The Trouble With Taboos

My daughter Sara called me in great distress this week. Although she left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints several years ago, she was reeling from Elder Jeffrey Holland's widely-reported comments to faculty and staff at BYU about same-sex topics and musket fire. Because she is queer, she felt personally rejected. She ached for members of her community who are still members of the Church, who feel they are being told that they are indecent and expected to hide -- to become invisible. And she found rhetoric about musket fire chilling when a newlywed lesbian couple was found shot to death in the mountains near Moab last week. 

Our need to process this together is what has led to Sara's joining this blog. We've talked a lot about many things. We have areas of agreement and areas of deep disagreement. That's uncomfortable for me and painful for Sara, but we're willing to live with it because of the depth of our respect for each other's agency.  My post on this has gone through multiple revisions and this time, I'm trying to narrow my focus in hopes of making it a little more coherent. 

I'm not going to try to evaluate Elder Holland's speech. Lots of other people have been doing that, on both sides. Instead, I want to address a central priority he described, that of “show[ing] empathy and understanding for everyone while maintaining loyalty to prophetic leadership and devotion to revealed doctrine.”

From a lot of people’s perspectives, those two objectives seem to be incompatible: you can either love and embrace LGBTQ+ members and friends or you can sustain the prophets and support their teachings on gender, marriage and the family. 

I would propose that the appearance of incompatibility is because we need to use new tools for achieving both objectives. And we need to discard a worn-out tool that has never actually done a good job: the taboo.  

The trouble with taboos is they motivate with shame. Whether they are dusty old taboos about sex or gleaming modern taboos about racism, sexism and homophobia, their function is to amp up the shame about specific behaviours in hopes of eliminating them. Taboos are a dead end because shame is Satan's tool, not God's. 

In the innocence of Eden, Adam and Eve were created naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25; Moses 3:25). God did not tell them to avoid a particular fruit because it was disgusting and would make them filthy. The scriptures give us no such charged and shame-filled language. Instead, He taught them that it would make them mortal, and then He gave them space to choose for themselves. It was only after they listened to Satan and partook of the forbidden fruit that they developed an inclination to hide. Suddenly, they thought themselves unsightly, made aprons to hide their nudity, and when they heard the voice of God approaching in the garden, they took cover. It wasn't God who told them to slink away. To the contrary; He called them forth out of cringing isolation and coached them through a connecting confession. Then, the scriptures say, He made for them coats of skins and He taught them to make sacrifices, which an angel later told them was in "similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth." (Moses 5:7).

This was Eden, where they had lived in harmony with the animals and there had been no death. It seems likely to me that those coats of skins were made from the pelts of the first animal sacrifices. In other words, it seems to me that God, seeing Adam and Eve's vulnerability to shame, clothed them in a symbol of the Saviour's coming redemption. And though they could no longer stay in Eden, He invited them to repent and call upon Him, to stay connected so that He could be their Helper, not their shamer. Shame is Satan's tool. Not God's. 

Taboos teach us shame, and they pile it on high. They teach disgust and revulsion toward certain behaviours in a way that inevitably spills out onto those who do them. The forbidden behaviour may not always be a sin, but taboos get especially vicious and entrenched when it is. We say "hate the sin but love the sinner," but in practice, we cringe from, mock and whisper about, tweet threatenings against, and treat with disdain the sinner. Not all sinners. Just certain ones; the ones who violate our taboos. What's even worse, we internalize the disgust to the point that we feel ourselves and project onto others deep shame not only for the commission of certain sins, but also for being tempted by them. 

That's particularly problematic. The gospel teaches that it is not a sin to be tempted. It can't be, when the scriptures tell us of Jesus Christ: "And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people" (Alma 7:11, emphasis added).

The scriptures also teach, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13). 

Taboos say otherwise. They say certain temptations make you filthy. So, let's say a teenager wakes up from an erotic dream about a family member, both aroused and horrified. He thinks he's disgusting. He feels crushing shame, a deep fear that there's something wrong with him, and an inability to talk to anybody about it. That shame is what hooks him; it brings his mind repeatedly back to his dream and his reaction to it, and he starts to harbour beliefs about himself that lead him deeper and deeper into temptation. If only he could talk to a parent who could hear his worries unfazed, tell him he's normal, that Jesus suffered "temptations of every kind" and help him access the grace of Jesus Christ. But the taboo is so powerful he's left alone, disgusted with himself, and preoccupied by the powerful emotions that accompanied his dream. Isolation and fear lead him deeper into the dark. 

The taboo on homosexuality is similarly toxic and tyrannical. Voices of Hope is brimming with accounts of sensitive souls who were determinedly keeping gospel standards while recoiling in horror for years from their sexual feelings. They begged and bargained, fasted and prayed, sacrificed and supplicated for God to cure them of being gay. They pled silently in the dark because they could not reveal what they understood as a dirty secret to the people that they needed to love them. Buffeted internally and externally by a taboo, they learned self-loathing. You cannot function faithfully over the long term when you are full of self-loathing. And Zion will not be built by people who loathe themselves or others. 

That is the trouble with taboos, and it's why they need to be dismantled. 

But what then? If we're not using shame to keep people away from forbidden paths, that is, from choices that will take them away from God and bind them down under the power of their enemy, what do we use instead? 

We use what God used in the Garden of Eden, connection, true doctrine, and the promise of redemption through Jesus Christ.  We teach "repentance and faith in God" (Mosiah 25:22). And we deactivate shame by loving people and offering belonging wherever they are at on their spiritual journey.  

Offering love and belonging can be challenging when we’re accustomed to motivating with elements of shame. But it’s crucial because we are all unique and the weaknesses I need to overcome and the life experiences I need right now to draw me closer to my Savior are not the same as somebody else. Thus far, my path toward eternal happiness has led me through two divorces (a mild taboo)— not something my parents wanted for me or that I would wish on my children. But it has been my path, and I'm grateful for every thing I've learned along it. 

Another's path is theirs. Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s brother Tom’s path led him out of membership in the Church he loved into a committed same-sex relationship for two decades. He continued, however, to be surrounded by his family’s love and acceptance. And then the love and acceptance of a ward family that welcomed him and his partner as they were eventually assisted him to fully reconcile his faith and his sexuality. Now, through daunting sacrifice, he has returned to full participation in the Church.  I wonder, had he not learned self-loathing at Church, would he ever have had to leave in the first place?

I don’t think it’s possible to know that, but I think that a history of the struggle of LGBTQ+ individuals in the BYU community provides important context for the dual priorities Elder Holland identified in his speech. 

  • In 1959, BYU began aversion therapy (involving electroshock and, allegedly, induced vomit) for gay males who were desperate to change their sexual orientation. 
  • In the 1960s, homosexuals were banned from attending BYU. In a 1965 address, BYU President Ernest L Wilkinson told the student body that BYU does not "admit to campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly; and if you will be honest enough to let us know the reason, we will voluntarily refund your tuition. We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence." 
  • Tom Christofferson recalls his time at BYU in the 1980s or 90s as follows: 

My time at the university was largely spent in hiding, and my concerns were not unfounded. Rumors circulated that campus police would go to Salt Lake City and take photographs of license plates of cars parked near LGBTQ gathering places, trying to identify any BYU students who might have been there. A friend was parked in her car with another woman in the stadium parking lot when campus police knocked on the window and required them to go to the office where they were questioned, and while the bishop (minister) of one of the women was called to further question her. My friend's friend confessed that while they had only been talking in the car, they had strong feelings for one another. Both were told to return home until such time as their local church leaders would recommend their return to the university. (Neither did.)

  • Conversion therapy was discontinued in the mid 1990s. 
  • In April 2007, the honor code was changed to say, “Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards…One’s stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue.” This allowed LGBTQ students to come out of the closet without risk of being disciplined for it by the school. 
  • In 2010, an unoffical club called Understanding Sexuality, Gender and Allyship (USGA) was launched at BYU with a goal to make space for "open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction." They released a video on YouTube in April 2012 that went viral and drew a great deal of media and activist attention. Some of it was positive, but some of it resulted in pressure to remove them from campus.  The BYU Board of Trustees determined the group needed to move off campus in November 2012 and they relocated to the Provo Public Library in January 2013. 
  • A 2017-2018 effort to create a BYU-approved club for LGBTQ students and their allies went all the way to the Board of Trustees and was then turned down. 
  • In 2019, the first unofficial Rainbow Day was organized to show love, support, protection and friendship for LGBTQ students.
  • On February 19, 2020, BYU announced the honor code had been updated to align it with the Church's new General Handbook. The section that forbade "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings" had been removed, leading to speculation that gay dating was now allowed. At first, Honor Code Office staff confirmed that was the case and a video of BYU professor Jim Brau enthusiastically explaining the change to his class went viral. In the video, he said that people who insulted gay couples would themselves be subject to investigation by the HCO.  At least one LGBTQ student came out to her parents, believing her university supported her. The @BYU Twitter account tweeted: 

"we’ve learned that there may have been some miscommunication as to what the honor code changes mean, Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.  The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case-by-case basis. For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually.”

  • Meanwhile, some in the BYU community protested  the wording change on Twitter with "hashtags like #SaveBYU, #TakeBackBYU and #DezNat." 
  • On February 26th, 2020 more than a hundred students wore rainbow swag to celebrate Rainbow Day.  LGBTQ students held hands and kissed. Meanwhile, a handful of other students gathered outside the Religion building to read aloud the Proclamation on the Family. Students in rainbow swag gathered around and drowned them out with hymns and a ukulele. 
  • On March 2, CES Commissioner Elder Paul V Johnson issued a letter saying, "Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles in the honor code."  In a Q&A , Honor code director Kevin Utt acknowledged the isolation and pain some students were experiencing and called on the "campus community to reach out to those who are personally affected with sensitivity, love and respect." He also clarified that the expectation to encourage each other to keep the honor code "is not synonymous with ‘turn someone in.’ Encourage is an action that means to give support, confidence or hope to someone."
  • On March 4, 5 students and alumni protested the CES letter’s rolling back of permission for gay dating on campus. One student counter-protested by chanting “transfer” at the protestors through a megaphone. On March 6, hundreds took the protest to the steps of the Church Office Building, where they displayed signs in rainbow colours, sang hymns and chanted such phrases as “LGBT, God loves you and God loves me!” 
  • Also on March 5, Prof Brau stopped posting his lectures to YouTube, after “receiving threats from alt-right online groups and other online posts.” 
  • According to some March 6 tweets, there was a counter protestor who got pushed.  Twitter user @MarkSmitb said “The guy was there to disrupt a peaceful protest. He is an a**hole and should have been knocked out, not just barely pushed.”
  • In August 2020, an Instagram page keeping_faith_at_byu was launched to highlight anonymous student experiences with BYU professors who taught against Church doctrine and/or were hostile to students’ faith. They described classes where gospel-based perspectives and questions were unwelcome, the Proclamation on the Family was debunked, ideologies that students understood to be fundamentally at odds with Church doctrines were promoted, faithful gospel scholarship was demeaned, and students were offered extra credit for participating in the protest against the CES email.
  • Rainbow Days were held again in September 2020 and March of this year. In March, people who saw Rainbow Day as a protest against church teachings rather than an expression of love, support, protection and friendship to LGBTQ students organized a protest, calling for "faithful members" to wear BYU swag and carry an umbrella. 

  • BYU tweeted that the Umbrella Protest was not an approved event and the posters were taken down. Perhaps that was because they framed Rainbow Days as a protest of Church teachings, implied that participants were unfaithful members and weaponized the Proclamation against them.  Regardless, the decision to take them down caused considerable consternation for others in the BYU community. For example, Twitter user Norman M replied: 

"So a university founded and maintained by the @Ch_JesusChrist is advocating for the removal of one of it's core tenets? @BYU needs to have all their funding cancelled and it's administrators fired. @NelsonRussellM @OaksDallinH"

  • That night, about 40 individuals lit the Y in rainbow colours for about an hour. About 20 minutes into it, @BYU tweeted “BYU did not authorize the lighting of the Y tonight” and followed up a little later with “The Y is BYU property and any form of public expression on university property requires prior approval.” 
  • In May, 2021, BYU professor Hank Smith got into a heated Twitter exchange with supporters of sex therapist Natasha Helfer, who'd recently been removed from the Church. Calvin Burke, an honor-code-abiding gay BYU student, tweeted in reply, "On behalf of Mormonism, I apologize for Hank Smith." Professor Smith tweeted back, "Korihor." He has since apologized.
  • In July, BYU alum Matthias Cicotte lost his job as assistant attorney general in Alaska after a #DezNat-associated Twitter account was traced to him. #DezNat is a Twitter movement that styles itself as supportive of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. The organizers of the Umbrella Protest appear to be associated with #DezNat. But, according to Deseret News, the movement is not affiliated with or supported by the Church and has become home to “the hateful dialogue pervasive among follower of extremist movements.” The tweets allegedly traced to Mr. Cicotte were "racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic" including "vulgar messages" and calls for "vigilante violence". 
  • On August 23, 2021, at an annual conference for faculty and staff, BYU President Stephen Worthen announced a new Office of Belonging with a mission to combat "prejudice of any kind, including that based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief and sexual orientation." 

That’s much of the BYU context for Elder Holland’s speech, delivered at the same faculty and staff conference.  He addressed BYU’s role as a consecrated university helping to build up Zion. Then he read from a letter he’d recently received. The writer hoped “that BYU professors would be bridging [the] gaps between faith and intellect and would be sending out students who are ready to do the same in loving, intelligent, and articulate ways.” But instead, some were publicly criticizing the Church and undermining students’ faith. The writer spoke of a returned missionary friend who had left the Church while crediting her BYU studies and professors “with the radicalizing of her attitudes and the destruction of her faith.” 

Elder Holland compared faculty statements and research to “musket fire” and urged that they be used in defence of the faith rather than against the Church. He referenced “marriage and the whole same sex topic” in particular and asked BYU to try to avoid “language, symbols, and situations that are more divisive than unifying at the very time we want to show love for all of God’s children.” And he criticized a BYU student’s publicly coming out as gay during his 2019 valedictory address. 

I don't imagine Elder Holland knew that Matty Easton, who gave that valedictory address, made sure to clear his coming out with an associate Dean of his college beforehand. I don't imagine he guessed that Mr. Easton submitted with his speech a note that said he was trying to channel "Elder Holland's talk about the choir of God." I suspect Elder Holland thought Mr. Easton was seizing a Church-provided platform to issue a message of defiance against the Church. 

It seems like Elder Holland’s main objective was to urge BYU faculty to support and sustain Church teachings and encourage an atmosphere for the cultivating of students’ faith. He asked them to do that in a way that showed “empathy and understanding for everyone.” But it was his allusion to “musket fire” especially that drew ire from some quarters and unholy glee from others. For example, in Provo, the Party for Socialism and Liberation-Provo, Provo Pride and UVU LGBTQ+ organized a protest over Elder Holland’s “suggesting that faithful members of the church at BYU should pick up their ‘muskets’ and defend the church against pro-LGBTQ+ forces.” The Religious Exemption Accountability Project called his words “offensive, dangerous and defamatory.”

I’m much more troubled by the responses of a few in the #DezNat community. Here are some examples:   

Obviously, this is not the kind of response Elder Holland was asking for. He was calling for BYU faculty to be sure their public statements, classroom teaching and scholarship aim at strengthening faith and defending the Church from detractors. This is crucial. It is the raison d'ĂȘtre of BYU. He was not calling for intimidation or violence. But in the confusing swirl of pre-existing contention, musket fire was the message that got picked up and repeated.

Wherever LGBTQ+ belonging and the Family Proclamation are seen as oppositional, the symbols of the rainbow and the umbrella will be divisive instead of unifying. But surely, since LGBTQ+ individuals are present in the Proclamation (“All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny"), the two can be unified through the reconciling doctrine of the atonement and grace of Jesus Christ. I realize that even this phrase from the Proclamation might be triggering for someone who is transgender or non-binary. But, in conversation with such an individual, wouldn't it be okay to liken the language unto the audience, to skip the "male and female" and to use "child" instead of "son or daughter"? If Ammon could run with Lamoni's calling God "the Great Spirit", maybe we don't need to quibble with the details when the context isn't right. But "you are a beloved spirit child of heavenly parents with a divine nature and destiny" is a message that everyone, including our transgender and non-binary loved ones, needs to be able to embrace. 

Every one of us falls short of the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." Every one of us needs to repent, that is to yield to the enticings of the Spirit, to put off the natural man, to draw ever closer to Him. And we will need to keep repenting and calling on His grace for the duration of our entire lives. If we could see ourselves as fellow travellers on that journey of faith, and if we could frame challenging doctrines as invitations rather than condemnations, might we be able to join hands and support each other along that journey? Might a BYU professor, instead of feeling a need to apologize for or reject the Proclamation, be able instead to ask students to consider what particular gifts LGBTQ+ members might bring to the cause of supporting and strengthening the family as the fundamental unit of society?

I am convinced that more of us than we realize really want to be on the same team. And I am certain that we all have power to effect positive change. Even students who feel their professors are hostile to their faith.

I have personal experience with this. I took my first class from Dr. David Montgomery right after my semester in Jerusalem, where the scriptures were an integral part of all our studies, even political science and geography. So I was shocked by Dr. Montgomery's tendency to make unsettling comments in class like that there was no scientific evidence for Noah's flood or that the Children of Israel overthrew a thriving civilization in Canaan and replaced it with something primitive. He was charismatic and friendly and I resented him for it because I felt like he was an apostate who was using his charisma to get past students' filters and to undermine their faith. I complained bitterly to my friends. Then I was struck by D&C 42:88, which says, "If thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone".

I realized I'd been handling this wrong and I needed to make it right. But I was scared because he was a professor and I was a lowly sophomore. So I went to meet with him while fasting. When I expressed my complaint, he listened to me with the utmost respect and kindness. Then he explained himself. As a youth, he had never taken the Church's truth claims seriously until he took a BYU course on Utah history with a professor who portrayed early Church leaders with warts and all. At last, he felt like this was something real and that paved the way for his testimony. He hadn't been trying to undermine the faith of students like me, but to strengthen the faith of students like him. Understanding that changed everything. He became one of my favourite professors.

I didn't have quite as positive an experience two years later, when I once again realized I needed to speak privately to a professor I'd been complaining about. This one resisted the idea that anyone in the class besides myself was offended by his foul language and vulgar stories. But eventually, he said, "You're right. You ought to be offended." Then he apologized to me, and later to the class. And he cleaned up his act.

We're a family, whatever ways we lean politically, whatever our sexual orientations, whatever our dysfunctional histories and our personal sources of pain. We belong to each other and, presumably, we all love at least some aspect of the Church enough to want to engage with it. If we can seek to see each other with love and try for understanding, maybe we can be united by our common love instead of divided by our differences.

Most of all, we belong to Jesus Christ who not only bought us with His blood but also has the power to make up to each of us for every trespass that a brother or sister has made against us.

So what should I do, when I am personally hurt by friendly fire? Or when friendly fire wounds someone I dearly love and want to protect? I want to remember that the fire is friendly and resist the urge to fire back. I want to trust the Prince of Peace to make all things right in time. And in the meantime, I want to stay connected to Him by following this challenging counsel:

And now, I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all time; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive" (Alma 7:23).

That's how I want to be. I'm working on it. And right now, I'm giving thanks to God that my daughter and I can have a conversation about an issue like this, on which we are deeply divided, and come out even better friends than we were before.

-- Rebecca Burnham


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