Cancel Gay Pride until we have marriage equality!

What can same-sex rights advocates learn from the Mormons? The director of a documentary on Prop 8 explains

Published June 25, 2010 3:19PM (EDT)

A still from "8: The Mormon Proposition": Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, former Mormons ostracized by the church for their marriage.
A still from "8: The Mormon Proposition": Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, former Mormons ostracized by the church for their marriage.

"You are a mighty army. Let us be strong in defending our position. And we do so in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen."

So begins "8: The Mormon Proposition," director Reed Cowan's documentary about the influence that the Mormon Church had on California's ballot initiative outlawing same-sex marriage, the notorious referendum still being contested in court today. (Closing arguments in the federal case against Proposition 8 wrapped last week, but a decision isn't expected anytime soon.)

Narrated by Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "Milk" — who, like Cowan, grew up gay in the Mormon Church —"8" documents how the church marshaled its members worldwide to protect traditional marriage. The documentary focuses on the story of former Mormon Linda Stay, a mother who wants equality for her two gay children, and of her son Tyler Barrick, who marries the love of his life, Spencer Jones. Both men are former Mormons ostracized by the church for their relationship. The film also shows, through leaked documents, how the church worked behind the scenes to raise funds — more than 70 percent of the money raised for the Yes on 8 campaign came from Mormons, though Mormons are only 2 percent of the state's population — and to donate time, going door to door in their communities asking their neighbors to vote. It's the same blueprint for political success the group used in Hawaii in 1998, when their efforts led to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. The film also veers into the church's dark history with homosexuality: trying to cure gays through electro-shock therapy and even lobotomies.

Salon spoke with director Reed Cowan on the phone.

You were working on another film about the suicide and homelessness of Utah teenagers before you switched your focus to Proposition 8. What made you take a step back and ask: What's causing all this?

I'm very sensitive to the plight of young people in crisis. Whether it's bullying or building schools for kids in Africa, I'm a wuss where kids are concerned. I became aware of the sad fact that Utah has one of the highest rates of teen suicides in the country, especially young males, and 80 to 90 percent said they were kicked out of their homes after identifying as being something other than straight. Very quickly after I began that film, Proposition 8 was bubbling, and I saw my church getting really involved. I stopped production on the one film and said look, Proposition 8 is the greatest manifestation of bigotry being taught from the pulpit. Let's start with Proposition 8.

How did you find the people who told their stories?

There were articles in Salt Lake City about the film, saying, "If you have a story to tell, show up at this place and time." We had lines around the building from sunup to sundown. We took no dinner breaks, no nothing. There were plenty of people, but we focused on Linda Stay. Linda drove from St. George to be part of this. It was quite lovely. After meeting Linda, we had to meet her boys. [Her son Tyler Barrick and his husband, Spencer Jones, were married in San Francisco in June 2008, in the brief period when their marriage was legal.] We had the stars of our film.

And you were able to find a common thread, connecting the story of this gay Mormon couple, who are being criticized for their marriage, to Tyler's family's polygamist past. Did you know about the polygamy connection when you chose Tyler and Spencer?

No. The tie to polygamy came from a dream. That sounds crazy. I know I'm showing my Mormon-ness by acknowledging this, but I had a dream about Tyler. I dreamed he was surrounded by Mormon pioneer-looking people, and he was introducing them as his relatives. I called Linda the next day and asked, "Do you have Mormon pioneers who were polygamists in your family?" She said, "I had the same dream last night."

The Mormons got their start, their clout in this world, because Linda's great-great-grandfather [Frederick Granger Williams] gave them the land in Kirtland [Ohio, where the Mormons settled after they were chased from New York, in part because they practiced polygamy], and the financial clout to get started.

Why are Mormons so opposed to same-sex marriage?

In their own words: "Indeed we are compelled by doctrine to speak out." What is that doctrine? That they are the only true church. That the belief of that church requires men to marry women — in a Mormon temple. And from there, men becoming gods themselves with polygamy in the afterlife. Gays interrupt that Mormon plan for heaven.

Some critics have called the film unbalanced and anti-Mormon. Why wouldn't the church tell their side of the story on camera?

They told my co-director [Steven Greenstreet], "We don't want to talk. We're not going to go on the record. We don't want to be front and center with the gay community."

Right. And you can hear him say in the background, "You already are."

I told Buddy Blankenfeld, "I think your church is going to look bad. You have the right to respond. The Huntsmans are my dear friends. All your members deserve a chance to hear their church respond." He said, "You don't understand. We are more about searching out stories that make us look good. This isn't about journalism. This is about making us look good. We don't participate in that which doesn't make us look good."

To the people who say the film isn't balanced, I say: "You try to make this film." From the onset I was told nobody would speak, not even the gay Mormons. The fact that we got anybody to speak is a damn miracle. To me it's balanced. It's simple mathematics. Somebody should watch this film with a stopwatch. Count how many minutes Mormons speak. I would say 70 percent of the film is Mormons on camera, speaking in their own words. We didn't give as much time to gay people as Mormons. We are aware of Internet hits and where they're coming from. On Rotten Tomatoes, it's getting beat up by Mormon bloggers.

In the film, one of the Mormon men on video says, "God tells us what to do. We have the means to make it happen." It sounds like he's saying the end justifies the means.

It's dirty pool. Part of the ideology is they'd rather have some collateral damage than the grandiose end of society that would happen if gays get their rights.

In the opening stanzas of the Book of Mormon, they have a moral dilemma — How do we kill, how do we slay this person? That's the answer: "It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief." It's the same thing, the same mindset.

Let's talk about how Mormons influenced the election. The No on 8 camp actually raised more money than the Yes side, despite the last heated push by the Mormons that brought in millions of dollars in the last few weeks. On the basis of money alone, the No on 8 side should have won. Yet there's not much talk about the value of the time and energy Mormons put into the campaign.

Nobody does it better than the Mormons. Money is one thing. What outsiders don't understand is the volunteer aspect: the "means and time" trigger language that comes from the temple, and how it literally played to their obedience.

Their greatest asset is the obedience of their people. They had people signed up to go street by street and house by house. They knew who to take with them and were extremely organized.

What is it about those two words, "time and means," that triggers obedience?

You're told in the temple that what you are about to do, your eternal salvation hinges on it. God will not be mocked. Then you see a character named Satan who basically threatens to take away your eternal salvation if you don't live up to covenants you're making. When they used the trigger language of the temple, most of the Mormon faithful got it. Your salvation and the salvation of humanity depends on it. It's inferred that you will lose everything if you don't obey.

The film mentions one family, the Pattersons, who withdrew $50,000 from their children's college fund. Was there any backlash against that call for extra money? They're already donating 10 percent [tithing], and now they're expected to pay double or more?

Those who participated in it gave willingly.

Some people who didn't pay or who were vocal against Proposition 8 were released from their callings [lay jobs in the church]. Did anyone lose their membership?

They were not out and out threatened; however, the message was clear.

Why is the threat of losing everything so great?

You can't go to heaven unless you're a Mormon.

What can gay rights advocates learn from the Mormons?

First of all, I hope we will learn that no battle that is won with misinformation is worth winning. I would hope the gay community would not resort to playing dirty pool. When we win, we want to win clean. What we can take out of their playbook is organization and passion. I would like to propose to the entire worldwide gay community that they cancel gay pride events until we have marriage equality. All those thousands of people who go to gay pride, those are bodies that could put on a shirt and go into the neighborhood and tell their story. We should wait until we have equality to have our party. In the meantime we volunteer the same passion and air miles and participation and really channel that same participation into our fight for equality.

In an interview you gave at the Sundance screening of "8" — which, presumably, was attended by a lot of Mormons, since this was Utah, after all — I was struck by your inclusionary stance toward the audience. You said, "We may not agree, but we are the human community that needs to come together to see the damage that was done by Proposition 8 and others like it." Has the film helped bring the two sides together into a constructive dialogue, as opposed to the vitriolic shouting and name-calling depicted in the film?

I call this America's holy war. On both sides you're going to hear the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Once the battle is over and the bodies are on the field, and they return and think about it and talk about it — in many parts of the country we're not there yet. However I believe in some parts of the country, the fires have died down and people are beginning to talk.

In "8," you accuse the church of not declaring the full extent of its donations. Activist Fred Karger filed a 2008 suit with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. This month, the commission ordered the church to pay a fine of more than $5,000 for not reporting about $37,000 of "in-kind" donations — nonmonetary contributions, such as time church employees spent on the campaign. Is this progress?

To frame that, it's unprecedented. It shows our film has credibility. I think ultimately Mormons deserve for their church to wrong the rights. If they will learn from their mistakes — their sins — it will be a better organization. They can get back to what it's about, which is being a church.

Did you follow the closing arguments in the Proposition 8 appeal last week?

With tears in my eyes. It's been beautiful. I felt like we were on to something and was stunned in the end. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Is there anything you wish you could have included in the film?

I would have loved to include an apology or explanation from the Mormons. It simply wasn't offered.

"8: The Mormon Proposition" opens in select theaters on June 18 and comes out on DVD July 13.

Jodi Mardesich is a former Mormon who lives in Salt Lake City.

By Jodi Mardesich

Jodi Mardesich is a writer and yoga teaching living in Cedar Hills, Utah. A former staff writer for Fortune and the San Jose Mercury News, her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Yoga Journal, The Advocate and Slate.

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