Advocacy: A Conversation with David Melson
Three faces of Affirmation advocacy. Left: George Cole, Robert Moore, and David Melson help raise awareness about homelessness. Center: Robert Moore speaks at a suicide prevention event in San Francisco. Right: David Melson, along with Joe Solmonese and Bruce Bastian, speaks at a press conference in response to a speech by President Boyd K. Packer.
An interview conducted by Hugo Salinas
Last year in Affirmation we put a lot of effort into discussing and exploring LGBT activism. The first question is one of definitions: What's the difference between activism and advocacy?
Activism is doing something; advocacy is speaking out or taking a stand on something. Advocacy is one form of activism, and it may include speaking out, to advocate, for or against a position or topic that affects you directly, or it may be speaking or acting on behalf of someone who is not able to do so effectively for themselves.
When we do advocacy in Affirmation, who is our audience? Church members or leaders? Other LGBT Mormons? Others beyond Mormonism?
All of the above. When we speak to Church members or leaders, we speak for an increase of tolerance, understanding, and Christ-like love, we advocate for the creation of safe spaces within and near the Church for those who are questioning their sexuality, those who are in the process of coming out, and those who are out of the closet but still vulnerable; and we speak out firmly against words and actions that are harmful, hurtful, or worse. When we speak to LGBT Mormons, we encourage coming out, when ready, and enjoying the freedom and liberation of living one's life honesty, proud of being the spirit that a loving God created; we provide a safe shelter, we teach the value of coming together, to support each other and to help those just starting the road that we have traveled, and we take a stand against the proposition that we are in any way less worthy than those unfortunate enough to have been born as heterosexual. Beyond Mormonism, we speak out against those things in the world that have the potential to negatively affect LGBT Mormons and for those things that help to end the hatred and homophobia and for those things that make our world here a little better place; we particularly speak and act on those issues that have a uniquely Mormon facet and on which we, as LGBT Mormons, have a unique perspective or a unique obligation or opportunity.
What do you see as the most urgent areas where we as gay Mormons should be doing advocacy work?
The most urgent is obviously the original impetus for the creation of Affirmation: creating a safe space for LGBT Mormons and making that space available, welcoming, and affirming to as many of our brothers and sisters as possible. We must speak out to end forever both the source and the results of homophobia, we must actively work to end the damage, intentional or not, that has already been done by our church and by our society. We must be ready to praise those who do right and call to task those who do wrong, and we must keep ourselves visible to those who need us. The advocacy work of Affirmation is simply one facet of the CASE for Affirmation which has guided us as summary of our mission statement: Communication, Advocacy, Safe spaces, End the damage.
Last October you and George Cole spent almost 24 hours as homeless people in the streets of San Francisco. How does that project fit into your vision of advocacy?
A major source of youth homelessness in the Intermountain West and Northwest areas of the United States is LDS youth being thrown out onto the street by their families because those who had raised them and were supposed to love them found out that they were gay. By taking on the issue of homelessness, we are able to assist other organizations in dealing with this issue, and they are able to direct a part of their resources toward the specific needs of LDS homelessness. Both George and I were deeply changed by that night we spent living on the street, and as a result, we have an understanding and a passion for this issue that will allow us, and Affirmation, to be able to act and to speak out far more effectively.
Last October you participated, along with HRC president Joe Salmonese and philanthropist Bruce Bastian in a press conference held in Salt Lake City shortly after Boyd K. Packer's infamous general conference speech. What was the goal? What do think was accomplished?
Elder Packer's comments gave comfort to those who would bully, hate, or spread fear, and attempt to do so in the name of their faith. As the president of the Quorum of the Twelve and addressing the Church in General Conference, he spoke on behalf of the LDS Church. Joe, Bruce, the others who joined us at the podium that day, and I, stood up to say that that behavior and that sort of rhetoric was unacceptable to us, to Mormons, to Christians, or to the world. We then backed up what we said with signed statements from over 150,000 individuals from all over the United States. While this act alone will change nothing, it was noticed by the leaders of the LDS Church, and combined with other actions (many led by Affirmation) it will produce tremendous change that will improve the lives of LGBT people, both Mormon and non-Mormon; our Church taught us well that the change, the revelation, the principle, come "line upon line, precept upon precept."
What are, in your opinion, some of the LDS values which should inspire Affirmation's advocacy?
We were each of us, LGBT or not, created as children of Heavenly Parents and sent to this earth as perfect beings, all of us fully worthy. Families, all families, are of prime importance, and the LDS Church was the first major Christian faith to recognize that marriage does not necessarily have to be between one man and one woman. If we love God and we love each other, everything else will fall into place. The great leaders of our faith – Father Lehi, Moses, Jesus, Moroni, Joseph Smith – were most often seen by their contemporaries as outcasts, as standing for something other than the status quo, but each had the courage to listen to the Spirit and then to stand up, speak out, and act. I hope that we can be worthy of their example.
Last month a number of us gathered in Washington, where we learned about faith-based organizations that have recently transitioned from being "sanctuary organizations" to "advocacy organizations." Do you think Affirmation is undergoing a similar transformation?
"Sanctuary" will always be a prime function of Affirmation, and creating "sanctuary" has almost always required a degree of "advocacy." The combination of an expanding and, on LGBT issues, more aggressive LDS Church and a shrinking world with broad instantaneous communication, requires that Affirmation's "advocacy" role be larger and certainly more visible than ever before. Ours is no longer a "Utah church," or even a "Mountain West" church. The actions of both Mormon Church leaders and of Affirmation now affect hundreds of thousands of LGBT Mormons, not to mention LGBT people throughout society, other religions, local and national politics, and society as a whole. It is only through "advocacy" that we are able to create "sanctuary" for most of the people whom we are now called to serve.
What is, or what could be, the role of chapters and individual Affirmation members in advocacy?
It is the individuals who are Affirmation, and the chapters who support them. Individuals must always be willing to speak up for the smaller or weaker or less visible soul who cannot speak for themselves. We must be willing to extend our hand and our experience to our brother or sister. Our chapters must be on the lookout for opportunities to be advocates or for Affirmation as a whole to help them to speak out. They must be willing to help in the creation of new chapters and must become more effective in reaching out and being affirming and welcoming to all within their area who need their help. And more Affirmation members need to stand up to lead their chapters, to form new chapters, and to accept leadership positions on the national or international level. Talking to people about what we know to be true, rejecting established doctrine in favor of seeking a testimony of truth and then sharing it with others – being an advocate – has long been a part of our Mormon culture. As LGBT people from a culture of faith, we are aware of the mission to which we have been called: to reach out, to advocate on behalf of our brothers and sisters, to create the safe spaces that are so badly needed, and to work to end the damage. I call upon you to stand up and to fulfill that mission.