I marched this weekend in a Gay Pride parade behind a “Mormons for Marriage Equality” banner. Contingents of Mormons have been marching in Pride parades all around the country over the past few weeks, creating some media buzz. I’ve seen some suspicious observers speculate that this is an orchestrated public relations move on the part of the LDS Church, hoping thereby to mitigate resistance to Mitt Romney. That theory’s unduly conspiratorial: in fact, a major issue for the grassroots organizers has been deciding on messaging that will feel “safe” to Mormons who worry about their church standing. The message my contingent marched with, “Mormons for Marriage Equality,” was too bold, and overtly politicized, for groups in some other cities, who have opted for more general expressions of goodwill–“LDS heart LGBT,” that kind of thing.
I’ve blogged elsewhere about how I think these marches relate to Mormonism’s internal politics vis-a-vis homosexuality. Here I want to comment on what these marches seem to symbolize for observers.
In the march I participated in, our little “Mormons for Marriage Equality” contingent–which was basically one family with kids plus a handful of other adults–got an undue amount of attention for its size. People ran out into the street to take photos; we got some very emphatic “thank you’s” from observers as we passed. I’m sure the marching contingents of Unitarians, and Presbyterians, and UCC got warm receptions, too. But Mormons–that’s something else entirely. The symbolic significance of Mormon participation is much greater than that of UCC because Mormons are so associated with anti-gay politics.
Although appreciative, people’s reactions to our marching made me feel something I felt also during the protests outside Mormon temples in the wake of Proposition 8: Mormons, it seems to me, have been made to carry a disproportionate share of the weight of American homophobia.
Let me hasten to nuance that statement. Mormons have been disproportionately influential, for their size, in supporting defense-of-marriage campaigns, Prop 8 being just the most intensive and well publicized example. So it’s entirely reasonable that Mormons should have become one of the leading faces of anti-gay politics in America (and that they should have been a primary target of Prop 8 protests specifically). Indeed, if the blowback from Prop 8 hadn’t been so severe, Mormons themselves might be boasting right now about their contributions to defending traditional marriage; in friendly conservative circles, they may well be.
But I want to analyze the politics of representation here. Let’s do the hermeneutic of suspicion. How do pro-gay political movements benefit from linking anti-gay politics in America to Mormons? After all, Mormons aren’t the only religious conservatives who oppose gay marriage. There’s Catholics. There’s evangelicals. And certainly they come in for criticism from pro-gay groups, too. It seems to me, though, that opposition to Mormons has a different level of intensity to it. Maybe this is just my own residual Mormocentrism talking (the tendency of Mormons to place themselves at the center of the universe and to imagine that they’re specially persecuted). But I propose that opposition to Mormonism within the gay community involves an element of scapegoating that Catholics and evangelicals have not attracted.
Think of it this way: Imagine that in the same Pride parade I marched in, there had also been a contingent of “Catholics for Marriage Equality.” I’m arguing from a hypothetical here, which is weak, of course. But would “Catholics for Marriage Equality” have had as much symbolic force as “Mormons for Marriage Equality”? I don’t think so. And the reason for that, I’m suggesting, is that Mormons have come to be more strongly equated with homophobia than Catholics have been.
And, I’m suggesting further, the reason Mormons have been made to bear that disproportionate symbolic burden is that Mormons are perceived as more culturally marginal than Catholics. It is therefore more politically useful to make Mormons, rather than Catholics, the face of homophobia: If you associate anti-gay politics with Mormons, and if Mormons are culturally marginal, then you can represent anti-gay politics as culturally marginal. A similar effect is achieved when the Westboro Baptist Church is held up as the face of homophobia. It’s harder to produce that same effect, though, when you’re dealing with Catholics or evangelicals; there are too many of them to marginalize in the same way you can marginalize the WBC or Mormons. So if you want to portray homophobia as culturally marginal, you don’t want to associate it with Catholics and evangelicals: pick Mormons instead.
For Mormons, this is bad news because their role as the face of homophobia (a role they have certainly been complicit in creating for themselves) has the effect of reinforcing their late 20th-century relegation to the cultural margins. Mormons have been resisting their marginalization for a few decades now with limited success. Their association with anti-gay politics doesn’t help.