The rich history of the Church was again brought home to me last week when I attended the Sunstone Symposium down at the Sheraton Hotel. If you aren’t familiar with Sunstone, it’s sponsored by the magazine of the same name, which has been publishing for 35 years. Once a fairly radical rag, the magazine, like its symposium, is now a rather toothless enterprise, gumming over the usual controversial topics before expectorating them unchewed, a little soggy from saliva perhaps, but otherwise unharmed.
This year’s theme was “Reflecting on Maturing Faith,” which just about says it all. Everyone just seems tired and/or wistful, conscious of what a crock a good deal of modern Mormonism is, but long since reconciled to the fact that the church, like a mighty river of sludge, just keeps rolling along, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about. Many of the concurrent sessions are devoted to making the absolute minimum of any evidence that might shed negative light on either the Prophet or the Church. In other words, what used to be disinterested criticism has been transmuted into rationalizing apologetics.
At the symposium, as I said, tried and true topics are trotted out, thumped around for an hour or so and then given a healing therapeutic massage before being put into cold storage until next year’s session. Mormon Women and the Priesthood, Faith and Science, Polygamy and Prophecy, et cetera, et cetera. (The Gordon B. Hinckley Award, given each year to the catchiest title, goes this year to a presentation, featuring the juicy tryst between the Prophet Joseph Smith and a teenage paramour boarding with Joseph and his wife Emma, titled “Dating Fanny Alger: An Early Polygamous Relationship.”)
The past couple of years, Mormon bigotry toward gay people has been addressed in some form or another at Sunstone, though the topic was discussed in the smug soft haze of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin flapdoodle. This year, with the recent ruling demolishing the Mormon-backed Prop. 8 still thrusting its way into the news, the “gay problem” entered the symposium like Richard Simmons crashing a ward picnic.
Discussions of the Church’s anti-gay policies certainly livened things up. The concurrent session that perhaps caused the most stir was the scholarly monograph delivered Friday afternoon in the Zion Room. The presenter was Professor Aldeni Ensernos of Guatemala Junior College, and despite his heavy accent, his exploration of “Homoerotic Horseplay in Mormon Millennial Culture” was the smash hit of the symposium.
Professor Ensernos laid out, in meticulous detail, overwhelming evidence of relationships between gay guys and lesbian gals in 19th-century Mormon America (hotbeds were Adam-Ondi-Ahman, Mo., and Spanish Fork). Drawing upon private diaries, appointment books and documented personal revelations, the good-natured Guatemalan academician recounted story after story of same-sex weekend getaways, same-sex hunting trips, same-sex sewing bees and same-sex ice cream socials.
Some objections were raised by apologists that diary references to so-and-so’s “Sword of Laban” or what’s-her-name’s “Liahona” or someone else’s skill with his “Iron Rod” are simply literal descriptions of sacred objects and not coded euphemisms for valued physical endowments. But as Professor Ensernos pointed out, quoting Elder Sigmund Freud, a cigar is not always a cigar.
Dr. Ensernos observed that you do not have to go far afield to find reasons for the rampant homoeroticism in early Mormon culture.
“With polygamy, you had a lot of extra bachelors hanging out together, with no readily available outlet for their natural urges,” explained the eccentric but lovable historian. “So, they got together to wrestle, and if one thing led to another, well, what are you going to do?
“Same thing with the pioneer sister wives,” continued Ensernos, “who had to cool their heels, as well as their amorous desires, waiting for their turn to honor the priesthood of their hubby.”
Dr. Ensernos piqued the interest of the symposium goers by announcing that next year he will present a paper arguing that the General Authorities are not so worried about gay and lesbian sex as they are about the equality implicit in those relationships, and how that might give Mormon women ideas.