The policy and practical implications of entombing LGBTQ Latter-day Saints
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”John 11:39
What if you could have a do-over to write the November 2015 exclusion policy? A chance to take everything you learned when you went into full attack mode on your LGBTQ members and their children while in panic mode from the June Obergefell ruling—a chance to learn both internally and externally from the pushback and feedback during the three-and-a-half-year execution of the ill-fated policy—to recraft an exclusion policy in a manner that achieves the same outcome but doesn’t counter your member’s experiences with their LGBTQ loved ones, trigger the red flag of punching down, or publicly broadcast a path that veers from the gentleness of the Love of Christ towards the marginalized.
Is it possible to hide the ugliness of the exclusion policy in plain sight?
Yes. Unfortunately, yes, it is.
The “General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is now complete after a two-year project to update the document. The final revisions released mid-December included an about face concerning the organ/piano supremacy of worship music, now acknowledging that “Sacred music that is written or sung in culturally diverse styles may help unify congregations. Music coordinators and priesthood leaders may include a variety of appropriate musical styles that appeal to members of various backgrounds.”
This policy blessing musical diversity, the permission to include culturally relevant instruments in worship services, and acknowledging that the spirit can be invoked through the diversity of culturally authentic music outside the long-held organ/piano dominant narrative is a remarkable about face. Collectively we are still asking, “What does this all mean?” This is the moment every embattled stake and ward music chair has been praying for in their perpetual tension and heated conversations with local priesthood leaders. If you have ever been a music coordinator, you know exactly what I am talking about.
This change in musical diversity gave me pause to reflect on another Handbook addition that appears to signal LGBTQ diversity and inclusion published in the December 2020 update entitled “Prejudice.”
“The Church calls on all people to abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice toward any group or individual… This includes prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief or nonbelief, and sexual orientation.”
That is quite the list.
But this list is not what it appears to be and the words I highlighted in the quote above highlight the fatal disconnect the Church has with its LGBTQ members. May I introduce you to the exclusion policy?
At first glance, this list elicits positive associations because it is fabricated to look like the familiar EEOC non-discrimination list we all see at work. The addition of “sexual orientation” also adds to the vibe that a protective environment of equal opportunity and non-discrimination exists for queer people in the Church.
During subsequent glances, the EEOC mimicry falls away. Especially when you try to resolve the dissonance between “actions of prejudice” with how life in the Church is structured for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints in comparison to their straight cisgender peers.
First, did you notice that gender identity is nowhere to be found in this list condemning prejudice? The Church has had enough time and experience with transgender people, including preparing complex arguments opposing transgender Title VII employment protections all the way to the Supreme Court, that they are savvy enough to know that you always identify transgender protections by using the term “gender identity.”
If they meant to include gender identity in this list, they would have said gender identity. The noticeable absence of gender identity betrays the reality that the Church continues to erase and ignore gender identity. The Church asserts that gender is biological sex at birth, denies self-determination of gender identity, and opposes gender confirming surgery, medical intervention, and even social transitioning. Self-determining gender and transitioning opens the door to exclusion within one’s spiritual home, discipline, and removal from the Church. Those are absolutely actions of prejudice.
Secondly, removing sexual minorities from the Church, their spiritual home, when they participate in the blessings, stability, and safety of fidelity, family, and love within the bonds of marriage as their straight peers do, is absolutely an action of prejudice.
This statement in the handbook is not a protective anti-discrimination statement for LGBTQ members and we are all confronted with a confusing dilemma of dissecting exactly what this list is and what “prejudice” and “acts of prejudice” towards LGBTQ members mean in the Church.
To the typical reader, “prejudice” is a personal attitude not based on reason or actual experience and “actions of prejudice” is discrimination. Therefore, it would be reasonable to read this as a statement against prejudice and discrimination. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
When you define “prejudice” in a religious setting, such as in the Church and handbook, you insert God into the equation. Prejudice now becomes a preconceived opinion about LGBTQ people that is based on the power structure’s current understanding of what God thinks about LGBTQ people. In a religious setting, “acts of prejudice” are morally acceptable if done in the name of God using a standard of sincerely held religious beliefs that the institution holds about how God thinks LGBTQ people should behave.
From this position the Church can reasonably claim to hold no prejudice towards LGBTQ people while creating and enforcing a unique and inequitable standard for how to behave as an acceptable LGBTQ person in the Kingdom. Such empowered authority allows leaders at every level of Church government, in good conscience, to practice prejudice, harassment, and discrimination to manage and punish the conduct of an LGBTQ Latter-day Saint that deviates from that standard, even if that same behavioral conduct is blessed and practiced without consequence by the straight cisgender population in the Church.
In the United States, the host nation of the Restoration, the constitution and government grant the Church the right to hold such prejudiced opinions about LGBTQ people as “sincerely held religious beliefs” protected by religious freedom just as long as the actions of prejudice do not violate the law or the anti-discrimination protections of the 1967 Civil Rights Act.
Polygamy was a sincerely held religious belief that happened to violate the law of the land. When the Supreme Court upheld the Morrill Anti–Bigamy Act in Reynolds v. United States in 1879, the chief justice wrote, “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” As we learned from polygamy, the commandments of God remain unmolested by external forces as long as you stay on the right side of the law when you practice them. When your religious practices run counter to the law, the government of the People will prevail. Perhaps now you can better see why the Church vigorously opposes the Equality Act which would add LGBTQ people to the federal government’s protected groups in the 1967 Civil Rights Act.
Steve Sandberg, Brigham Young University’s general counsel, summed it up best when we met together in the Fall of 2019 to discuss the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ students on campus. After pointing out the absence of sexual orientation and gender identity in the university’s nondiscrimination statement and how that absence exposes LGBTQ students and visiting faculty to harm, Mr. Sandberg explained that BYU, as with all religious universities in America, has the protection to create its own nondiscrimination policies that align with its doctrine, as long as they do not conflict with federal, state, and local laws. What may be seen as inequitable to others are protected religious tenets of belief.
Currently the treatment of LGBTQ members within the ecosystem of the Church does not violate any laws of the land, so regardless of any statement about prejudice or acts of prejudice found in the handbook, the status quo concerning the management of the LGBTQ Latter-day Saint population remains. The statement on prejudice in the Handbook is to be understood in the context of “sincerely held religious belief” and becomes nothing more than a curious case of making it sound like you are saying something new, when you are not saying anything new.
Life in the margins for LGBTQ people in the Church is still structured by prejudice and acts of prejudice—the inequitable but sincerely held, government protected, religious beliefs of those at the power center.
Concerning the relations between the Church and its LGBTQ members and their families, the real achievement of the prejudice section in the handbook is not the new woke tone or the list of protected classes that includes “sexual orientation.” No, the real achievement is the extremely polite and stunningly eloquent way the section was crafted to deliver an ugly message of prejudice and discrimination towards LGBTQ people in the Church. The 2015 Exclusion Policy has been rewritten, separated into Horcruxes, and individually strewn about the handbook hidden in plain sight. This section on prejudice is one Horcrux of the dark soul policy of LGBTQ exclusion.
This is the playing field of smiles, belonging, exclusion, and violent removal facing LGBTQ Latter-day Saints today. What are the practical effects on the LGBTQ population in the Church?
First, each year the Church has to work harder and harder to sustain a system of structural inequality of LGBTQ people in a home-centered, church supported ecosystem. LGBTQ kids are born into Latter-day Saint homes, not into the Church. When you offer Latter-day Saint families less protections and equality in the Church for their LGBTQ kids than what is granted them under the Constitution, it doesn’t matter how politely and eloquently you present religiously accepted prejudice and acts of prejudice—today’s parents want their children to have the same opportunities and happiness that they have experienced in life.
To make a system of inequality and discrimination tenable to a modern membership, you cannot simply attack LGBTQ people as people. That is bullying and harassment and especially families with LGBTQ children will not put up with personal or physical attacks of the likes delivered during the days of The Miracle of Forgiveness and BYU shock therapy.
Instead, LGBTQ people today are reduced to a behavior—a belief or an ideology. Once this happens you couldn’t care less how people identify, now you can attack the behavior. Now you can attack the ideology such as when President Oaks lamented the “increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay and transgender lifestyles and values.” Now you can create special behavioral standards and unique prohibitions to exclude LGBTQ people by declaring that certain behaviors allowed for straight cisgender people are disallowed for LGBTQ people. Now you can announce to parents that LGBTQ children who behave a certain way do not deserve the blessings and opportunities in the plan of salvation that they have. Now you can look your same sex married couples in the eye and do the unthinkable: instruct them to divorce—break apart their family—or be violently removed from their spiritual home. Now you can erase Latter-day Saint transgender people as an ideology in conflict with your ideology about gender.
Now you can blame LGBTQ people for making you do this to them.
Every time you see a Liahona article about LGBTQ people, hear General Authorities discuss LGBTQ issues, read social media posts about LGBTQ people in the Church, listen to young adult devotionals, or hear face to face events that cover LGBTQ topics, you are witnessing the struggle to transform LGBTQ people into a belief system beholden to prejudice and acts of prejudice protected by religious freedom.
And if we, as an LGBTQ person, resist this process and rise above the constraints and exclusions of our spiritual home to claim equality and progression, it is seen as a behavior or an ideology among the Saints that marks us as a modern-day Lamanite within our own community of Faith. Once “othered” in this manner, God and commandments are invoked—blessing the ugly work of treating LGBTQ people in the Church as unequal in opportunity and transgressors in behavior in comparison with their straight cisgender peers.
You cannot expect progress in the Restoration when the handbook calls on members to abandon their own prejudice and actions of prejudice but the institution retains the right to practice—in full view of the membership—religious prejudice that structures the everyday life of the queer Latter-day Saint by discrimination and harassment.
On a daily basis, LGBTQ people navigate an environment where leaders and members can with clear conscience proclaim to have no prejudice towards LGBTQ people, but LGBTQ behavior can be regulated differently from their straight cisgender peers by discrimination and harassment using sincerely held religious beliefs. This explains why “sexual orientation” (which is not considered a behavior until you claim marriage equality) can be found in the handbook list of protected classes from prejudice, why “gender identity” (which is considered acting against one’s gender at birth) is not found in the list, and why the entire section on prejudice offers no protection, absolutely no protection for LGBTQ people against discrimination and harassment in our spiritual home if we claim the same privileges and make the same choices as our straight cisgender peers.
To make matters worse, the empty black hole of said discrimination and inequality left in the lives of LGBTQ people is then filled to the brim with infantilizing declarations of admiration, love, and civility which is the junk food equivalent of getting Twinkies and Dingdongs at the healthy spiritual feast of inclusion and opportunity our typical straight cisgender peers experience in the Church.
LGBTQ people are you. We are you. We are your children. We are not an “other” and we are not an ideology. Just like you, as children of God we ask for bread, the same bread you ask for. This includes the ability for companionship blessed by God and the sheer euphoria of living our gender which is an eternal part of each of us. This includes the opportunity to serve to our full capacities throughout the entire structure in the Church as we build and bless our fellow members in the body of Christ. This includes the equality and opportunity to walk the covenant path in full authenticity as our straight cisgender peers do. Yet in the end, we stand in the company of our straight cisgender peers holding stones while they carry away bread.
President Nelson tells us that the Restoration is ongoing. We sing that the Restoration breaks like the morning, dawning at the speed of light, majestically rising on the world. In the matter of LGBTQ people in the Church, when you weigh the Restoration down with prejudice and discrimination, you slow the Restoration down to baby steps.
When you slow the Restoration, the aging of queer people does not slow down. A slow Restoration means that LGBTQ Latter-day Saints grow old while suspended indefinitely in an abjectly unfair ideological state of stasis of either joining the holding tanks of the unofficial single and celibate monastic order for sexual minorities in the Church or enduring in a non-transitioned chronic state of gender dysphoria until others receive further light and knowledge. How long do you ethically hold your LGBTQ children there? How long can you ethically tell them to be patient and wait? You can sit with them, cry with them, celebrate them, but in the end, as a straight cisgender person you are free to move about the Restoration while LGBTQ members are restricted to the margins.
Reduced to an ideology in a system structured by prejudice, harassment, and discrimination, LGBTQ people in the Church become the Lazarus of our day, damned in progression, still as death, entombed, unable to move any further in the mortality of our spiritual home, waiting on others to either roll away the stone of revelation and call us forth or pass to the other side where God will have to pick up the work of equity and justice that his children could not do in his name here on Earth.
You then stand outside the tomb and call out platitudes and encouragement through the stone door, day after day after day as we gather the stench of Lazarus.
But you are mistaken, Martha, at what is going on within this tomb.
We will not languish in the tomb forever. LGBTQ people were not born for baby steps, we were born to run, to rise. We were born with inherent self-worth and inalienable human rights. Spirituality is a human right, and since LGBTQ people are born every hour into the families of the Church, understand that you are surrounded by LGBTQ people who are whole and equal persons in the sight of God, who consider the Church their spiritual home.
Each one of these children is carefully captured in their progress in the church and held in stasis, as if in the tomb of Lazarus, immobilized by the shrouds of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment in a Restoration of LGBTQ baby steps while their straight cisgender peers fly past, enveloped in privilege, and rising in opportunity and full accommodation of their sexual orientation and gender.
Unable to kickstart the Restoration, LGBTQ people are not helpless hostages. We hold one of the most powerful gifts of the Restoration: personal revelation. Personal revelation is the check and balance to the fallibility of the humans who are called to drive and administer the Restoration in our day.
We are taught in the Book of Mormon by Lehi that we as children of God exist to have joy. That is our birthright as children of God. We are taught by our first parents that marrying and creating a family was worth being driven from the garden for. We learn from Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that claiming our authenticity of self in the face of power, is a protective measure presided over by God.
These are but some of the examples that inform our personal revelation to claim our authenticity, not wait for baby steps and not wait to be acted upon. Let the Restoration catch up with us. The current “ask” is that we patiently hold in the tomb, that we faithfully accumulate the stench of Lazarus.
When the day comes that the stone is finally rolled away, you will not be met with the stench of Lazarus.
You will not be met by Lazarus.
Instead, you will find this tomb empty. For this was not a tomb of Lazarus after all, but a tomb of Joseph of Arimathea from which we have already risen to walk the path of joy and progression that God has laid out before us.
You will need to come find us.