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Circling the Wagons: Ideological Conflict in the Gay Mormon Universe

October 21, 2012

Mormonism has problems with homosexuality.

Regardless of your position on homosexuality, you should be able to agree with this statement in one way or another…although the way that you agree with this statement may be different from the way that someone else agrees with this statement. For this post, I would like to interpret this statement broadly to mean that Mormonism doesn’t seem to have complete and fulfilling institutional answers for its LGBT members. As a result, a number of non-institutional groups have arisen — again, featuring a variety of different positions and opinions — to be the support groups that seem to be missing institutionally.

So, that’s why there are organizations such as North Star International, which describes its goal as to be “a place of community for Latter-day Saints dealing with issues surrounding homosexual attraction who desire to live in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Compare this statement with that of Evergreen International, whose goal is more explicitly to “help people who want to diminish same-sex attractions and overcome homosexual behavior.” Contrast both of these with Affirmation, who “affirm that sexual orientation, identity, and expression are special gifts from God and that we are all children of loving Heavenly Parents, believe that our lives and relationships can be compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Plan of Salvation, and that LGBT individuals are a special part of God’s Creation…[and] reject the concept that orientation and identity can be changed and believe that same sex relationships are entitled to the same recognition and blessings as heterosexual relationships.”

You have three different groups, each of which at the surface appears to target the same niche (LGBT Mormons), but each offers a different message and apparently believes its goal to call for its separate existence from the other organizations.

However, even though it seems that these groups are separate, distinct, and often anathema to one another, there are attempts to reach across the aisles and meet.

I was first struck by this idea from Kendall Wilcox’s Far Between project. The project asks: what does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon? But of course, Wilcox recognizes that there can’t be one answer to this, and so the project is a collection of…a lot…of interviews with people all over the map as far as beliefs about homosexuality. So, there are people who are in mixed-orientation marriages and happy with it, people who once were in mixed orientation marriages but who now are not, people who are celibate, people who are open to or who are in gay relationships. People who use the term “gay,” people who use the term “same-sex attracted,” Mormons, ex-Mormons, etc.

Circling wagons

When I heard about Open Stories Foundation/John Dehlin’s Circling the Wagons project, I thought it would be something similar (although, most of the people officially involved in the Mormon Stories/Open Stories projects will probably tend to be liberal/progressive on LGBT issues). And so it seems that there are attempts to reach out to people with very different views, and as is usually the case when trying to create a “big tent,” this has caused ideological conflict.

Mitch Mayne, whose claim to fame is being an openly gay man who is secretary to an LDS bishopric, has now resigned from the Circling the Wagons Board of Directors and has a blog post detailing the reasons for his resignation. From that post:

The conference being held in Salt Lake City this November features speakers and messages that I, as an openly gay Mormon, cannot support. These include:
  • Josh Weed, who is well known for his individual choice as a gay man to be married to a woman
  • Steven Frei, President of North Star, an organization that positions LGBT Mormons as “struggling with same-sex attraction” and encourages them to change or suppress their orientation
The messages that will be delivered in this November’s “Circling the Wagons” are in direct conflict to everything my heart and spirit tell me about the nature of being a gay Mormon. North Star encourages LGBT Mormons to view themselves as broken and afflicted, while Mr. Weed’s message is routinely co-opted by many within our faith as the preferred path for LGBT Mormon youth, despite his insistence that it may not be the path for everyone.

Earlier in the post, Mayne describes the purpose of Circling the Wagons as being to offer “an alternate view for LGBT Mormons and their families who wish to allow gay Mormons to live their lives authentically as LGBT individuals.”

But that really gets into the nebulous questions: what does it mean for gay Mormons to live their lives authentically? In the first trailer for Far Between, Kendall Wilcox addresses how the multiple parts (the “LGBT” part and the “Mormon” part) conflict:

What does circling the wagons mean?

I think that I’ve blogged about this before, but I remember when I learned by my understanding of the word “expedient” was different from the secular sense. In Mormonism (especially LDS scriptures), expedience is a desirable trait. But in high school, on a SAT vocab test, I was supposed to match antonyms in word analogies, and I discovered that the right antonym to “expedient” was “moral.”

Indeed, the second definition for expedient points out that it describes things that are conducive to advantage or interest, as opposed to right.

Well, as I was writing this post, I had a similar experience. When I picture the idea of “circling the wagons,” I think of a group that is marginalized coming together for protection.

…but the flip side, which I had not considered, is the first part of this explanation:

If you circle the wagons, you stop communicating with people who don’t think the same way as you to avoid their ideas.  It can also mean to bring everyone together to defend a group against an attack.

Emphasis added.

Anyway, how unexpectedly apt!

I don’t want to trivialize Mayne’s position, however. Going back to the first line of the article, we all know plenty of folks (and we might even be part of that group ourselves) who could restate Mormonism’s problem with homosexuality as being it causes horrific pain to LGBT people through its positions, doctrines, and actions. So, it is understandable that Mayne would want to work within the church to provide an alternate view so that gay Mormons aren’t harmed so much.

But…this is where I am a bit lost.

Mayne refuses to take part in the Circling the Wagons conference because of certain guest speakers who advocate, believe, or are in some way associated with positions and approaches that Mayne cannot in good consciousness abide. OK, that’s fine. It’s his prerogative to do that. But this raises another question: why would Mayne continue to participate in the church, an organization that officially and institutionally is led by people who advocate, believe, or are in some way associate with similar positions? Like, I don’t get that. If you look at the official leadership behind the Circling the Wagons conferences, that’s just going to be a different cast of characters, beliefs, and ideas than the official leadership of the church.

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12 Comments
  1. How sad, to see dissension in the ranks of a group of great people trying to find their place, as individuals and as a group. I respected Mitch Mayne (and still mostly do) but I think your comments are right-on. I definitely don’t see anything but good coming out of the circling the wagons conferences- even if it just starts discussion and shows options. Great post.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    What bugged me about Mitch Mayne’s reasoning for not participating in the conference was that his two bullet point reasons – Josh Weed and Steven Frei – didn’t really do a good job explaining why both individuals are objectionable to him. The only real explanation we get is the vague and cryptic line at the end:

    “I cannot be part of an organization that disseminates messages that are proven to increase the risk of suicide and other serious health issues to the same group of people that I seek to help.”

    Huh?

    How, are both individuals connected with the suicide rate? Did Josh Weed marrying his wife increase the suicide rate somehow? You’d be led to believe that Mayne thinks so in his letter. Now, as it so happens, Josh Weed is a therapist who engages in some approaches that people find controversial. Perhaps Mayne could have named those practices he finds objectionable. But he doesn’t do that – all he says is that Josh Weed married a woman, and somehow this increases the gay suicide rate. Or the fact that people Mayne disagrees with opportunistically quote Weed apparently increases the suicide rate – and therefore Weed should not be allowed at the conference, if Mayne could make the call.

    It makes Mayne look like those who call any gay guy who openly tries a heterosexual relationship a backstabbing traitor, simply for not conforming his sex life to the majority will.

    Mayne quite likely didn’t mean it that way – but his letter is just so unhelpfully vague that it’s easy to project these kind of motivations onto him. He didn’t even bother to go into much detail about what about Frei is objectionable.

    I imagine Mayne thinks the rest of the body of his letter somehow demonstrated that Weed and Frei were dangerous viewpoints – but it really doesn’t. There’s a complete and utter disconnect between his two prominent bullet points attached to these individuals and the bulk of criticisms and worries that follow in his letter. It’s like he threw out two figurehead individuals, and then decided they were magically the representatives of all the worries he expresses in the rest of the letter without deigning to explain to us why they are.

    And then gay suicides are randomly tacked on at the end with the reader still in the dark as to what that has to do with the price of eggs in China.

    In short, the letter has all the hallmarks of someone who has spent too much time talking to people who agree with him – enough that he assumes everyone (that he cares about) already understands all the code-words and catch-phrases he is using in this letter, and shares the same assumptions as he does.

    He assumes the narrative is already “obvious” (which it probably is to people who are already firmly embedded in his corner of advocacy) to everyone who matters in this discussion and doesn’t need to be spelled out.

    In short, Mitch Mayne really has “circled the wagons” in his own sphere, and is not bothering to even attempt to communicate with anyone outside of it.

  3. Jenn,

    Thanks for commenting…The more I think about it, the less this makes sense…like, I feel there probably is more behind this story.

    Seth,

    I think that Mayne’s problem with Weed is that (despite Weed’s intentions) people use him as a standard for gay people in the church — e.g., if weed could do it, then why can’t you? And I mean, there’s a lot of guilt tripping with that sort of standard — even if Weed says in his post that his situation isn’t going to be the same for everyone, and it won’t work out for everyone, the public takeaway is something like, “It won’t work for you…if you’re not trying hard enough.”

    I think that Mayne is probably not spelling out everything because it has been spelled out over and over by numerous folks. (Even if the spelling sometimes looks a little different.)

  4. I’m conflicted/agnostic on the issues at hand, but I felt the same way as Seth about Mayne’s comments. It would be helpful to me to know whether Mayne thinks Josh Weed is personally objectionable or if he just doesn’t like how Weed’s story has been taken by others. If the latter, then it doesn’t seem fair to withdraw from a group simply because Weed is there – what did he ever do? I don’t think the fear of other people misusing our stories should stop us from sharing our stories, and that’s the takeaway message if Weed is now synonymous with forcing gay people to get into mixed-orientation marriages.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    Well, I agree Andrew. People have been abusing the Weed story to browbeat the opposition. I think everyone saw that coming – part of the reason gay advocacy groups within the Mormon world were so upset by his public article. And it’s not just that – Weed is a therapist who engages in certain therapy practices with gay clients that many gay advocacy groups find objectionable. So, I think there is a lot of legitimate controversy surrounding Weed that Mayne COULD have cited to if he had a mind to in justifying his decision to withdraw.

    The thing is Mayne didn’t cite to any of that.

    Which means we have to ask why Mayne didn’t feel the need to cite to this.

    The answer is simple – because Mayne was assuming that his audience already knew all this about Weed without Mayne having to say it.

    In short – he was preaching to the choir. Insiders who are already steeped in the circle of a limited subset of gay advocacy concerns that Mayne considers himself a part of. There are outspoken bloggers who are critics of the LDS position on gay issues who would know exactly what Mayne was talking about without him having to spell it out.

    Mayne was talking to them – and not anyone else.

    Which is why I cited this letter as a perfect example of the “circling the wagons” mentality.

  6. Seth,

    I think a lot of folks assume a lot of context when blogging. I mean, in my posts, I don’t spell out the church’s name usually, and I don’t explain the basics of Mormonism — I assume people already get that.

    (In fact, for this post, I consciously tried to be a little more descriptive, although I probably could’ve gone even further. when I was writing this post, I specifically thought: “I wonder how inaccessible my blog seems to people who are not already familiar with Mormonism?”)

    This isn’t intentional or purposeful. So I mean, I would say his letter is a good example of the circling-the-wagons mentality, but not for the reason you are imputing.

    • Seth R. permalink

      You feel I’ve misstated Mayne’s intentions?

  7. Syphax,

    I agree it would be helpful to know whether Mayne believes Weed is personally objectionable. I understand that there are plenty of people who do, and I understand *why* they feel that way, but i think a lot of that understanding relies on speculation about what Josh does as a therapist, what his employer advocates on websites, etc., etc.,

    To that extent, I can even agree with Seth that it would be helpful if Mayne were more explicit/descriptive.

    I don’t think the fear of other people misusing our stories should stop us from sharing our stories, and that’s the takeaway message if Weed is now synonymous with forcing gay people to get into mixed-orientation marriages.

    For whatever it’s worth, I think that some people find Weed to be making some duplicitous statements (e.g., regarding what it means to be “gay” vs. “bisexual”), but this gets WAAAAAY into a lot of queer theoretical kinda stuff that I wasn’t wanting to go into (yet).

    If I had to make an analogy, it would be like this. Take the “middle way Mormon” approach (for whatever value of “middle way”…) Especially some of the things that John Dehlin or Dan Wotherspoon have said/written about answering temple recommend questions…they are sharing their stories (often in a way that let’s them keep their temple recommend), and they are relying on the idea that people will mishear/misunderstand/misuse their stories to do it.

    Obviously, this isn’t 100% similar, and a lot depends on assumptions that aren’t conclusive, but I think that’s behind a lot of the disagreement. For a lot of folks, to hear Weed saying, “I am 100% gay, yet I am 100% in love and attracted to my wife” means that Weed is either compromising on the gay part or on the attracted to his wife part. And he is doing so in a way that will deliberately encourage people to misuse is story (e.g., “this is a gay guy…making a straight marriage work”).

    Anyway, this is all speculative, in the end.

    Seth,

    Yeah, I think the statement, “Don’t assume malice when ignorance will suffice” is appropriate. Except, instead of “malice” put in “intentional preaching to choir” and “ignorance” for “unintentional brevity/assumed context.”

    Like, if someone says, “I believe the church is true,” generally, they aren’t going to go into every nuance of what church means, believe means, or true means. They will often (and unintentionally) assume the context is shared, even when it may not be.

  8. Seth R. permalink

    Hmmm… I didn’t mean to be that firm on whether he was doing it intentionally or not. I can certainly see him doing it unconsciously,

  9. You make an excellent point that I haven’t seen articulated anywhere else. If Mayne can’t abide what he sees as the destructive positions or beliefs of Steve Frei and Josh Weed, then it seems that he probably wouldn’t be able to actively serve an institution that promotes some of the same positions or beliefs. Up until recently, the church offered financial support to Evergreen International and sent a general authority each year to speak at the annual conference. Evergreen pushes change therapy much more than North Star or Steve or Josh do.

  10. JonJon,

    Exactly right.

    I mean, I’m surprised that no one has brought that up to him.

  11. I think anyone who was in attendance tonight could say that the conference was a smashing success. With a wide variety of people in attendance, all of whom represented different life choices, affiliations with religion, and relationship stati, the atmosphere was pregnant with respect for each individual. Josh, Steven, and every other speaker I heard said that their path was just that, THEIR path. They found the authentic life that worked for them and were loath to prescribe it on anyone else.

    As a young gay man in the LDS church, I often wonder what path my life will take, but the examples offered today really do nothing but show me that it really will get better when I find that authentic life choice. I am so grateful for that and only hope that next year, we’ll learn from this controversy, put aside our petty differences (aren’t we all working for love and tolerance for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters anyway?), and make the next wagon circle a bit more widely accepting.

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