by Averyl Dietering
Okay, so I’m guessing President Packer would probably disagree with being called an LGBTQ activist. In fact—who am I kidding?—he would totally hate being dubbed an LGBTQ activist. But nevertheless, President Packer is one of my favorite proponents for gay rights.
“But wait—“ I can hear you all saying, “how can President Packer be a gay rights activist? Didn’t he write To The One and To Young Men Only, addresses in which he denigrated homosexuality as a temporary condition brought on by sexual perversion and Satanic temptation? In these addresses, didn’t he condone the possibility of violence against homosexual members as a way of dealing with their homosexuality? And as late as 2010, didn’t President Packer say in a General Conference talk that being LGBTQ was a choice because a loving Heavenly Father would never create one of his children to be gay?”
Yes, all those things are true. If we define his activism by his intentions, then President Packer is clearly no gay rights activist. However, if we define his activism by its effects, then it is quite possible that President Packer has been the catalyst for more positive changes in LGBTQ affairs in the Church and in Utah than any other LDS person.
In general, the traditional reading of the Church’s response to homosexuality (and non-heterosexual people as a group) has been along the following lines: the Church has always and will always oppose homosexual acts, and the Church is upholding the will of God by fighting against same-sex marriage in the United States, even if the battle against same-sex marriage appears to be one that they are losing. This traditional reading is by no means historically accurate, but it seems to be the general assumption that most Mormons—especially those who are not LGBTQ allies—rely on when searching for a framework on which to build their beliefs about homosexuality and the Church.
Let me propose a slightly different reading of the events regarding LGBTQ affairs and the LDS Church that have taken place in recent months and years. Now, keep in mind that I’m not saying this different reading is the correct reading; instead I am trying to provide another way of interpreting past events in an effort to expand the manner in which we think about the relationship between the Church and the gay community. As I have discussed this topic with Mormon and non-Mormon friends and read about it in pamphlets, books, blog posts, and news articles, I’ve noticed this different narrative emerging—one in which the LDS Church still plays a very powerful role, but whose actions to stem the tide have serendipitously helped to further the cause of gay rights.
And because of his outspoken rhetoric, President Boyd K. Packer is at the forefront of this accidental activism.
(photo credit: The Goates Notes)
So let’s go step by step through this alternative interpretation of the Church’s and Pres. Packer’s relationship with LBGTQ affairs:
1. President Packer writes To Young Men Only (1976) and To The One (1978). These addresses teach that homosexuality is a choice, and that if necessary, physical violence should be used against homosexuals. These talks become very popular throughout the Church, and many members use Pres. Packer’s rhetoric and reasoning in their arguments against homosexuality (as a child, I remember hearing people talk about “beating the gay out” of homosexuals).
2. The anti-gay attitudes that members learn from To Young Men Only (which the Church continued to publish for decades in pamphlet form) and To The One become crucial in fighting for Prop 8 in California. The battle for Prop 8 becomes a nationally-covered media event that brings the gay marriage movement even further into the limelight, and the LDS Church is frequently cited as one of its greatest supporters. (The LDS Church also pours a great deal of money into fighting for Prop 8 and is later found guilty of 13 counts of political malfeasance, making it the first church to be fined for illegal political activity in the state of California).
3. President Packer’s Oct. 2010 General Conference talk, Cleansing the Inner Vessel, garners nationwide attention after Pres. Packer claims that being homosexual is a choice: “Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and the unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father.” After a PR fiasco, Cleansing the Inner Vessel is heavily edited before publication, and an HRC petition with 150,000 signatures prompts the Church to release a statement that is significantly more progressive than its previous messages about homosexuality. President Packer’s anti-gay teachings appear to have forced the Church to openly espouse a more progressive stance towards homosexuals.
4. In December 2012, the LDS Church website mormonsandgays.org goes live. The website appears to distance the Church from Pres. Packer’s anti-gay rhetoric, and condemns gay bashing–such as Pres. Packer’s suggestion that physical violence against gay members might be necessary. (Six months later, the Supreme Court rules DOMA to be unconstitutional and dismisses the Prop 8 court case.)
5. As a result of the unconstitutionality of DOMA, Judge Shelby rules that Utah’s amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage is likewise unconstitutional. On December 20, 2013, Utah becomes the 18th state to legalize gay marriage.
This alternative interpretation is obviously not a comprehensive history of the relationship between Pres. Packer and the gay community, nor do I present it as the correct interpretation. Yet at the same time, I’ve heard many members of the gay Mormon community smile at the outcome of Prop 8 or Cleansing the Inner Vessel, and simply say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Considering the effects of Pres. Packer’s teachings about homosexuality over the pulpit, could it be that the recent ruling overturning the same-sex marriage ban in Utah is as much a result of Pres. Packer’s controversial statements as it is a part of our national trend? Could it be that Pres. Packer and the LDS Church are playing a vital role in the gay rights movement, even if that role is not exactly the one they think they are playing?
(an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that DOMA was ruled unconstitutional in 2012 instead of 2013. the author edited the timeline 12/28/2013.)