Prior to the 1950s a strong case could be made that the Mormon Church had an indifferent attitude, if not even a tolerant one, toward homosexuality. Discretion and church loyalty were the primary determinants of whether a person could maintain membership within the church prior to the nifty 50s.
A prime example of this was how LDS President George Albert Smith dealt with the homosexuality of his cousin Joseph Fielding Smith. In 1945 George became president of the Church and by all accounts was a very gentle, kind, yet emotionally fragile man. George’s great-grandnephew stated to me that he felt that George didn’t care if people had “that” sexual orientation as long as it didn’t embarrass the church. This seemed to be the church’s position under George. As long as discretion was maintained, the church would look the other way. However when a person’s homosexuality became a source of potential embarrassment to the church, the individual was allowed to quietly resign.
In 1946, the following year, the Mormon Church faced its first known predicament regarding homosexuality within its inner circle when facts surfaced that the church’s patriarch, Joseph Fielding Smith, had been in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 21-year-old male Mormon sailor. The patriarch was allowed to resign office for “illness” without fanfare and quietly excommunicated. He was exiled to Hawaii for 10 years when his membership was then quietly reinstated.
This fall from “Mormon grace” by Mormon royalty must have left the leadership of the church pondering the nature of homosexuality and how it could so consume one of their very own with such disastrous consequences.
That same year George called 52-year-old Mormon Apostle Spencer Kimball to a special assignment to counsel Mormon men – who, like the former patriarch, had homosexual desires or experiences. This was the first time the Mormon Church set up a department to deal specifically with homosexuality. Unfortunately George could not have chosen a more unenlightened homophobic man. Perhaps the strain of zealously dealing with the number of homosexuals within the church was difficult for him because the following year Kimball had a heart attack.
In the year of Kimball’s heart attack, George wrote in his April appointment book the words: “Homo Sexual” without explanation. According to Earl Baird Kofoed in an unpublished manuscript, George met with two homosexual men who came to him for advice on their homosexual relationship. According to Kofoed, George counseled the young men to “live their lives as decently as they could.”
George may have been genuinely puzzled by homosexuality and why so many church members seem to be tormented by it. However, for other General Authorities it was easier to teach that Satan was using homosexuality to destroy the Mormon Priesthood than it was to believe that homosexuality may be genetic within the Mormon population.
That homosexuality may be genetically intrinsic in Mormons is bolstered by a 1949 master’s thesis submitted by a University of Utah sociology student named John A. Pennock. He recorded the sexual experiences of 200 male students and found that 16.5 percent of men surveyed, reported they had had homoerotic experiences. Sixty-nine percent were Mormon, and 80 percent said they were actively Mormon. All of the students said they planned to marry.
If there is indeed a “gay gene,” it seemed to be prominent within the Mormon population, perhaps spread by polygamy which would have widely disseminated such a gene in such a narrow gene pool.
Pennock’s thesis is significant because it is the first publicly available study of homosexuality within the Mormon population and may have been influenced by the recent Kinsey report on male sexuality.
The 1948 Kinsey report was a milestone study which indicated that one in 10 males had had a homosexual experience and about 2 to 4 percent of all males were confirmed homosexuals on a scale of one to six.
In 1950, still during George’s presidency, a music teacher at Ricks College was fired from his position for having sexual relations with several male students. He was not excommunicated. When asked if the professor should be excommunicated, Mormon First Counselor, J. Reuben Clark replied, “thus far we had done no more than drop them from positions they held.”
George Albert Smith, the last gay-friendly president of the Mormon Church, died at his home on April 6, 1951. Two days later, at the spring General Conference, David O. McKay set the tone for his presidency of the Mormon Church sounding the “Battle Cry Against Vice.”
Nevertheless, the era of tolerance toward homosexuals continued at least another six months after George died. In Oct. 1951, the Mormon First Presidency, instructed a mission president not to excommunicate a missionary Elder for sexually fondling three young men. Richards stated that the missionary was only guilty “of great indiscretion.”
A year later, tolerance of homosexual behavior within the Mormon Church was no longer permitted. During the October 1952 semi-annual General Conference, the church publicly announced a radical shift in its attitude toward homosexuals from viewing them as being benign minor transgressors to dangerous threats to both church and State. This shift paralleled the United States’ labeling of homosexuals as security risks and the LDS Church’s new public relations campaign to be viewed as a mainstream church.
Clark, of the Mormon First Presidency, while speaking to the Mormon Relief Society, became the first General Authority to publicly warn of the “great influence” nationally of “homosexuals” and of homosexuality. He also acknowledged, in his address, masturbation and the existence of lesbianism for the first time.
In that October 1952 conference address entitled “Home and Building Home Life,” Clark told the Relief Society for “the person who teaches or condones the crimes for which Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed – we have coined a softer name for them than came from old; we now speak of homosexuality, which is tragic to say, is found among both sexes … Not without foundation is the contention of some, that the homosexuals are today exercising great influence in shaping our art, literature, music and drama.”
Under the stewardship of President McKay the LDS Church became increasingly homophobic and with the rise of the John Birch Society movement in Utah, ultra-conservatives like Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson likened homosexuals to political subversives who would destroy the fabric of American Life if left unrestrained. To the General Authorities of the 1950s, homosexuality was a contagious virus to be eliminated. Many of the aging General Authorities of today are products of this time when homosexuality went from being viewed as harmless as masturbation to the “sin next to murder.” These men have misguidedly set the policies that would ruin and destroy the lives of thousands of gay people and the people who loved them for the next 50 years.