Jana Riess: 10 years after apostle Packer’s anti-LGBTQ talk, have Latter-day Saints turned the corner on gay rights?

(Courtesy | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Boyd K. Packer leaves the October 2010 General Conference with his wife, Donna.

Ten years ago this month, apostle Boyd K. Packer of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ignited a firestorm of controversy with his General Conference talk “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” which was widely criticized for its homophobic and misleading statements about homosexuality.

“Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and the unnatural,” Packer said. “Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, he is our Father.”

The remarks sparked protests in Salt Lake City. A petition from the Human Rights Campaign in Utah garnered 150,000 signatures, asking that Packer (who died in 2015) correct his statement. (He did walk it back slightly in the printed version of the talk, omitting the line about Heavenly Father and downgrading the language used about the family proclamation from “revelation” to “guide.”)

And, on a personal level, I received an onslaught of hate mail from conservative Mormons for the first time.

That was because I raised my voice in complete disagreement the day after Packer’s remarks. I gave the column an entirely unambiguous headline — “LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer is wrong about homosexual relationships” — and spoke from the heart about my disappointment that General Conference had taken such a harmful turn. I wrote:

I believe that Elder Packer is wrong that there is no such thing as a godly homosexual relationship. I define a godly partnership as two individuals who strive in mutual fidelity to honor one another and care together for others. I have seen a number of godly, lifelong, homosexual relationships, just as I have seen some heterosexual temple marriages that were unholy, like an LDS man who would not stop belittling and humiliating his wife in public, or an LDS woman who turned her children against their father because he had not been as successful in his career as she thought he should be.

On the flip side, I have seen plenty of excellent, beautiful Mormon temple marriages, and some unhealthy gay relationships. Like heterosexual marriages, gay relationships are found all across the spectrum, and it only serves to demonize gay individuals to characterize all gay relationships as “impure” or “not in harmony with the principles of the gospel.”

The principles of the gospel involve love and faith, not condemnation of anyone who is different. In the LDS Church, we are “trying to be like Jesus,” as the Primary song puts it. Our goal in life is to become more like Christ. Why, then, do we fixate so much of our attention on condemning homosexuality, a subject that Christ did not address a single time in his earthly ministry?

The comments (which do not seem to have survived on the Beliefnet site) and emails I received were sometimes brutal. I had only been writing for a national publication for a few months by that point and had never had a column “go viral” in quite that way. It was a rude awakening for me and for my Lutheran mother, whose careful perusal of the comments led her to conclude that “Mormons are mean” — not exactly the Christian witness that Latter-day Saints were hoping would be our calling card into the digital world.

But also in the mix of angry messages that demanded the immediate cancellation of my temple recommend and church membership were the voices of gay Mormons and their families, grateful for an outspoken ally who was willing to take the heat.

The church has changed a great deal in a decade. As I watched General Conference last weekend, I realized that almost no mention was made of LGBTQ issues. That was also true in the April conference, though at the time I chalked it up to a preoccupation with the meeting’s theme about the 200th anniversary of the restoration.

But this month’s conference had every reason to fixate on the traditional family and the superiority of heterosexual marriage, since it marked the 25th anniversary of the family proclamation. Many people, myself included, were bracing ourselves for the proclamation to be ushered into the canon of scripture, and then it didn’t happen.

That’s not to say it couldn’t in the future, especially during a Dallin Oaks presidency (he is next in line to take the church’s helm); he has made traditional marriage a signature concern of his theological legacy. And that’s not to say the proclamation is not functioning as de facto scripture for many people already: it is framed in Latter-day Saint homes, quoted often in lessons and talks, and scheduled for discussion in the “Come Follow Me” curriculum next year. But the church has had multiple opportunities to canonize it, and it has so far resisted this largely irrevocable step.

What should we look for in the next 10 years? Has the LDS Church turned a corner on LGBTQ issues?

One thing I don’t expect to happen is for the church to become embroiled in another intense political dogfight to defeat same-sex marriage — at least in the United States, where such a move would be too costly to its reputation.

In the 1990s, when the church began wading into the political arena in various state fights on same-sex unions and same-sex marriage, public opinion was largely on the church’s side. In 1996, just after the church debuted its proclamation, only 27% of Americans believed that same-sex marriage “should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.”

Today, nearly 7 in 10 Americans support same-sex marriage and only 31% reject it, almost an exact reversal of the percentages over 20 years ago. What’s more, same-sex marriage is the law of the land everywhere in the United States.

In that situation, it becomes a lot harder for a religion that wants to appeal to new converts to refuse to change.

Politically, this issue is no longer a bellwether. It’s basically the only thing Americans aren’t arguing about in 2020. According to Ballotopedia, only one state has an LGBTQ-related issue on the ballot this year, and it’s essentially whether the state will reverse a 2002 provision in the Nevada Constitution that limited marriage to being between a man and a woman.

So I’m not expecting the church to again try to legislate against same-sex marriage; the costs would be too steep. I also don’t expect it to commit another unforced error like its 2015 LGBTQ exclusion policy, which senselessly prevented some children of same-sex couples from being baptized or blessed in the church. Although a majority of active Latter-day Saints said they approved of the policy, it was deeply unpopular outside of the church. The controversial policy was rescinded in 2019.

We’ve learned three things in the past decade: first, that the church has made clear progress in its position on LGBTQ issues; second, that it does change in response to internal and external criticism even while insisting that such pressure has no effect; and, third, that its evolution is not a linear process. There is progress, and then a little backtracking, and then some more progress.

Let’s end on a final hopeful note: A decade after Packer’s talk, one of the bestselling books offered by Deseret Book is “Without the Mask: Coming Out and Coming Into God’s Light,” by Charlie Bird, the former “Cosmo the Cougar” mascot at Brigham Young University. The book’s jacket copy unapologetically describes Bird as gay — twice! — not that he is “struggling with same-sex attraction,” as has long been the preferred language. In an accompanying video, Bird expresses his hope that this book will be for LGBTQ youths in the church the book he wanted but never had, one that offers hope and brings families together.

Amen to that. I just downloaded the book. I want to celebrate progress whenever I see it happening in my church, and I’ve seen a lot of progress in 10 years.

Editor’s note The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.