In 1988, I was thirty years old, lost and confused, and even wishing I were dead. My best friend, who was LDS and straight, invited me to an Affirmation meeting in San Francisco, which was an hour’s drive away.
I remember entering the Metropolitan Church on Castro’s Eureka Street. A full battle was raging inside me. One side said, “Leave now!” and the other side said “Stay!” as I slowly walked up the stairs to the second floor.
When I opened the door, Ron Kershaw said, “Welcome to Affirmation.” And there I was in a room of 31 gay and lesbian Mormons, and realized for the first time that I wasn’t alone…
My friend did not join me in the following weeks, but every Sunday evening I drove up to San Francisco to attend every meeting. It was through the San Francisco Affirmation chapter that I learned about the San Francisco Singles Ward, and its bishop, Stan Roberts, who taught me in Seminary when I was a Freshman in high school in 1972. He had his own mission: No matter your situation, come to Church and you will be welcome. That was very radical in the 1980s.
It was because of Affirmation that I could finally look at myself in the mirror and admit to myself: “This is not a phase, this is your life!” It would take a month for me to admit to my best friend that I was homosexual (I couldn’t use the word gay yet).
When the San Francisco chapter Director, Mel Barber, invited me to attend the 1988 Affirmation Conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in West Hollywood, California, I told him I couldn’t afford the transportation, conference registration of $35, and hotel cost. Mel said to me, “I’m driving down, so there is no transportation cost, and you can share my bed, so there is no lodging cost. You just need to come up with $35 to pay for the conference cost. I could afford $35, so I decided to attend.
I had been out only four months so I pretty much stayed with my San Francisco Affirmation friends, but there were a few from other chapters who reached out to me and made me feel welcome. Little did I realize that they would become lifelong friends.
From time to time I give myself a memory exercise: Name the 28 conferences that you have attended since 1988… The Affirmation Provo Conference, this September 21-24, will be my 29th Affirmation Conference. I do not now what happened to the time, as I joy with the meeting of new friends, and being able to renew friendships going back several decades.
I no longer have issues over being gay (and slightly transgender), or how I relate to my higher power. I look forward to the opportunity to “pay it forward” to the next generation of LDS coming out, be they in their teens, middle aged, or in their 80s.
Over the last four conferences (two in Salt Lake City, and two in Provo) conference attendance has more than tripled to over 600 attendees. Each conference has its own magic and memories, made up by those who attend:
Teenage youth and their “mama dragons,” young adults (some home from their missions), transgender, mixed orientation couples, Gamofites (gay Mormon fathers), straight allies – friends and family, all sharing a common LDS heritage.
If cost is an issue, scholarships are available, particularly if this is your first conference. Find a super-saver airfare and friends to car pool (or take the train) to Provo. Share a room to cut costs. It will be a unique opportunity to learn, share, and make new friends.
Hope to see you in September. Aloha, James.