The following op-ed appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on Nov 2, 2014.
At first glance, the upcoming conference of the World Congress of Families slated for Salt Lake City in October 2015 seems like a logical fit for our state. The group promotes what they call “the natural human family.”
According to Larry Jacobs the WCF’s managing director, “Our focus is about why the natural family is better for society.” Sounds great, right? Utah takes pride in its family centered institutions.
But, upon closer examination, The World Congress of Families promotes attitudes and policies that many Utahns would find troubling.
The term “natural family,” coined by the WCF sounds appealing, but it is in fact a way for the organization to apply the universal respect and protection that should be accorded all families to a select few. These WCF families are based strictly on heterosexual unions, and the resulting biological children that proceed from them. This “natural family” they argue, is threatened by any other family unit that does not meet their criteria. Chief among these threats are LGBT/same-sex attracted people. According to Mr. Jacobs, homosexuality is a “symptom of a disease” which threatens the very future of the human race.
This emotional attempt by the WCF to divide one family from another and promote fear among friends and neighbors is sad and dangerous. Is this representative of how we think here? On their official website mormonsandgays.org, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach that being gay is neither a choice nor a sin. In the most recent General Conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, while reinforcing that marriage between a man and a woman is an essential part of Mormon doctrine, also set the tone for tolerance:
“… we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.”
Welcoming an organization to our state that has worked relentlessly to identify LGBT people as “the other” is not in harmony with the Utah values I cherish. As an active LDS mother and grandmother, my gay neighbors are hardly a threat to my principles. Building friendships with LGBT people and their families is in fact an opportunity to live the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The home, Elder Oaks continued in his conference talk, is the best place to “practice respect for differences.” Same-sex couples are now legally married citizens of Utah. They are our friends, neighbors and coworkers. Our children learn and play together. This is a sensitive and challenging time in our state. Those who vigorously opposed same-sex marriage are learning how to remain true to their convictions yet also reach out in friendship to gay families. Same-sex couples in turn are learning how to understand the people that appeared for so long to turn away from them. The contentious rhetoric of the World Congress of Families that claims some families are worth protecting and others are not would impede this delicate process of community building.
Finally, the activities of the WCF as it attempts to influence legislation abroad — also in the name of the “natural family” — is perhaps the most troubling aspect of its work. In Russia and Africa the WCF has been involved in supporting legislation that actually criminalizes the discussion of homosexuality. Criminalizes. As a member of a worldwide church, I care about my brothers and sisters in other countries who, thanks in part to the efforts of the WCF can be fined or thrown in jail for talking about their sexual orientation.
I am uncomfortable with tax supported venues such as the Salt Palace, and the hotels and restaurants I take my family to, financially benefiting from the activities of such a group. I am distressed that Elder Oaks, who so eloquently spoke of “Loving Others and Living with Differences,” and who I sustain as a leader of my church, is an honorary member of the World Congress of Families Board of Directors.
We are blessed to live in a country where free speech is protected. The World Congress of Families has every right to promote its principles, but the good people of Utah also have the right to thoroughly examine those principles. The WCF has never had a conference in the U.S. They crave the respectability that such an honor would provide. Utah is often unfairly portrayed in the national media as an isolated backwater, but by identifying the WCF as a group that breeds contention instead of cooperation, we have the opportunity to be a model for the nation of civil conversation in a conservative state. Consider contacting Visit Salt Lake, The Grand America Hotel and others in the hospitality industry who are hosting the WCF conference. Share what you feel about such an event taking place here. Beneath the surface of the World Congress of Families lies rhetoric, principles and international politics that are hurtful to us all.
Erika Munson is a co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.