When people talk about Prop 8 or gay-Mormon relations generally, a common theme is that a smaller, less powerful group is the victim of an unfair attack from a larger and more powerful aggressor. This theme is used repeatedly on both sides of the debate. It was a central theme in Elder Oaks’ recent talk about religious liberty. And it was immediately raised in criticisms of that talk, with church critic Fred Karger telling the Associated Press, “They are trying to be the victim here. They’re not. They’re the perpetrators.” It’s clear that this basic framing is employed by both sides in the argument. This raises the question — who is the bully here? Whose ox is being gored?
Interestingly *both* the LDS and gay communities have plausible evidence to support the claims that they are the victim group.
The first major factor at play is that both communities have a long history of persecution. LDS persecution is well known around here. The most obvious example is the Extermination Order. (Yes, I know the Extermination Order followed on the Salt sermon and other sometimes aggressive acts by church leaders; it was still an unwarranted and targeted attack.) Other examples are legion, from Johnston’s Army to United States v. Reynolds. The Romney campaign put Mormons in the spotlight again, and national publications ran articles by Jacob Weisberg and Christopher Hitchens, mocking Mormonism. At present, church members are likely to feel, with some justification, that they will be criticized for their views from both the secular political left and the evangelical political right.
Persecution of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered/transsexual) people is also well established. LGBT individuals are still regularly subjected to egregious harassment including physical assault, violent beatings, and death in some cases. They often face special limitations on their employment — they may not serve openly in the military, for instance, and in a number of jurisdictions they may be fired for their sexual orientation. They were told for many years that their orientation was a mental illness (the DSM only removed homosexuality from its list of disorders a generation ago), and they have been consistently subjected to unequal treatment under law — recall, for instance, that it was only in 2003 that the Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing gay sex.
Both groups have been regular targets for media attacks, and continue to struggle to shake negative stereotypes. Mormons are stereotyped as polygamists, gays as child molesters. Because both groups have a lengthy history of persecution, both groups have a finely tuned radar for anything that could look persecution-like.
The second major factor is that both communities have been unusually successful, in some ways, at overcoming their minority status and achieving some power in majority society. Both groups are [edit to add: perceived as] relatively affluent in comparison to the rest of society. Both groups have achieved high profile success stories. We Mormons count the Senate majority leader among our number, as well as major presidential candidates. Mormons wield immense political power in Utah and some political power in many other western states. Gays and lesbians have become highly visible in culture and arts, and include a small but growing number of political supporters as well.
Thus, it is plausible not only for each group to construct narratives about its own difficulties, but also to construct narratives about the other group’s unusual power.
This creates the backdrop for a variety of misunderstandings. Scholars have long noted that oppressed minority groups can tend to see all of their experiences through the lens of oppression. For instance, Lisa Ikemoto (1993), writing about African-American/Korean-American conflict in Los Angeles, notes that both sides see their own experiences through the lens of the white supremacist aggression which their own community has suffered. “The stories of intergroup conflict came from the master narrative of white supremacy,” writes Ikemoto. “We interpret our experiences by reference to familiar stories about the world.”
And it is clear that both Mormons and gays interpreted Prop 8 and its fallout as an example of an attack by powerful outsiders on their own vulnerable and persecuted community. Gays viewed the attack as one on their civil rights in marriage, and framed Prop 8 as an attempt (ultimately successful) to take away their hard-won civil rights. In the context of prior history of official and unofficial anti-gay bigotry and discrimination, this narrative was easy to construct. The LDS church was placed in the role of oppressor, and the gay community reacted accordingly. The church’s actions, and its high profile, made it an easy fit into the established and historical narrative of gay persecution.
Meanwhile, church members saw a different kind of attack. Church members viewed themselves as innocent citizens expressing their right to vote on a political matter. Some church members lost jobs over Prop 8 fallout, temples were picketed and in some cases vandalized. This was also placed in the context of prior LDS persecution. Anti-Mormons in the past had violently suppressed the Mormon vote. This narrative, well-known among church members, is one where Mormons courageously seek to participate in the democratic process, only to be thwarted by violent mobs. Temple demonstrations following Prop 8 were quickly placed into that narrative structure, which became a story of gay mobs seeking to block the valid democratic actions of church members.
The fact is, the impact on both groups was much less than the rhetoric would suggest. As I have written elsewhere, the removal of the marriage label, while it created important psychic and personal losses among LGBT people, did not remove any significant legal rights, and is thus really not in the same league as most prior anti-gay discrimination. Similarly, the noisy but generally non-violent protests at temples were nothing like the sack of Far West or imprisonment of Mormon leaders. Ultimately, both actions were largely symbolic rather than substantive in their effects.
Both communities, however, saw these actions through the lens of past oppression narratives. And both communities overreacted. (And both claim a plausible reason for their reactions — church members view themselves as beleaguered defenders of traditional marriage, while LGBT activists see themselves as beleaguered defenders of civil rights for an unpopular minority.)
Thus, this is a conflict in which both communities are able to (1) create a narrative in which they claim minority status and victim status for their own group, (2) within that narrative, discount the minority status of the other group, and (3) construct a plausible argument within their own group narrative showing that it was the other side who fired the first shot.
This creates a particularly tense situation. There are a number of people of good faith on both sides of the debate, but it is not clear that any detente will be able to be reached in the near future. The fact that both groups have cast the issue as one of minority oppression means that any resolution will need to address not just one but two often contradictory oppression narratives.