By John Gustav-Wrathall
It’s taken me a while to come down from and process the Affirmation Annual International Conference in Provo. We didn’t know what kind of an impact last year’s LDS Church policy announcement would have on us (the reverberations continue to be felt throughout the Affirmation family). We had around 650 attend over the course of the three-day conference — up significantly over last year’s attendance. Three languages were spoken and a dozen countries represented.
Much more important than the numbers was the spirit of love, comfort and healing that prevailed throughout. Many came to conference grieving. When James Kent presented the memorial moment to remember those we’ve lost in the past year, there was audible weeping, especially among the youth. As people stood up to recognize those they’d known personally, by the end of his presentation, virtually the entire audience was standing. People found arms to embrace them, shoulders to cry on, and a big, diverse, warm “family of choice” to share stories with and learn from.
According to most of the people I’ve heard from, the high point of the conference was our Saturday Evening of Affirmation which centered around “Trans Voices” and “Youth Voices.” The sharing was raw, heartfelt, and transformative, and left few dry eyes. I have never been prouder of our community, or more hopeful about the future.
The youth track had about 70 participants, more than ever in our history, and we were all incredibly grateful to Daniel Parkinson and Jen Blair for their work to foster the “structured chaos” that ensued and that was so life-giving and affirming for our youth. Watching the youth rally around each other, often moving to the margins to embrace a youth standing off to the side was amazing. It brought tears to my eyes to see their determination that NO ONE be on the outside. They are teaching us.
We had affinity groups for women, men, people of color, bi, pan, queer, trans, nonbinary, mixed-orientation families, ace/aro, gay fathers… Hundreds of straight parents, friends, allies and church leaders attended as well, and participated in workshops specifically designed for family and allies. It was great to give Kimberly Anderson a great big hug and to have her talk about her Mama Dragons Story Project.
Workshop attendees were given opportunities to talk about taking the best of their Mormon heritage with them as they move on, or about the joys and challenges of staying active and engaged in the LDS Church and Mormon faith. The workshop track for “faith transitions” was packed, and so was the “claiming our faith” track. There were also workshops on relationships, community building and self-care. There were more “Affirm Talks”! All the feedback I’ve heard was that the workshops were among the best they’ve ever attended at Affirmation.
Of course having my sweet husband Goran Gustav-Wrathall there was the high point for me. People told me how much it meant to them to hear about our 24-year + love affair and marriage from his point of view. (I think y’all enjoyed watching him dance on Saturday night too!) Danny and Mara Kofoed, one participant told me, were “angels” with a life-saving message about believing in and trusting yourself. Mindy and Dustin Gledhill brought stories and songs about compassion and finding your own authentic way forward.
Sara Jade Woodhouse, Augustus Crosby, Bobbee Trans Mooremon, Lee Bobbie, Beth Mikel Ellsworth, Grayson Alexander Moore, Brianna Cluck, and Zoie Young challenged us to move beyond our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender, and moved us with the gripping honesty of their journeys toward wholeness.
Rev. Marian Edmonds Allen shared her testimony of what it means to empower youth. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to Lottie Anne Roberts, Braxton Barham, Kenna Delton, and Kayden Maxwell for their empowering messages, and to all the youth for musical performances that brought me to tears for the entire last half of the evening.
Namaste to Mary Lydia Ryan and Dawni Burton Christensen who brought healing peace through meditation. Emmett Michael at the devotional spoke right from his heart, and right to ours, and I will never forget Jena Lowry Peterson’s message about the importance of “being believed” and of being carried by the love of Jesus. Thomas McConkie delivered a powerful message about “the concrete” vs. “the subtle.” Reality is not everything you see on the surface.
The Unity Gospel Choir brought the Spirit in abundance, and it stayed with us throughout the testimony meeting that followed.
President, Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends