A Grandfather’s Heart Changed at the Affirmation International Conference
by Dennis Williams
In this article, Dennis Williams, a grandfather of a gay Mormon, shares the deepening understanding wonderful change of heart he experienced while attending the 2017 Affirmation International Conference in Provo, Utah, September 22nd through the 24th, 2017.
In the Western Hemisphere, there probably was no one who knew more gay jokes than I did. I was an expert in the telling of them and never had a problem finding a receptive audience. It seemed I added to my collection daily. It didn’t seem to me that I hurt anyone by the telling; besides, it was all just in fun and everyone laughed at the humor. Growing up I don’t think that I had ever met anyone who was LGBT or that I could even put a name to any of the letters. My jokes seemed to me to be far away from anyone I knew and could not in any way be hurtful. I didn’t think about gay people much. They were just this “far away group” and not very real to me
Then came that “oh so difficult night”, when my daughter drove from her home in Bakersfield to tell us that her oldest child, Jordan, had come out to her and Tom as gay. Through her tears and sobs, we tried to comfort her. I, of all people, did not know what to say. I think I felt it was just a passing phase in this young man’s life. I knew him, and loved him — he just couldn’t be gay. How did he even know what it meant to be gay?? He was only 13 years old. I was in my 60’s and not even sure. We hugged and kissed Wendy and told her everything would be alright. Then we sent her on her way back to Bakersfield — sure in the knowledge we had solved the problem.
As the years went by, Wendy read everything she could get her hands on and spoke to other parents of gay children. She became very knowledgeable and even more understanding; while we, as the rest of the family, went along our merry way, mostly by ignoring the fact that we had a gay family member. I think we seldom spoke about it to each other. When we were with Wendy’s family, we found all kinds of reasons not to bring up the subject.
I think the thing that started to turn things around for me was that Jordan was just such a great kid – everyone loved him. He was so good and kind and fun to be around, so thoughtful of everyone else’s feelings. Wendy had become his biggest advocate and champion and taught us so much. I could agree with her on things because I could see how special Jordan was and how easy it was to love him. But surely, he was unique and not like anyone else in the gay community. I was sure most of my jokes were still on target.
Being as heavily engaged in the Proposition 8 campaign as our family was, I thought the Church was with me and I was able to justify my intolerance. I thought that I could be two different people – one around Jordan and his family and one around everyone else. Wendy kept growing in her knowledge and love for the families and individuals in the LGBT community. She became a “go-to” person for those experiencing the feelings of heartache and loss; especially for those in the LDS community, when they were dealing with what Wendy and her family had experienced years earlier. I am convinced she is responsible for helping and healing many broken hearts and saving many lives of hurting young men and women. What a blessing she has been to them.
Over the years we had received many invitations from Wendy to attend some of the events she was involved in. I always seemed to find a reason not to go – I was too busy, too far away, or any one of a hundred excuses, even though some were legitimate. Anyway, what could I learn that would change my mind or heart? After all, I already loved Jordan. What else did I need? Of all the meetings and the activities that Wendy and her family were involved with over the years to help support their son, the one that she talked about the most was something called Affirmation. She became very involved in this organization and its activities and was even asked to be on the board of directors for this international organization. She loved these people and what they were trying to do in the gay LDS community.
It seemed to me that every time I talked to her about Jordan, I would say something that would hurt her and the family. I would think about what to say way beforehand and try to say something to help her and that I understood her feelings. But because of my shallow understanding and only a surface knowledge of her feelings, all I did was hurt them all over again and drive them further away from me. After about five years, I think that she had had enough of me and my lack of understanding and naïve statements. In desperation, she reached out to my oldest son, Scott, to see if he could convey how hurtful some of the things that I said to her were. I only wanted to make her feel better but failed miserably. I was totally humbled by what Scott shared with me and I called Wendy the next day to try and apologize for the insensitive and hurtful things I had said over the years. She was kind and loving, as always. And most of all, she was forgiving. She invited my wife and me, once again, to attend the Affirmation International Conference in Provo, Utah. This time I said, “YES, of course, we would go!”
As the days got closer, I was a little nervous and apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. I prayed for an open heart and understanding. On the plane to Utah, I kept thinking about what to say to people, how to act. I did not want to hurt Wendy or Jordan in any way. Looking back on it now, I realize how unfounded these fears were.
Sue and I met Wendy, Tom, and Jordan at the convention center — all of us a little tense. We went in and started to meet people and talk to them. Much to my surprise, I started to hear familiar things – like Heavenly Father, testimony, Book of Mormon, hope, and faith. Nearly every time we were introduced to someone, I would reach out to shake hands. But they, in turn, would put their arms around us and gave us a big hug instead.
Everyone knew Wendy and took immense pleasure in telling us how wonderful she was and how she had helped so many. Instead of meeting strangers, I met wonderful people with families like mine — really good people who were warm and gracious. We attended classes, workshops and meetings for “first timers” like us.
As I listened – really listened – to their stories, my heart nearly broke with what some of them had experienced and suffered as a result of being LGBT and trying to stay in the Church. Their stories were filled with the deepest of feelings. Many recounted the events in their lives with half humor and half heartache. So many were trying so hard to live in the open and still be active in the church.
I could actually feel a change come over me. I felt a closeness and warmth towards the remarkable people we met that was both wonderful and surprising. As Sue and I left the conference each day, we marveled at what we were feeling and looked forward to the next days’ events.
Sunday was the most amazing day of the conference. There was to be a testimony meeting held in the large assembly room. It would be a testimony meeting like no other that I had ever attended! As we entered the room I had never felt so much hurt; but, at the same time, so much hope, in all my life. We could feel a special reverence in the building that day as we sang some of my favorite hymns and heard the humble prayers offered. At that moment, it could have been any large church congregation in a stake meeting. But then it changed when Carson Tueller (the young man who was conducting) opened the meeting to testimonies. He asked if family members and friends would refrain from getting up and sharing their feelings; allowing those who are not able to do so in church meetings to have this time. He asked that testimonies be limited to three minutes so as many as possible would have a chance to share their feelings. They had held up signs to remind them. Because there were so many who wanted to speak, he had to get up once again and limit the time to two minutes.
Well – that did it. As I heard sweet, kind people express how much they loved the church and Heavenly Father, there were tears everywhere in the room. Especially from my eyes. I truly had been changed – I have new eyes and a new heart.
Thank you, Wendy. And thank you, Affirmation.