Not at all what I want my children to learn. The gospel is a tool we use to enrich our lives, not a punitive force that builds walls.

J G-W said...

No, Pres. You're right, it's not just the one statement.

Anonymous said...


Sorry that my post had such a negative tone. I'm fluish and feverish which makes me mean because I'm a big baby.

Being gay and mormon is an existential problem for us and for the church. I worry about people I love and have been feeling a little over protective of people in my life. I think the church is more than capable of standing on its own, not always so with those we love.

I believe that true repentance and change have nothing to do with fear or shame, but have everything to do with connection to divine love and realizing our true nature. Being gay itself is not a sin, and I'm so happy the leaders have voiced this repeatedly in the last few years. I only hope that this message, which really contradicts BKP and SWK talks from the past, will continue to promote understanding.


J G-W said...

Pres - Thanks. I didn't want my post to have a negative tone either... I really don't feel negative about this, as I once did. I'm grateful for all the healing that's taken place in my life.

But it would feel wrong to gloss over the past. That feels disrespectful to those who have been hurt, and who are still aching for healing. I honestly believe that no real healing is possible without acknowledging the pain.