The LDS Church and the “Gang of Five”

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The LDS Church’s statement in support for Salt Lake City’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-inclusive housing and workplace ordinances on Nov. 10 came as a surprise to many in Utah, gay, straight, LDS, non-LDS, Republican and Democrat alike. Not only because of the church’s relative silence on such issues until the ordinances appeared before the City Council, but because of how that support came about.

Shortly after church spokesman Michael Otterson told Councilmembers, “The church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage,” reports of clandestine meetings between gay rights leaders and church officials began circulating in the community and in the press. Recently, a few of the leaders involved in the meetings have spoken publicly about the tone of these at first hesitant talks between members of two groups that often find themselves at odds.

Meet the “Gang of Five”

The so-called “gang of five” consisted of Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken, Equality Utah’s board chairwoman Stephanie Pappas, Utah Pride Center Director Valerie Larabee, Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission member Jon Jepsen and, of course, Jim Dabakis, who has been described as the group’s leader. The five met, said Dabakis, with “mid-level” church officials, whose names he declined to give. However, City Weekly has reported that these officials were Bill Evans, Michael Purdy and other members of the church’s public affairs department.

Because of the talks’ delicate nature and hopes that they can continue, Dabakis was reluctant to go into too much detail about what went on during the six weeks church leaders and the “gang” met at the home of Sam and Diane Stewart, church members who agreed to provide a ‘neutral’ space for the talks. He would say, however, that the six weeks of meetings between the “gang” and church leaders favored the personal over the political.

“In none of our meetings did we talk about political issues,” he said. “We didn’t talk about the city ordinances, we didn’t talk about that kind of thing.”

Instead, both groups “talked about humanity and understanding each other better.” Members of the “gang” related stories about how anti-gay discrimination had affected them personally. They also learned, he added, that the church often does “wonderful things” for the community that “they don’t take credit for.”

“I was surprised to hear from [Utah AIDS Foundation Executive Director] Stan Penfold that the leading contributor to their food bank is the church,” said Dabakis. “There’s a lot of things they do very quietly that are of significant health to our community.”

“We think there are a lot of commonalities that we were able to find and talk about,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but there’s a little bit of a kumbaya moment in a very cynical world.”

Others who took part in the meetings included former Councilwoman Deeda Seed, the organizer of the first of this summer’s “kiss-ins” near Temple Square to protest the trouble security guards on the church’s plaza gave an affectionate gay couple. Councilman Carlton Christianson also credits Seed for getting him involved in the meetings.

“I probably would not have been there if it hadn’t been for [her],” he said. “I think she recognizes that we wouldn’t have moved forward if we hadn’t worked together.”

“It’s really a credit to people [involved],” he continued, “that a broad group of people were willing to put aside some feelings to be able to have a conversation.”

As part of the frank discussion, Christianson said he related a story about a gay couple who lived next door to him and his wife for several years. Although he and the couple didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues, he said that they were able to have “the utmost respect” for each other, and to be good friends.

“We found over the ensuing years that we had more in common than in disagreement,” he said. “We found like any neighbors do, good reasons to be engaged in helping one another.”

“There are not two clear bodies of opposing views [in this case],” added Christianson. “At the end of the day we live in a great community, and having some patience with each other and striving to understand the views of parties involved we can avoid some of the hurtful conflicts we’ve had in the past.”

Not So Kumbaya

Of course, the talks do not erase the church’s behavior towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the past year, which included urging the faithful to support California’s ultimately successful Proposition 8’s quest to re-ban gay marriage in the Bay State. And it is that history that has some local gay leaders feeling less positive about the talks than Dabakis and the other “gang” members.

“Their endorsement was a direct response to the onslaught of negative press they’ve received over the last year,” RadioActive producer, QSaltLake columnist and radical queer activist Troy Williams told City Weekly.

And that onslaught of bad press has been significant. It has included protests at LDS temples, arguments in the press that the church should be stripped of its tax-exempt status, even short-lived, but no less loud, calls for a boycott of Utah’s tourism industry and all LDS-owned businesses. Additionally, many LDS faithful have left the church over its involvement in Proposition 8, and some in very high profile ways, such as Nebraskan Andrew Callahan who set up SigningforSomething.org where he and other disaffected former members posted their resignation letters well into 2009.

Others, like Jacob Whipple who organized last year’s protest at Temple Square, fear that the church’s statement may be a “one-time deal” as the church struggles to regain its good image in the media.

Others simply wonder why these sit-down meetings took so long to happen. Duane Jennings, a member of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mormons and their friends and allies, said that Affirmation’s national leadership arranged a meeting with the church’s Family Services Department last August, only to have the church cancel at the last moment—ostensibly because the department’s director had been reassigned to another job.

“I know the church doesn’t like bad press and publicity, but historically speaking I think the church has left gay people with no other option,” said Jennings.

Although Jennings said that announcement of a meeting between gay leaders and church officials came as “a surprise,” “at the same time, we know that things like this were taking place in the 60s and 70s with black people that had joined the LDS Church, and a few that hadn’t that were trying to have some dialogue on Civil Rights.”

The LDS Church did not allow black members to enter the priesthood until 1978 and was active, said Jennings, in maintaining segregation laws.

Still, Jennings is hopeful that the dialogue between gay leaders and the church will continue.

“The fact it’s taking place and sounds like it will continue to take place—and it needs to take place—is a good thing,” he said. “Let’s pray things continue to work out.”

Looking to the Future

The question on the minds of many in Utah’s gay and transgender community is: Will these talks continue into the future? Reportedly, the discussions lasted six weeks before breaking off and then started up again abruptly. Dabakis said he was never given a reason for why talks ended or why the officials present decided to open them again.

He did say, however, that the meeting with the “gang of five” was not the only one going on.

“There were other meetings with other people in different places, other cities,” he said. “And also, the church met with other LGBT people besides us, I’m sure.” Dabakis, however, could not comment further on these other meetings because he had no further knowledge of who was involved, or what went on.

And while Dabakis does not know if the church will ultimately back statewide employment and housing laws that forbid discrimination against gay and transgender people, he said he hopes there will be “a continuing dialogue” among the people he and other members of the “gang” now see as friends.

“We have a lot to learn from each other,” he said. “I grew up Mormon, but for the first time I think I could see things from the LDS perspective. And while I’m sure they still have their firm beliefs and we still have our firm beliefs, we’re at least able to see the perspective of the other person and find areas of agreement.”

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