Wasatch Affirmation: Our Story
By John-Charles Duffy
Though Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons had its genesis in Salt
Lake, the organization's national "headquarters" shifted to the L.A. area
when Paul Mortensen took charge. Even so, the Salt Lake chapter – which
came to be known as Wasatch Affirmation – remained important, given its
location in the heart of Mormondom. In a region where most gays and lesbians
come from Mormon backgrounds, and in a culture that emphasizes looking
first to one's own people for help, Wasatch Affirmation has served as
many Utahns' first tentative contact with the gay/lesbian community. Until
very recently, Wasatch Affirmation was the only organization offering support to gay/lesbian
Mormons. Indeed, for many years, Wasatch Affirmation was the one of the only organizations
offering support to gay/lesbian Utahns period, predating institutions
the Utah gay/lesbian community now takes for granted: the Utah Stonewall
Center, the Human Rights Coalition, the Utah AIDS Foundation.
As a result, Wasatch Affirmation has been called on to serve a variety of needs over its 20-year history. How the organization has gone about meeting those needs has changed somewhat over time. It is difficult to trace a pattern in these changes, because new chapter leaders are elected yearly, and because the organization's membership changes almost entirely every few years as different people pass in and out of it. Many of the people who seek out Wasatch Affirmation characterize themselves as "moving out" of Mormonism and find the organization useful as a "stepping stone" to a new, non- Mormon identity. They therefore participate in the organization for a time and then move on. This makes continuity of development very difficult for the organization – and perhaps unnecessary.
Still, some general trends in the organization's development can be traced, however broadly or imprecisely. In the early 80s, Wasatch Affirmation served chiefly as a social group, a place where gays and lesbians from Mormon backgrounds could mingle. At a time when ecclesiastical authorities counseled their homosexual members against such interaction, social gatherings such as potlucks or swimming parties became a way of affirming the value of a gay Mormon community.
As the 80s progressed, that community focused more heavily on its ability to offer support to its members. Meetings became more structured; guest speakers were invited; discussion groups were held; coming out issues received special attention. As the AIDS epidemic incited public panic, WA took on the responsibility of educating gay/lesbian Mormons about the disease (this, again, before the founding of such organizations as the Utah Aids Foundation). Some people came to Wasatch Affirmation with alcohol and drug abuse problems, the result of an "I'm damned anyway, let's do it all" mentality during their coming out. Chapter leaders sometimes found themselves called on to provide suicide intervention.
Because Wasatch Affirmation was listed in the Gay Yellow Pages, chapter leaders even found themselves being contacted by the LDS Church. One chapter director received a phone call from a missionary in the field, seeking information. Another time, a Church disciplinary council asked Wasatch Affirmation to make contact with a suicidal gay man they'd just excommunicated. During 1987-88, the chapter communicated with an LDS official over homosexual concerns, who was surprisingly – and, as it turned out, prematurely – optimistic about the possibility of Church support for Wasatch Affirmation, for instance, allowing the chapter to meet in an LDS chapel (rather than the First Unitarian Church. Meetings are now held in the Stonewall Center). In the 90s, Wasatch Affirmation has continued to focus on providing both social interaction and support for gay/lesbian Mormons. In addition, it has given new attention to spirituality, inaugurating traditions like the semi-annual mission reunion and fireside held since April l 992, a sort of modern-day "Lectures on Faith" series provided by religious writer Michael Chase, or a monthly spiritual discussion group launched in January of this year. The 90s have also seen heightened concern for lesbian representation in the organization. In 1992, Wasatch Affirmation's first lesbian co-director was elected; in 1997, for the first time in its history, both Wasatch Affirmation's co-directors are lesbian. Women's Outreach, as well as Youth Outreach, are new chapter priorities. In at least one regard, though, there has been no change since Wasatch Affirmation's founding in 1977: the organization still aims to end the isolation, rootlessness, depression, and self-loathing which lead so many gay/lesbian Mormons, youth especially, to suicide.