In his inaugural address last week, President Obama made reference to Stonewall, the 1969 riot that gave birth to the gay rights movement, and reminded the nation that "our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law." This was the first reference in a presidential inaugural of the gay rights movement. It was also a stark reminder of how much things have changed in such a short time.
I remember about 15 years ago sitting in an LDS priesthood meeting in my ward and hearing the teacher ask what were some of the problems in our ward. I raised my hand and said that I was concerned because teenagers in our ward were calling each other "gay" in a derogatory sense. And I also said that more people were coming out of the closet and we should ask ourselves how we would react if a gay couple moved into our neighborhood. Would we shun them or would we exhibit Christ-like behavior and befriend them? (Actually, there were gay people in our ward, but ward members didn't know it because those people felt compelled to stay in the closet or leave.)
The tension in the room was palpable. I could tell the person sitting next to me was seething as I spoke. For many, the gay rights movement represented evil. All gays were sinful, a state they could change if they would just repent. And, besides, gays lived somewhere else, not in our neighborhood.
This attitude was not just limited to LDS culture. It extended generally across society. For many years, homosexuals were banned from the military, unable to work in schools and prohibited from living where they wished. Until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2003, homosexual behavior was still illegal in 13 states. At one point, every state had such a law.
But anti-gay sentiments have been particularly strong in much of Utah. I remember in the 1990s, a group in Utah County attempted to get a Spanish Fork high school coach fired because she was a lesbian. School boards attempted to ban gay clubs in high schools. It wasn't many years ago I heard frequent comments made in LDS Church meetings and classes I attended about how certain groups were attempting to destroy the family. Sometimes gay rights groups were mentioned by name, although even without that we all knew who they were referring to.
But some change is now occurring in our views about gays, even in Utah. Some cities are passing a non-discrimination ordinance. It would be better to make it statewide. Today, I do not hear the kind of rhetoric I heard a few years ago about gays.
Another evidence of change is the new website by the LDS Church titled "mormonsandgays.org." LDS Church leaders are clear in saying there must be a transformation in church members' attitudes. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve reminded Latter-day Saints: "As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach. Let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender."
But more can be done. Latter-day Saints need to reach out to those who are gay in our community, whether they are practicing or not. Their church status is a matter between them and church leaders. Our task as individuals is clear — showing love, compassion and acceptance. We need to do so because they are our family members, friends and neighbors. They are fellow children of God.
It is well past time to do so. The president's wording should remind us about who gay people among us really are. We must treat others — straight or gay — not as our enemies, but as our brothers and sisters.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu