2013 Conference Report
by John D. Gustav-Wrathall
The 2013 Affirmation Conference, held September 13-15, was one of the best attended in the history of the organization, with over 400 attending the “Evening of Affirmation” Saturday night, and 270 registered attendees participating in a variety of plenary talks, workshops, panels, luncheons and service projects.
The conference attracted unprecedented numbers of straight allies, and in many cases entire families attended together with their LGBT children and siblings. Wendy Williams Montgomery, mother of a gay teen who is featured with her family in the Family Acceptance Project’s Families Are Forever documentary wrote of her family’s participation in the conference:
I am at a loss for words. I cannot adequately describe the past 4 days. Moments I will never forget. My cup was filled to overflowing. The outpouring of God’s Spirit and the love of dear friends, brothers and sisters in the gospel – gay and straight – was truly some of the most powerful I have EVER felt. There was deep truth, rock solid faith, moving testimonies and Christ’s love shared in abundance.
Seeing two of my children (one gay, one straight) having the time of their lives, dancing, playing with joyful abandon, being allowed to be “normal” teenagers – free to say whatever is on their mind, without fear of judgment or attack from people who don’t understand them. How they need these moments! This was yet another blessing from this weekend – watching Jordan free, uninhibited and radiant.
The conference featured voices from across the full spectrum of LGBT Mormon experience. Benji Schwimmer spoke Friday evening, for instance, of his internalization of the best values from his Mormon upbringing even though he no longer has a desire for affiliation with the LDS Church. Gay former Mormon Daniel Parkinson stressed in his Saturday afternoon luncheon presentation that he no longer affiliates with the LDS Church, but as a therapist supports the choice of LGBT Mormons to engage with their faith and takes an interest in LGBT Mormon religious experience. However, this year’s Affirmation conference placed greater than ever emphasis on affirmation not only one’s sexuality but also their faith, and featured the voices of many LDS LGBT individuals who choose to stay connected with their Mormon faith and/or are active in the Church.
The first night of the conference, the documentary Families are Forever, featuring the family of Tom and Wendy Montgomery, was presented. The Montgomery’s were present with their gay teenage son Jordan. In the documentary, Tom and Wendy posed the painful, poignant question: Is there a future for our son in the Church? What is Heavenly Father’s plan for his gay sons and daughters? An Affirmation Allies Award was presented to Caitlin Ryan, the film’s producer and LGBT Catholic who has taken a strong interest in the experience of LGBT Mormons. A new award, the Tree of Life Award, was presented to the documentary itself as “the best recent book, article, film, play or other creative/expressive material that presents authentic LGBT Mormon stories to the world, that gives us voice and portrays our lives in the complexity and totality of who we are as spiritual, moral, emotional, relational and physical beings.” A $1,000 grant to assist in the distribution of the documentary was also awarded.
At the Friday evening event, after a moving rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee,” Benji Schwimmer spoke of his journey as a gay Mormon, and then transitioned to the Friday night Affirmation social by teaching dance moves to conference participants!
Our sages were there, those who over decades of faithful witness have believed in us when no one else would, when even we had a difficult time believing in ourselves. Saturday morning, Carol Lynn Pearson, who has spent decades lovingly witnessing, hearing and telling and retelling our stories, bore us testimony of our story as she has observed it. We were not unworthy, undeserving and excommunicate. We were heroes. We — reluctantly or not — had accepted a call, faced our darkest demons, recovered the elixir of life, and were now called to return to our tribe to share with them the healing that both we and they most desperately needed.
The strong interest of conference registrants in exploring the challenges and blessings of Church activity was demonstrated in the fact that the workshop with the highest participation – about 120 participants – was the workshop entitled “Restoring our Relationships with the Restored Gospel and Church.” Conference organizers scheduled the workshop twice in one of the large meeting spaces. Both sessions were held for standing-room-only crowds, and many of the participants stayed for both sessions of the workshop. Bob Rees, another of our mentors spoke compellingly of how the principle of restoration could operate in the lives of LGBT Mormons, healing injury and repairing brokenness. Sam Noble, Ellen Koester, Tina Richerson and I shared insights from our experience staying connected to the Church or returning to the Church. Workshop attendees were invited to share their own stories of restoration. The stories revealed pain that was still raw, but also a deep yearning for faith and connection.
A panel on transgender Mormon experience featured the stories and testimonies of transgender Mormons Sara Jade Woodhouse and Grayson Moore, and Grayson’s mother Neca Allgood. Other panels/workshops included “Growing Up LGBT in America” (with HRC’s Ann E. Nicoll and Sharon Groves); “Follow Your Heart: Breaking Through Stereotypes and Confronting Shame, a Guide in Being a Fearless Lesbian Mormon” (with Tina Richerson, Hollie Hancock, Berta Marquez, Kim Mack, Anna Empey and Amy Larson); “Circles of Empathy” (with Kendall Wilcox of the Far Between Project); the “LDS Family Fellowship” panel (with Kathryn Steffenson and the Abhau family, Oviatt family and the Weyman family); a panel on “Spiritual Partnerships” (with Karin Hendricks and Tawyna Smith); “ Building Local Communities for LDS LGBT/SSA Individuals, Family and Friends” (with Bryan Hendrickson and Bryce Cook); a BYU USGA panel (with Adam White, Keith Trottier and others); and “Healing Our Spiritual Selves” (with Karin Hendricks, Tawnya Smith and Alaina Hendricks).
Saturday Lunch and Afternoon
In the afternoon, there was a family/parents discussion group with the Montgomerys, Abhaus, Weymanns, and Oviatts.
Saturday’s luncheon featured Daniel Parkinson’s presentation of a montage of testimonies of LGBT Mormons who had, at the end of deep heartache, often on the verge of suicide, turned to God and been rewarded with powerful personal assurances of divine acceptance and approval. Saturday afternoon, conference participants had the opportunity to participate in three service projects: assembling resource packets at a local LGBT community center; preparing care packages for homeless youth; and making quilts for babies in a pre-natal unit.
The spiritual story sharing and testimony meeting, this year held Saturday evening to a standing-room-only crowd, was filled with raw authenticity, belief and hope rendered all the more poignant by honest admissions of doubt. In one testimony a man wept as he told of an experience in which God healed shattering self-hate. Peter Van Der Walt, who had traveled all the way from South Africa, reduced many of us to tears as he told of how he had read the Book of Mormon with the intention to prove the absurdity of religion, and had come away with a testimony of God.
At the “Evening of Affirmation” Saturday night, the Affirmation Choir performed a moving rendition of “Consider the Lilies.” Judy Finch, featured on the MormonsAndGays.org website, told the story of how her understanding unfolded through decades of wrestling to come to terms with the homosexuality of a son and a grandson. Benji Schwimmer performed a moving dance number. Steve Young used an analogy of faith that LGBT Mormons could relate to when he described the experience of “throwing blind,” striving for a goal that you can’t see. His wife Barb Young spoke passionately about the pain caused by Proposition 8, and the story of a heterosexual LDS friend of hers whose life and understanding were transformed by the forgiveness of her lesbian next-door neighbors. Randall Thacker, Affirmation President, presented the Young’s with the second “Allies Award” to be presented at the conference, in recognition of their outspoken support for the LGBT community and their philanthropic support of LGBT homeless youth.
The Youngs stayed afterwards to talk informally with conference participants. Conference participants then remained for refreshments and fellowship that continued till after midnight.
Sunday morning, almost 100 conference participants gathered at 8:30 at the Tabernacle in Temple Square for a live performance of Music and the Spoken Word by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the very end of the presentation, Lloyd D. Newell, the “spoken word” narrator, announced the presence of Affirmation members and invited us to stand to the applause of all gathered.
The final luncheon was graced by the singing of the One Voice Choir, and talks by Robin Linkhart of the Community of Christ’s Quorum of the Seventy, Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges spoke about loving and knowing. Erika and other Mormons Building Bridges Steering Committee members then received the third and final “Allies Award.” Ricky Gilbert presented Randall Thacker with the 27th Mortensen Award in recognition of his community building and organizational skills used to strengthen Affirmation both locally in the Washington DC chapter, and at the international level.
Affirmation received unprecedented media coverage for this conference, in media sources as varied as the Salt Lake Tribune, the Washington Post, Wonkette, Fox 13 News, KUTV, On Top Magazine, the Christian News Network, Advocate.com, and the Deseret News.
In my personal blog describing my experiences at the conference, I wrote, “Affirmation experienced a kind of rebirth this weekend. We’ve gone back to Affirmation’s roots, to the hopes and dreams of Affirmation’s founders in the 1970s that LGBT Mormons might find faith, hope, and love against all odds in a Church that denied the possibility of gay Mormon virtue. We’ve gone back to the roots of our faith as Latter-day Saints, blossomed from the yearning of a 14-year-old farm boy for wisdom greater than that he possessed, who dared to ‘ask of God.’”
It was amazing to experience this rebirth with a host of allies and friends, with people across the LGBT Mormon spectrum, including bisexual, gay, transgender and lesbian Mormons, including people of all abilities and ages, from teens to old age. As a result of the conference, Affirmation is experiencing an influx of new members and energy, which we hope will continue to carry us forward in the important work we have ahead of us.