Tuesday, May 17, 2011

To the One: Suppression and Undeviating Determination

This post is a companion piece to yesterday’s essay, “To Young Men Only:  The Gay Version”.  I had intended to write this back in January, but it never happened.  I think it is appropriate to insert it here in this series of posts as a follow-on to last Friday’s post about Mormon doctrine concerning homosexuality.

I don’t particularly enjoy writing about Elder Packer, by the way.  I’d much rather write about other things, such as how I felt last night while (finally) watching “Prayers for Bobby”, how the movie transported me back to my youth, and how I felt anew and afresh the pain of non-acceptance, of confusion, of self-doubt, self-hatred and condemnation.  But instead, I have chosen to write about the type of religious teachings that were contemporary to Bobby Griffith and helped drive him to his death.  

Elder Boyd K. Packer gave two very influential talks in the late 1970’s that had a profound affect on Mormon men who came of age not only during that time but also in the next several decades. 

The talks are directly relevant to the subject matter of this series of posts in that they shaped generations of young Mormon men who struggled with same-sex attraction.  They influenced and created their attitudes.  They led to the creation of many mixed-orientation marriages.  They describe what the policies, beliefs and doctrine of the LDS Church were a mere 33 years ago.  There are elements in the Church and in the gay Mormon community who would like to whitewash this history, to make it disappear (see, e.g., below), to claim that the doctrine of the Church regarding homosexuality has not changed.  This, too, is why I believe these talks are important.

The first was entitled “To Young Men Only.” I wrote about it yesterday.  The second talk, “To the One,” was given on March 5, 1978 at a 12-stake fireside at Brigham Young University, where Elder Packer was specifically asked by President Kimball to “address the local problem of homosexuality and offer solutions.”[1]  The text of this fireside address is difficult to locate, so I have also posted it on my blog here.  I have done so because I believe this speech is an important historical event.  I am not claiming that the speech represents the Church’s current views on homosexuality.  This is not the point.  The point is that this speech shaped a generation or more of Mormon young men and shaped Mormon thought concerning homosexuality for a number of years.  That is why it is important.

The background of the events leading up to the talk was described in an article by Ben Williams in QSaltLake published last December and available here.  The genesis was a lecture given in the spring of 1977 at BYU, as the article explains:

In spring of 1977 Dr. Reed Payne, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, presented anti-gay views on homosexuality in a lecture to his beginning psychology class. His comments weren’t well-received by some closeted gay students who were present. Soon after this lecture, BYU student Cloy Jenkins and BYU instructor Lee Williams authored a 52-page rebuttal to Dr. Payne’s assertion that homosexuality was a pathological condition. The crux of these writings became a pamphlet simply called “The Payne Papers,” which called for a “well-reasoned dialogue” on the issue of homosexuals and the LDS Church.

The rebuttal was later made into a pamphlet which was mailed to all general authorities, to TV and radio stations and many BYU faculty members.  Then, in the fall of 1977, Salt Lake City’s gay publication, The Open Door, began the serialization of what became known as the “Payne Papers.”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, The Advocate, the national gay magazine, announced in early 1978 that it planned to publish the papers.  It was in response to this announcement, according to Williams, that President Kimball dispatched Elder Packer to BYU.  (The Payne Papers are available here.)

The title of the talk – “To the One” – and the manner in which it was presented appear to have been designed to isolate and marginalize those who “suffered” from the “disease” of homosexuality.  “What I say in this presentation,” Elder Packer began, “will be serious and solemn. I will not speak to everyone. I ask the indulgence of the "ninety and nine," while I speak to "the one."

After commenting about how grievous his assignment is, he comes to the subject of his address:  “And so, now to the subject, to introduce it I must use a word. I will use it one time only. Please notice that I use it as an adjective, not as a noun; I reject it as a noun. I speak to those few, those very few, who may be subject to homosexual temptation. I repeat, I accept that word as an adjective to describe a temporary condition. I reject it as a noun naming a permanent one” [emphasis added].

So, in these opening remarks, Elder Packer makes it clear that he does not believe in the concept of homosexuality (a noun), in the possibility of a man being “gay” or, apparently, or in the concept of sexual orientation.  For him, homosexual is an adjective that describes a “temporary condition” that involves temptation.  True to his word, he never mentions the term again in his talk, but uses words like “it” or “this subject” or “sexual perversion.”

Is sexual perversion wrong?

He doesn’t waste much time coming to the heart of the matter: 

“I have had on my mind three general questions concerning this subject.

“First: Is sexual perversion wrong?  There appears to be a consensus in the world that it is natural, to one degree or another, for a percentage of the population. Therefore, we must accept it as all right ...

“The answer: It is not all right. It is wrong! It is not desirable; it is unnatural; it is abnormal; it is an affliction. When practiced, it is immoral. It is a transgression … Do not be misled by those who whisper that it is part of your nature and therefore right for you. That is false doctrine!”

Note well that Elder Packer differentiates between the existence of the “homosexual condition” (note that “condition” is his word; it is the “it” he refers to) and practicing such condition.  If one substitutes the words “same sex attraction” in place of the word “it” in the third paragraph, Packer’s comments read as follows:

“Same-sex attraction is not all right.  Same-sex attraction is wrong!  Same-sex attraction is not desirable; same-sex attraction is unnatural; same-sex attraction is abnormal; same-sex attraction is an affliction.  When practiced, same-sex attraction is immoral … [and] is a transgression.  Do not be misled by those who whisper that same-sex attraction is part of your nature …”

In today’s lingo, Elder Packer was distinguishing between having same-sex attractions and acting on those attractions.  To merely have those attractions he labeled wrong, not desirable, unnatural, abnormal and an affliction.  Of course, Elder Packer didn’t believe in the concept of orientation; it’s not, as some have claimed, that he didn’t know what that concept was; he rejected it as nonexistent.

Is this tendency impossible to change?

Packer then moves on to his second question: “Is this tendency impossible to change? Is it preset at the time of birth and locked in? Do you just have to live with it?”  After citing the example of a faulty camera whose shutter needs to be recalibrated, he asks, “Is perversion like that? The answer is a conclusive no! It is not like that.”  Note that Packer is not referring to acts, but a tendency.

Some so-called experts,” he continues, “and many of those who have yielded to the practice, teach that it is congenital and incurable and that one just has to learn to live with it … I reject that conclusion out of hand. It is not unchangeable. It is not locked in.”  In other words, “it” – i.e., the “condition” of same-sex attraction – can be changed.

In the next few paragraphs, Elder Packer reveals some of what lies behind much of what he was saying, that has much more to do with his own and society’s attitudes than it does with doctrine.  “If a condition that draws both men and women into one of the ugliest and most debased of all physical performances is set and cannot be overcome, it would be a glaring exception to all moral law,” he states. “Some who become tangled up in this disorder [note well the use of this word – his first in the talk] become predators. They proselyte the young or the inexperienced.”

Overcoming Selfishness:  How “it” Can Be Corrected

Packer then moves on to his third question:  “The third question is a very logical extension of the other two: If it is wrong, and if it is not incurable, how can it be corrected?”  This is the longest part of his talk, which he starts off by talking about how good procreation and marriage are, then how bad “perversion” is. 

During the rest of his address, Elder Packer uses the following words with reference to homosexuality:  unnatural (2 times); confusion; deviant physical contact or interaction (2 times); disorder (3 times); perversion (11 times), and very sick.

Then, he comes to his conclusion: the root cause of this “condition” is … selfishness – which he claims is a spiritual condition requiring a spiritual cure.  This is why, he says, psychotherapists have not been successful in “curing” the condition, i.e., because it is not a mental health issue, but a spiritual health issue.

I realize I may not be the brightest light bulb in the box, but I cannot determine where or how Elder Packer actually provided reasoning for his conclusion.  I’d welcome help here, but it sure seems to me he simply states that homosexuality is caused by selfishness.  Period.  End of story.

This was the interpretation of a father who wrote Elder Packer a well-known letter in 1999 concerning his gay son.  David Eccles Hardy wrote:

“Perhaps the most hurtful aspect of “To the One” is your revelation that the fundamental reason why my son has not been "cured" is because of his selfishness.  When I inform other people that this is actually what you preach in “To the One,” they are incredulous (members included).  They respond ‘Obviously you have misread or misconstrued what Elder Packer said.’  You are well aware that this is precisely what is said.  As one who knows my son and his heart better than you, your doctrine that my son's selfishness is at the core of his ability or inability to be cured of his homosexuality is offensive in the extreme, and evidences the lack of any meaningful inquiry into this issue beyond the application of pure dogma.  In saying this it is not my intent to offend you.  It is, simply, incredible that you could hit upon anything quite so insensitive and ignorant of the facts.”

Okay.  So imagine yourself as a freshman at BYU, or perhaps as a recently returned missionary, attending this fireside.  You’ve known for some time that you have experienced attractions to other guys that you can’t really explain.  You’ve just been reminded that for every person like you, there are 99 “normal” people.  You’ve heard your feelings referred to as perverted, sick, confused, unnatural, deviant and – to top it all off – selfish. 

Then comes the coup de grace:  “Establish a resolute conviction” intoned Elder Packer, “that you will resist for a lifetime, if necessary, deviate thought or deviate action. Do not respond to those feelings; suppress them … You will have to grow away from your problem with undeviating - notice that word - undeviating determination” [emphasis added].  Meanwhile, echoing in your mind are comments Elder Packer made earlier in the fireside:  “In marriage a couple can unselfishly express their love to one another. They reap, as a result, a fulfillment and a completeness and a knowledge of their identity as sons and daughters of God. The power of procreation is good - divinely good - and productive. Pervert it, and it can be bad - devilishly bad - and destructive.”

THIS was the environment that existed 30 years ago, and for years afterward.  Is it any wonder that LDS men had difficulty recognizing their homosexuality, that they went to great lengths to hide it, and that they married in order to “cure” it? 

Hands that hang down


  1. Thirty years. Men who are 22-57 (counting those who were Freshman through Seniors back in 1978). That is MORE than one full generation since sociologists state that one is approx. 26-27 years on average.

    That speech needs to be posted right next to the Proclamation of the Family in every place you can put it. Because then and only then, we might arrive at political pressure to upgrade the Proc. to get it to a 2.0 version. The KEY, to me, is to get the Proclamation upgraded. Just like Joseph Smith's First Vision (although he needed 3 revisions, right?!)

    We are truly at a watershed moment in our history as MoHos. As a man in my 50s, and as a Latter Day Saint since 1988, and as an ex-BYU professor, I am wondering what we can do right after the Pride parade that might galvanize this community towards focused thoughts and concrete action.

    I once again call forth (as I did at the Sunstone Conference in 2004) the Leviticus Project (referencing Chapter 18) into formation, acknowledging the Genesis Project of the 1970s for black Saints. As I will be a visitor to SLC in June (with intentions of moving back by years end), might I suggest that someone in the interested community find space for us to meet for Sunday if possible. Somewhere near downtown.

    People have worked really hard in this community. Voices have been sharpened, not just heard. VIsions have been gained, not just dreamed about. Now it seems that the payoff to knowing what it is we have come to know should be doing what it is we have been born to do.

    Contact me anytime: youmayenter@gmail.com. Martin Kokol

  2. thank you for your tireless research and articulate views on the issues. your work is inspiring.

  3. Is it any wonder, you ask, that LDS men had difficulty recognizing their homosexuality?

    What memories you rekindle... I was that freshman sitting in that fireside that March Sunday in 1978! From that point on I spent three decades "at great length to hide it". I was determined that I was not going to be the "one". I had just received my mission call and there was no way I needed to be "cured" as I had an "undeviating determination" from that night forward that I was not like "those" that BKP spoke about.

    Thanks for the memory...

  4. @Martin - Looking forward to meeting you when you're in SLC in June.

    KPW - Thanks for your feedback and kind words. I really appreciate it.

    Beck - Yes, we were not going to be like "those," were we? Hope things are going well for you. I'd still like to have lunch sometime.