17 December 2012

Pants and pink boxers

Mormon civil wars are not common, but there are some rumblings from time to time over history or doctrine that can enflame passions. The events of the last week – centered on pants – have generated a little more than the usual excitement. What happened? About a week ago, several LDS women organized a Facebook event inviting women to wear pants to Sunday services as a statement about gender inequalities in LDS culture. Supportive men were invited to participate by wearing purple shirts or ties to church.

By about midweek, roughly 1500 people had joined the event – a sizeable number, but clearly one that represents only a very small percentage of church membership. Within short order, it appeared, opposition and disapproval bombarded the original Facebook site. Comments included statements that the event was silly or juvenile, or that women didn’t need to try to be like men, or that the type of clothing a sister wore to church didn’t matter in the eyes of Jesus. Some of these comments had received thousands of “likes”. In fact, I recall seeing the “like” count tick up quite rapidly as the page was automatically updated every few seconds. Clearly, a backlash was in the making.

Valid debate aside, things also got stranger and uglier. In a spirit of shocking vulgarity, one of the comments left by an antagonist on the original page advocated lethal violence against all “minority activists”. Then, about mid week, the original Facebook page that advertised the event disappeared. Some speculate that the page was bombarded with so many complaints that it was taken down. If so, this was an ironic outcome since the pants advocacy was really fundamentally about having a greater voice in Mormonism. Later, I learned from an on-line discussion (though this would be impossible for someone like me to verify) that a bishopric in Colorado held an emergency meeting in which it was determined that a list of women wearing pants should be assembled so that “worthiness interviews” could be conducted. Such a tactic, if true, sounds closer to totalitarian intimidation than anything Christian leadership should be involved in. Apparently pants had become a real pain in the ass for some in conservative Mormonism.

Now briefly on the matter of pants, the LDS Church currently has no set rules on what women can and cannot wear to church, except that members should make an effort to be respectful and reverent. Those are the official rules. Sometimes however, because of strong social expectations that tend to permeate Mormonism, something as innocuous as pants versus dresses can become a big issue for some Latter-day Saints. The doctrine and the culture can get mixed up in the minds of members such that things like taking the sacrament (communion) with the proper hand (righties only), and the color of men’s shirts when they officiate in priesthood functions (white is respectful), and the kinds of language approved for prayer ('thee' and 'thine' are in; 'your' and 'yours' are out) take on a life of their own. Those cultural practices become quasi-doctrine and if a member strays from them, they might get a visual or vocal pat-down from someone in their local congregation.

With these details behind us, why the orthodox backlash? I can only speculate, but at least I can use history and collective personal experiences to guide those speculations. First, Latter-day Saint culture is very uncomfortable with dissent and criticism. This derives from some key doctrine: Mormons are taught that the Church is perfect and that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth. There is also a belief that the LDS Prophet, though human, teaches infallible doctrine, at least in settings like general conference. The cultural manifestation of this belief is that a fair amount of adulation goes on. Ordinary church members praise local leaders such as bishops and stake presidents, and local leaders revere the Apostles, and the Apostles bear public testimony of the Prophet and so forth. The corollary to this bottom-up reverence is that Mormon authority flows downward. Apostles are called by the Prophet, so they should be respected; stake presidents are appointed by general authorities, so they should be followed; other local leaders are called under the inspiration received by stake presidents, so they should be sustained; and so forth. This is all well and good if all of these men are really God’s servants and really teach nothing but truth.

Criticism doesn’t sit well with any of this. To criticize Church leadership at any level is to directly challenge their authority to act or speak in the name of God. More subtly, to fail to conform to specific Mormon practices (some rooted in official doctrine, others rooted more in culture as we’ve discussed above), shows a lack of faith in the divine calling of Church leaders or a lazy or disrespectful attitude. Constructive criticism or dissent has little role in this more orthodox version of Mormonism because God’s church is already reflective of God’s will and if changes were to be needed, they would happen through revelation through appointed leadership channels.

A second reason for the conservative backlash of the last week may stem from the very rigid views that orthodox Mormonism has about gender roles. This gets beyond pants and more to the heart of why some women organized the Sunday event in the first place. Gender is a really big topic in Mormonism touching everything from polygamy to working versus stay-at-home moms to homosexuality. In the case of pants, some of the backlash may have been a rejection of the notion that women do not already have all of the rights, privileges, and opportunities that they could ever need within Mormonism. True, I suspect that many women are perfectly happy in the roles and opportunities that are currently provided for them in the culture and doctrine of the church. But some are not. Some women may want greater leadership opportunities (currently women can only lead other women or children, never men). Some women may want greater validation if they choose to have a career and be a mother. Some women may want priesthood authority, just as the men have. A very enlightening perspective on some of the inequalities that women can face in Mormonism was put together on this website. Among the listed items are the lack of examples of women in scripture, the paucity of voices of women in church leadership meetings and general conference, and the vulnerable position that women in settings like confession and church discipline that are presided over only by men.

The final reason I’ll venture for this orthodox backlash against pants (again, very speculative on my part) may be due to Mitt Romney. Huh? Here is the line of reasoning: Mormons have historically been a very misunderstood and persecuted group of people. The early Saints were driven from settlements in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio and eventually settled in the barren Salt Lake Valley where they had the benefit of physical distance from hostile citizens. Shortly after settling in Utah however, the persecution ramped up again. This time antagonism came from the government, but now in connection with polygamy. A more peaceful balance between Mormonism and the rest of the world really wasn’t achieved until the 20th century, but even today Mormon doctrine is still regarded as strange by many people and many still know little about the church. So in part Mormon identity has become connected to the concept of being besieged and persecuted because of the long tradition of hostility directed towards the faith. Then arrives Mitt Romney recently in American politics, and Latter-day Saints finally have an unprecedented opportunity for acceptance. But, dashing the hopes of many Latter-day Saints, he is defeated in the presidential election. So putting these loose pieces together, the hypothesis is something like this: revolutionary doctrine -> historical persecution -> defensiveness -> a strong ethos of inter-group loyalty -> sour grapes about Mitt Romney + (dissent = bad) -> not happy with women in pants.

Given that I have a little bit of a rebellious streak, it was natural that I wanted to participate in pants-to-Church Sunday, even though I have not really attended Church very much since coming out as gay. I wasn’t brave enough nor warm blooded enough to go without pants, nor did I have a purple tie or shirt, so a blue shirt and pink tie had to suffice.

Well, it turned out that the whole event was a non-event in the sacrament meeting that I visited yesterday. Without staring down the congregation too much, I could discern only one sister in pants, and perhaps a single purple tie out of the corner of my eye. In my moderately-sized fairly sleepy town with several Mormon congregations, there was no revolution in the making. Some of the most noteworthy things during the meeting were the return missionary giving a talk while seated (he started feeling light-headed early on) and the billowing cumulous cloud of curly hair atop the young man that came by to offer me the sacrament. Oh, and there were my pink boxers, hidden evidence that I’m not quite the Mormon I used to be.

There is a degree of solidarity among the different groups that seek a greater voice and flexibility in Mormonism, whether they are academics, feminists, or gays. And because they share concerns about Mormon rigidity over gender roles, discontented women in the Church and disaffected LGBT Mormons share a common bond. Both groups tend to suffer from the insensitivity that bleeds into LDS culture from time to time, whether that is done in outright antagonism or because of the less insidious, but no less problematic, matter of ignorance. Some LDS women and gays are discontent because they feel that Mormonism is antagonistic towards their individuality. They do not exactly fit into the ideal family or pre-approved gender expectations.

Yet the dynamics of struggle in the church also differ for disaffected women and gays. For women, biological sex and gender are something that cannot be hidden, so a woman can constantly be a potential victim of scrutiny by others. If her degree of femininity is “lacking”, or if her life choices are somewhat different from the expected norm, she may be immediately open to criticism, even (? especially) from other women. However, the roles of women as mothers and wives are revered in LDS doctrine and culture, so at least her fundamental value as a human being is reaffirmed throughout Mormonism. For some women who tend to gravitate towards less “traditional” paths, the price of that affirmation may seem to be conformity to other’s expectations.

Human sexuality on the other hand is generally a very private matter and is often not discernable in a public setting. While the invisibility of sexual orientation can be a refuge for LGBT people determined to stay in the closet, it has also meant that gay issues have long been neglected in the Church. Issues that are neglected tend to only progress very slowly. Insensitive or even hateful comments may come from fellow Saints who have no idea that their words are being heard by LGBT people right next to them. The silence of sexuality tends to turn inward into cancerous emotions that suggest things such as: God does not love you; you are unworthy because you cannot change these attractions; you need to hide who you are so that no one ever knows this vile secret you carry. When Church members associate homosexuality with words like ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverse’, even the sense of worth of a gay person’s life can be questioned.

I will never know the struggles that women have faced or continue to face in a world that doesn’t always recognize their equality. As a man I can choose a career or fatherhood or both with little criticism from broader society. But as a gay person, I did not choose the sexuality that I have. It comes with its own set of challenges and limitations. A woman’s sex is constantly visible, like her pants at Church, subject to discussion and debate or maybe a smile from another person that sees beyond notions of set roles and responsibilities. My sexuality is largely invisible, like my pink boxers, but it is as close to my true self as all my other core attributes. Women in pants and men in pink boxers. Can’t the Church celebrate all of us?

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