Mormonism, Gender, and the Tangled Nature of History

PrinceFew topics have dominated modern Mormon discourse as much as those related to homosexuality. The issue has certainly framed my own experience with the LDS church over the past decade. I was in my final year at BYU when Proposition 8 took place—more on this below—and the episode was formative in how I see Mormon culture; seven years later, the “November policy”—also discussed below—was another transformative moment. Yet so many events preceded 2008, and things have seemed to only escalate since then, that it can be impossible to keep track of the larger story. The world has long-needed, then, a meticulous history of all the institutional decisions that brought us to this point, especially if it contained insider information that could flesh out traditional narratives.

Fortunately, we finally have a book that fulfills that need. Gregory A. Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (University of Utah Press) is a nearly-exhaustive collection of institutional deliberations and actions over the past few decades, often buttressed by interviews and correspondence that have been previously unaccessible to scholars.

The story, at least in Prince’s telling, begins with the presidency of Spencer W, Kimball, who was the first modern leader to heavily emphasize the “threat” of homosexuality.[1] Kimball argued that homosexuality was itself a sin, and could only be overcome through repentance and righteousness. Eventually, however, church discourse later evolved, often through the influence, or at least the voice, of Dallin H Oaks, to argue that while sexual orientation may be innate, but that acting on homosexual inclinations was sinful. These two leaders, Kimball and Oaks, hover over the entirety of the book, and in many ways Gay Rights and the Mormon Church is framed as a response to them and their still-prevalent ideas. This shift from rejecting the biological basis for homosexuality (Kimball) to begrudgingly accepting it yet trenchantly maintaining the traditional form of marriage (Oaks) is interwoven throughout the book, including some of the most painful parts of that story like BYU’s tragic experiments with reparative therapy. Indeed, many readers will be struck by how far, and how quickly, the LDS institution has come in two decades—not to mention how recent it was that church policies regarding homosexuals were far more draconian.

The most useful parts of the book include the exhaustive details concerning how the church was involved in the numerous legislative and electoral initiatives over the years in attempt to forbid same-sex marriage. Hawaii was the starting point, as it served as a testing ground for how LDS leaders would navigate the politics. Several keys they learned from this episode in the 1990s included framing the debate as a moral rather than a civil rights issue, working in collaboration with other faiths (particularly the Catholic church), as well as staying out of the spotlight. The church then repeated these steps over and over again across several other states for the next decade, always to victory, and often avoiding overwhelming negative press. I was personally struck by how often BYU law professor Lynn Wardle showed up, as he was frequently behind many of the church’s efforts to frame their legal battles and buttress legislative initiatives; I hope scholars in the future do more to tease out his role in this complicated affair.

Things changed with the Proposition 8 campaign in 2008, when California voted on an amendment to the state constitution that would ban gay marriage. The ballot measure was prompted when a previous state law that had done the same thing, which the church had helped pass several years before, was struck down by the state’s supreme court. Once again, local members, actively urged by their leaders, sprung to action. One study estimated that though Mormons made up only 2% of California’s population, they accounted for half of the Prop-8 campaign’s donations, and another posited that they provided around 90% of the on-the-ground volunteers. And again, they were victorious. Yet this time, the cultural climate had changed so much that the negative backlash overshadowed anything that had come before, and 2008 became a turning point in the larger national picture, eventually leading to the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Following legalization, the LDS Church was once again forced to adapt, which required both external negotiations—like working with state politicians to support granting legal rights to LGBT persons but still maintaining religious exemptions—as well as internal practices, like the November 2015 policy that declared anyone in a homosexual marriage to be considered in apostasy, and their kids barred from ordinances until they turned 18. Prince was able to piece together the origins of the policy by discussing with people “on condition of anonymity,” which make it appear both rushed and poorly fleshed out.[2] (Given it was repealed less than four years later, that may very well have been the case.) The blowback, of course, was monumental, and the book closes on an ambiguous note with a church and community still seeking firm land on which to stand, and without a clear path forward.

As with his previous biographies on David O’McKay and Leonard Arrington, Prince’s greatest contribution is compiling all this information into one place and drawing from lots of untapped resources. Gay Rights and the Mormon Church will therefore be an essential sourcebook for decades to come. But the compendium style, with short topical chapters that at times jump decades, can make the overall narrative feel disjointed, and the lack of connective tissue between the episodes and themes can make it difficult to trace the larger trajectory. Some of the sources also raise questions. For example, footnote 39 for chapter 3 cites “Boyd K. Packer to Dallin H. Oaks, March 16, 1978,” which appears a private letter between the apostles. Any historian who studies modern Mormonism, though, knows that these kinds of sources are typically restricted, so there is a question of provenance. It is likely this letter, like many others, are what Prince is referring to when he says that “many people” had “shared with me unpublished documents,” of which he then left photocopies in his personal archive. It is wonderful to have access to these crucial sources, of course, but there are plenty of questions regarding where they came from and how reliable they can be.

Having said what I believe to be crucial strengths of the book, allow me to close by highlighting a few things that were a bit harder to swallow.

Prince’s own background shapes much of how he approaches the topic. As a scientist, he spends a lot of time on the biology behind homosexuality, and at times even refutes the Church’s discourse point-by-point. This analysis sometimes disrupts the narrative, however, and it can overshadow the cultural dimensions of sexuality. Indeed, it also appears a bit discordant with most scholarly literature on sexuality in America, which has worked to move away from biological determinism in order to better capture the dynamic spectrum of gendered experience.

Another aspect of Gay Rights and the Mormon Church that makes it distinct from other works in the field is his avoidance of the broader cultural context. While the book does mention the legal scaffolding of modern America, and Prince ably summarizes the legal and political activities in the fight for and against LGBT rights, he does not explore how the Mormon experience fits into other religious movements, particularly the Religious Right. In what ways did the institution borrow from the wider discourse, and in what ways did it diverge from it? These are questions that remain mostly unanswered.

And finally, perhaps one of the most quixotic aspects of the book is its focus on men. Indeed, save for one chapter—unironically titled “What About Lesbians?”—the entire book focuses on how the church approached gay men. Prince explains he did this “not because lesbianism or bisexuality are any less important but rather because the nearly universal focus of–indeed, fixation on–LDS Church policies, procedures, and statements have been gay men.” Yet that very gendered fact requires unpacking. Why does the LDS Church focus on gay men? And further, even if these policies were directed to gay men, how did they affect lesbians or bisexuals? Indeed, for a book on sexuality, there is surprisingly little gendered analysis.

It is notable that these issues that I have highlighted within Prince’s book often reflect the LDS church itself. By making the narrative science-driven, exceptional, and patriarchal, Gay Rights and the Mormon Church is as much an extension of LDS gender discourse as it is an analysis of it. This is, in part, a result of Prince’s own interpretive approach: he often uncritically mirrors the language and arguments of those he believes to be the “heroes” of the story, often those who pushed for change from the inside.[3] Prince’s book, in other words, is part of the very cause he documents. Indeed, the book opens with an anecdote that places the author in the middle of the story, making it clear that he sees himself as one of the enlistments for the battle.

As such, I actually believe it is a pretty powerful addition to that message. This is an important book in the constant, complicated, and dynamic dialogue regarding homosexuality and modern Mormonism. Further, this compendium of “actions” and “consequences” will be immensely useful in the discussions yet to come, as I doubt the tensions at play will disappear any time soon.


[1] As I discuss later, Prince misses an opportunity to connect Kimball’s obsession with sexuality with other evangelical leaders at the same time, and in many ways was merely echoing the message of people like Jerry Falwell.

[2] Among those anonymous sources seems to have been an apostle, as Prince quotes “One Quorum member” without any citation.

[3] If I hadn’t gone on so long already, I’d talk more about how heterosexual activists are often cast as the “heroes,” and gay men are typically set as the “martyrs.”