A few weeks ago, I read Mark Rifkin’s When Did Indians Become Straight for a workshop hosted by the University of Michigan’s American Indian and Queer Studies Now Interdisciplinary Groups. I was surprised to see Mormonism mentioned within the text. Rifkin’s key argument is that heterosexuality is defined by more than the number of partners that an individual has. Ideas about racial purity, couplehood, and domesticity also mark what it means to be heterosexual. Because many American Indian groups rejected a focus on the nuclear family as the normative family model, Rifkin argues that they cannot be considered “straight.” Mormonism serves for Rifkin as an example of a religious faith in the nineteenth century that became “perverse” because of its rejection of traditional understandings of marriage and domesticity.
This post was originally going to focus on Rifkin’s use of indigenous history. It was derailed, however, at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of American Religion when I found out that a blogger was going to be covering the conference and then reporting on what Mormon studies was. To my dismay, almost all of the posts were calling out scholars who were trying to use a feminist or queer lens to understand Mormonism. My initial response was to point out that none of the abstracts were from this year’s AAR and that they didn’t represent the mainstream of Mormon studies. I realized, however, that the reason why the author was highlighting these presentations from 2011 was that he considered the very act of accepting insights drawn from the experiences of the LGBTQ community and from feminists unacceptable. To disclaim these presentations and say “that’s not me” would be to accept that queer and feminist theory had no place within Mormon studies – something I am fundamentally unwilling to do. Instead, I thought I would offer a few thoughts drawn from Rifkin’s book and from my ideas about possible intersections between Mormon studies and queer theory:
- There is something intensely satisfying about using queer theory to study Mormonism, a religious faith that has rejected the idea that LGTBQ people can and should engage in healthy, sexual relationships. Using queer theory almost seems to be a political statement that demands that gay Mormons be taken seriously. Moreover, scholars like Connell O’Donovan and Michael Quinn have demonstrated that Mormonism has a complex history in relationship to homosexuality. Although no one should ever minimize or forget the pain that people experienced as a result of attempts to force lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men to conform to traditional gender standards, there were times in Mormon history when same sex relationships were more varied.
- Queer theory also adds an additional layer to our understanding of the subtle and not-so-subtle intertwining of politics and sex. Historians like Sarah Barringer Gordon and Nancy Cott have pointed out the numerous ways in which domesticity defined citizenship in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To be a citizen was to be a white man enveloped in a monogamous, nuclear family. Men who did not conform to this model – who had multiple wives, darker skin, or who practiced celibacy – and all women were seen as slightly suspect and incapable of being full citizens. Queer theory reminds us that the interplay of the family, sex, and power did not end in the nineteenth century and that certain groups are still pathologized.
- Queer theory also points out the ways in which Mormonism accepted a devil’s bargain in order to be accepted into mainstream American political life. In the late nineteenth century, Mormons ended the practice, if not the theology, of polygamy. Doing so allowed them to gain greater access to political power and ended their persecution at the hands of the U.S. government. In order to prove their ability to participate in American life, however, they also accepted the viability of certain ideas about domesticity that they had once rejected. They accepted the idea that monogamy was the ideal family type. Currently, the Mormon Church has become one of the most dogmatic defenders of the “traditional family.” Queer theory reminds us that its decision to do so was not natural or automatic but was the result of the sexual and familial politics of the nineteenth century.
- That said, I don’t think queer theory is the only way to arrive at these insights. Gordon and Cott would not identify as queer theorists, even though they make points that are quiet similar to those of Michael Warner and Margot Canaday. Queer theory, however, does connect with the larger questions being asked by the academy. Mormon historians have long lamented the degree to which they have been ignored by other academics. Part of that is Mormons have been reluctant to engage with the same questions as other historians and academics. Being conversant in queer – as well as feminist and critical race – theory would go a long way to mending the divide between Mormon and other forms of history.
These points represent only the beginning of a conversation between Mormon historians and queer theory, but they were something that I was determined to offer. Delegitimizing queer theory is about delegitimizing the voices of an entire group of people based on their sexual practices. In the nineteenth century, it was Mormons that were considered inadmissible to the American body politic because of their family arrangements. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has been members of the LBGTQ community. I am not calling for Mormon historians or the Mormon community as a whole to accept homosexuality as part of their theology but perhaps we could be compassionate and not try to discredit their voices.