I read in the paper the a few weeks ago of the death of General Authority emeritus Marion D. Hanks. Elder Hanks very nearly had the privilege of being the first person I ever came out to.
Heres the story, which happened some 32 years ago.
My father was a stake president during my adolescent and young adult years. We lived in the mission field, and in those days the General Authorities made frequent visits to stake conferences. They would arrive on a Friday night and leave on Sunday afternoon. They lodged with president of the stake they were visiting, who was responsible for their food, transportation and housing.
My mother was always stressed by these visits. We went into overdrive cleaning the (already clean) house and making sure there were no failures of hospitality. Of course, occasional lapses did occur. I remember one unfortunate day when after frantic and thorough cleaning of the guest bathroom, someone forgot to replace the towels. The bathroom itself, however, could have been used as an operating theater for brain surgery. It was my job a few hours later to hand in a towel to the naked and dripping member of the Quorum of the Twelve who had stepped out of the shower into the towelless (but very clean!) bathroom. My poor mother almost died of shame. The houseguest in question is still one of the Twelve.
These visits by the Brethren were surprisingly intimate. Im the youngest child in my family, and for the last several years of high school I was the only child living at home. Therefore, at meals, it would just be my parents, me and the visiting GA. Being a teenager I was, of course, not fully mature, but I was an avid reader and had developed fairly good powers of observation. I studied these men carefully as they sat at our dinner table, rode in the car, spoke in Church and chatted informally with my parents.
I learned something from these visits about General Authorities. I learned that they were usually brusque and impatient men who lacked personal warmth in one-on-one situations. One member of the Quorum of the Twelve (not the one I gave a towel to) struck me as particularly short tempered, even hostile. Only later in life did I learn that the G.A. personality type I had encountered was really just an example of the more general executive personality type. I started to run into men like those GAs all the time when I entered corporate life. They usually had titles of Vice President or Chief Whatever. The business executives I saw were efficient time managers who had deep affinity for quantifiable results and were allergic to excuses offered by their underlings. I learned later that everyone who manages an organization of more than 1,000 people has this kind of personality. Unlike virtually every other religious denomination, the LDS Church uses a corporate style of governance. Its no wonder that the top LDS leaders act like executives when they conduct church business. Im not offering this tidbit in the spirit of criticism. Its really just background for what happened next.
When I was a freshman in college I came home for spring break, and the visit happened to coincide with stake conference. Our visiting General Authority was Elder Marion D. Hanks. Elder Hanks had a bit of a cult following in the Church due to his compassionate sermons. I was eager to meet him. At this time I was actively preparing to submit papers for my mission. When I met Elder Hanks, the first thing I noticed was the total absence of the G.A. personality. He looked into my eyes, and I immediately understood that he cared and that he was interested in who I was. We chatted about my college experiences (I went to a well-known East Coast school) and some other topics that I dont remember well. I was completely enthralled by the holiness and compassion of this man. Normally I was reserved, even cautious, around the visiting G.A.s, but not this time.
The stake we lived in was geographically large. At one point during the weekend Elder Hanks needed to be conveyed from one location to another, which would have entailed a car trip of approximately one hour. My father asked me to drive Elder Hanks where he needed to go.
My mind raced: I would have an hour alone with someone who I thought had the answers to the Big Questions. As you can imagine, I was completely preoccupied, prior to my mission, with trying to deal with my homosexual orientation. Like many young people, I thought G.A.s had a direct pipeline to God. A thought came into my head: I could ask Elder Hanks about my big secret.
Fate intervened, however, and I never got the opportunity to have that talk. My fathers schedule cleared, and he was able to drive Elder Hanks himself. I remember my father telling me that he needed to discuss some church business during the drive. The two of them traveled alone.
Thinking back on this I wonder what could have been, and Im supremely grateful that I did not have the opportunity to bare my soul to that kind-hearted visiting church leader. I have absolute faith that Elder Hanks would have treated me with dignity and compassion. He was that kind of man. Nonetheless, this was during the era of the Churchs most hardline stance against homosexuality. The official thinking was that homosexual orientation could be changed by a process of repentance. Young people were routinely counseled to enter mixed-orientation marriages. No matter how compassionate Elder Hanks might have been, he wouldnt have had any way to help me, and it is likely that he would have told me to confide in my parents, which at that time would have been a disaster. I might even have ended up in hands of LDS Social Services and who knows where that would have led. This was in the era of aversion therapy and Freudian nonsense. (Which is worse, being thrown into a pit full of behaviorists or Freudians?) Its hard to remember today how bad the Church used to be on this issue. As bad as it now, there’s been a big step forward from when I was a young person.
When I read the Elder Hanks obituary, I was pleased to find out that he was active in humanitarian causes and had been an early champion of LDS service missions. Even after all these years, I am filled with respect and admiration for this man.
After my mission I went back to college and encountered someone who reminded me of Elder Hanks. It was the famous anthropologist Ashley Montagu. Professor Montagu had pioneered research into the maternal-infant bond. As I got to know him in a small seminar, I was amazed at how profound were his understanding of and affection for the human animal. He had a great influence on my thinking. It was the first time that I realized the power of the humanist point of view and how much it had in common with the highest ideals (as I understood them) of my religious tradition. It was the first time I got a glimpse of the idea that you could be good without God. Of course, I was a closeted, active Mormon at this time on the brink of entering an extremely ill-advised mixed-orientation marriage. He probably thought I was a mess (which I was).
Both Elder Hanks and Professor Montagu have passed on. In the end, I dont see these men as very different in outlook, even though one of them was probably a nonbeliever (we never discussed it) and the other was an LDS general authority.
[Related note: Interestingly, Elder Hanks was later sidelined in a manner to similar to Marlin Jensen more recently. It seems that sidelining the most compassionate General Authorities is something that repeats itself in every generation.]