Thursday, October 29, 2015

Of Mormons and Bridges and the World Congress of Families

In June 2012, a group of about 350 Mormons astonished the world by marching in the Salt Lake City LGBT Pride parade under the banner "Mormons Building Bridges." The sum total of their message was "We are Mormon and we love you unconditionally." It was not the most radical of messages, though to those of us in Mormon circles accustomed to a rhetoric about LGBT Pride that made it something akin to the Devil's Christmas, the gesture was revolutionary. It signaled something brand new in the relationship between the Mormon and gay communities.

2012 was a pivotal and contentious year in LGBT politics. Three states were facing ballot initiatives that would have banned same-sex marriage. Previous to that year, no such measure had ever failed. To many in the LGBT community, Mormons Building Bridges was taking the easy road by refusing to comment on or take a stand on the issue of the day: marriage. Some accused MBB of being a propaganda tool of the LDS Church, and of trying to co-opt the gay rights movement. Taking fire from both sides, it took courage for MBB to stand up.

This past week, Mormons Building Bridges did something equally momentous. With the arrival in Salt Lake of the World Congress of Families, notorious for the extreme anti-gay rhetoric of some of its leaders and for its support of extreme anti-gay legislation in Russia and Nigeria (HRC and the Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled WCF a hate group), MBB decided to organize groups of individuals who could attend and be a presence at the conference. Their core message was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspired them to stand up for inclusion of LGBT people in our families and in society. They went with the stated intention of engaging in dialog -- both listening for greater understanding, but also sharing their unique perspective on LGBT issues.

Of concern to many was the high profile way in which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be participating in the conference. Elder M. Russell Ballard was a featured speaker at the opening plenary, and the Tabernacle Choir was going to perform at the conference. Of course the presence of the conference in Salt Lake meant that large numbers of Latter-day Saints were going to attend and participate.

In the week before the conference, Erika Munson, a member of the MBB community, published an editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune criticizing the "natural family" rhetoric of WCF. MBB members attending WCF wanted to engage in dialog about the ways that "natural family" rhetoric could harm and exclude LGBT people. Showing up at the conference identified by yellow MBB stickers, they wanted to be a visible presence in support of LGBT inclusion.

I was able to be a part of this amazing, tiny band of souls, and what I witnessed was truly amazing. I was one of several LGBT participants in MBB's contingent, including Kendall Wilcox, Berta Marquez, and Samy Galvez. There were not huge numbers of us, but MBB's presence had an impact far out of proportion with our small numbers.

My impression of the conference was that it consisted of a very large number of people with concerns that had nothing at all to do with same-sex marriage or LGBT rights. Many -- perhaps most -- of the conference participants were concerned primarily about things like children growing up in poverty and in single parent homes, divorce (and it's disproportionately negative impact on women), and social ills like drug-abuse and homelessness that are the consequence of failed homes and parental neglect. They were concerned, in other words, about many of the things that I and other members of MBB are concerned about.

The Mormon participation in WCF actually seemed to be a kind of moderate leaven in the mix. The most virulent and hateful anti-gay rhetoric at WCF was coming from non-Mormons like Raphael Cruz (the father of the presidential candidate) and Brian S. Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage. Elder M. Russell Ballard's opening plenary talk emphasized the importance of compromise (much in the vein of Elder Dallin H. Oaks' address exactly one week previous), diversity and fairness for all, and acknowledged the LDS Church's support for legal protections for LGBT people (he used the term "LGBT"). Notably, Elder Ballard avoided the use of the loaded phrase "natural family." Mormon speaker Wendy Ulrich was applauded by MBB participants for her gender inclusive language. She as well as Linda and Richard Eyring, other LDS speakers at the conference, were appreciated for staying away from same-sex marriage, and focusing on the principles that make for any successful marriage -- principles that all applied as well to same-sex couples as to opposite-sex couples.

MBB members were listening to talks to get a sense of what people's primary concerns were, and were striking up conversations with conference participants that remained friendly and open, even as the conversations occasionally broached areas of disagreement. During the question and answer session of one of the panels, Berta Marquez introduced herself as an LGBT attendee, and invited individuals to come speak to her in person afterwards if they wanted firsthand experience with an actual LGBT person, rather than third party information. Eleven conference participants took her up on her offer. Six exchanged contact information with her, and three set up lunch dates.

MBB members actively participated in the question and answer sessions at panels, especially where an anti-gay message was being promoted. There was at least one instance of an MBB member being subjected to hostile and intimidating behavior by other conference participants. During a question and answer session at a panel, she asked "What advice would you give to parents if their child tells them he's gay?" She was shouted down by some attendees and then after the session was surrounded by people taking photos of her credentials and her MBB sticker. A woman who identified herself as a member of the organizing committee of the WCF asked this MBB member why she was being disruptive, and then began denigrating Mormons Building Bridges. Though the MBB participant tried to leave the conversation politely, this woman continued to harangue her for about half an hour. After this she and a number of other MBB participants were being followed by security who backed off when the MBB women spoke with them, and they realized that they were not being disruptive nor a threat.

Fortunately, there were other WCF participants who came to this MBB participant and apologized for what they perceived as horrendous behavior by the people who had harassed her. Despite this awful incident, it seemed that there were more instances of individuals having positive conversations and making positive connections, including with individuals and groups who expressed a desire to stay in touch and learn more about MBB.

I left WCF with a handful of literature that was passed out to conference participants, which included some fairly innocuous looking material about parenting and principles of a happy marriage, some libertarian political tracts, a copy of the Proclamation on the Family, a magazine with an article critical of Pope Francis for giving "confusing signs" about LGBT issues, and then a couple of really awful homophobic tracts. One was an advertisement for a book that shouted, "GOODBYE Marriage. GOODBYE Mothers & Fathers. GOODBYE Male & Female. In a World gone MAD, Children are in DANGER." Another described ways to identify victims of "the Sexual Revolution," which included "refugees" from "the gay lifestyle." This mix of handouts was pretty exemplary of what I and others witnessed at WCF.

My sense was that there were a lot of people at WCF with whom I and other LGBT rights supporters could dialog. There were many people whose genuine concern was the welfare of children and the promotion of marital stability and happiness, who didn't have a particularly anti-gay ax to grind. To the extent that they were worried about same-sex marriage, it seemed to me that it was because they had a lack of information or because they had only been exposed to lurid rhetoric about the gay lifestyle or fear-mongering about "religious freedom." In light of the language of compromise in Elder Ballard's keynote, it seemed to me that many of those folks might be moved once they realized that promoting stable, loving relationships of same-sex couples was actually part of the solution to the challenges facing families in the 21st century.

My sense was also that there are some hard-core anti-gay activists at WCF who do have an ax to grind, and who have made gay people the scapegoat for everything they think is wrong about the world. NOM President Brian S. Brown and Raphael Cruz were the standard bearers there for that hard-line position. The Mormon Church -- as conservative as it is on this issue -- is clearly not in the same camp with these folks. And I can't help but think that the anti-gay extremists will leave Salt Lake feeling frustrated by the lack of help coming to them from Mormon quarters. I believe that MBB had more in common with all the other Mormons at the conference than any Mormon had with many Fundamentalist Christians there.

MBB made an impression, for good or for ill. We were sought out by media, which gave us a platform to express concerns about "natural family" rhetoric, and to communicate a desire for families, churches and societies fully inclusive of LGBT individuals. We used social media to get our message out to WCF participants (using WCF hashtags as well as our own #StrengthenAllFamilies hashtag). We had powerful one-on-one conversations with like-minded as well as with other-minded. We participated in question and answer sessions to raise concerns whenever an extreme anti-gay agenda was promoted.

It was one thing for Mormons Building Bridges to march in Pride. That took courage, and it certainly was momentous. It was another thing entirely, and took a completely different kind of courage, to go somewhere members felt much less safe, in defense of their gay, lesbian, bi and transgender family and friends. Slow but steady, Mormons Building Bridges will help us win this race.


Eric said...

Thanks for the report! I so admire and respect you and the other MBB participants. For all of the talk we have about listening to each other, you walked the walk. Bravo!

Unknown said...

Thank you.

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