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An Academic Book About Gay Mormons, Sure, Why Not

I am here to read the books you would never ever want to read and then summarize the best bits for you.

I recently finished D. Michael Quinn's Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. I picked it up because I was watching Ken Burns's The West, and there's an episode about the Mormons. It discusses the Mormon's western exodus and Mormon women's role in women's suffrage. Obviously I was interested in this, but my ears also perked up when it brought up Emmeline B. Wells, a Mormon woman who advocated polygamy because:

The world says polygamy makes women inferior to men -- we think differently. Polygamy gives women more time for thought, for mental culture, more freedom of action, a broader field of labor... and leads women more directly to God, the fountain of all truth. 

Wells's strong leadership in Utah suffrage made me interested in Mormon women's history, but more particularly I wanted to see if there were an LGBT history of the early Mormon Church, so when I saw there was a book called Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example, I snatched it up.

Quinn's book was published in 1996, i.e. the year the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed, banning same-sex marriage at a federal level. The stakes for America's LGBT population felt particularly heightened, as anti-gay and lesbian rhetoric saturated the media when Hawaii came close to passing a marriage equality law. The AIDS crisis crushed much of the support that had been building in the '70s, and just as we were coming out of it in the mid-'90s, this wave of fear-mongering made the average American dig in his heels, because the gay population wanted to "dismantle marriage from within" and would cause us to live in a genderless, godless world of plague and pestilence.

It's easy to forget the context in which things are written, and while Quinn's book was not what I was looking for, content-wise, it is a scrupulously researched history of same-sex relationships in a 19th century Mormon context, complete with compelling sources that indicate the Mormon Church saw sexual relations between men as less harmful than masturbation. Quinn cites Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, journals, newspaper accounts, as well as judicial records complete with jail sentences to make the point that it was not until those in the early Church had died out that the Latter Day Saints elders began seeing homosexuality as a greater sin than adultery, etc.

To make this difference clear, in the 1850s, women were decapitated for adultery, which while not officially sanctioned, was not punished by Church officials, one of whom had preached about adulterous women: "We wipe them out of existence." Men were castrated for bestiality. However, men accused of sexual misconduct with other men generally received a few months in jail.

Quinn quotes Joseph Smith as taking the traditionally anti-gay story of God's destruction of the city of Sodom and saying it was in fact the city's punishment for "rejecting the prophets," with no mention made of homosexuality.

A surprising amount of the book was devoted to Mormons in the 1920s, which I think he tried to get in by saying they were born in the 1890s. I was expecting more of a history of the Church in the 1830s-1860s, but those are my own expectations at fault, of course, and not his book. He makes a powerful case for the Mormon Church being overly influenced by the culture around it in its attitudes towards homosexuality.

One could say this kind of defense is no longer necessary given the striking down of DOMA and the recent Supreme Court decision that marriage equality is the law of the land, but the Mormon Church continues to be a vocal opponent of out members of the LGBT community being included in their ranks, even going so far in 2015 as to ban baptisms for babies living with LGBT parents, a move that not only shocked the public in general, but that also prompted a group of Mormons to leave the Church. Looking to the past for answers seems especially beneficial in this case. D. Michael Quinn has done the grunt work. Now the Church just has to pay attention.


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