By Matthew Perry
There was something very right about attending the 2015 Affirmation Millennials Retreat (for LGBT Mormons born in 1980 or later). For a long time, I’ve felt a hunger and a pressure that a lot (if not all) of us feel: hunger to be with similarly queer people, and pressure from being a very small minority. The hunger and the pressure have each grown over the years, and even though they’ve never reached their powerful pre-coming out levels, they still chip away at my wellbeing. And I’m lucky enough to live in a ward where five of us are out and queer! For others, the pressure can be worse and the hunger can be stronger.
I told myself I would go if I could, and my schedule sorted itself out, so I found myself carpooling up to Brighton with a couple of other attendees.
Forty-two people RSVPed. With the exception of a couple of speakers, we were all queer and open about it, unashamed and unafraid. It generated a feeling that past conference attendees can recognize: no one is afraid of anyone else or their reactions; no one worries about passing; no one worries that they’re broken. When we found the cabin, went in, and began to mingle with the early arrivers, everyone was light and enthusiastic. Meeting so many new people gave me butterflies, but I was lucky to have two of my fellow ward members come with me—a solid base to reach out from—and from the first few conversations in the lodge’s common room, the hunger lost its edge and the pressure began to lift.
After dinner that first day, one panel discussions wrestled with how to be authentic with our childhood families and how, if necessary, to shelter ourselves from their reactions. (This panel was full of painful memories.) Another explored how some of our group have begun building their own families through stable, committed relationships. (This panel was full of sappy cuteness.) The juxtaposition of sorrow and joy made them both stand out stronger.
We all welcomed Kendall Wilcox for the last portion of the night. He spoke with a refreshing respect for evidence about how the data drawn from his documentary work led to Circles of Empathy. We briefly explored the concept of Circles as a way for people to come to know themselves and to develop empathy for others. (I later heard plans from several people to start Circles of their own.) For me, it was also a simple pleasure to finally put a face to a name I’ve seen around the internet for years, and I was delighted to learn how funny he is.
The second day, we enjoyed the crisp, sunny weather by hiking into the mountains behind the lodge, through snow, and up to a half-frozen lake. We spread out and talked about anything and everything, from missions and universities to cruise ships and crushes. When we got to the lake, we took simple pleasure in throwing stones into it, and cheering on other visitors doing the same.
The beautiful setting produced a beautiful calm for our discussion and Q&A about the trans experience in and out of Affirmation. I suspect I wasn’t the only member of the group who had never met an out trans person before, and Grayson, with a cultivated unflappableness, fielded question after question. I enjoyed the chance to learn from him and hear his experience, and I look forward to meeting more trans millennials at the next retreat.
Everyone who didn’t get sunburned at the lake got sunburned shortly thereafter. We gathered at a mini amphitheater to listen to the Mackintosh parents’ story of coming to accept and understand their gay son’s worldview. They gave an honest voice to a perspective that I appreciated. It was easy, listening to them, to imagine what my own parents might have felt; it was easier to have charity for them.
For me, the highest highlight of the weekend was Tom Christofferson’s session on the second evening. I’d never heard him speak before, and I knew only the bullet points of his story: brother to an apostle; recently returned to the church. He had us steer the conversation, and I held on to two points in particular that give me hope for my own spiritual evolution: First, he suggested that a person’s willingness to pray with us might be as important as their physical attractiveness; second, he affirmed that doubt and uncertainty and second-guessing may always be present, whatever choice you make. We should choose anyway.
Like Tom, I am recently returned to church activity, and at times I’ve wondered whether there is a place for me among Affirmation’s brilliant collection of voices, lives, and experiences. Over the course of the Millennials Retreat, I felt a powerful new sense of belonging. Affirmation is for me, too.