The Social Psychology of Mormon Heteropatriarchy

Sometimes my own life corresponds to the current news cycle.  There’s been a spat of conversations regarding how GOP in Congress are slowing coming out in support of gay marriage because they have gay children themselves.  But then Mormon congresspeople are holding out with the idea:  “Of course I love my gay child, but I also don’t support gay marriage.”  And then the media analyzes whether this is possible.

I very much agree with the following stance on the matter (taken from the opinion piece linked above):

The sappy media stories paint the Salmons as a loving family where even “differences” over gay marriage can’t come between them. The congressman is being enabled, allowed to comfortably advocate against equal rights for his child and everyone like him while claiming to love him. Young Matt can’t allow that to stand, for his own well-being. And the rest of us, too, can’t allow it to stand if we’re truly intent on attaining full civil rights for LGBT people.

The only difference I have with this opinion is that it’s not so much about “equal civil rights” as it is about “equality” generally.  This is why, for example, I don’t pat on the back Mormon Building Bridges for doing advocacy work for the LGBT community on civil rights.  They say gay Mormons need to be “loved” and LGBTs could use equal civil rights, but they refuse to recognize equality (namely, that same-sex intimacy is not a sin, and that the Church should move to reflect that).  The message of equality, particularly as the country moves toward secular gay marriage, has to remain clear in order to penetrate into religious communities who are finding ways to maintain heterosexism in a pluralistic society.

The reason I say this corresponds with my own life is because I recently pestered my own LDS mother through texting to see where she’s at after many years of having a gay son and loving him.  I’m not sure why we did this on Easter, but I think she was willing to take the conversation to its limits because (a) it was Easter, and (b) texting rather than speaking allows more thought between each point.  The bounds of our conversation were helpful for me to better understand the social psychology of why it’s hard for the Church to move forward.  Perhaps our conversation will be useful/interesting to others, too.

Mom:  Recommended reading:  Equal partnership…page 19.  April 2013.  Ensign.

Me:  You know, Valerie Hudson (a co-author of that article) has very problematic ideas about gay people.  After an article came out in Dialogue about how to possibly make more room for gay people in the Church (rather than insist on lifelong celibacy), she wrote a response on how same-sex marriage will lead to killing off women because humans will decide women aren’t needed as equals and babies will grow from test tubes.  She seems to forgot that most people aren’t gay and that lesbians exist.  Sorry, but it’s hard for me to read anything about men and women as “equals” when if they truly were, then same-sex marriage would be no problem.  Instead what I see is how the language of equality is used to perpetuate hetero/sexism.

Mom:   Okay, so the two issues (subservient females and homosexuality) are the same issue?  They can’t be viewed separately?  With regards to the hypothesis of not needing females, from my professional standpoint it would be the exact opposite…fetuses need biochemicals for gestation and actually for months after birth, so I see no need for men.  Or a need for very few of them.  I wanted to discuss the one issue independently of the other…hopefully we can.

Me:  Well, they are interlinked.  The reason the Church campaigned against same-sex marriage is not because same-sex marriage goes against the idea of men and women as equals in marriage, but because of how it reveals that men and women ~aren’t~ equals in the Church with the whole “sharing the priesthood” business.

Mom:  You are aware that women do have situations where they are ordained, but that is a side note.  They don’t need to be…the article presents why…neither gender is subservient to the other.  They have different roles.  Men and women are not the same, or you would be fine with being bisexual.

Me:  Men and women are indeed different on average — but not so different that gays must be excluded or women disallowed from administering the faith.  Maybe you’ll understand when you’re older.  :p

Mom:  So, you subscribe to the theory that all women become homosexual after menopause?

Me:  No…I didn’t know there was such a theory.  I was suggesting that maybe after years of us talking about this, you might be more open to thinking about how your Church could be better.  You don’t think it’s perfect, do you?

Mom: Women, at least in the LDS Church, do more administration of faith than men.  I wish I could recall the talk I heard recently which brought to light the strength of women in the Church, which is just as strong if not stronger than men.  After pondering that talk — if one is an active member of the Church — where you can see it in action…women are actually in control.  We just let you men think you are.  … [regarding perfect Church]:  No, members are mortal, but the Gospel itself is.  Any faction of society is imperfect, there was only one perfect man and it is His resurrection we recognize this day.

Me: Well, it sounds to me like you’re okay with me being “outside” the Church.

Mom: Why are you so focused on the LDS when there are so many other faiths, some of which were so anti-gay they would lynch?

Me:  Cuz my mother is LDS, I was raised LDS, I dated an LDS guy, and it’s what I focused on in school.  Though I do want to branch into other things, for now it’s easier to write what I know.  The Church is an interesting case study for things like gender/sexuality, but also American studies generally.  Anyhow, if I do delve into other faiths, it will be more accepting ones.

Mom:  Well, it’s not just a gay thing [being on the “outside”].  The same happens to a variety of people…youth, gay, hetero, and yet the flipside is many join as others leave.  Father gave us free agency, and it will all work out in the end.  As we get older and reflect on life and society, our passions change.  We mellow out and learn to “be.”  I understand the passion for a cause, I have one, but there is a big picture.  Let your passion be part of that.  It almost seems like a stressor that consumes you.  Put more passion into love.

Me:  It’s not a stressor, but are you willing to say my relationship with [my partner] is not a “sin”?  If you can’t say that, then maybe you can understand why I focus on this with you.  Behind all the niceties, my own mother believes I’m “using my agency” to sin.  It’s a sad place for a son to be.

Mom:  This is what I meant about it being a stressor.  I don’t stress about it.  I am not a judge.  I have no right to be such.  You say I think it’s a sin…I never said or thought such a thing.  I don’t stress…and talk openly and freely about it…

Me:  I think you do have a right to judge whether or not it’s a sin, and would appreciate you definitively saying it’s NOT a sin.

Mom: I actually do not have the right, as per church teachings.

Me:  Really?  The Church teaches that it is a sin, so you seem comfortable enough not saying that.  The thing is, you may be comfortable on the fence as a ‘non-judger,’ but the cumulative effect of that is maintaining that it’s a sin.  I suppose that’s better than saying “I have no right to judge your sin as worse than mine,” but still, it’s kinda disappointing.

Mom: Ah, I have an answer.  What you are doing now…shacking up.  That’s a sin, which is why I encourage you to get married.

Me:  Did you hear about that young man who was denied the opportunity to go on a mission because he said he couldn’t teach that gay relationships are sinful?  Thank goodness you aren’t required to state your belief one way or another.   …[Regarding marriage]:  Oh, so if I get married to [my partner], then you would say I’m not living in sin?  Or are you saying that I’m living in sin now, and if we marry you still couldn’t judge as per church policy?  I’m onto you…

Mom:  Alan, this is pissing me off.  I have been supporting and loving all along, yet you constantly attack.  I choose not to stress about this, yet you continually push me to stress about it.  I am the most accepting and supporting advocate you have, yet you do this to me.  Perhaps you value my opinion above all others.  You think I’m allowing myself to be “acted upon,” because when I share something with you that doesn’t validate you, you turn it into an attack on me?  Why?

Me:  Why did you share that article with me when you know it excludes me?

Mom: It had to do with heterosexual couples.  Male/female relationships with equality, which is something you have had interest in.  Not all published work about relationships has a homosexual element.  Particularly those focusing on male/female relationships.

Me:  Well, I’d ask you think about how narratives of women/men complementing each other are inherently exclusionary of lesbians/gays.  I understand you sent it with regard to feminism, but like I said, they’re interlinked.  Also, I get that you’re trying to be an advocate, but until you budge on the “sin” question, you aren’t ~there~ yet.

Mom: Let me ask you this.  Are you and [your partner] not complements and equals in your relationship?  I often have to explain that homosexuality is more than about sex…and that individuals of all orientations have real loving relationships.  My companion is my best friend.  I hope you and [your partner] have that.

And then the conversation just kinda died there… as these issues are emotionally draining…

So, thoughts?  Although I’m thankful for my mother’s love and acceptance, I also see her position as the kind that perpetuates the institutional heteropatriarachy of the Church… but in some ways, also not.

 

12 thoughts on “The Social Psychology of Mormon Heteropatriarchy

  1. These conversations are exhausting and often end and turn into more ‘easy topics’ like; “how’s the weather”? Good for you for keeping up the dialogue.

    Your mom said:
    | Father gave us free agency, and it will all work out in the end. As we get older and reflect on life and society, our passions change. We mellow out and learn to “be.” I understand the passion f or a cause, I have one, but there is a big picture. Let your passion be part of that. It almost seems like a stressor that consumes you. Put more passion into love. |

    I always find it interesting that Mormons (and other groups as well) rest assured that they have the ‘bigger picture’ and this seems to be a fall back when things get too messy to understand. Somehow it seems very ironic that those who have the ‘big picture’ are also the most ‘narrow minded’.

    I’m new to your blog and I enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.

  2. she wrote a response on how same-sex marriage will lead to killing off women because humans will decide women aren’t needed as equals and babies will grow from test tubes.

    Wow, did she really say that? I somehow missed that it went quite that far during the earlier discussion you linked to.

    That is crazy on so many levels. Especially the idea that “humans” would decide to kill off “women” as superfluous, since it implies that “human”=”man” (and that men’s purpose is self-evident and doesn’t require explanation), while “women” are some sort of subspecies that exists only to serve as help-meets and wombs for the “humans”.

    Your mom is an interesting case. It sounds like she wants to support you but can’t bring herself to contradict or disbelieve anything said by the church. So she’d rather just avoid thinking about anything anywhere near the point of conflict, and just act as if no conflict exists.

    @1 Just Jill: Do we have your blog listed in Outer Blogness yet? Looks good!

  3. Yes, she did say that, although it was 2009 essay, not the response to Petrey (although you can read b/w the lines in the response to Petrey, where she talks about him “erasing” Heavenly Mother)…check out this comment for details.

    If you push the gender symmetry worldview far enough (that is, trying to universalize it for everyone — not just viewing hetero gender symmetry as one possibility among many), I think you can’t help but eventually run into crazy in the face of phenomena like gay marriage. You either get things like worldwide femicide, or the idea that gay people spontaneously become straight in the afterlife.

  4. This conversation was really interesting, especially because of the parts where you didn’t put an identifier in front of some of your mom’s statements, I wouldn’t think you were quoting my dad. Especially this one:

    As we get older and reflect on life and society, our passions change. We mellow out and learn to “be.” I understand the passion for a cause, I have one, but there is a big picture. Let your passion be part of that. It almost seems like a stressor that consumes you. Put more passion into love.

    At least with my father, I think one thing he is trying to point out is that trying to resolve injustices, right wrongs, and “fight” in general is a very (personally) wearying process. Although it seems like a betrayal of everything that is just and right, one (supposedly) has to learn to let go and “deal” with the fact that things aren’t going to be ideal.

    Of course, I’m guessing that my father is also probably in a different place w/r/t the church than your mother. I guess I don’t know enough to know his position on homosexuality, but it seems to me that whatever his position is on anything, it’s not just going to be because the church said so.

  5. and “deal” with the fact that things aren’t going to be ideal.

    This seems to be a popular sentiment, but here I get the sense that it’s less geared toward “stop stressing yourself out by fighting” than it is about “stop being selfish. The Church can’t possibly fit for everyone, so stop trying to change things to fit you.” Particularly on the gay question, I’m sure that plenty of Mormons think that since the majority of society is hetero, trying to change everything about Mormonism to accommodate gayness is selfish, even if they would agree the status quo is/seems terribly unfair.

    I’ve also often heard this argument in terms of America generally. With many people on the right, you argue about this or that in terms of America’s evils, and the response you receive is, “America is the best country on Earth. If you don’t like it, then leave.”

    Basically, the way I see it is that the person is not really on your side to begin with. If they were on your side, they’d be interested in tackling the power structures that keep you down. My mother is accommodating me, having motherly lovey feelings toward me, but in the end, still hopes that I see the “big picture,” and come to the side of the Church (even if this must happen in the afterlife). The Church may be imperfect, but there’s still more “God” there than in queer/feminist activism that seems intent on tearing it down. It’s this aspect of the “debate” that I wish I had more rhetorical tools for.

  6. re 5,

    Alan,

    Yep, I’ve definitely heard that approach too…but not from my father. In fact, on some internet conversations, I’ve had some people point blank tell me that they don’t care about minority issues (especially gay issues) precisely because most people are hetero and most society *needs* to be heterocentric in order to continue smoothly. In other words, gay issues are not just a minority issue, but they are superfluous because gay people don’t “contribute” to society (or whatever).

    Basically, the way I see it is that the person is not really on your side to begin with. If they were on your side, they’d be interested in tackling the power structures that keep you down.

    I think that is the case sometimes, but I think in other cases, the person is fatalistic. So, the reason they aren’t interested in tackling the power structures is not because they aren’t on my side, but rather because they don’t think the power structures *can* be tackled. If someone believes that gender norms and sexuality are actual intrinsic features of the universe (and not constructed), then fighting against these things seems to be futile. In that case, the best thing one can do is try to get someone to cope with “reality”, as it were.

    I really think that a major breakthrough would be to get people to understand that LDS teachings (which claim to be eternal, intrinsic, universal, objective) are actually constructed, temporal, contingent, context-dependent, and subjective. I think from there, instead of your mother trying to get you to see the “big picture” (as if there is only one), it would be a discussion of which of many different-yet-ubiquitous pictures one ought to support and which one ought to challenge.

    …but I’ll note…Even if the power structures can be tackled, if they are so entrenched that it’s really unlikely to succeed and would require coordination on a level that is unlikely, the answer is the same. I think this is where my father is. Like, especially on race issues — he assuredly doesn’t believe that these are an intrinsic feature of the world. But changing people’s minds, to him, is something with such a low rate of success, that if it’s going to hurt him in the process, he won’t do that.

    Fighting power structures in these senses are sisyphean tasks — one does it not to succeed, but because it is the only authentic thing one can do. The problem is that it hurts the individual doing it.

    …The most frustrating thing to me about this is that this is basically the Christian/religious message. “There are elements about life that are broken. You can’t fix them, but you can only come to terms with the brokenness and seek solace in [Jesus/heaven/etc.,]” Even if one says the intrinsically broken thing is society’s reaction to homosexuality rather than homosexuality, if it’s intrinsically broken, you aren’t going to change it, so you have to come to grips with it.

    What’s frustrating about this message is that it’s just too damn convenient for someone in power and authority to use this argumentation to someone who’s not.

  7. Andrew @ 6:

    I really think that a major breakthrough would be to get people to understand that LDS teachings (which claim to be eternal, intrinsic, universal, objective) are actually constructed, temporal, contingent, context-dependent, and subjective.

    You mean, destroy the Church utterly? =p Cuz without its claim to objectivity, it wouldn’t function at all.

    I guess Mormons are somewhat open to claims to subjectivity; they recognize, for example, polygamy once was and is no more. But they also place polygamy on a universal timeline of sorts. The entire history of the Church has to be maintained as objective (and sometimes this is done by casually “forgetting”); something like homosexuality is just too hard to fit into the timeline given the current and past Church.

    I was surprised a while back at how hard it was to convince my mother and her husband that oral sex used to be forbidden by church leaders. At first, they were like, “No, it was never forbidden.” And then they realized, well yeah, it probably was among those born before WWII, including among esteemed apostles. I let them know that it was a groundswell of Mormons that made this cultural change happen, not the leaders. They didn’t like this historical fact, because it goes against how the Church is supposed to change: from God, top/down through the priesthood system.

    fatalistic. … the reason they aren’t interested in tackling the power structures is not because they aren’t on my side, but rather because they don’t think the power structures *can* be tackled. If someone believes that gender norms and sexuality are actual intrinsic features of the universe (and not constructed), then fighting against these things seems to be futile. In that case, the best thing one can do is try to get someone to cope with “reality”, as it were.

    Well, there’s the power structures, and then there’s the ideological norms. In terms of the latter, I don’t think it’s a question of “can they change” so much as “if they change, how they change” — because Mormons believe God can change anything about the Church at any moment. Beyond that, there’s the [relatively] unchanging power structure protocols (the power of God thru the priesthood), and an unwillingness of members to overstep the protocol because it’s seen as overstepping God.

    I will give you two examples of this in play. There was a comment I read from some LDS man regarding ordainwomen.org, where he said that he actually wouldn’t mind if women were ordained; he has no cosmic issues with it. But what does bother him is how these LDS women seem to be “steadying the ark” (meaning, taking it upon themselves to engender change, rather than trusting God to run His own Church). I thought, “What the heck??? So he just expects that one day the Qof12 will wake up and say that women need ordination without Mormons actively advocating for it???” But then this is how Mormons think about change in their Church. If it exists, it should be invisible until made visible by the leaders to “punctuate” it…to “own” the change for the Church (I’m sure there’s been vocabulary developed to describe this process.)

    Another example. Once the country has gay marriage, my mother will genuinely be happy for me. How can her happiness be truly genuine when it’s also a nail in the Church’s sense of the cosmos? Because it’s not ultimately a nail if the Church can somehow convert the nail into a fluffy feather. And the only way to do this is to not “steady the ark,” to not “stress,” to let things “be.” There is value in my mother’s kind of politics — I’ve argued for it here on MSP — where active versus passive resistance suddenly switch meanings (Buddhist activism works this way). But it also means that certain other rhetoric has to be developed — such as an emphasis on education and multivocality, which is not really what the Church is about.

  8. Once the country has gay marriage, my mother will genuinely be happy for me. How can her happiness be truly genuine when it’s also a nail in the Church’s sense of the cosmos? Because it’s not ultimately a nail if the Church can somehow convert the nail into a fluffy feather.

    That’s why (playing devil’s advocate here) I almost feel like, by putting her in a position where she has to acknowledge the conflict and choose, you’re increasing the chance that she’ll consciously conclude that the church is right and you are wrong. Whereas if you avoid pressing the issue until after the church softens (and perhaps recognizes committed gay couples as loving, non-sinful unions), then she will be able to believe that the church was always right and that she and the church were always supportive and non-judgmental towards you.

    OTOH, this thing where the CoJCoL-dS silently, incrementally changes a policy — and then the faithful pretend like that’s what the church had been teaching the whole time, and you’re an anti-Mormon if you say otherwise — drives me nuts. So maybe you’re right to press the issue. Anyway, she brought it up….

  9. Lol, yes, she did bring it up. =) But I don’t think she quite realized the can of worms.

    This thing of protecting the Church’s “rightness” at all costs, even in the face of oppression, is terrible. Even if the Church is going to change on its own accord, and fighting makes things worse (because eventually an apostle might stand up and say, “The Church will never change!” thereby making change that much harder)…well, it’s still important to clearly name bigotry. In today’s world, it’s too easy to think hetero/sexism, racism are something of the past. Mormons are convincing themselves that Mormon homophobia is on its way out the door (as per Mormonsandgays.org). Now, there’s “love” in every gay corner. Actually, the heterosexist hole is just dug deeper. And someone has to say this.

    It’s as Andrew said @6:

    Fighting power structures in these senses are sisyphean tasks — one does it not to succeed, but because it is the only authentic thing one can do.

  10. That’s why (playing devil’s advocate here) I almost feel like, by putting her in a position where she has to acknowledge the conflict and choose, you’re increasing the chance that she’ll consciously conclude that the church is right and you are wrong.

    I see her response, or rather lack of response, to your direct question on whether you are living in sin as being the result of the question triggering massive cognitive dissonance. On the one hand she is telling you she is supporting and loving of you. In other words it sounds like she has accepted you. In direct conflict with that are the church’s teachings. To directly confront those teachings and come out and say the church is wrong has the potential to cause a whole house of cards to collapse for most Mormons. You are essentially admitting that the church isn’t lead by revelation and hence isn’t true. For a true believing Mormon who believes their eternal salvation hangs in the balance, that’s a pretty heavy question that transcends the original question. Hence the prevarication.

    I kind of agree with chanson that it probably isn’t best to directly press the questions that trigger this particularly threatening response. However, I think that it is essential that you continue to educate her on the issues like you did. I think you made an excellent point about how the article she sent was effectively exclusionary of you. But at the end I think she brought it back around and made the point the the points of the article could be made relevant to a gay relationship. I probably would have tried to reinforce that common ground. The more she sees your relationship as normal and the church’s doctrines and policies as abnormal and contrary to what she knows and has personally experienced, the more likely she is to soften.

  11. isn’t best to directly press the questions that trigger this particularly threatening response.

    I guess probably not with one’s own mother. However, this space of dissonance is really important to eventual resolution of these issues for the Church. The dissonance is what says “something is wrong that needs changing.” So, the more Mormons feel this dissonance, the better, IMO.

    I think you made an excellent point about how the article she sent was effectively exclusionary of you. But at the end I think she brought it back around and made the point the the points of the article could be made relevant to a gay relationship. I probably would have tried to reinforce that common ground.

    True, she is reading the article outside the bounds of its original intention (gay relationships also as complementary), and that is common ground. But logically, to say that “men and women are complementary because of their unique gender roles” and “by the way, gays are also complementary” — well, it doesn’t make sense. *sigh* Ah well.

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