Affirmation Is Our Family
by Buckley Jeppson
Buckley Jeppson (left) with husband Mike Kessler
This is the second in a series of articles featuring the voices of Affirmation. If you are interested in having your voice featured here, please contact Olin Thomas by visiting www.affirmation.org/contact/ex_dir.
I place tremendous value in diversity. It is the reason I moved to Washington DC nearly 20 years ago, and love the city more each day. It is also one of the reasons I love Affirmation so much. We have members from many countries, ethnic groups, sexual minority identities, and cultural backgrounds. Each person brings a rich dish to our huge pot-luck dinner and, if we are open to the variety of experiences, we leave the feast fuller than when we arrived. Throughout this wide diversity we share a connection, however tenuous, to the Mormon Church.
The value of this connection was emphasized by several non-Mormon speakers at the Affirmation Conference in Washington DC in October. While we all acknowledge that our various relationships with the Church are as complex and diverse as Affirmation's own membership, the thread binding us all is a shared heritage that has helped define who we are and what we value. That thread keeps us knit together over time and distance.
One of the things our culture values most is family. Ironically, many of us have been either misunderstood or outright rejected by our biological families. I am inspired by the stories of those who have risen above that rejection and forged their own paths in their own unique ways. In reality, we have all filled the gap by finding and forming our own families. Affirmation is one of those families.
I was raised the oldest of five children in a fine, active LDS family. I spent my teenage years in Southern California, attending early-morning seminary, serving a mission in South America, marrying in the temple, and thoroughly enjoying my church family. The only difference I sensed in my identity was a voracious appetite for learning and a healthy skepticism for everything around me—qualities not shared by everyone. I worked hard on my mission, but I also subscribed to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought at the same time. I read scriptures, but I also memorized works by Marxist Peruvian poets. That I might be gay never crossed my mind growing up. In fact, in those pre-Stonewall days I didn't even know the meaning of the word gay. There was a guy in our high school class of several hundred who wore a bit of makeup and walked funny, but that certainly didn't register with me. I remember reading an article in Time or Life about a raid on a "bar frequented by homosexual men," which showed glaring black and white photos of poofy-haired men in fluffy angora sweaters being handcuffed and trying to cover their faces as they were led to police vans. I wondered what that was all about.
All our lives change with time, of course. Fast forward a few decades. I'm in my second bishopric and my wife of over 25 years—my best friend—and I are planning our separation and worrying how to discuss it with our 14-year-old daughter. I wasn't sure I had the strength to bear that pain, but God blessed our family with peace and with the knowledge that He would watch over us and we would be okay. My tenuous reaching out to Affirmation members also helped me. A few years later, I had formed a strong new family. In 2004, after being together for seven years, my partner Mike and I traveled to Toronto to be legally married. Mike's parents traveled from Florida to join us and act as our witnesses. My daughter and I have remained very close and she and her husband flew to Washington for our informal reception. We now have two perfect grandchildren. Life is good.
My own personal relationship with the Church has not always paralleled that of my relationship with God. As far as we can tell, I was the first openly out gay Mormon to be legally married to his partner of the same sex. Because we live in a city that values diversity, we have always been accepted as equals. Even when my stake leadership tested the limits of my tolerance of institutional duplicity and pig-headedness in a rather public drama, I was always accepted with open arms by members of my inner city ward. Every couple of weeks, when I feel the need to connect with My People, Mike and I quietly slip into the pews for sacrament meeting and sit amongst members from Spain, Togo, Ukraine, and Provo, and I partake of sacrament prepared and passed by "boyz from the 'hood” with white shirts, ties, and Sunday trousers that sometimes sag half-way off their butts. It ain't Salt Lake City, Bro, and I couldn't be happier. These are my people.
Affirmation is also my people: diverse, messy, but big hearted. I'm happy to begin serving my sentence as Affirmation's new membership secretary, following the able service of Aaron Vinck. I hope I am able to bring to the organization a renewed sense of the need to reach out even more to diverse constituencies who need us. As we move into our fourth decade, our mission is every bit as important as it was back in 1977. In order to accomplish our goals, we will need to constantly reaffirm the dignity of every GLBT person with a Mormon background. We are here to support those who are trying to cling to teachings they hold dear while at the same time acknowledge the pain inflicted on others who are disillusioned, angry, or broken. I value Affirmation and I want to embrace all those diverse souls and show, by example, that there is a place for all of us at the great Affirmation family feast. The meal won't be nearly as rich if some stay away because we don't feel at home. Affirmation is, above all, our family.