Mormons as the face of homophobia

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.

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3 thoughts on “Mormons as the face of homophobia

  1. You make a very good point.

  2. Mike Butler says:

    Very interesting points, John-Charles. I must say I think the effect of Prop 8 on turning Mormons into the “face of homophobia” can’t be overstated; it is certainly where my interest in this issue began, since I am a Californian.

    While other anti-marriage-equality measures and the involvement of other religious groups have come and gone over the last decade, Prop 8 and what was essentially its sponsorship by Mormons were unique in several ways:

    California is by far the largest state where marriage equality has been placed on the ballot, and it is fairly clear that Mormons contributed more to the campaign than all other donors combined.

    Prop 8 marks only the second occasion in US history when citizens who actually possessed marriage rights have had them forcibly removed by a ballot. The other time was in Utah in 1895.

    The LDS Church holds the dubious distinction of being the only religious body ever found guilty of violating California election laws and is the only church in California history ever to be fined by the state for breaking our laws, in connection with the misreporting of its Prop 8 campaign donations of tax-exempt Church funds.

    California is the only state I know of in which legally-married couples have been taken to court en masse (in the Spring 2009 legal actions on Prop 8 before the CA Supreme Court) by lawyers whose intent was to have them forcibly divorced against their will. Mr. Pugno and the other lawyers failed in this particular effort, but their salaries were paid by ProtectMarriage, the Prop 8 organization that was, and still is, essentially funded by Mormon donors and which has received tax-exempt donations from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints itself. Many of these couples and their friends, myself included, know exactly what being taken to court feels like and know exactly who did it in this case.

    While Catholics and evangelicals and Americans with no religious affiliation at all have surely opposed marriage equality, Mormons have singled themselves out as a group, particularly with their Prop 8 involvement, in the above ways that are unique. To discount their opponents as mere religious bigots strikes me as ignoring the facts and, frankly, smells a little of Mormon Persecution Complex.

  3. Phi says:

    You certainly play the Mormons as victims well in this article. Mormons are very good at doing this, to your own admission.

    It’s funny to me how pro-gay Mormons are trying to make the rest of the world believe that they are not anti-gay, when everything about Mormonism is uber anti-gay. No room for gays in any part of the Mormon reality. Anyone who disagrees and can make their arguments, but no matter what you say and do, your prophet has made his mind up, and the followers will follow blindly without question.

    Do you forget all the anti-gay stuff that is said during your conferences? Mormons will be anti-gay until the end of time. That will never change. I’ve said it before, all that has changed with this Mormons for Marriage Equality, is that those people just became a little less Mormon, NOT that Mormons have become less anti-gay.

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