In a speech delivered at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Semiannual General Conference on Oct. 3, the second-highest leader in the church ignited a firestorm of protest from the gay and lesbian community and its allies. In his speech, he called homosexuality immoral, against God’s laws and nature, impure, unnatural and akin to an addiction. He also claimed that a gay or lesbian person could “conquer” their sexuality. He also alluded to gay civil unions as “Satan’s substitute” for marriage.
“This general conference was convened at a time when there is such confusion and such danger that our young people hardly know which way they can walk,” Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, started his speech. “Having been warned through the revelations that it would be this way, the prophets and apostles have always been shown what to do.”
“There are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change laws that would legalize immorality, as if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws and nature,” he said. “A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. For instance, what good would a vote against the law of gravity do?
“We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From the Book of Mormon we learn that ‘wickedness never was happiness.’ … [Satan] seeks to degrade the righteous use of the life-giving powers by tempting you into immoral relationships.
“We raise an alarm and warn members of the Church to wake up and understand what is going on. Parents, be alert, ever watchful that this wickedness might threaten your family circle.
“Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father.”
That last sentence, and several others, in Packer’s speech were changed in the official transcript, available at lds.org. Church officials said the alterations were commonplace and not motivated by the church’s desire to soften the speech.
“President Packer has simply clarified his intent,” church spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement.
Gay and lesbian leaders were quick to denounce Packer’s statements, especially in light of several teenage suicides headlining the news in the past several weeks.
“Words have consequences, particularly when they come from a faith leader. This is exactly the kind of statement that can lead some kids to bully and others to commit suicide,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement issued early the following morning. “When a faith leader tells gay people that they are a mistake because God would never have made them that way and they don’t deserve love, it sends a very powerful message that violence and/or discrimination against LGBT people is acceptable. It also emotionally devastates those who are LGBT or may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. His words were not only inaccurate, they were also dangerous.”
“Saving lives is part of our charter at the Utah Pride Center,” said Utah Pride Center Executive Director Valerie Larabee. “We find these recent events particularly alarming, and we are ramping up our efforts to overcome the messages that leads LGBTQ people to feel hopeless by providing messages of love, acceptance, affirmation and hope.”
PRIDE in Utah blogger/activist Eric Ethington called for a rally around the church’s administration building the following Wednesday. Hoping for a few hundred black-bedecked protesters to encircle the two-square-blocks lying down head-to-foot, he was surprised and thrilled to find thousands answering his call.
“We are every color of the rainbow,” he told the crowd before it moved to Temple Square. “And we are tired of watching our children die.”
“We are who we are,” Ethington said. “We cannot change, and you cannot change us. The more you say this, the more dead bodies you leave behind.”
Ethington acknowledged that Packer and the Mormon Church has a right to express their views.
“But there are consequences for your words, he said. “These are our lives and we will protect them at any cost.”
“To the youth of the church who watched,” he said, “We love you. You are beautiful and perfect just the way you are. Do not listen to others who do not love you for who you are.”
In all, Ethington estimated 4,500 people attended the protest. Many carried signs, others put tape over their mouths. Some carried pictures of friends or family who had committed suicide.
Several hundred people also marched in Ogden, organized by the Rev. Theresa Novak and the congregation of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Ogden.
“We had to let the kids know that not all religions feel like that,” Novak explained. “It will, I believe, quite literally save some lives.”
Seventeen-year-old Jason Lee Benno organized a rally the following Saturday in St. George.
“Before you echo ‘amen’ in your home or place of worship, think and remember, a child is listening,” he told the crowd of 40-60 people. “Because of the words [Packer] and others spoke from the pulpits, many more LGBT youth and adults will be cast from their homes, shunned by their families, commit suicide or be sent to reparative therapy.”
“We are not sick; we are not broken and we do not need to be fixed,” he continued. “It is time to stand together. It is time to end this pain.”
Leaders Descend on Salt Lake
The Human Rights Campaign solicited signatures to a letter they drafted calling for Packer and the church to, “cease putting young people in real peril and acknowledge the scientific truth: sexual orientation cannot be changed, nor should it be.”
“I’m appalled that you chose this moment to deliver a sermon saying same-sex attraction is unnatural and same-sex unions are immoral,” the letter began. “You have risked further alienating LGBT youth and potentially contributing to suicides of even more vulnerable young people. You’ve told them that their very identities are ‘impure and unnatural’ and you’ve incited the violence and bullying that often drives them to suicide by repeating lies disproved by both science and the experience of millions of Americans who know their LGBT neighbors and care about them.”
Solmonese and Affirmation Executive Director Dave Melson flew to Salt Lake to hold a press conference and deliver 150,000 signatures to the church, flanked by philanthropist Bruce Bastian, Larabee, Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken, Missy Bird and Sr, Kirk Dansie of the American Psychological Association.
“The church needs to tell LGBT people that they too are part of God’s plan and have the right to be loved for who they are. It is the honest and moral thing to do,” Solmonese said at the conference.
Melson explained that when Packer speaks, “Millions take his words as gospel.”
“We call upon Packer to withdraw his words and reaffirm the worth and value of all of our heavenly parents’ children,” he said. “It is improper and reckless to tell a young gay person that they can change or need to change. It is wrong.”
The LDS Church responded within hours of receiving the letter from HRC.
“While we disagree with the Human Rights Campaign on many fundamentals, we also share some common ground. This past week we have all witnessed tragic deaths across the country as a result of bullying or intimidation of gay young men. We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different,” church spokesman Michael Otterson said in the statement. “Such actions simply have no place in our society.”
“As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman. However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel. His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.”
The church reiterated its views that while homosexual feelings are not bad, acting upon them is.
Larabee said, while she feared the recent comments are reopening old wounds that were just beginning to heal during meetings she and others in the community have been having with LDS Church officials, she felt that the talks will continue.
“Our meetings have always been framed around telling stories to build bridges of understanding,” she said. “I don’t think this will stop us from sharing stories.”