Gehrke: Dallin Oaks' hard-line comments about gender are not reflective of the many compassionate Latter-day Saints

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dallin H. Oaks speaks at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

I was struck by something I read this week, something that seemed wise and compassionate.

“Be kind to one another,” this person said. “Jesus taught us to love one another and to treat others as we want to be treated.”

Those words were offered by Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during the women’s session of General Conference.

It’s solid advice, whether you’re religious or not. The world has never been worse off because of a boost in kindness and love.

It’s also advice that Oaks seemingly discarded during his General Conference talk earlier that day, when he took a hard-line position that “maleness and femaleness” is part of God’s plan and “gender is eternal.” It is the work of “the adversary” — Satan, for those unfamiliar with the vernacular — to tempt God’s children otherwise.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

“[The adversary] seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage and to discourage childbearing,” Oaks said.

The flood of pain on social media from faithful followers and their friends and loved ones who were told in no uncertain terms that they were on the side of evil was truly heartbreaking.

This is nothing new from Oaks. For decades he has been the church’s leading crusader against LGBTQ members and nonmembers and against same-sex marriage. His speech could have been pulled straight out of a conference talk from the 1980s.

What’s disappointing is that Oaks, given a platform where he could have espoused love and inclusion and compassion used the opportunity to deliver a message of division and exclusion. He just had to twist the knife one more time.

His message seemed at odds for a church that has, in recent years, seemingly has been waking up to the difficult issues confronting its LGBTQ members, especially young people.

In 2016, the church launched a website called “Mormon and Gay,” with a more empathetic tone than we have typically heard from the faith, with members telling of their own difficulties reconciling their same-sex attractions.

The church has slowly distanced itself from “conversion therapy” meant to reverse a member’s gender attraction.

It has taken an active role in a statewide suicide prevention task force and recently made a $25,000 contribution to Affirmation, an LGBTQ support group, to be used for suicide prevention.

We have seen public pronouncements from prominent LDS politicians like Sen. Orrin Hatch, who spoke lovingly to the gay community: “We need their light to illuminate the richness of God’s creations. We need the grace, beauty and brilliance they bring to the world.”

We saw tens of thousands of young people — members and nonmembers — celebrating inclusiveness and diversity at the “LoveLoud festival just a few months ago.

But I am not going to disparage Oaks. Sure, it would be easy. And justified. And pointless. Oaks will do what he wants.

Instead, I want to tell you about a dad from a model Latter-day Saint family who was blessed with a child, whom the family gave a girl’s name and dressed in frilly clothes.

As time passed, this child began to realize his true gender was at odds with the gender he had been assigned. He sought answers in articles on the family in dog-eared copies of the Ensign, the official magazine of the LDS Church. He would duck out of Young Women classes on Sunday and hide in the bathroom and cry.

All the while, the parents, believing they were doing what was best for their child, reinforced the traditional gender roles to convince their child he was someone he wasn’t. When he finally came out, the parents thought they could “fix” the problem. It’s breathtaking, this father says now, the emotional damage they did to their son.

Over time, the family learned. They learned more about the science, learned about the LGBTQ community, and they learned to embrace their son as he was.

“He’s doing awesome,” said the dad, who asked I not use his name to preserve his family’s privacy. “He’s transitioned, both legally and through gender confirmation surgery. He is away at a college in an area that is fully accepting of who he is. So he’s living out his life as he should be and, at this point, has no connection whatsoever to the church.”

Today, the family is deeply involved and supportive of the LGBTQ community. Family members have kids in their homes and have helped support young people who feel like outcasts from families who can’t come to terms with who their children are.

The hard part of Oaks’ speech was that families like this one, who accept and embrace and love one another, are painted as sinners, while those who fight and shun and try to change people are righteous.

“Think of the opportunity that the gospel, as I understand it, could be used to include them and relieve them of all the suffering the world throws on this community,” the father said. “I see such a missed opportunity of being able to be at the forefront, to really apply honest-to-goodness Christian principles and instead they’re saying, ‘If you even support this, you’re part of Satan’s plan.’ And I say, ‘My gosh, how wrong could you possibly be?’”

Oaks’ comments, this father stressed, don’t represent the experience he had with Latter-day Saints who accepted the family members, prayed with them and cried with them. It’s accepting behavior especially evident among the young people, he said.

“They are bringing up a generation that embraces each other and sees each other as humans," he said, “and have let go of the outdated ideas of sex and gender roles.”

If we’re lucky, maybe we can be more like those young people, and we can learn to follow Oaks’ counsel. Not the part about Satan and gender. The Christian part: “Be kind to one another. Jesus taught us to love one another and to treat others as we want to be treated.”

We could all do with more of that.