Affirmation 2009 Conference Report
The View from Here Is Beautiful
Report of Affirmation's annual conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, September 18-20, 2009
By James Kent & Hugo Salinas
Traveling from 19 states of the Union, Washington D.C., and Canada, some 200 GLBT Mormons, along with partners, family, and supportive friends, gathered at Salt Lake City's historic Fort Douglas on September 18-20 for the annual conference of Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons.
The conference was marked by outstanding music, from the Friday evening concert by Jason & deMarco to the Sunday devotional, with a choir's rendition of "The View from Here" composed especially for the conference. The event was also marked by the participation of an army of supportive allies—from Mary and Peter Danzig, who provided much of the music, to Emily and Carol Lynn Pearson, who share their experiences and insights, to the parents of Family Fellowship, who sponsored a Sunday afternoon forum.
Staring at 2:00 PM on Friday, the Council of Chapter Representatives discussed Affirmation's goals and challenges and heard a presentation by Ann Craig, of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).The Conference opened officially at 6:00 PM with a buffet-style dinner. Using the University of Utah campus shuttles, we made it to the Libby Gardner Concert Hall, at the other end of the campus, for a concert by pop Christian singers (and real life partners) Jason Warner and deMarco DeCiccio, better known as Jason & deMarco.
At the Gardner Concert Hall, the audience was delighted to receive a welcome by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who is working to wipe out discrimination against gays and lesbians in Utah's capital city.
Salt Lake's own singer/songwriter Kevin Jacobson opened for Jason and deMarco. While many artists within Christian music tend to direct their ministries outward, Kevin continues to feel a special burden for those who already have a relationship with Christ. "I have such a heart for the people who grew up in church because we take it for granted," says Kevin. "I feel that I need to encourage people who are hurting or who have been hurt or maybe don't always trust Christians in general." Kevin's backup singers were Steven Gray, Jon Berry, Mike Green, and Greg Irwin.
Jason and de Marco inspired and entertained us with their beautiful songs and amazing vocal talent. Among the songs were, "Imagine," "I Can See Clearly Now, "You Raise Me Up," and "Bridge over Troubled Water." The highlight of the evening occurred when Jason stepped down from the stage, walked to the row where Mark Packer was sitting, serenaded him, and gave him a kiss. The explanation: It was Mark's birthday!
The Saturday events started at 6:30 AM, when several brave souls joined Brian Bennington and Sara Jordan for a yoga class. (The class was repeated on Sunday at 9:00 AM).
The speaker at the Saturday morning plenary was Marie Soderburg, a Colorado listening consultant who works with contextual language. Marie called on Tyler, who was sitting in the audience, and asked him to share his dream with us. His dream is to open up a music center for underprivileged children, he said, a project which would take many years to be realized. Marie then called on members of the audience and set up a support group to help him achieve his goal years ahead of schedule. She then asked us to turn to the persons next to us and share with them a dream or goal we have never shared before with someone else.
The Saturday workshops were a vehicle for sharing many personal experiences and exploring a wide range of issues. Joan & Bill Atkinson, the parents of a gay son and a lesbian daughter, spoke about their journey as active Latter-day Saints who recently served a mission as a couple. Clay Essig explained how a correct understanding of the gospel supports, rather than condemns, our identity as GLBT children of God. A workshop for lesbians looked at the messages Mormon women receive from their mothers and other influential women about sexuality and spirituality.
Emily Pearson, the daughter of a gay man and the former wife of another, reported on the spiritual answers she has obtained to her questions about homosexuality. Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn spoke about homosexuality in ancient history. Lisa Diamond, author of the 2008 book Sexual Fluidity, spoke about her 13-year longitudinal study of 100 lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and unlabeled women tracking changes in their sexual identities, attractions, and behaviors over time. Lars Hansen moderated a panel presented by children of gay fathers. Connell O'Donovan explored the anti-Communist panic of the 1930s-50s, which culminated in the McCarthy era. LeAnn Jones, a licensed clinical social worker, described some of the challenges facing transgender people, including coming out to family and friends and making choices regarding transitioning.
Saturday Luncheon, Afternoon Workshops
During lunch, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby was the keynote speaker. Kirby made us laugh to tears as he recounted anecdotes from his days as a police officer and read from some of the letters he received in his long career as a humor columnist. "It's hard to hate a person if that person makes you laugh," says Kirby. "And even if a person disagrees with you, they will be more inclined to hear what you have to say."
After lunch, we watched Voicings, a moving new film by Stephen Williams. Stephen, who a few years back gave us Blessing, depicts in his new movie one night in the life of Douglas Smith, a married, closeted gay Mormon who is living a double life.
"A few years ago I attended the funeral of a dear friend who had died suddenly of a heart attack," explained Stephen. "The chapel was packed. My friend had been deeply religious, beloved by his community, a devoted husband and father. As I listened to the glowing eulogies, a strong sense of irony began to wash over me. I realized that none of these people knew anything regarding the other side of his life: the furtive sex in public bathrooms, the self-recrimination and depression, the suicidal thoughts. The funeral haunted me for weeks. I finally decided to write about my friend's life, partly as therapy for myself."
If you're interested in screening Voicings, or purchasing your own copy, visit www.VoicingsMovie.com. The film can also be watched on YouTube.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed several additional workshops: Stephen Williams did a Q&A about his new film Voicings. Chad Hardy spoke about his experience being excommunicated for releasing a calendar that features shirtless returned missionaries. Members of www.LDSApology.org spoke about some of the actions they are carrying out in support of GLBT people in Utah and in the Church.
The Writing Awards, which this year recognized writing in non-fiction and editorial writing, honored several entries. Awards on non-fiction writing went to Mary England (1st Prize, "Dear Friends"), Christian Cooper (2nd Prize, "Glory in My Infirmities"), and Ezra Horn (3rd Prize, "I Hate You"). An award on editorial writing went to James Kent ("Two Demons"). Affirmation also awarded an honorable mention to David Baker ("Why I Won't Serve a Mission") and George Cole ("Come Out to Your Ward") for their postings on YouTube—a relatively new medium which can help us speak up, share with others our experience as GLBT Mormons, and change hearts and minds.
The Michael Farr Award, which was established in 1997 by the Gamofites (Gay Mormon Fathers) to recognize outstanding leadership and service among their members, went this year to Paul Tinker, who unfortunately was not able to attend the banquet. Bob Olsen presented the award and Larry Mann accepted it on Paul's behalf.
Hugo Salinas recognized some of the Mormons who spoke courageously in favor of marriage equality at the time when the LDS Church was asking members to help write discrimination into California's constitution. Nadine Hansen, Cheryl Nunn, Janeen Thompson, Linda and Steve Stay, and Mary and Peter Danzig were recognized for their efforts in promoting equality and received a standing ovation.
Millie and Gary Watts, well-known to Affirmation members for their support of GLBT people, stood up and gave an emotional tribute to Kathryn and Robert Steffensen, from Salt Lake City. The parents of a gay son, Erik, the Steffensens are co-founders of Family Fellowship and supporters of a number of organizations, from P-FLAG to the Pride Center of Utah. Fifth-generation Mormons, Robert and Kathryn have helped organize conferences on homosexuality which have been held at the University of Utah starting in 1993. They have spoken in many forums in support of GLBT people and done remarkable work in educating their family, friends, and neighbors about GLBT issues. In the 1990s, when they decided to "come out" to their ward and neighbors as the parents of a gay son, they prepared a 30-page educational packet which they shared by the thousands.
Kathryn and Robert were then invited to the podium, where David Melson presented them with the Affirmation Allies Award. Kathryn and Robert shared with the audience some of the journey which took them to accept Erik and become advocates for the acceptance of GLBT people. The award was all the more meaningful since Erik and several Family Fellowship leaders and friends were there to witness the tribute.
The Mortensen Award, Affirmation's highest honor, was then presented. The nominees were George Cole, Bruce Maughan, David Melson, and Carlos Mitchell. The award went this year to David Melson, of Silver Spring, Maryland. David has wide experience serving Affirmation both at the local and national levels. In 2004 he became director of the Washington DC Chapter. In 2006 he chaired a memorable annual conference with speakers of the stature of Gene Robinson, Matt Foreman, Harry Knox, and Carol Lynn Pearson.
Since becoming a member of the executive committee in 2008, David has used his talents in engaging with both Affirmation members and leaders of the LDS Church. David put together a new team of young people in positions of leadership and worked tirelessly in the area of public relations. Since becoming executive director, David established The Affirmation Messenger, a combination of editorial column, executive report, and bulletin board which every week reaches 475 Affirmation members and friends. He also held two successful cornerstones, one of which was the first cornerstone in our organization's history with a focus on GLBT Mormons under the age of 30.
One of the nomination letters read: "Dave Melson knows that every Affirmation member is a missionary, and ultimately his strength lies in his conviction that, as he has written, 'the greatest gift that the Lord had given [him] was to be sent here in this day as a gay man.' Whether in testimony meeting at his home ward, in an Affinity editorial, or at a press conference, Dave inspires everyone to envision the spiritual impact that Affirmation is having --and can further have-- on people's lives."
In his brief acceptance speech, Dave said that his secret is to "find good people to do the job," and mentioned the names of some of those who have supported him since he became director of the Washington DC Chapter in 2004.
During dinner we enjoyed violin, guitar, and dulcimer music by Peter and Mary Danzig. After the dinner, the Danzigs continued to delight and entertain us with folk and ballad music, including the hilarious "I'm Building A Bomb for Jesus."
This evening's keynote speaker was renowned Mormon poet and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson. Speaking of the push in several states for marriage equality, Carol Lynn said that "there is no stopping a movement for full recognition of gay people, because it's a correct step, as was the ending of the slave trade; a correct step, as was giving women the right to vote; and so many socially conscious moves that we the human family have been able to make."
Despite the role of the Church in fighting against marriage equality, Carol Lynn said that she remains optimistic about the future—even about the attitudes and actions of the LDS Church and its members. "There are good things happening, in perhaps unsuspected places that we don't even know about, where people are doing some thinking, and some planning, and some insistence that we are going to trade much of our fear for love, and simply take the radical step... of putting away our judgment, bringing out our love and remembering that whatever we do it to everyone, including our gay family members or neighbors, we do it also to Christ."
Carlo Lynn encouraged us to follow the trail of joy, to choose to shine, and to refuse to destroy our own beauty. Said Carol Lynn: "It is your obligation as a human being to let whatever it is that is your own true beauty be out as far as you can let it be out."
Reading from her book No More Goodbyes, Carol Lynn finished her remarks with the image of a rescue party being organized to bring from the plains those who have been caught in a fierce winter of fear, rejection, and misunderstanding. "I ask you to fill your wagons, fill them with courage, with forgiveness, with patience, with exemplary behavior, and with unwavering insistence that we can, we must, and we will move to higher ground."
For the rest of the evening, we were entertained by Junior Hubrich, a returned missionary who has been playing the accordion since he was 14. Junior amazed us with his talent and delighted us with his humor, which included the re-writing of several traditional church hymns into polkas.
Sunday Morning Events
On Sunday morning, a group carpooled to Temple Square for Music and the Spoken Word. Lloyd D. Newell read a message that seemed to be written especially for us. Said Newell, "The willingness to make the best of an unexpected condition, the desire to keep focused on strengths and goals, to find balance, to move forward with confidence may be signs that we are adjusting, growing, and learning. Startling changes caused Alice to struggle with the caterpillar's question, 'Who are you?' But if we are willing to accept and learn from them, life's changes can actually help us see who we really are."
We then walked to the Post Theater for the Sunday devotional. The program included readings from the 7th chapter of Moroni and the fifth chapter of Matthew, and we sang "All Creatures of Our God and King" and "Lord, I Would Follow Thee."
Carol Lynn Pearson recounted an experience she had in 1987 when she was commissioned to write, for the new Primary songbook, the lyrics of a song inviting children to be kind and loving towards those who are different. Carl Lynn explained that as she wrote, she had in mind not only children who may be disabled or autistic, but also children who would grow up and discover themselves to be gay. With Scott R. Green-Mills as accompanist, Carol Lynn Pearson directed the Affirmation Chorus and the audience in singing "I'll Walk with You."
The main devotional speakers were Linda and Steve Stay, from St. George, Utah. The Stays met eight years ago, merging the families they had had with previous spouses. Shortly after they met, Linda told Steve: "I have a gay son and I'm okay with it, which freaks a lot of people out." Steve said he was cool with it, if she was, and six weeks later they tied the knot.
At about the same time Linda met Steve, her son Spencer Jones, a returned missionary, met Tyler Barrick, and the gay couple have also been together ever since. Last year, when Spencer and Tyler decided to marry in California, Linda and Steve became activists, writing signs in support of their gay children, attending rallies, and speaking out in favor of marriage equality. They also supported Tyler and Spencer when St. George's Spectrum refused to publish the wedding announcement unless they removed the picture.
"We're so grateful Spencer's sexual orientation wasn't an issue for us," said Steve during the devotional. "We were able to dive in and enjoy their lives. We later found out that we have a daughter who is gay as well, but we don't see them as gay. It's just not an issue. We love them. They are no different than our seven straight children."
After the presentation by the Stays, the Affirmation Chorus sang, "The View from Here," a moving and inspiring song with words and music that David Naylor wrote especially for the conference. Per tradition, the devotional closed with everyone singing "God Be With You Til We Meet Again" in a beautiful arrangement with string accompaniment by Mary and Peter Danzig.
The keynote speaker was Carl Sciortino, a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives representing Somerville and Medford in the Boston metropolitan area. George Cole explained to us that they met when Rep. Sciortino went to California to support marriage equality during the struggle against Proposition 8.
Sciortino urged us to share our stories with others. "We need to share our stories," he said, "to make sure that people know that not just before the eyes of the state, but also before the eyes of God, we are equal citizens, we are equal human beings, all created in God's image and likeness."
"We need to share ours stories to make sure that our friends and family who are not there yet get there with us," Carl concluded. "I want to encourage you to keep doing the work you're doing. Push yourselves outside your comfort zone and have the conversations we're not always able to have. I know that through our storytelling and our fellowship here and outside this room, in the end we will win, and that the view from here is absolutely wonderful, full of hope and progress, and absolutely fabulous."
After Rep. Sciortino's remarks, we moved into a general business session in which we were asked to vote on a proposed amendment to Section 3 of the Affirmation bylaws. We stood, voted by a show of hands, and the proposed amendment was passed. The amendment simplifies the requirements to be a chapter and is intended to encourage Affirmation groups to gain and maintain their status as chapters.
David Melson then announced his candidacy for executive director in 2010. A formal declaration of candidacy will be published in the November issue of Affinity.
Members of the San Francisco Chapter came to the podium and announced that the 2010 Affirmation conference will be held over Columbus Day Weekend, October 8-10, 2010, in beautiful San Francisco. The theme is "Stand Up!" and our host hotel will be the stunning Westin Market Street Hotel in downtown San Francisco.
Sunday Afternoon Events
Although some had to fly back home in the afternoon, others stayed for two afternoon events. The first one was a reading of Borderlands, a play by BYU professor Eric Samuelsen. The reading was staged by the Plan-B Theatre Company, directed by Jerry Rapier.
"I wrote a play about coming out," explained Samuelsen. "Not just coming out in the usual sense -- in fact, in Borderlands, the one gay character is already out. It's a play about all the other ways we come out as Mormons, about admitting that we don't necessarily believe what we're supposed to believe, or that we don't always find it possible to live the way we're expected to live. It's a play about moments of unanticipated honesty, and the revelations that result. And it's a play about the hard work of carving out a social space for those for whom none exists in Mormon culture."
Later we attended an event sponsored by Family Fellowship at the Post Theater. Titled, "A Tribute to Our Children," the event included, with the help of a Power Point presentation, tributes to 14 gays and lesbians whose parents are proud to say, "My child is gay."
Affirmation is indebted to the team who made this conference possible: David Nielson (conference chair), Mark Packer (registration), Scott Green-Mills (Sunday devotional), Mike Green-Mills (directory), Duane Jennings, Brian Bennington, Morgan Smith (fundraising), Tyler Kofoed (Sunday devotional choir), Kevin Jacobson (conference brochures and fliers), and an army of volunteers who contributed their time, money, and creativity.
Shortly after the conference, chair David Nielson sent a thank-you note to his committee and all those who attended the event. "Thank you to those who came, sometimes with arm-twisting, sometimes kicking and screaming," David wrote. "The greatest contributions were made by those who thought they had nothing to contribute. Thank you for being touched, moved, inspired by the music and speakers. Thank you for having fun. Thank you for partying and dancing and clapping and singing. Thank you for having your lives changed. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your love."