By John Gustav-Wrathall, Senior Vice President, Affirmation
Last weekend, I was in Mexico City for another regional Affirmation conference. Like the last Mexico City conference in February of this year, this conference was unapologetically religious, with a heavy focus on applying principles of LDS faith in our lives as L, G, B or T people. Knowing that this would be the case was a major motivation for me to devote precious time and financial resources to making a second trip to Mexico in one year. I feel there is a lot that we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Mexico.
It’s not that the conference consisted only of spiritually oriented activities. Saturday evening I participated in what was possibly the funnest party I have attended in my life. As the dance began to the beat of Mexican salsa, some of the older married couples, devout Mormon parents of gay kids, led the way onto the dance floor, followed by other conference attendees. The floor soon filled with same-sex and opposite-sex dance pairs. I felt an overwhelming desire to join them, and in a reversal of our usual way of being at a dance, I begged Göran to join me on the dance floor while he hesitated and then acceded. Coupled dancing soon turned to group dancing, in lines, in circles, and in quadrilaterals! Individuals who hadn’t joined in yet soon found themselves being pulled onto the dance floor by the hand. “Ven! Ven!” “Come on! Join us!”
I’m not particularly good on my feet, so I usually avoid group dances with complicated steps. I was watching a group dance when someone grabbed me by the hand and pulled me in. I tried dancing along, but every time I managed to get one or two steps right, the group would bob and turn and start moving in a different direction. I would step on someone’s foot (or be stepped on) or bump someone (or be bumped) because I was moving in the wrong direction (or was not moving when I was supposed to be moving)! But dancers around me helped me out by giving a signal to show me which way to move when it was time to change direction or, better yet, by gently guiding me with a reassuring hand on my shoulder or arm. People smiled or laughed with me at my missteps. Not embarrassing, just part of the fun of the dance! Eventually, to my surprise I found rhythm entering my steps; I found myself anticipating changes of direction and joining in the sweet harmony of the dance, even as the pace crescendoed. The dance finally ended in laughter and hugs, as the music changed and energy shifted in a new direction.
I’m not usually the kind to stay long at dances. I stay as long as I must to be polite (or to humor Göran) and then slip quietly away at the first convenience. I tried to do that at this dance. I actually said a few goodbyes at about 10 o’clock. But the gravitational pull of the dance was greater than our desire to leave. We ended up staying till after midnight! That was the power of community last weekend. Love is a centripetal force, always drawing us back into the dance circle, whatever centrifugal forces pull us away.
Family members and friends of LGBT Mormons attended the entire conference (including the social events). Cesar Carreon, the individual who has been coordinating the development of a new Spanish-language website for Affirmation was accompanied by his parents, his brother Miguel and his brother’s fiancée, his boyfriend, and a close female friend who bore a lovely testimony at the conference. Saturday after the main conference sessions and before the dance, we went on group tours of the Soumaya/Jumex art museums. Once everyone had tired of the museum tours we sat down on the steps in front of the Soumaya, relaxing, chatting, joking and taking selfies and pictures of each other. Miguel and his fiancée were curious about Göran’s and my “friendship rings,” plain silver bands we exchanged with each other as a kind of “engagement ring,” engraved with Icelandic runes. They were curious about what the Icelandic meant, so I translated into Spanish for them: “Yo pienso a tí, te amo… Tu piensas a mí, me amas” (“I think of thee, I love thee… You think of me, you love me”). The rings struck a chord with Miguel. He was thinking perhaps about his fiancée and about their feelings for one another; or perhaps thinking about his gay younger brother, and his hopes for his happiness. Or perhaps he was thinking about what he knew of me and Göran. He had asked how long Göran and I had been together as a couple, and I had told him we’d just celebrated our twenty-second anniversary. Whatever he was thinking, tears filled his eyes and tumbled down his cheeks. It was a tender, unexpected moment of connection.
The weekend was filled with these kinds of moments of sharing, such as when Alejandro Alcántara asked me questions about our relationship with our foster son Glen, and shared his yearning for family and parenthood. I had a series of conversations with another young man who has only come out to close friends within the last year. He wants a relationship with someone he feels a deep connection to, which he has gradually realized needs to be another man. But he was afraid of the impact that seeking a relationship will have on his relationships with family. He loves the Church, but after coming out to his bishop, his bishop responded by withdrawing opportunities for service in the Church, and he feels increasingly alienated from his ward. As it has become increasingly apparent to him that the fulfillment of his deep yearning for relationship would likely lead to some definitive break in the form of excommunication or disfellowshiping, he has found it increasingly hard to pray, to study the scriptures, or to do much beyond going through the motions in his church attendance. It is difficult for him not to see rejection by the Church as a kind of rejection by God. And in the midst of these painful emotions, he worries about his ability to find the kind of relationship he yearns for, even if he felt free to pursue it. This is an almost universal stage in the typical gay Mormon spiritual journey, and it is one of the darkest and most difficult.
The only honest thing I could tell this young man was that he could only find answers on his own, for himself. I could not advise him. I could make him no promises about what his future holds. The only thing I could honestly offer him was my conviction that he had within him the power to find his own personal path of happiness. And I could honestly commit to be his friend, to listen to him, love him and support him, whatever lay ahead. (As a post script, I was recently contacted by this young man who told me of how, partly as a result of the conference, he took the leap of faith of coming out to a close family member, and he was excited about how loving and accepting the response of this family member was, and how coming out and experiencing acceptance renewed his faith as a Latter-day Saint!)
This young man was very much in my mind and heart as I shared my testimony at the end of the conference, during our Sunday morning testimony meeting. I said, “I am grateful that at this conference we have been able to reflect on the principles that will bring us closer to our Heavenly Father and to discern his voice in our lives and to choose the good. I want to share my testimony that God exists, that he is our Heavenly Father. I know that Jesus Christ lives, that he is the creator of the world and our redeemer, and that all power is in his hands. I know that the Church is true, and I am grateful for it, for offering us so many opportunities to serve and love our neighbor. I love the Church, I love you, and I am grateful for all of you.”
Others stood and bore their testimonies, sharing unique stories and unique struggles and concerns, reflecting diverse experience, diverse choices, and diverse places in their journeys. Family members and friends added their testimonies to the testimonies of the LGBT Mormons who stood up. Time after time, the testimonies ended with words that are so familiar (too familiar?) to Latter-day Saints: “I know God lives and loves me.” “I know the Book of Mormon is true.” “I know the Church is true.”
Were these words merely formulaic? Were they just shared because those are the words that Latter-day Saints are supposed to share? Were they words intended to affirm a shared identity, a shared community, but empty beyond that? Or did they reflect some authentic knowing of something real? Did they point us, in other words, merely toward other Latter-day Saints, toward each other, toward the community? Or did they point beyond us, to God? Did they merely reinforce some kind of communal conformity, or did they offer the possibility of transcendence?
I had shared my own version of these words, though I hadn’t shared the struggles and heartache, the personal struggle with despair and doubt, and then the movement of the Spirit that literally has saved me on more occasion than one, the divine hand reaching down to grasp mine and lift me up. I could have shared specific experiences, my own personal vision of the Savior, in which he gave me those words that “all power is in my hands.” I could have shared stories of the personal transformation I’ve experienced as a result of following specific promptings of the Spirit. But I did not. I shared only the distillation, that affirmation that “I know God lives. I know the Church is true.”
There is a reason that LGBT Mormon testimony meetings are so powerful. It is because we have had to wade through rivers of doubt and climb mountains of rejection to know what we know. When we choose to put Gospel principles to the test, we must fight gravity, push against the current.
I can’t speak for others, though I know enough of the life stories of other LGBT Mormons who have this kind of testimony to know that they are not bowing to convention. Quite the contrary. I can speak for myself and say that I know whence my salvation comes. And I know that while it comes to me in community, it does not come from community, but from God who draws us to him, who draws us into the dance, most often through others, but always for his transcendent purposes. There is a life beyond this life, and Christ is the way that leads to it.
Speaking for myself, I can say why those affirmations, even stripped down to that minimalistic expression in the form of “I know that…” are so important. It is because what I “know” has changed my life. It is because it has been a light to me. It is because my faith in God has given me life-changing hope, and because my commitment to the Church has taught me life-giving love. It’s what makes it possible for me to affirm to those who are struggling that they can make it through, and to promise them that I will be there for them.