Seattle 2012 Conference Report
With the theme, “Celebrate the Journey,” we discussed the situation of Affirmation, shared our stories and hopes for the future, and celebrated who we are and what we stand for
By Hugo Salinas
Note: Because this conference was held only 10 days ago, we’re still processing pictures, videos, and other materials related to the conference. Please visit the Affirmation website later on for a more complete report.
Over 100 LGBT Mormons, along with family, allies, and friends gathered in Seattle on October 19-21 for the annual conference of Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons. With the theme, “Celebrate the Journey,” we discussed the situation of Affirmation, shared our stories and hopes for the future, and celebrated who we are and what we stand for.
During leadership meetings held on Friday and Saturday, Executive Secretary Olin Thomas presented a report on some of the serious challenges we face as an organization. During the Friday Board meeting and the Saturday leadership meeting, all members were given an opportunity to share their thoughts and hopes for the future. During the General Business meeting, two Affirmation members made statements of candidacy.
On Friday evening, we gathered on the second floor of the hotel for a reception that included an ice-breaking activity, a celebration of the Summer of Mormon Pride, and a plenary presentation by filmmaker Kendall Wilcox. As pictures of some of the summer marches were projected on a screen, Tina and Judy, with a saxophone and a ukulele, led the group in singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“The purpose of Far Between is to infuse the Mormon community with more and better told stories of what it’s like to be LGBTQ and Mormons,” said keynote speaker Kendall Wilcox. The project, Kendall explained, includes some 150 interviews that Kendall has recorded so far and are being posted online. The documentary film, which will be made next year, will include not only some of these stories but also Kendall’s personal story as well as perspectives from history, biology, sociology, and political science. For more information about this project, visit www.farbetweenmovie.com.
On Saturday morning, Mormon Stories founder John Dehlin received the Affirmation Allies Award. “Over the years, John Dehlin’s contributions to Affirmation have been outstanding,” Hugo Salinas explained. After listing some of the contributions made by John over the years, from a detailed survey of over 1,600 LGBT Mormons to the launching of “Circling the Wagons” conferences, Hugo called John “a champion of Mormon diversity, authenticity, and inclusion.”
During the Saturday morning plenary, John Dehlin shared his journey into becoming an LGBTQ ally and discussed some of the research he’s doing about the gay, Mormon, and post-Mormon experience.
“Our data seems to demonstrate pretty clearly that clinging to personal righteousness or the Atonement with the hope that God will take the same-sex attraction away is the surest path to suicidal ideation,” John said.
John explained that LGBT Mormons who spend years or decades asking God to change them often conclude that God doesn’t love them and that life is not worth living. Only 3.6 percent of John’s sample indicated any kind of decrease in their same-sex attraction or any kind of increase in their opposite-sex attraction through their efforts to change. “Zero percent of our sample has indicated that their same-sex attraction has disappeared or gone away,” John pointed out.
The rest of Saturday morning included two sessions of workshops, where a diversity of issues were discussed. Robert Rees, Gary London, and Jared Boundy conducted a workshop in which love was enthroned as a “more excellent way” for LDS families and church leaders dealing with LGBT people. Judy and Randall helped identify our strengths and blessings as LGBT children of God. Kirby Brown, John Gustav-Wrathall, and others shared their experiences working for marriage equality.
John Gustav-Wrathall and Kendall Wilcox suggested practical ideas to create conversations with Church members that help build bridges of understanding. Authors Marty Beaudet and Johnny Townsend spoke about their experiences putting LGBT Mormon stories in writing. LDS therapist Aimee Heffernan spoke about dating and building healthy and happy long-term gay relationships. Michelle Beaver, author of Romney’s Gay America: Mormon Leaders, Same-Sex Rights — Bridging the Gap, spoke about healing the relationship between Mormons and gay rights supporters.
The Council of Chapter Representatives (leadership meeting), which has typically been held on Friday, was moved this year to Saturday to give more people the opportunity to attend. Executive Secretary Olin Thomas reported on some of the challenges our organization faces and the decline we are experiencing in membership and conference attendance. President Joshua Behn invited all participants to speak candidly about their thoughts and feelings for the future. Affirmation founder Paul Mortensen, who attended the meeting, acknowledged that the organization may experience many changes in the future, but urged the leaders to never discontinue the national conferences. The meeting ended with a prayer by James Kent.
After the meeting, some conference-goers walked to a nearby theater where the gay Mormon-themed film The Falls was being screened in connection with the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Festival. Robert Moore and others were invited to participate in a Q&A session after the screening.
“The Falls captures the lives of two American teens struggling to make sense of the conflicts between their worlds, their feelings and each other,” the producers wrote. “What they find in themselves and in each other is unpredictable but a compliment to the human spirit.”
The evening’s events started with the General Business meeting.
Awards, Dance, and the Prom You Never Had
Instead of a banquet, this year we closed Saturday with a reception and a dance. The room was beautifully prepared with decorations and floral arrangements designed by Colby Goddard. Two awards were given that evening. The Matt Price Award, established this year to honor an Affirmation member under the age of 35, was given to Lael Taylor. The Mortensen Award was given to conference chair Fred Bowers.
“In the last year, Fred spent countless hours working for the planning of the Seattle conference,” one of the nomination letters read. “He prepared detailed reports, created online resources, drafted articles for Affinity and The Messenger, prepared a promotional video, wrote hundreds of emails, and communicated by phone and email with thousands of people. He also traveled to Seattle to see the conference hotel. Sometimes he would stay up till 2 or 3 in the morning helping advance different aspects of the conference and trying to make sure that we will have the best conference possible.”
Mark Packer sang two songs: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “The Impossible Dream.” The reception concluded with a dance with music from different decades. It was a wonderful celebration of diversity: we danced, laughed, and celebrated. The reception and dance were a resounding success.
Given the success of last year’s Kirtland pre-devotional testimony meeting, this year we proceeded with a similar format. The testimony meeting was a time to laugh, cry, and share authentic and deeply personal stories. We also had the privilege of hearing Adam White sing.
The devotional was a simple but deeply moving program. The choir sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which many of us remembered from the Kirtland conference, and “Eternal Life” (The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi). James Kent conducted a memorial moment in which we remembered some of those who have passed on. Speakers included Bishop Robert A. Rees and New York chapter co-director Tina Richerson.
“I know it is not just for you to have to respond in this way to an institution and individuals who have treated you in unkind, unjust and, yes, un-Christian ways,” said Bishop Rees, “but if we are to find our way out of the labyrinth we are in, which I think we must do together, it is incumbent upon us all to do what Christ calls us to do.”
“It is through this work that we reform both ourselves and our Church,” he added. “It is in this constant reforming that we prevent both ourselves and the Church from becoming idols. Thus, in order for this to happen, we have to get out of our social and religious ghettos, see one another’s real lives, and try to understand one another’s lived experiences.”
After his speech, Bishop Rees received an Affirmation Allies Award—the second given on that weekend. “The day he finally retires, Bob will be remembered for many things, from his explorations of countless LDS-related issues to his humanitarian service and his interfaith work,” said Senior Vice President Randall Thacker as he delivered the award. “But for us, I believe he will be mostly remembered as a pioneer who challenged the LDS community to treat LGBT people with love and respect.”
The closing devotional speaker was Tina Richerson, who is active in the Affirmation New York Chapter as well as her Park Slope Brooklyn Ward. Tina, who last March shared some of her story at her Relief Society as part of a “Women in Faith” Lecture Series, shared some of her story with all of us. She told us that as she read the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” written by a Tibetan Buddhist monk, she realized that one cannot simply leave their religious roots behind. Tina concluded that eventually she would have to return to the church.
“As Jesus Christ is one with God, we are one with Jesus Christ,” Tina said. “And if that is so, let’s ask ourselves: ‘where do I end, and he begin?’” “We have a mighty work to do,” Tina concluded. “Let our hearts be open, let our hearts be full of love for those who cannot or choose not to love us. Know who you are; stand in your place; fear not, doubt not, for the Lord God is with you.”
We ended the devotional by singing “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.”
The closing luncheon included a panel with BYU students and alumni who are members of USGA (Understanding Same-Gender Attraction), an unofficial BYU group which functions similarly to a gay-straight alliance.
“I see a sea-change happening among Mormons around this issue,” declared John Gustav-Wrathall as he introduced the speakers, “and a deepening of dialogue and understanding .”
Speakers included two current USGA members, Adam White and Nathan Pasquett, and comments by two recent USGA alumni, Nathan Norman and David Schefcik. Q&A followed their presentations.
Before closing the conference, Joshua Behn announced that he will be serving along with Mark Packer as co-director of the 2013 Affirmation conference to be held in Salt Lake City in the University Guesthouse area of the University of Utah.
“If you have a desire to serve, you are called unto the work,” Joshua concluded. “It is the clear sense of this meeting this weekend that we are not to shut down. There will be no more talk of shutting this organization down. We will continue!”
We closed the conference by singing two classic Primary songs and “Love One Another.” Fred Bowers offered the closing prayer.
God be with you till we meet again in 2013 in Salt Lake City.