Taylor G. Petrey

Tabernacles of Clay offers a dramatic retelling of how modern Mormonism (1945-present) has engaged with broader questions of gender and sexuality and what those changes can tell us about modernity itself. LDS (Latter-day Saints) leaders have embraced the idea of fixed identities representing a natural and divine order, but their teachings also acknowledge that sexual difference is persistently contingent and unstable. Tabernacles of Clay offers a queer genealogy of conservative religious thought on gender and sexuality, showing how it draws explicitly and implicitly from psychodevelopmental theories of sexual and gender fluidity. Taking an intersectional approach, this book also for the first time shows how gender, sexuality, and race have been linked in the development of Mormon teachings and practices.Tabernacles of Clay is the recipient of the 2020 “Best Book Award” from the Mormon History Association, Finalist, 2020 Association for Mormon Letters Award (Religious Nonfiction) and a 2020 Choice Outstanding Academic Title.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

Taylor G. Petrey: I originally came to this topic in the context of cultural and religious debates about same-sex marriage in the LDS community. Since the 1990s, the church made opposition to same-sex marriage one of its defining public activities and I wanted to know why. I first starting tinkering with this project in theology and philosophy of religion, looking at feminist and queer reading of key LDS teachings. But I increasingly felt that a history was necessary that could both document and make sense of changes. So much of the scholarship on this topic told only a partial story, or denied that there had been any changes in LDS teachings at all. That never sat right with me and I kept looking around for someone to do that project until I finally decided that maybe I should take a crack at it. I also wanted to situate these ideas in a larger history about America, religious studies, and gender studies.

Initially, I had an ambition to write the whole story from the founder Joseph Smith in the 1830s and 40s up until the present, but as I got into the research I kept getting drawn into the 1950s-1970s as a really pivotal moment that helped explain contemporary Mormonism. Eventually, I abandoned to more ambitious project and focused on the period from World War II until now. Fortunately, Peter Coviello’s book Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism, touches on a lot of similar themes as my work, but focuses on the nineteenth century instead. That leaves the period of transition between the 1890s and 1940s as really missing a solid treatment of this topic for specialists in Mormon Studies.

NOTCHES: This book engages with histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Petrey: I wanted to be attentive to intersectional approaches to historical study. I had written about the intersections of politics about women’s issues and LGBTQ issues in my earlier articles, pointing out both the friction and overlap in feminist and queer analysis. But what about race? Was race a part of the story of gender and sexuality in LDS history? Other histories of religion in this period were showing the relationships of race and sexuality, but the LDS histories of race and histories of gender and sexuality were mostly parallel tracks, never crossing. As I did more research in the primary sources, I again noticed something that seemed extremely obvious in retrospect. Interracial marriage was a major concern in LDS teaching during the middle of the twentieth century, dominating the ways that racial boundaries were discussed. Not only was race a matter of sexual concern and prohibition, but I also noticed that the last major struggle about what kind of marriages should be authorized in the church was focused on the racial categories of the partners. For me at least, this was an important and under-appreciated lens for understanding LDS teachings about sexuality and was interconnected to discourses about “purity.” The ideologies of racial difference, sexual difference, and heterosexual supremacy had to be understood in relationship to one another. I’ll add, in part because a few people have reached out to thank me on this, that I worked to include trans issues in the book, telling the history as interconnected with these other themes.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? 

Petrey: Once I decided to focus on the seventy year period from WWII to the present I had to be more rigorous about constructing an archive. Those who work in the modern period of LDS church history are aware that the Church History archives for twentieth century sources are heavily restricted, so I knew that I was going to have to rely primarily on publicly available information. Among the information that was easily accessible, I collected public speeches, printed manuals and pamphlets, letters, conference schedules, magazine articles, and websites (live and archived). I then examined these sources for citations, especially scholarly literature, to try to describe the intellectual genealogies of these materials. Some of the documents contained in the available public archives, as well as a much-hyped release of documents related to LDS efforts in Hawaii and California to oppose same-sex marriage in the 1990s, were actually letters or reports not meant to be publicly released. I had some reservations about the use of stolen documents, but in all cases the documents I was discussing were available on the web or in other public archives. All of them had been discussed in the media or by other historians. I wasn’t breaking new ground with previously unknown documents, but rather in collecting them and reading them together in ways that hadn’t been done before.

My reliance on public documents ended up falling into three major categories of church activity during this period. The first was public preaching, which included speeches in General Conference, devotional addresses at Brigham Young University and other church contexts, and other materials printed by the church such as instruction manuals. The second collection of materials was related to the church’s political endeavors, which often included public preaching, but extended as well to political organizing and endorsements, alliances with other groups and organizations, influence campaigns, and legal and legislative documents. The third area had to do with the church’s psychological theories. These could be found in a number of public speeches and instructional manuals and pamphlets, but also in the institutions that the church directly and indirectly supported. LDS Social Services (later called LDS Family Services) employed a number of scholars and practitioners who were involved in treating LGBTQ clients. There were various other institutions that dealt with these issues, including the Association for Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists (AMCAP). In addition, the church also had a close relationship with Evergreen International, a support group and resource for various sexual orientation change therapy techniques. Those involved in these organizations held conferences and the academics in them published papers detailing their methods.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Petrey: This book is really the story about the church’s leadership more than the laity or popular movements within the faith. It is a history of institutional discourse and ideas more than, say, lived religion, material culture, or ethnography. I do offer some of the basic history of feminist and LGBTQ activists and organizations as they found themselves in public conflict with the centralized church, and point to the writing and thinking they produced as they founded journals, magazines, organizations, and support groups. I hope that the framework of the institutional history that I provide might support these other methodological approaches and areas of research, and I suspect that new studies might offer greater nuance to my own work and perhaps a different periodization of some of the important ideas. I also think that the analysis of race and sexuality that I provide can be expanded beyond what I did with it. I tried to show how the concepts of “heterosexuality” were imported into the tradition in the period after LDS church leaders were turning away from racial theology in the 1970s, but I think that it is important to show the ways that “heterosexuality” is still encoded with whiteness and white supremacy.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

Petrey: I’ve already discussed how I narrowed the temporal framework of the project as it was initially conceived, as well as expanding the earlier boundaries of the project to include race. But I think that there were two other major changes that influenced how my work was redefined during my research. First, I became interested in telling the history of LDS beliefs and practices as part of a larger story of religion in North America. I craved not simply an internal history based on Mormon exceptionalism, but some framework for making sense of why LDS leaders were doing what they were doing. I wanted to see whether Latter-day Saints were distinctive or whether they belonged to broader trends in gender and sexuality. Neil Young’s book, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politicswas influential in helping me see the complexity of both shared and divergent approaches among Mormons, Protestants, and Catholics during the second half of the twentieth century. The Religious Right, the politics of “family values,” and the antifeminist and anti-homosexuality movements in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century seemed to provide a lot of context.

The second major change came as I was studying the history of homosexuality and religion. It seemed to me that the dominant way that this topic had been approached in LDS-related scholarship was through the lens of scriptural or doctrinal teachings or political rhetoric and practices. When I read the work of Heather White in Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, I began to understand how the history of psychology was an important framework of analysis. I’d been interested in and written about the role of Freudian psychology in critical theories of gender and sexuality, including in liberal theological movements. But I had been less familiar with the conservative appropriation of these ideas to buttress their own views. In retrospect, it seemed so obvious and once I had some awareness of the issue I saw it much more clearly as having a major structuring influence during this period. I benefitted from Eric Swedin’s singular volume on LDS approaches to psychology, including as it related to sexuality, in Healing Souls: Psychotherapy in the Latter-day Saint CommunityThe attention that I tried to pay to understanding the theoretical underpinnings of LDS theories of homosexuality I hope gave greater context to why church leaders believed what they did. This shared genealogy between queer theory and reparative therapy, for instance, became an important through line in my analysis.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Petrey: While the legacy of Foucault is going through some things just now, the problematic that he was identifying in the History of Sexuality series became a big question for me at first in graduate school. My research trajectory, however, went in the reverse order. I started with antiquity and ended up in modernity. My first book, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference was also a critical history of gender that attempted to get at the ontology of sexual difference in a particular time period through religious texts. In that case, I was looking at a collection of second- and early-third-century Christian texts debating the nature of the resurrection of the body. They were arguing about whether resurrected bodies would have genitals in the resurrection, and if so, whether they would be able to function. More than just a funny antiquarian problem, I attempted to analyze their discussions of flesh, sexual desire, and so on as a lens on broader shifts in the ontology of sexual difference, which was widely thought to be fluid in the first few centuries of Christian thought. Instead, I argued that there was a debate within Christianity on the question of gender fluidity and fixity dating to an earlier era than previously acknowledged. So, there is a lot of continuity in my intellectual projects even though they are temporally and methodologically distinct.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Petrey: I think that it depends a lot on the kind of class. This first year since it was published, I’ve seen the book show up in a lot of different kinds of classes. Perhaps the most obvious courses have been those on Christianity and the family/ sexuality/ gender. But I’ve also seen this book assigned in sociology and anthropology classes on gender as a great way to introduce religion into the topic. I’ve been pleased that the book is showing up on syllabi on theory and method in religion classes for graduate and undergraduates, and some have mentioned that it not only is a great introduction to queer theory, gender studies, and the history of sexuality as disciplinary approaches, but models productive ways of integrating theoretical analysis with primary research. There are even classes on Mormonism at various institutions and I’ve been happy to see the book warmly integrated into this curriculum. Many of the books I’ve mentioned as being influential or conversation partners would be great to pair with it, as well as works by Tanya Erzen, Lynne Gerber, Anthony Petro, Melissa Wilcox, and others.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Petrey: Latter-day Saints are a minority group in the larger Religious Right, but they have had an outside influence on national political conversations. Internal to the tradition, they have led a powerful campaign to shape gender and sexuality among adherents that has both unified and caused serious divisions in the church. I am writing this interview response in the context of a recent effort to discipline or excommunicate Natasha Helfer, a Mormon sex therapist, for her professional work that often challenges LDS teachings on sexuality, so the stakes of these debates are quite fierce.

I believe that history helps us to dislodge the present and see possibilities for the future that are obscured by what we take for granted. As I mentioned, I initially came to this topic as a issue in philosophy of religion, but turned to history because I became convinced that exploring how and why changes occur was a necessary lens for unpacking how Mormonism has come to represent what it does now. For Mormon readers, I think that the book might have some different resonances for showing those changes, but for non-Mormon readers I hope that it illuminates the distinctive and important, and quite surprising, chapter of Mormonism in the broader history of sexuality.

Taylor G. Petrey is an associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College. He is the author of Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism; Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference; and co-editor with Amy Hoyt of The Routledge Handbook of Mormonism and Gender. He holds a ThD and MTS from Harvard Divinity School and BA from Pace University. He tweets @TaylorPetrey

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