8: The Mormon Proposition is a fantastic and provocative film that I think is essential viewing for anyone interested in the subject of Mormonism and homosexuality. I see a great deal to praise in this film, not least of which bringing to the screen many powerful stories and characters. Yet, I also see much to be critical of here. The standard by which I evaluate this film is the degree to which it is able to offer a critical stance toward the Church without becoming hostile. This may or may not be the standard employed by the filmmakers, but it is for me a valuable standard in creating the conditions for progress within the LDS Church and community and improving relations with gays and lesbians. While in my view this film succeeds at one of its primary goals of humanizing the issue of same-sex marriage for an audience that may be skeptical of such a change, it does so at the cost of frequently dehumanizing Mormons.
One of the most fascinating parts about seeing this film in theater at a local film festival in a place where Mormons are little known was the audience reactions. There were several points of laughter at presentations of Mormon thought and theology, gasps of horror at some things said and done, and the entire audience burst into applause at the end. This experience helped me to gauge how the film played to a non-Mormon viewer.
I will review this film on several different issues: 1) the presentation of the case for same-sex marriage, 2) the presentation of the problems facing gay and lesbian Mormons, 3) the presentation of Mormons and Mormonism, and 4) what this film recommends doing about Mormonism.
The Case for Same-Sex Marriage
This film makes the case for same-sex marriage primarily by producing sympathy for gay and lesbian couples. It is extremely successful in this approach. The principle protagonists of the film, a young, handsome gay couple, Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, are both former Mormons. Tyler was Spencer’s first gay relationship of any kind and they quickly fell in love (it is a very Mormon story, actually). They were married in San Francisco, where they live, on the day that their marriage was made legal, six years after they first began dating. They are fantastic representatives for gay marriage because they are so articulate, handsome, and so obviously in love. Tyler’s mom, Linda Stay, plays an important role in the film as the mother who loves and fights for her son at great personal pain to oppose the church. She was a major figure in the delivery of the petitions to Church headquarters asking the church to reconsider its opposition to same-sex marriage. Tyler and his mom are fantastic on camera because both are quickly moved to tears over this issue. This personal story is one of the best parts of the film because they are such compelling characters.
Other than this, which is admittedly significant, there are no other arguments for same-sex marriage. The issue of in what way a marriage is substantively different from the domestic partnerships law in CA is not addressed except to mention that it feels different for gay couples. When the Yes on 8 campaign’s arguments were mentioned, such as issues surrounding free speech, free exercise of religion, and education, substantive responses were not offered. In fact, Linda Stay suggested that the church “knowingly lied” and that its excellent lawyers must have surely known that the issues relating to free speech, freedom of religion, and education were without merit.
One may reasonably object to all of these arguments, but I have no doubt that these concerns are sincerely held by those who offer them. I object to the accusation that those who hold these views are knowing “liars” both because it is not true and also because it represents an adversarial stance that is counterproductive. Rather, I suggest that the reasonable parties come to the table to hash out these issues. If they are not really issues at all, as I suspect they aren’t, then this should be demonstrated through argument rather than accusations of dishonesty. While I think that this film does an admirable job of presenting the human case for same-sex marriage, it falls short in terms of tackling head on the real concerns that reasonable people bring to this issue.
Problems Facing Gay and Lesbian Mormons
I applaud this film in raising the issues of the mistreatment of homosexuals within the church. It raises three issues in particular, the manipulative, coercive, and frankly tortuous reparative therapy that happened at BYU in the 1970s, the contemporary problem of homeless LDS teenagers who are kicked out of their home for homosexuality, and the suicides of LDS homosexuals. I consider all cases to be incredibly important, and deeply shameful as a Mormon. I will discuss each issue more fully, but I raise at the outset that the film presents these three scenarios as if they were the only options for homosexuals to be treated or to react inside the church. I have every reason to believe that these remain serious problems that must continue to be addressed by the Church, but at the same time I think that it is seriously unfair to suggest that reparative therapy, suicide, or homelessness are only options that the Church supports or teaches today for its gay membership.
The issue of the coercion and torture of suspected “homosexuals” in the 1970’s at BYU has received attention before in print from those who experienced it first hand. In short, suspected homosexuals were spied on, entrapped, and called in by the campus police and were subjected to treatments where they were exposed to pornography while inducing vomiting, verbal abuse, and electroshock treatment, sometimes at the hands of others. I was not previously aware of a filmed interview of a survivor of this treatment and it was a powerful moment in the film. While I wished that the dating of this episode had been discussed along with greater clarification about the status of this treatment then and now, which would have not only informed the audience to know that such tactics have long been abandoned at BYU and that BYU was not alone to try out such treatments in the 1970’s, I am convinced that this kind of episode is no less of a sex scandal than that facing the Catholic church today. It is truly horrifying.
On the issue of the homeless homosexual youth, this too is nothing short of a shameful tragedy. To this extent that these kinds of things happen, I have no doubt that it is better for a millstone to be hung around the neck of the parents. While the complexity of drug use, runaways, and homosexuality are no doubt difficult to account for in the parents decisions here, it seems clear to me that the church would never condone such actions on the part of the parents. At the same time, this issue should probably be addressed more directly, especially to local leadership who have knowledge of these cases of missing children in the families they are serving.
On the issue of suicides, this was by far the worst dealt with. The film featured erroneous statistics and linked by insinuation Stuart Matis with Prop 8 (rather than Prop 22), and really unfairly maligned his parents. The film quoted a gentleman who was featured multiple times, often with seriously questionable information, who claimed that Utah’s suicide rate was the highest in the nation, even higher than many other countries! This is factually incorrect, and easily falsifiable. Another interviewee claimed to have been to multiple funerals for suicidal homosexuals and that they were given “the cheapest coffins.” The inclusion of this type of misinformation and prejudicial opinions without any substantiation unfortunately undermines the credibility of the film as a whole and should not have been included.
Stuart Matis’ parents book A Quiet Desparation, identified as “pro-Mormon” is quoted as saying something like “We all felt a deep peace after Stuart’s death.” The audience literally gasped at the quote, but to anyone who was familiar with this book (as I am) knows that the implication that this quote is given from the film that the parents were glad that their son was finally dead is far from accurate and seriously misrepresents the message this book offers. The Matis’s declined to participate in the film and an excerpt from a phone conversation is given where they state that they have no opinion on Prop 8 which is different from the church. One gets the impression that the filmmakers deliberately maligned them because they refused to cooperate with the film’s narrative and had to cast them as homosexual-haters. With the exception of the testimonials of suicide survivors who spoke of their frustration and loneliness, issues which still need to be dealt with (and which the Matis’s have dedicated their own work to!) this whole section on suicide was a disappointment.
Treatment of Mormons and Mormonism
The treatment of Mormons in this film was frustrating. Some of this may be attributed to the filmmakers, but much of it remains in the self-presentation of Mormons themselves. On the former issue, the problem for me is summed up in the unfortunate phrase of one of the film’s producers, Emily Pearson, who spoke of “the Mormon mind.” For me, this kind of prejudicial characterization of Mormons is deeply problematic. Frankly, it is simply unacceptable to homogenize Mormons in such a way, just as it is to speak of the “Oriental mind,” the “Jewish mind,” or the “homosexual mind.” The one-dimensional presentation of Mormons as primarily hateful and irrational misses what for me is one of the great stories of this whole episode, which is the rather dramatic shift even within the LDS hierarchy to a more open, understanding, and accepting stance toward gays and lesbians. Further, this film misses entirely the deep tensions and divisions within the LDS community over this issue.
Yet, the cinematography relating to General Authorities in particular was unnecessarily dramatic. The film frequently presents excerpts from the broadcast to members in California hosted by Elders Cook, Ballard, and Clayton. Some of these excerpts are audio only, and are accompanied by scary sounds and menacing visuals. The video portions of this broadcast and other interviews feature super close-ups and I half expected the picture to appear as a negative with red-burning eyes at any moment, no matter how benign a sentiment was being expressed. Other times featured quotations are taken out of context, as when President Monson was quoted from General Conference as saying that if we are obedient no earthly force can conquer us, as if this statement was made in reference to Prop 8.
The importance of families to Mormons was a central theme, but the B-role footage was always from 1970’s and 80’s LDS TV ads that made Mormons look cheesy, naive, and cartoonish. The centrality of the family was treated as a joke and the audience frequently laughed through the accounts of Mormon families as they viewed these ads. Ulimately, the film as a whole lacked a compelling Mormon character, offering only scary-looking GA’s, crazy activists, and dated TV commercials. The closest thing that the film did offer to a compelling Mormon character was Tyler’s mom Linda. She was truly fantastic, demonstrating the real emotion that she felt for her son and staking out a stance that including both her devotion to her family and her church. She was largely satisfying, except when she, along with many other interviewees, accused the church of “lies and propaganda” in their advertizing campaign on Prop 8.
There are two significant omissions in this film with respect to the presentation of Mormons. First, as I have mentioned already with regard to the issues of dates. In a series of quotes from “Mormon leaders” that are claimed to have lead from doctrines to Prop 8 politics, a half-dozen general authorities are cited as saying terrible things about homosexuals. One problem is that it is not clear from the presentation that these quotes are many decades old, coming from the 1870s to the 1970s. All are presented with the title of the person, such as “Apostle” or “Prophet,” but fail to mention that no GA has said such things in 40 years. The only recent quote is from President Hinckley who said in a 1994 interview with Larry King that, “Gays have a problem.” I humbly suggest that this attitude is hardly on par with the earlier quotes that talked about God wiping them out or that it was better to be dead than gay.
The second serious omission is any sort of acknowledgement of what I believe to fairly represent the church’s official position on gay rights today, which is that it has no objection to any of the measures to provide rights to gays and lesbians, including couples, short of calling them “marriage.” When it comes to housing, employment, hospital visitation, and any other major issue concerning gay rights my understanding is that the church has no objection whatsoever. One potential and significant exception may be adoption, but the church has not made this issue especially clear. This current stance of “everything but ‘marriage’” represents a reasonably progressive stance, especially for the Church, and I think that at least acknowledging this is crucial in the presentation of Mormonism. However, there is no suggestion that the LDS church and its members harbor anything but hatred and the wish for the destruction of the gay community. This is extremely unfortunate. The steady stream of quotes from the 90’s to today urging LDS members not to hate gays and lesbians and to treat them with respect and love are completely absent. Now, I believe that there is room to be critical of these statements, but these statements do reflect the values and ideals of the Church today much better than those that were flashed on the screen from a time when those attitudes would have hardly raised an eyebrow in American discourse on sexuality. Further, though there was plenty of time to include the LDS church’s support of a progressive gay rights ordinance in Salt Lake City in the film, there was no mention of it.
What to do about the Mormons?
The narrative of LDS involvement on Prop 8 has been shaped largely by Fred Karger, political consultant, gay rights activist, and someone who plays dirty in politics. Karger features prominently in the film and was a major voice during and after Prop 8 in “exposing” Mormon involvement in the campaign and in the National Organization for Marriage. Karger received a series of top secret documents relating the the Church’s manufacturing of a “coalition” in Hawaii in the 1990‘s to oppose same-sex marriage and he suggested that the church acted much the same way in California (though I’m not aware of any evidence that this is the case, it is certainly plausible). Karger has much to contribute on these issues, but it is unfortunate that his narrative of the Mormons as the primary reasons No on 8 lost goes essentially unchecked, especially given his propensity to play unfairly in politics.
Mormon money is emphasized a great deal here, and Mormon money is held primarily responsible. This comes with two insinuations, 1) much came from “out of state” and, 2) money was the key to the whole campaign. The problem, of course, is that No on 8 significantly outspent Yes on 8. Yes on 8 raised somewhere around 43 million, while No on 8 raised somewhere around 65 million. Further, I suspect that just as much of the Yes on 8 money came from one interest group, Mormons, that much of the No on 8 came from gays and lesbians, even those “out of the state!” The question of Mormon money has never seemed really much of a winning argument because what was really at issue was the lack of a good campaign from the No on 8 folks. In fact, Mormon money is not an argument at all in favor of same-sex marriage, except to the extent that it plays on fears that if something is supported by the Mormons, it must be scary.
Related to the issue of money is the issue of the Church’s tax-exempt status. Why any reasonable person thinks that this is an issue worth pursuing is beyond me. Not only is the Church’s tax exempt status unlikely to be challenged on this issue, it also shouldn’t be. Even if the Church gave every last penny out of tithing funds that was used in Yes on 8 (it didn’t, not in the least), not only would this fail to constitute “significant” involvement in politics (the IRS standard) given the total scope of LDS finances and activities, but 503(c) organizations don’t give up their right to free speech simply because they are tax exempt. Such a claim lacks any legal or logical credibility. One might disagree with the Church’s position on same-sex marriage and its encouragement of its members to vote a particular way, but this is part of the freedom of speech and one doesn’t have to pay taxes at a certain rate to be guaranteed that right. To pursue the end of the exemptions for churches is not only massively unpopular and such a non-starter politically that even its mention is a waste of political capital, but also would entail the muzzling of Unitarian Universalists, Episcopal leaders and several other church organizations that favor same-sex marriage. The inclusion of this argument in the film is one of the low points because it is so silly. Further, inasmuch as gay marriage presents itself as a threat to churches, churches will continue to fight it. If you want to reassure churches, including the Mormons, that same-sex marriage is not a threat to them, quit threatening them!
I have many criticisms of this film in areas where I think that it fails to live up to the ideals of productive conversations, representation of critical issues, and attempts at cooperative partnership with Mormons. To the extent that it presents Mormons and Mormonism as an enemy, it creates a self-fulfilling prophesy and only perpetuates antagonism, hostility, mistrust, and fear that gays and lesbians are out to get Mormons. In my estimation, this is the exact opposite position that needs to be staked out and I am disappointed that this film at times fails to bridge this gap.
With that huge caveat in mind, I think that this film is fantastic in raising critical issues that need attention within the Mormon community as we continue to wrestle with the issues of homosexuality within Mormonism and within society at large. These issues need continued conversation and critical engagement as they have caused significant pain for countless individuals and families, including those who are not of our faith. I am thankful for having seen this film and hope that it’s best parts can help to contribute productively to that conversation. Ultimately, the great strength that this film offers is the human face to the issues of gay and lesbian marriages, lives, and relationships, but I was disappointed at the lack of humanity given to Mormons.