Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Rolling Stone

It's interesting, I have been simultaneously reading two books. One is called The Sixties Chronicle, which is basically a pictorial history of the events of the decade from 1960-1969 and also includes first hand accounts and commentary on the events. The other book is a biography of President David O. McKay called David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and which, although written by two Mormons, is a pretty truthful and fairly unbiased account of President McKay's tenure as Prophet of the LDS Church and isn't shy about tackling controversial issues such as the church's opposition to the civil rights movement, for example. I'm really enjoying both books immensely, and I've decided that in spite of his faults, I really like David O. McKay. He seems to be a great proponent of free agency, free thinking, and seems (to me, at least) to be a "spirit of the law" kind of individual as opposed to a "letter of the law" individual.

With the recent endorsement of the LDS Church, an ordinance in Salt Lake City which bans employment and housing discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals was passed. Many gay rights activists were surprised by the Church's endorsement, and I admit I was surprised as well (but was very pleased by what I see as a positive step). The LDS Church is still adamant that it will not support gay marriage and will continue to fight for what it believes is right as far as that issue is concerned.

Some in the gay-rights community are skeptical, feeling that the LDS Church only did this to save face with those who have a less-than-favorable impression of the church and did it simply to boost their image. That may be true, although it seems to me the LDS Church usually does what it feels is right regardless of how popular those decisions make them.

Some in the gay community are also indignant, feeling that they owe the LDS Church no gratitude for this endorsement when the church is still actively working to stifle their civil rights. This is an understandable feeling. I, for one, am grateful for any strides the LDS Church makes in regards to gay rights, just as I am thankful for strides that those in the gay-rights community make in creating an atmosphere of communication rather than antagonism. I think we all have a long way to go, but I am thankful for small steps even if it is "two steps forward, one step back" at times.

As I've been reading about the sixties, I am reminded of how volatile the issue of civil rights and desegregation could be, and although racism still exists today, it is fascinating to see how far the civil rights movement came. It is interesting to look at these photos and be reminded of a time not very long ago at all when black people couldn't sit at the same counter as white people or use the same restroom or drinking fountain; black people couldn't attend white schools and were denied employment because of the color of their skin; that a black person couldn't vote or marry a white person; that the whole "separate, but equal" idea was such a sham. One looks at these pictures and sees very plainly that whites were always given preferential treatment. They were given the better jobs, got to sit in the choicest seats, and weren't denied many of the normal things life didn't offer the African-American.

And when blacks attempted to fight for their rights, they were assaulted, beaten, hosed, attacked by dogs, intimidated, threatened, and killed, often by the very people whose job it was to supposedly "serve and protect."

And as I've read about these issues, it dawns on me that there were many segregationists who probably felt that the threat of civil rights for blacks was completely destroying the foundation of their very lives. They literally felt as if their world would fall apart if blacks were to obtain equal rights. I've seen pictures of a woman holding a picket sign that says, "Integration is a mortal sin." Another sign held by a young man says, "The only way to end niggers is exterminate." Another white man with a gun threatens a black man who is attempting to enter his store. Still another pours hydrochloric acid into a swimming pool where blacks are having a swim-in. Parents pull their white kids out of a school where a little black girl is attending first grade for the first time since desegregation has taken effect and has to be protected by federal marshalls. Police and local government leaders refuse to follow the policies the federal government has laid out concerning desegregation, and it is only through federal government protection that they publicly back down (although in private, they still commit some horrendous acts). A church is bombed and kills several black girls. Civil rights advocates are tortured and killed.

This was not so long ago. Even as I read this book about David O. Mckay, it is interesting to see where the LDS Church stood on civil rights issues. Realizing that church leaders and members were a product of their time, it is still amazing to me to see how blacks were treated by people who belong to a church established by the Savior himself. Most church leaders were opposed to racial integration, including David O. McKay, and were suspicious of the civil rights movement. J. Reuben Clark, Henry D. Moyle, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, and Mark E. Peterson all opposed civil rights and said things that would be considered racist. There was a resistance to change and progression as far as this issue was concerned.

One man in the First Presidency, Hugh B. Brown, was more progressive in this area and said the following in the October, 1963 General Conference when members of the NAACP threatened to picket Temple Square after being rebuffed in their desire to meet with the First Presidency:

"During recent months both in Salt Lake City and across the nation considerable interest has been expressed in the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.

"We again say, as we have said many times before, that we believe that all men are the children of the same God and that it is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny to any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.

"We have consistently and persistently upheld the Constitution of the United States, and as far as we are concerned that means upholding the constitutional rights of every citizen of the United States.

"We call upon all men everywhere, both within and outside the Church, to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God's children. Anything less than this defeats our high ideal of the brotherhood of man."

While not sanctioned by the church at the time as an "official statement," it later was reluctantly elevated to "official" status two years later when NAACP leaders threatened to organize a series of marches in front of the Church Administration Building.

As I've read all these things and thought about today's current climate, I cannot help but see the parallels between the civil rights movement of the 60s, the women's rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Just as whites feared their world would come crashing down as blacks tried to gain equality; just as men thought their worlds were crashing down when women tried to gain equality; so I think many straight people feel the same way as gay people try to gain equality. It was not so very long ago, too, that you could be arrested for being gay or when homosexuality was considered a disease (and some people still feel that it is).

Although I do think gay people have suffered discrimination and hate-crimes, I do have to say that I think black people have been treated far more harshly in American history than gay people have (although I do think gay people have been treated very unfairly, too).

It is interesting to me that the LDS Church always seems to be in the rear and very slow on the uptake when it comes to equal rights. Church leaders in the 60s opposed civil rights legislation, and the state legislature consistently shot down bills that would give equal rights to blacks. The church also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s. This quote is taken from a Utah history website:

"The attack against ERA seemed, at times, alarmist and hysterical. Equation of ERA with sexual permissiveness, abortion, child care, homosexuality, and unisexuality drew the debate away from the constitutional principal of equality to issues of 'traditional family values.' But the attack did reflect the fears of many about the changing roles of women and men and about the changing form of the family. There seemed to be danger in equality for the ideological/cultural concept of the father as head and provider, mother as nurturer and manager, and children as replicas into the next generation. Many feared the equality would make women more vulnerable and exposed, that men would feel freer to abandon family responsibilities.

"Certainly it was these fears which prompted Mormon church leaders to eventually join their financial resources, their promotional skills and their far-flung network of members to the counterrevolution. Church leaders in 1976 described ERA as 'a moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family as individual members as a whole.' President Spencer Kimball declared it 'would strike at the family, humankind's basic institution.'

"Donations to support the anti-ERA effort were solicited by ward bishops; speeches against the amendment were deemed appropriate at all church meetings, and church buildings were used as an anti-ERA literature distribution points. Church sponsored anti-ERA organizations operated in Florida, Nevada, North and South Carolina, Missouri, Illinois and Arizona."

The parallels to both fights seem very similar to the current gay-rights struggle vis-à-vis the LDS Church. But just as blacks and women have received more equality over the years (although there is still inequality, racism, and sexism that exists), I think it is inevitable that gay people will receive the rights they long for. I really do think it's a difficult, if not impossible task to stop "this rolling stone."

And just as I think it's hard to look back and read about the way the civil rights movement and the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment (which people are still trying to pass) were handled by the LDS Church, I am reminded about the current battle that is happening with gay rights and wonder how history will view the LDS Church. I don't know what will happen or even necessarily what should happen, but I do think gay rights are going to be a reality, especially as the older generation dies and the newer generation, many of whom seem to support gay rights, comes to the forefront. There will be some lost battles, but I think the war will be won, and just as I know there were people who thought their worlds would collapse as blacks and women gained more equality, I think those people who oppose gay rights will be surprised at how their worlds will remain intact. Heck, they might even discover that they are better. Change can be a very good thing, even if some people don't believe it is progress.


Andy Foree said...

Wow. I felt like I was reading a history lesson...but a good one. That was a great post; one that should probably be read by my parents....hmmm....

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

I've been curious about the parallels here for some time. While both sides have drawn on the civil rights movement for support of their causes (in spirit), there is no comparing the amount of suffering that African Americans faced in the civil rights era just as you stated. The photos you selected were powerful and difficult to look at.

Finally, your conclusion hit the nail on the head. Change has been seen as a looming threat for… well… forever. Contrary to popular belief, though, those who want to continue living their lives the way they want are welcome to do so. It’s not as if giving gays equal rights will cancel out marriage between straight people or such.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree, Gay Mormon Boy, that there really is no comparison with what African Americans have suffered. I frankly belief the oppression of the homosexual is minimal in comparison. After all, I have never been banned from entering a store because of my sexuality; I've never been threatened, intimidated, or beaten. I'm not saying that there aren't those that have, but I do think we have it much easier than our African American colleagues did.

And, of course, I very much agree with your last statement.

Scott said...

I think to a large extent the difference is because sexual orientation isn't as obvious as race. If gay people were clearly distinguishable as such, I'm certain that history would contain many more examples of violent gay oppression.

Then again, I wonder how much difference it would make in the other direction, if people were able to clearly see how many of their friends and family were affected by their prejudice. It's easier to see black people as "other" because they're not related, but when you discover that you have a gay child or sibling, it's not quite as easy to hate, I don't think.

Gay LDS Actor said...

I think that's probably an accurate assessment, Scott.

Joe Conflict said...

Seeing those pictures just reminds me of man's inhumanity towards other men. It was so easy to replace the word black with gay and it all seems the same.

TGD said...

Great article!

Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

My husband grew up in Texas, and even though the church has stopped the priesthood ban and is no longer fighting against integration, the most racist kids he went to school with were LDS. Many of the fathers of his LDS friends were still KKK members (in the late 90s) and racial slurs and jokes were common at church activities he attended with his friends.

He was not a member of the church, and never attended a church service as a teenager, so he can't comment of what was taught on Sundays. What he was aware of was that things like having an African American member of the military come to a scout activity were enough to have more than half the families keep their sons home.

I don't know how much it may have changed since then. He is in his late 30s and has not been back since high school. While he briefly dated several Mormon girls in high school, he was always uncomfortable with their parents. When he met me, a liberal Mormon with friends of many colors and religions, including an exhusband whose family was from India, he wasn't quite sure what to make of me.

I am glad that I wasn't raised in Texas, and I hope things are better now. It is a sobering reminder that we are still only a generation from the priesthood ban, and it may take several more to fix the damage from the church's stand on civil rights. Sigh.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for your comments, Julia. I found them very interesting.