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Lambda Lore

Homophobia

Homophobia is a word that is consistently misused by people to mean hatred of gay people. This was not the original intent of the word, as it was created as a clinical diagnosis for someone who has an irrational fear of homosexuals often acting out in aggression toward gay people.

If you simply hate gay people you are not homophobic you are a bigot. The General Authorities of the Mormon Church, I do not believe are, on the most part, bigots or haters, but they suffer from a mental illness called homophobia. This irrational fear is akin to the old Gay Panic defense that some straight men used to justify violence against homosexuals, both male and female.

For over seven decades the LDS Church has been at war with homosexuals stemming from fear of gay people, not hatred. They couch this epic battle in terms of good versus evil, fearing that homosexuality will destroy the cornerstones of Mormonism: priesthood authority and the heterosexual family unit.

Many of the oldest leaders of the LDS Church grew up in the anticommunist and homosexual era of the 1950s and 60s and still have many of those prejudices that were enshrined in public discourse. An example of the hysteria of the era is a comment by the national chairman of the Republican party that the New York Times reported in 1950. He warned that the “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our government in recent years” were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.”  From attitudes like this one, the association of homosexuals with subversion, became linked in the public mind.

Until the 1950s homosexuality among Mormons was treated benignly and was not considered the heinous sin it is made out to be today. In the 1940s then Church President George Albert Smith even counseled two gay men to “live their lives as decent and best” they  could. When his cousin Joseph Fielding Smith, the church’s patriarch, was found to be involved in a homosexual liaison with a young Mormon sailor, the patriarch was simply released from his position and quietly exiled to Hawaii.

Toward the end of President Smith’s life, in 1950, a music teacher at Ricks College, in Rexburg, Idaho was fired for having sexual relations with several male students.  J. Ruben Clark, counselor to George Albert Smith, simply advised local church leaders not to hold a Church court for the music teacher because “thus far we had done no more than drop them [homosexuals] from positions they held.”

After the death of George Albert Smith in 1951, the new church president David O. McKay set a decidedly different course on what he considered sexual immorality. At the April Conference 1951, the headlines of the Deseret News proclaimed McKay “Sounds Battle Cry Against Vice.”  McKay warned at general conference of “the corruption of cities as growing from the actions of a handful of individuals.”  Still, within the church membership, those found to have participated in homosexual activity were mainly counseled and not punished. About this same time, the editor of the Brigham Young University’s student newspaper, the president of the LDS married branch, and a star basketball player were outed as members of “a small group of homosexuals.”  Rather than being expelled, Dr. Ray R. Canning of the Sociology department, the counseling center, and the Dean of Women Students was asked to work with these students.

Even Stephen L Richards, counselor to McKay instructed a mission president in October 1951 not to excommunicate a missionary elder for the “superficial charge” of fondling the genitals of three young men, ages 12 to 13. Richards said the missionary was only “guilty of a great indiscretion.”

The church’s position on homosexuality radically changed by the 1952 October General Conference the following year,  J. Reuben Clark, counselor to McKay publicly warned of   the “ great influence” nationally of gay men and was the first General Authority to publically discuss the subject of homosexuality since 1897. Clark was the first General Authority to publicly acknowledge the existence of Lesbianism. In an address entitled “Home and Building Home Life”, Clark stated  “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”.

The Mormon Church was no doubt reflecting the public’s general fear of the spread of Communism. One of the greatest segment of  the population to act as scapegoats for this mass hysteria were homosexuals. In 1953 The Deseret News headlined “107 Fired in State Department” a story regarding the U.S. State department initial firing of homosexuals as security risks. Eventually President Eisenhower signed an executive order banning all homosexuals from government employment. Homosexuals were by thenn demonized as subversive perverts and a danger to National Security and the American way of life.  This shift in perception of homosexuals as being harmless unfortunates, to be pitied not loathed, was a product of Senator Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohen, and J. Edgar Hoover’s machinations, all of whom were closeted homosexuals.

The year 1953 also saw Utah reduce consensual sodomy from a felony to a Class B Misdemeanor. Sodomy or the “crime against nature,” defined as heterosexual and homosexual anal intercourse, became a felony in Utah Territory in 1876. As a felony it was punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years. Later, in 1907 the punishment was changed to three to 20 years imprisonment. In 1923 heterosexual and homosexual oral sex were added to the sodomy statute, thus criminalizing most sex acts outside of penis and vaginal sex  regardless of sexual orientation or gender of the persons involved. The Utah State Legislature, rather than being enlightened regarding human sexuality, changed sodomy from a felony to a misdemeanor only to increase convictions of homosexuals. Utah judges were unwilling to sentence people to prison for up to 20 years  for consensual sex, therefore the punishment for sodomy was changed to allow for more incarcerations in jail.

One of the most damaging events to cement the idea in the minds of the public that homosexuals were a danger to society was the 1955 Boise, Idaho sex scandal. “Three Boise Men Admit Sex Charges” was the headline of the Idaho Daily Statesman which began a a series of investigations of sexual relationships between men and boys and male prostitutes, which also included some Mormons. The salacious public disclosure created a witch hunt atmosphere within the homosexual communities of the Intermountain West, including Utah.

The atmosphere in Salt Lake City became absolutely toxic for homosexuals when arch-conservative and anticommunist Cleon Skousen became Chief of Police in 1956. He immediately instigated a sweeping pogrom targeting homosexual gathering places, and instilled in the public mind the perception that homosexuals were pedophiles. Perhaps the most insidious action on the part of Skousen was having men arrested for homosexuality and then committed to Utah’s State Hospital to  be examined for mental illnesses.

“In an effort to stem the increasing reports of molestation in Salt Lake City, Police Chief W. Cleon Skousen, Friday, issued orders to charge suspects under state law rather than with violation of city ordinances. In this way Chief Skousen said a conviction would enable authorities to commit offenders to the Utah State Hospital for life if medical examinations showed then mentally ill.

In an attempt to eradicate homosexual activity in the city in 1957 the Salt Lake Tribune also reported “In an effort to stem an “alarming increase” in cases involving homosexuals, Salt Lake City Judge Marcellus K. Snow plans “more use of the jail sentence to curb such offenses.”  The judge explained that certain places in the city are widely known as “Mecca’s for sexually maladjusted persons.”

By the end of the decade the Mormon Church had radically changed how it perceived homosexuality. It alarmed church leaders how many prominent married members were being arrested in Skousen’s “Moral Drive” to crush homosexuality.  Thus for the first time the Mormon Church began to address the issue of homosexuality within its ranks. In 1959 LDS President McKay assigned the Mormon Apostles Spencer Kimball and Mark E. Peterson to specifically counsel gay men to overcome their “homosexual problems.” Mckay said to Kimball, “Homosexuality was worse than heterosexual immorality; that it is a filthy and unnatural habit.”

At the same time church leaders were alarmed at “the growing problem … of homosexuality” at Brigham Young University and met with the church board of education, and the school’s president. Shortly after the meeting the church-owned university began a dubious practice called “aversion therapy” to cure the same-sex desires of Mormon males. BYU’s mental health counselors, Mormon bishops, stake presidents, and BYU’s Honor Code standard’s office referred or remanded young men with “homosexual tendencies” to this program. Aversion therapy entailed punishing gay men for getting an erection at the sight of a male body with a 1,600-volt impulse to the arm for eight seconds. This torture went on for years and enhanced in the 1960s by school president Ernest L Wilkinson who viewed homosexuals as contaminating the university.

It is claimed that Mormons have an ingrained persecution complex that stems from the earliest days and is sustained by the church to maintain a sense of specialness among the Mormon people. It also causes Mormons to fear outsiders. While Mormons have made peace with gentiles and people of color, homosexuals are seen as the ultimate outsiders.

The majority of Mormon people are good people trying to do what their leaders tell them. Sustaining priesthood authority is part and parcel of oaths and covenants Mormons take in Temple ceremonies so that the family unit can be everlasting. Within this context, I truly believe that most Mormons do not hate gay people but have been conditioned by decades of endless defamation of homosexuals over the Conference Pulpit to instill a fear of us as enemies. Boyd K. Packer solidified that view by lumping homosexuality with feminists and intellectuals as enemies of the church. The reality is that Mormon leaders have fossilized the idea that dissent equals apostasy.

I fear that Mormon leaders are so entrenched in their seven decade misguided homophobic crusade against homosexuals that they are immune to the pain and suffering inflicted on Mormon families. Perhaps they see the suicides, rejections and loss of faith of its members as collateral damage to insure ecclesiastical purity from the contamination of homosexuality. This is truly homophobia.

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Ben Williams

Ben Williams

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