Affirmation 2007 Conference Report
Prepared by James Kent and Hugo Salinas
"A More Perfect Union”
Coming from 28 states, Canada, and Europe, nearly 200 celebrated their legacy as gay and lesbian Mormons at the national conference held this year in Washington, DC. The theme of the conference was "A More Perfect Union."
"You can take that to mean whatever union you can imagine in your life," wrote Conference chair David Melson regarding the theme, "—be it our nation, our society, our church, our biological families, or the new families that we are forming in our lives. Each of us, simply by virtue of who we are, are the promise of a more perfect union unfolding before us each day."
Held in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Washington DC, the conference featured renowned writers, activists, and Affirmation supporters and friends. Speakers included V. Gene Robinson, first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, writer Carol Lynn Pearson, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Matt Foreman, PFLAG parents Lani and Robert Graves, and legally married spouses Michael Kessler and Buckley Jeppson.
During the Friday opening session, Buck Jeppson welcomed the audience and shared informative and amusing information about the Washington DC area and its LDS history. Sergeant Brett Parson shared experiences as the commanding officer for the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department. The DC Cowboys Dance Company treated us with a sizzling performance, and gay Mormon playwright and actor Steven Fales shared elements of his one-man play Mormon American Princess.
During the Saturday morning session, Episcopal Bishop Robinson gave us an intimate account of some of the behind-the-scenes events surrounding his historic consecration. He received death threats, and his diocese spent $ 100,000 on security. Robinson attended the consecration ceremony escorted by a bodyguard and wearing a bullet-proof vest under his habit. The organizers also planned for an alternative secret venue where Robinson and some of the other bishops were to be whisked away in case they suffered—and survived—an attempt on their lives during the public ceremony.
||Read more about Bishop Robinson's participation in the conference in the Washington Blade
Robinson shared with us some of his favorite scriptures, including the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). He told us that the story is not really the parable of the Prodigal Son but rather the parable of the Forgiving Father who receives the wandering child back into his arms. And it's also the Parable of the Jealous Brother, who cannot understand or accept the love that the Father still feels towards the Prodigal Son.
"You are not going to hell," Bishop Robinson told the crowd. "Your are going back to the God that created you and has loved you from the moment you were conceived. God loves the fact that you are gay, loves your relationships."
"Your mission is for the whole world," he added, "to witness to a God who has loved you and accepted you and helped you to be who you are."
The Saturday workshops included educators, authors, and activists. Among them, three gay Mormon students spoke about their experiences joining Soulforce's Equality Ride and touring a number of colleges across the US that discriminate against GLBT students. Matt Kulisch, Emil Pohling, and Mike Cramer participated in the 2007 Ride which included a demonstration at Brigham Young University. Haven Herrin and Jarrett Lucas, leaders in Soulforce's Young Adult Activism program, also joined the discussion and answered questions from the audience.
Bridget Foster, the founder of the Safe Space Campaign, explored the feasibility and ramifications of staying in or leaving the LDS Church. Ruby and Chris, from the Whitman-Walker Clinic, spoke about LGBT health issues. Bill Russell, a professor at Graceland University, spoke about homosexuality in the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). In an interview with PFLAG mom Lani Graves, Carol Lynn Pearson spoke about her most recent book, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones and took questions from the audience.
Later the audience heard Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, accidental activists who became the lead plaintiffs in Maryland's marriage equality lawsuit. The issue of marriage equality was also touched upon by Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland. Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer and columnist for National Journal magazine in Washington and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, discussed his latest book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.
At lunchtime, some 54 gay Mormon fathers (Gamofites), their partners, and friends joined the 11th Annual Gamofite Luncheon held at the Dubliner Irish Pub on Capitol Street. The 44 Gamofites in the room could count among them seventy children and 54 grandchildren. The Michael Farr Award, which honors one person of outstanding leadership and service, was given this year to Lars Hansen of Salt Lake City.
In the afternoon some attendees took a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building, while others visited the American Indian Museum. Another group stayed in the hotel and watched Anyone and Everyone, a new documentary featuring Lani and Robert Graves along with their gay son Robert Jr.
The Mortensen Award, Affirmation's highest honor, is presented each year at our annual conference to an individual who has served Affirmation in outstanding leadership and service. This year's nominees were Brian Benington, Alyson Bolles, Jason Giles, Buckley Jeppson, Dave Melson, Carlos Mitchell, James D. Westwood, Aaron Vinck, and James Morris. The award went to Aaron Vinck and James Morris, life partners and longtime Affirmation leaders.
"This year's recipient is actually two halves that form a perfect whole," said James Kent as he presented the award. "They are indeed a dynamic duo. They have attended every annual conference since the Portland Conference of 1998."
"[James] has been the longest continuing active member of their chapter. He is a gifted fine artist, as well as being a creative caterer. He makes those around him completely at ease with his warm smile and sense of humor. [Aaron] is a master of detail. He is very kind, generous, patient and caring to those in his chapter, and to those making inquiries regarding Affirmation. He keeps his chapter members connected to each other, as well as keeping the membership records of every member of Affirmation in the United States and worldwide. He is a champion of respecting the privacy and confidentiality of everyone he comes in contact with—providing Affirmation members a safe space to just be themselves."
"Some people are here just temporarily, and some people are here for the long term," said James Morris as he accepted the award along with his partner Aaron. "A long time ago, I thought I was going to come to Affirmation for a 'quick fix,' and find out how to expedite my excommunication, but I met someone who was wiser than myself—Ron Kershaw. He gave me a sense of empowerment that I had never experienced as a gay man. I determined then than I was going to be here for the long haul. Whatever it takes, I want to be here to help."
During the Awards Banquet, poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson received a special award for her contributions in promoting understanding, love, and acceptance. "Carol Lynn has magnified her God-given calling to foster acceptance, build bridges, and promote understanding," said Hugo Salinas as he presented the award. "She has touched the lives of thousands."
Carol Lynn told the audience that after a recent performance of her play Facing East, she was asked her opinion about gay theology. Carol Lynn responded by quoting a passage of the New Testament that says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8,16).
"Wherever in a heterosexual relationship you find love, there you find God," Carol Lynn added. "If that love is real, and true, and selfless, there you find God. And similarly, in a homosexual relationship, where you find love that is real, true, honorable love, there you find God."
"That's all I know about [gay] theology," Carol Lynn added, "and that to me is all I really need to know, because I base my assessments of institutions and of relationships on that."
The Awards Banquet also included a speech by Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. As a child, Matt lived in Magna, Utah, and as the only white "gentile" in his class, he learned at an early age what it means to be a minority.
"We need to say over and over again to ourselves and everyone we know that we [GLBT people] are, yes indeed, created in God's own image and likeness," said Matt, "—that we are, like our Founders said, endowed by our Creator with the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This to me means, 'Stop running away from morality and moral values, but instead seize them and go on the offensive with them on a daily basis.'"
Will Gartshore, one of Washington DC's preeminent musical theater performers, delighted the audience with a repertoire specially tailored for us. Will sang a few lines from the hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints": "We'll find the place which God for us prepared,/ Far away in the West./ Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;/ There the Saints will be blessed." Then he identified the connection between those lyrics and the song "Somewhere," from the musical West Side Story: "There's a place for us,/ Somewhere a place for us…/ We'll find a new way of living,/ We'll find a way of forgiving,/ Somewhere."
Andrew Evans, Lani and Robert Graves, Carol Lynn Pearson, Buckley Jeppson, and Michael Kessler were the devotional speakers. James Kent gave a brief tribute to some of the Affirmation members and friends who have passed on. Tyler Clark gave a beautiful rendition of Handel's "Thanks Be to God" and "Comfort Ye / Ev'ry Valley." We sang "Come, Come Ye Saints," "Beacons of Truth," and "God Be with You 'Til We Meet Again."
Days after being featured in the Washington Blade, Andrew Evans spoke about the bonds that unite him to his partner Brian and the painful decision he was forced to make four years ago at the time of his excommunication. "The church is more concerned about appearances," said Andrew. "In my 'court of love' they weren't concerned about my sins, but about the fact that Brian and I were living openly as a couple and I would refer to him as my spouse."
"I was given a choice," he added, "—either to leave him and all would be forgiven, or to be excommunicated. And I'm so grateful for what the Church has taught me—to choose the right. When they gave me that choice, I thought about the engagement ring that I had given Brian, which was the CTR ring I had worn during my mission. I made the right choice, and I was excommunicated."
"I have a testimony of our Savior's love and the gospel—meaning our Savior's love. Nobody can own that. The Church does not own the gospel. The gospel is only something we can share. And I'm grateful that this weekend I have been able to share with you. I'm grateful for the love that we have and extremely grateful for my partner. Brian, I love you and I'm so grateful for you."
Brunch, Trip to Mt. Vernon
During the Sunday brunch, Olin Thomas announced his candidacy for one more year as Affirmation's executive director. Ricky Gilbert, chair of next year's Affirmation Conference, announced that the event will be held in Los Angeles, California, October 10-12, 2008. Ricky explained that in wedding anniversaries, the 30th year is the anniversary of pearls, hence the theme of next year's conference: "A Pearl of Great Price." The first meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of Affirmation was held roughly thirty years ago in January 1978. Through the influence and leadership of the L.A. Chapter, a permanent national organization was soon established.
Harry Knox, Director of the Human Right's Campaign's Religion and Faith Program, was the featured speaker during brunch. "We need to encourage LGBT people, and maybe more importantly our allies, our family members and friends and co-workers who are people of faith, to use faith language in advocacy, in talking about political issues in the language that people on Capitol Hill understand." He added that we, as Mormons, know the religious language of the Latter-day Saints and need to use that language effectively when we speak to Mormon legislators and the Mormon community.
In the afternoon, we climbed into chartered buses and rode 16 miles south to George Washington's Estate in Mount Vernon. After watching an introductory movie, the group scattered in all directions as we strolled though the gardens, hiked the trails, visited the historic buildings, and toured the state-of-the-art museum.
God be with you 'til we meet again. Next year we will meet in Los Angeles to celebrate 30 years of Affirmation.