By Cameron Kirton
The date, 19th June 2015. The place, Imperial College London. The reason, Affirmation’s first conference in Europe. The theme: BE FOUND. It has been a long time coming. Within Europe there has been an ever developing network of LGBTQ Mormons, Families and Friends who up to this point could only interact with one another via social networking. The European conference provided an opportunity to put faces to names and connect stories to people.
Walking into the classroom that would serve as the venue for the meeting I was greeted by a whole host of smiling and welcoming faces. There was a slight air of apprehension as people weighed up the situation and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. After a short period of small talk we took our seats in the round and the meeting began. What was meant to be a quick breaking the ice, get to know you session became a full 2 hours of people sharing their stories, opening up to complete strangers about who they were and what had brought them to the conference. The generic looking class room had ceased to be a place where physics was taught during term time. It had become a safe space. How amazing to sit in a room with courageous, humble and loving people.
I had arrived having no real concept of what to expect. No real concept of who else would be there. However, I left that first night with a new found concept of who I was, and why Affirmation is such a vital organisation to its members.
The morning of the second day began with talks by Kit Fotheringham and John Gustav-Wrathall about resolving conflicts regarding sexuality and faith. The talks were followed by workshops. The first workshop, “Issues in Mental Health and Physical Health for LGBT People” was delivered by Justin and Neil. Justin focussed on the physical health aspects and Neil the mental health. I found both areas to be highly educational. It struck me as odd to be hearing about sexual health and being able to feel the spirit in the room, but it was undeniably present. Neil introduced a TED talk about the power of vulnerability. I am so thankful for Neil bringing this talk with him as it absolutely struck a chord with all in the room. We learnt that in our most vulnerable moments, those are the times in which we can often find our greatest strength. That vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. This fit perfectly with the theme of the conference in “Be Found”. The ideas of vulnerability were then linked to the concept of shame. We learnt that Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, whereas guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is I am bad, guilt is I did something bad. These words echoed around our safe space. I think they touched all of our hearts as we realised that so many of us hold on to shame in our lives, believing ourselves to be lesser human beings for a whole host of reasons. But ultimately it was because we felt shame. This workshop urged us to throw off our shackles of shame, and learn to be vulnerable and present, and in being so be strong.
I lead the following workshop, entitled “Finding Strength in Sharing Your Story”. The transition from the previous workshop into this one was almost seamless in respect of the topics it would now touch upon. The idea of being vulnerable reared its head again. In order to share your personal stories with others, it takes a level of vulnerability. The workshop worked through the many different avenues we have at our disposal these days to share with one another. From the written word, to photography, to vocalisation. The modern world has given us many tools to take our truths not only to our communities but around the world. The workshop enabled participants to open up a dialogue with one another and further get to know who these beautiful souls attending the conference were.
After concluding the workshops, some time was allotted in the program for ‘Personal Time’. For many of us this meant taking a big group stroll through Hyde Park. We had only known each other for less than 24 hours, but we already felt as though we’d be firm friends for life. If I was to be honest, the people at the conference had become to feel like members of my own family. That isn’t an experience you have too many times in life, where complete strangers come to mean something to you in such a short space of time. We continued to talk and share with each other as the stroll progressed and I marveled at the wondrously kind spirits I was having the privilege of sharing my weekend with.
The final session on day two commenced with a touching musical number from a some of the conference attendees that set the tone perfectly for the evening. It was now time for our key note speakers to address the conference: Wendy and Tom Montgomery. These two became surrogate mother and father to us all over the weekend and it was great to be able to hear them speak. They shared with us a short documentary that their family had been the subject of, “Families are Forever”. In the documentary we find out how they set about supporting and loving their gay son, amidst the seemingly harsh rhetoric of the church and many of its members. The documentary had me in tears on several occasions, but mainly because at it’s core it is just about two parents loving their child. Wendy said it herself, that their story shouldn’t be seen as remarkable, but at this moment in time it comes across that way because the church and its members have a long way to go to be a source of support for its LGBTQ members. I would urge all to see this documentary if they have the opportunity. The question and answer session that followed again filled my heart with the spirit of the Lord. I was touched by the questions from the people in the room who are living their own struggles to find their place within God’s graces. Something that I hadn’t given much credence to before, was the fact that our struggles are the same as other peoples struggles in this respect. We just have different obstacles in our paths but we all ultimately want the same thing. To find happiness and peace in our lives.
The second day had come to a close and there was only a half day left. The time had come and gone so quickly. Surely it can’t have passed by so fast. It dawned on me that I was a day away from having to say goodbye to these people, not knowing when I might see them again and it was hard not to shed a tear at the prospect. Though, we had one more morning to spend together and to feel of each others love.
The third and final day was a Testimony and Spiritual Story sharing meeting. I can’t write about this section at any length because whenever I think back to it my eyes become blurry as tears form which makes it hard to type. What I can say is that never have I witnessed such beautiful vulnerability. With each word uttered I received revelation that God indeed loves everyone of his children. That no matter what their path in life, He is there with them every step of the way. It was a tranquil testifying from the spirit that I was where I was meant to be that weekend. That as a collective we were all important to one another and important to Him.
Returning back to reality after the conference I had a lot of friends ask me how the conference went, and the only way I could describe it was as life changing. It sounded a little glib to be saying such things, perhaps a little melodramatic, but it’s true. On a personal note, I can view parts of my life as Pre-Conference and Post Conference. The person that walked into that physics classroom on the Friday night was not the same guy that left the safe space on Sunday afternoon.
The theme of the conference was Be Found and what I found was that there amazing LGBTQ people out there that want to know their Heavenly Father; that want to live joyous lives; and want to be part of the discussion with the church about fostering a better understanding of all God’s children.