The 188th General Conference: The Mormon church finally has a leader who isn’t white, but its sexual abuse policies need work, and so does its treatment of gays

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better know simply as “Mormons”), today is doubly special. It is Easter, the most important holiday on the Christian calendar, and it’s also the second day of the 188th Annual General Conference of the Church.

General Conference is held twice a year—spring and fall—and gathers thousands of Mormons together in Salt Lake City, Utah, to listen to talk by church leaders and ratify new ones as needed to fill vacant seats in the upper levels of church leadership. Mormons all over the world gather in church buildings or turn on their computers to tune into the conference. It can feel a bit like watching football, because enormous amounts of snackfood are often involved, at least in my experience.

Seriously, just google “lds general conference snacks.”

See? I told you.

You can even play games like General Conference Word Hunt to keep themselves entertained throughout. Every time a speaker says “patriarch,” mark it on your play sheet! (Okay, this game is actually geared toward kids, but it reminds me so much of the Star Trek Drinking Game, I bet adults could have fun with it too—with their favorite non-alcoholic, non-coffee, non-tea drink of their choice, of course.)

The first scene in my short story “All Is Well,” which appears in the anthology Simmer, takes place during a general conference as all the Mormon missionaries of the fictional Lake Migisiwauk Mission—located somewhere in America’s Upper Midwest—gather to watch conference together and stuff their faces:

When the missionaries gathered twice a year to watch the live broadcast of General Conference … the living prophet was arguably the star of the event. Elder Pratt was a close second. He spent the hours between sermons in the center’s kitchen with a few eager assistants, transforming inexpensive ingredients into feasts for God’s army: Indian curries, rich ratatouilles, Moroccan pilafs, seafood chowder, pumpkin stew. Some of the missionaries complained about his more ethnic fare, but most simply swooned. They hadn’t been this well fed since the last General Conference.

Tanner Jensen, nineteen, was three weeks into his two-year mission term when he met Elder Pratt at one of these feasts. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten since—well, since ever,” he said as he dug in for a second helping of roasted asparagus. “Who made this?”

“I know, right?” said Jake Conroy, Tanner’s companion—the guy he’d been paired up with since the start of his mission. Jake pointed to a tall, fair-skinned young man halfway down the banquet table, whose tie was knotted in a Windsor instead of the four-in-hand most missionaries used. “Elder Pratt got tapped to be on MasterChef right out of high school, but he turned them down to go on his mission instead. That’s how strong his testimony is. We’re totally blessed to have him here.”This passage doubles as a Rainbow Snippet.

But general conference isn’t all about food. It’s not even mostly about food.

To understand all of what general conference is about, you need a little background. So here goes: The church is headed by a president-prophet, who is generally the man who has served longest in the upper echelons of church leadership. He is supported in his presidency by two counselors. Together, they make up the First Presidency.

Next on the hierarchy is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. This is also made up of men who have spent a long time in church service. Below that is the Quorum of the Seventy, again made up of men.

During conference, members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Apostles give talks meant to inspire church members and give them guidance on what they should focus on for the next six months as far as their spiritual development goes. Usually, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and one or two women will also give talks.

General Conference is always a big deal, but this one is a Big Deal. That’s because the church has a new president-prophet and two new apostles.

Thomas Monson, the previous LDS prophet, died at age 97 in early January. Two apostles have also died since the last conference. Empty apostle seats remain vacant until the next conference, but not the presidency.

Having a living prophet is a core Mormon doctrine, so going without one for up to six months just doesn’t work. So, after Monson died, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles appointed the longest-serving apostle to be the new president. His name is Russell M. Nelson.

LDS First presidency snapshot
These are the members of the new First Presidency. Nelson, 93, is in the center. Photo via Mormon Newsroom.

Yesterday, church members raised their hands to affirm or oppose his appointment as prophet. Most members raised their hands in affirmation, so hey—NEW PROPHET!

(Side note: Way back in time, general conference was accompanied by vigorous debate, and church members even voted down a few recommendations made by the apostles. Over the last century, voting has become mostly symbolic to the point that it made national news when a handful of people voted “opposed” at the spring 2015 conference.)

What this means for LGBT+ Mormons

The protagonists in “All Is Well” are gay. You may know that the Mormon church isn’t historically a great place for gay people. But it waffles a little. Sometimes, gays are one of the worst threats humanity ever faced, and other times they’re children of God who deserve love and respect.

The apostles seem to run the gamut of this spectrum. Most of them seem to be under the impression that legal same-sex marriage somehow changes the religious definition of marriage (it doesn’t), and therefore must be fought. But some apostles are more vociferous than others, and Russell M. Nelson is one of those apostles.

Back in November 2015, the Church enacted a new policy labeling members in same-sex marriages as apostates and instructed bishops to excommunicate them. It also prohibited the blessing or baptism of any child being raised by a same-sex couple, even in cases of shared custody between divorced parents, where one parent is in a same-sex marriage and the other in a heterosexual one. (Heterosexual marriage is the most common path to parenthood for gay and lesbian Mormons; up until recently, the church actively encouraged them to enter heterosexual marriages in hopes of a  “cure.”) These children may only get baptized after turning 18, and only if they disavow their parents’ same-sex marriage.

This puts same-sex marriage on the same level as murder, incest, spousal abuse, and rape—except that children of murderers et al. can still join the church, and they aren’t even asked to renounce murder.

To add even more insult to injury, the policy specifically labels same-sex marriage as worse than casual sex—a huge irony for a church that otherwise promotes monogamy within marriage as the only choice for expressing sexuality. The church does this in listing reasons for holding a Disciplinary Council—a church court that decides on matters of apostasy and excommunication:

It includes (but is not limited to) attempted murder, forcible rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations (especially sexual cohabitation), deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, …

Can people in same-sex marriages get around the policy by not having sex? It doesn’t look like it, as only the part of the policy I quoted above mentions sex. The rest of it only talks about relationships, such as in this passage:

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.

Love scares them as much as sex does. (This is born out by rules at the Church university, which forbid gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from any physical expression of affection with people of the same sex, including holding hands or hugging.)

When Church leaders first enacted the November Policy, as it’s now known, they tried to do so under the radar. They sent it to local bishops as an addendum to the Handbook of Instruction, Volume 1, a policy guide that bishops are forbidden to share with rank-and-file church members.

When the policy became public, the church’s initial response was that it was merely a clarification of existing church practices regarding homosexuality, made in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in June of 2015.

The general consensus among talking heads was that the guidelines were written by the Church’s legal department in an effort to firmly establish the Church’s opposition to homosexuality so no one could sue them for a refusal to perform same-sex marriages in their temples. (Seriously? U.S. clergy have always had the right to refuse to perform any marriage, for any reason, including discriminatory ones.)

This theory was supported by the statements of D. Todd Christofferson, the apostle chosen as the official spokesperson for the church on this issue:

We recognize that same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States and some other countries and that people have the right, if they choose, to enter into those, and we understand that. But that is not a right that exists in the Church. That’s the clarification.

But Russell M. Nelson, then an apostle, wasn’t satisfied with calling these new rules a mere “policy.” Nope, he said. They were a prophetic revelation from God Almighty (emphasis added):

This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church’s handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process, and so is your privilege of receiving personal revelation.

To Mormons, a revelation is very different from a policy. Policies are administrative and can change from time to time as needed. A revelation comes directly from God and expresses a fundamental truth. It can never change.

In his speech above, Nelson was—without the consent of other apostles—claiming that the policy was permanent. His appointment as prophet further quashes hopes that gay, lesbian, and many bisexual Mormons have of being happy, fully participating church members.

Nelson calls on members who are attracted to people of the same sex to view that attraction as a burden and, along with straight church members, fight against legal same-sex marriage. Also, you are never allowed to pursue a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex. If you do, you don’t love God:

God loves His children. And if they love Him, they will show that love by keeping His commandments, including chastity before marriage and total fidelity within marriage.

And just to make sure we all know how much he doesn’t like gays, Nelson ejected Dieter Uchtdorf from the First Presidency—the first time such a removal has happened in 40 years.

Who is Dieter Uchtdorf, you ask? He was a member of the First Presidency under Thomas Monson and loved by socially progressive Mormons and quite a few ex-Mormons for his inclusiveness and gentle, nonjudgmental tone when speaking about LBGT+ folks.

Dieter Uchtdorf headshot
Dieter Uchtdorf, favorite apostle of New Order Mormons everywhere. Photo via Mormon Newsroom.

Can a Russell M. Nelson presidency be worse than a Monson one for LGBTQ+ Mormons? After all, the November 2015 policy was implemented under Monson’s watch, and so was the Church’s campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8—a 2008 constitutional amendment that revoked the legality of same-sex marriage, which had previously been legal in the state.

It’s hard to say.  But it’s worth noting that many observers believe Monson had little or no involvement in the November policy, as he was showing signs of poor health by then and was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the church. Unlike Nelson, he never declared it to be revelation, and when he first acknowledged it publicly, it was through a letter that curtailed the policy’s effects. It confirmed that happily married gay couples were still in apostasy, but assuming their kids could still get baptized as long as they were the product of a previous heterosexual marriage and spent at least 50% of their time living with the heterosexual parent. The letter further instructed bishops not to excommunicate kids of gay parents who had already been baptized—which is a weird sentence to type, because why would anyone even consider excommunicating a nine-year-old?

But under Monson, the church also supported a Utah bill forbidding discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And it launched the website Mormon and Gay, which admits that there’s a lot of “spiritual ambiguity that still surrounds being a gay Mormon,” which is kind of amazing because the church has a pat answer for almost everything, and used to pretend it had one for gays, too. More importantly, it gives gay, lesbian, and bisexual Mormons permission to call themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual—previously the only acceptable term was “experiencing same-gender attraction.” And it states “it is unethical to focus professional treatment on an assumption that a change in sexual orientation will or must occur“—previously, it encouraged “reparative therapy.”

The presidency sets the tone for church members. Despite his faults, Uchtdorf helped to set a kinder and more tolerant tone toward groups that church leaders have traditionally badmouthed: feminists, LGBTQ+ people, ex-Mormons, and atheists. He doesn’t talk constantly about man-woman marriage, and he’s not into rubbing salt into people’s wounds.

Nelson has no such voice in his presidency. He replaced Uchtdorf with Dallin H. Oaks, someone who compares homosexuality to alcoholism, says that any church member who questions church leadership is under Satan’s influence, teaches that same-sex marriage is a threat to children and to heterosexual marriage, and adds regular reminders about the wrongness of same-sex marriage to his general conference talks—as if anyone could forget the Mormon church’s stance. He was also president of the church-supported Brigham Young University during the 1970s when psychologists there were giving electroshocks to gay men.

Dallin Oaks
Dallin H. Oaks. Photo via Mormon Newsroom.

But he also has told parents not to kick their gay kids out of the home, a too-common practice in Mormon households. So he’s got that going for him. Will it help? Sure, if he repeats it at every General Conference until he dies. But he’s only said it once, four years ago, and even then he wasn’t explicit about it (emphasis mine):

When we consider the dangers from which children should be protected, we should also include psychological abuse. Parents or other caregivers or teachers or peers who demean, bully, or humiliate children or youth can inflict harm more permanent than physical injury. Making a child or youth feel worthless, unloved, or unwanted can inflict serious and long-lasting injury on his or her emotional well-being and development. Young people struggling with any exceptional condition, including same-gender attraction, are particularly vulnerable and need loving understanding—not bullying or ostracism.

Now let’s get on to the good news for some other minority groups in the LDS church. Finally. After years and years and …

The Two Newest Apostles Aren’t White Americans

Since its foundation in 1830, all apostles and presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been white. And except for Dieter Uchtdorf, who is German, they have also been North American (mostly from the United States, but with a few Canadians thrown in).

Yesterday, the church announced its two newest apostles: Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, and Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian. One person of non-European heritage, and one person from outside North America.

Gerrit Gong headshot
Gerrit Gong. Photo via Mormon Newsroom.
Ulisses Suares headshot
Ulisses Suares. Photo via Mormon Newsroom.

It’s wild! It’s mind-blowing! And it’s about time. Brazil ties with Mexico for having the largest Mormon population after the United States. About a third of Mormons live in Latin America. Half of Mormons live outside the United States. And the church has about a million members who are Asian or of Asian descent.

Now for the rest of the world …

Gong and Soares previously served in the Presidency of the Seventy, a leadership group on a tear just below the Quorum of the Apostles. Like all members of the Quorum of the Apostles, they are expected to remain members for the rest of their lives.

As a side note, Ulisses Soares is the only member of the top 15 men in the LDS hierarchy who uses only his first and last name. The rest use either first name + middle initial + last name or first initial + middle name + last name. These are such de facto name patterns for church leaders that I can’t type type “Russell Nelson” or “Thomas Monson” without deliberately thinking about it. It’s gotta be “Russell M. Nelson” and “Thomas S. Monson,” or it just sounds weird.

Could Soares be some kind of rebel? Only time will tell.

Church needs to do a better job protecting members from abuse

Yesterday, as new members of church leadership were taking their seats on a podium, a lone voice called out, “Stop protecting sexual predators!” three times.

The owner of the voice, Crystal Legionaires, was then escorted out of the building by security.

To my knowledge, the last time someone yelled in protest at a General Conference was in the early 1980s to draw attention to the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights AmendmentLegionaires said she spoke up because of the churches failure to protect missionaries allegedly sexually abused by Joseph L. Bishop, the former president of the church’s Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. The Center is a temporary home to Mormons in their late teens and early 20s as they prepare to embark on evangelical missions. Thousands pass through each year.

Church leaders have known about one set of allegations since at least 2010, but never disciplined Bishop because he denied the allegations. Nor did they refer the case to local law enforcement, although they did report the woman as having threatened Bishop’s life. Church leaders were approached with allegations again in 2016 and again did nothing because they were “[u]nable to verify the allegations,” according to a church press release. In December 2017, Bishop told BYU police he had molested at least two missionaries and described himself as a “predator.”

Last week, the church sent out an updated press release that said they had recently received an “unredacted police report from BYU Police, which included an admission of inappropriate sexual conduct. We are committed to bringing accountability for what has occurred.”

But according to some church members, the church’s problem goes much deeper than simply failing to believe victims or report abuse. They claim that church practices have the unintended consequence of making children vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Outside the conference building, on the streets of Salt Lake City, about a thousand people gathered with Protect LDS Children to protest the churchwide practice of one-on-one “worthiness interviews” between children and bishops, who are always adult men. The interviews generally take place behind closed doors and commonly—though not always—include sexually explicit questions, such as asking children if they masturbate and, if so, how frequently. Minors who confess to making out or sexual intimacy may be asked details, such as what body parts and sexual acts were involved.

Sam Young is the founder of Protect LDS Children. He’s a member and former bishop in the church (bishoprics are limited-term appointments, and being a former bishop is a badge of honor in Mormonism). Young says the interviews are psychologically harmful to children and have the effect of “grooming” them for abuse by teaching children that it is normal for adults to ask sexually probing questions.

Sam Young. Photo from ProtectLDSChildren.org.

Proponents of this practice say bishops need detailed information to assess the severity of a minor’s “sins” and decide what actions need to be taken to help the child repent.

This type of interview is illustrated in No Going Back, a novel by church member Jonathan Langford about Paul, a gay Mormon teen struggling with whether he should try to follow the church’s teachings or embrace his sexual orientation. (He decides to follow the church’s teachings, which entail lifelong chastity for gays and lesbians, but not be ashamed about being gay.) The book is very pro-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its policies.

In this passage, Paul goes to his bishop to confess fooling around with another boy:

[The bishop] sighed inwardly. He hated this next part, but he’d learned that he needed to get a clear idea of just how serious the problem was. The only way was by asking questions.

Had clothes come off? No.

Had hands gone underneath clothes? Um, yeah.

Had the other boy’s hands touched Paul’s sexual organs? Yes.

Had Paul’s hands touched the other boy’s sexual organs? No.

Had it happened again? Yes. A week later.

The same thing, or more? The same.

The bishop in the story is a good guy. He loves his church members and wants to do what’s best for them. He has no interest in sexually exploiting the teens under his care.

But even so, the line of questioning leads Paul into a swamp of dark feelings, so much so that the bishop worries Paul is going to kill himself. (He doesn’t.)

In anticipation of yesterday’s March for Children and in response to the Bishop publicity, the Church this week updated guidelines for preventing and responding to sexual and physical abuse. These include:

  • Children may request the presence of another adult at bishop’s interviews
  • In all other circumstances, two adults must be present for church activities involving children (a recommended practice so that adults can keep an eye on each other in addition to the kids)
  • Bishops should never tell members to stay in an abusive situation, as happened in the Rob Porter case.
  • Bishops should not ignore reports of abuse, as also happened in the Rob Porter case and in several child sexual abuse cases in West Virginia.
  • Bishops may not discourage individuals from reporting abuse to legal authorities, as also happened in the Rob Porter case.

Sam Young says these changes are insufficient. They do not prohibit sexually explicit talk, and they leave it up to kids whether they want more than one adult present at an interview. Kids are unlikely to know they have the right to ask for that and may be embarrassed to ask, not wanting to imply distrust in the bishop—a big no-no in Mormon culture. And if the bishop is an abuser—as in the cases of Timothy McCleve, Lon Kennard, and Todd Michael Edwards—are they going to tell the kid of this option? Of course not.

SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), the organization that brought attention to the Catholic Church’s decades-long practice of protecting child molesters, has also called for an end to the practice. Most large denominations in the U.S.—and even many small ones—have comprehensive sexual abuse prevention policies that prohibit adult leaders from meeting alone with minors or engaging them in graphic, detailed discussions about their sexual experiences and desires. It’s commonsense, and there’s no good reason the Latter-day Saints can’t do it too.

More General Conference Fun!

You can watch the 188th General Conference live on the Church website, or catch talks you missed here.

If you prefer parodies to the actual thing, you can check out Infants on Thrones General Conference episodes.

And if you made it through this post, congratulations! I barely have.

Now you know why I hardly ever post about Mormonism. Once I start talking about it, I simply can’t stop. Next thing you know I’ve spent most of the day on a 4,000-word blog post that only a handful of people will read.

Thanks for being one of that handful!


Images from the Mormon Newsroom were used in accordance with its terms of use and include the photo at the top of the page. The Mormon Newsroom is an official department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The appearance of these photos in this blog most certainly does not imply endorsement or even awareness of this website or the views expressed therein.


8 thoughts on “The 188th General Conference: The Mormon church finally has a leader who isn’t white, but its sexual abuse policies need work, and so does its treatment of gays”

    • I meant to say your heart, but perhaps this was a genuine Freudian slip. I once was Catholic. I left the church behind because there was a lot I found I couldn’t accept which was part of the doctrine. At the same time, there are parts I miss. (sad grin)

      • I figured that out! Maybe lighting a few candles would help. That’s what I always liked about visiting Catholic churches when I was a kid—all the candles! And I went to a pre-school in Spain run by German nuns, and the Virgin Mary made a big impression on me. Apparently I ran around the house with a blanket over my hair saying, “Soy la Virgin Maria!”

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