Gregory A. Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (Univ. of Utah Press, 2019) came out a couple of months ago. It is required reading for anyone who is gay or Mormon. I could probably stop right there, but I’ll add a few extra thoughts.
Gay rights and gay marriage have emerged as the issue of this Mormon generation. You don’t really have a choice in the matter. History is like the weather, it just happens, and the LDS battle over gay marriage is what happened to us. Polygamy was the issue for a couple of Mormon generations in the 19th century. Racial equality and civil rights was the issue for the Mormon generations spanning the 1950s to the 1970s. One might have expected female ordination or the role of women in the Church to be the issue of our day, but it didn’t turn out that way. LDS leadership has made small but steady adjustments since the 1970s, expanding the role of LDS women within the Church. Those moves diffused some of the pressure or tension on that set of issues. But that didn’t happen with gays and gay marriage. The Church dug in its heels, so that became the great doctrinal battle of our time.
You might think that because the Church lost that battle, the issue is now in the rear view mirror. Not so. Instead, the battleground now moves from broader law and society to the internal battle or struggle or discussion within the Church. That will continue for another generation or two, in the same way that the “blacks and the priesthood” issue simmered for 40 years after the 1978 policy change until events (the Randy Bott episode) forced the Church to make a formal public statement disavowing all that Mormon folklore related to the issue that had continued to circulate within LDS culture and (embarrassingly) within the Church Educational System. So you need to read the book because gay rights and the gay marriage issue will continue to be a live one within the Church for another 40 years.
The book itself features 31 bite-size chapters, which makes for easy reading. Most chapters feature excerpts from interviews the author conducted with dozens and dozens of key players and participants in the events. The highlights are probably the chapters on Prop 22, Prop 8, and Obergefull v. Hodges. But you obviously need the other chapters to understand how the LDS Church ended up taking the position and actions it did on the Prop 22 campaign in California in 2000 (“How did it come to this?”), to understand why things turned out so differently after Prop 8 in 2008, and to understand what the Church did before and after the U.S. Supreme Court case definitively decided the issue in 2015.
One particularly helpful discussion in the book is in Chapter 27, on transgender and transsexuality. Prince recounts LDS policy evolution on this topic and relates it to Lester Bush’s analysis of the LDS policy evolution in regard to birth control. The general schema for an emerging issue goes like this: (1) few or no cases presented, so no policy; (2) as cases begin to arise, local leaders and GAs who are consulted provide ad hoc guidance that varies from one case to another; (3) as more cases arise and the issue becomes more pressing, the senior leadership formulates a churchwide policy, which is invariably conservative and harsh; and (4) over time, the initial harsh formal policy gets walked back, even to the point where the Church abandons comment on the issue (as has happened with birth control). Perhaps in the long run that will be the policy arc that gay rights and gay marriage follow within the LDS Church.
One surprising discussion was Chapter 16, “Backlash 2.0,” which recounted how LDS leaders were entirely unprepared for the strong and prolonged negative public reaction to deep LDS involvement in the Prop 8 campaign. If there’s one thing that LDS leaders hate more than homosexuality, it’s bad publicity. But that’s what it takes to change hearts and minds in the 21st century Church, it seems. To change the “LDS Church are the bad guys” narrative, the Church has since taken a number of conciliatory and even supportive actions toward the gay community. You can read the details in the book, but Prince summarizes it as “a changed relationship between the LDS Church and the LGBT community” (p. 173).
The book went to press before the Church’s retreat from the November Policy was announced, which is unfortunate but a reminder of how recent these events are. The whole November Policy episode, part of the Church’s evolving response to Obergefell v. Hodges, will need to be examined at a later date, when things have played out a bit more. The book is an exercise in contemporary history, a field that is always a challenge because recent events are never well understood. They always look different with the benefit of a few decades or a few centuries. The events covered in the book will look almost certainly look different in twenty years and in fifty years and a century from now. One can only imagine what a book on the subject written in 2119 will make of conversion therapy, of the Family Proclamation, of the LDS role in Prop 8, and of the November Policy.
One of the strength’s of Prince’s book is that he doesn’t do a lot of editorializing or speculating. He sticks with the facts and ties them together. He offers comments and quotations from many people who were involved with events narrated. But, unlike just about every other person who comments on the issue, he doesn’t exaggerate or sensationalize the facts or events. That is one of the reasons that Gay Rights and the Mormon Church will be relevant for many years to come. So hop over to Benchmark Books or Amazon (but not, apparently, Deseret Book) and get your copy.