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LGBT, Straight Latter-day Saints Gather in Chicago

Affirmation members Brooke Wardle (left) and Devan Hite helped plan the event with Stake President Gary Blakely
Affirmation members Brooke Wardle (left) and Devan Hite helped plan the event with Stake President Gary Blakely

Stake President Promotes Difficult but Faith-building Conversation

by Devan Hite, coordinator for Affirmation Chicago

Brooke Wardle, secretary of Affirmation Chicago, approached me during the fall of 2012 to inquire about hosting a special dialogue between straight Mormons and those who identify as LGBTQ/SSA around the question of what it means to be an ally. We discussed the proposal with other members of Affirmation. The motion was quickly approved, and we began arranging the details.

As we began discussions with local Church leaders, they were reluctant to grant us permission to use a meetinghouse, due to the fact that we were presenting our dialogue as an Affirmation event. In order to have the dialogue in an LDS church, and to secure the attendance of Mormon leadership in the area, we decided to disassociate the dialogue from Affirmation and organize it as simply a conversation among concerned members of the Church.

“You’re Missing the Empathy”

A total of twenty-five people were present at the March 24 dialogue. Twenty-three self-identified as Mormon; eight as LGBTQ (no one identified as strictly SSA), and seventeen as straight. Brooke and I set it as our goal to facilitate an emotionally-safe event, which simultaneously encouraged authenticity.

Just prior to the event, as Brooke and I auditioned a handful of clips from the website, we noticed that a participant who had arrived early to help set up was struggling emotionally with its contents, simultaneously expressing her anxiety and rage, while holding back tears. Her struggle was certainly something that I could identify and empathize with, as I had a similar reaction the first time I viewed the website. However, this also added to my anxiety, as I anticipated the force of how her reaction might affect the dialogue.

As our group assembled, Chicago Stake President Gary Blakely warmly welcomed those in attendance and turned the time over to me to conduct the proceedings. We began singing the children’s hymn titled “I Am a Child of God,” which was followed by a prayer, offered by President Blakely. I then presented part of a narrative I had gathered from an interview with Kendall Wilcox a week earlier in Utah. Kendall tells of the experience coming to terms with his sexuality through the course of a relationship with another male Mormon. Kendall described how his inner turmoil led him to a breakthrough moment:

I actually went to southern Utah to the place that I was going to take my life.… I went down there and went up on the mountain and had what I felt was my final conversation with God, saying, this is how I feel, this is my justification, why I don’t feel hope internally/externally. I don’t see any tenable options…. But, I said, if I’m missing something… let me know. And this feeling, prompting, voice—whatever it is—said, ‘you’re missing the empathy.’…

I concluded Kendall’s story for our group and reflected on the possibility that, for some in this room, dialoguing with us, our ability to empathize may be a matter of life and death. We followed this with an exercise that would help inspire empathic responses for one another, and then broke up into small groups to discuss a series of questions geared toward building common ground among participants.

Dallin Oaks and Jamison Manwaring Clips

After a five-minute break we reconvened as a large group and viewed the video clips. The first was of Elder Dallin Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Dallin Oaks is the highest ranking member of the Church to be featured on the MormonsAndGays.org website. Concerning the issue of same-gender attraction in the Church, Elder Oaks comments:

There is so much we don’t understand about this subject, that we’d do well to stay close to what we know from the revealed word of God. What we do know is that the doctrine of the church, that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married, has not changed and is not changing. But what is changing and what needs to change is to help our own members and families understand how to deal with same gender attraction.

We followed this by featuring a testimony of Jamison Manwaring, his “coming out” video, which one can find on YouTube. The testimony is titled “I’m Gay, Mormon, and have a bright future.” Jamison takes us through his history of feeling attracted to men through adolescence, his two-year missionary experience, his engagement with Church authorities, the nature of exploring his dating/marital options, his experience with therapy, and coming out to family and friends. Reflecting on how he might go forward, Jamison says:

I can’t imagine living a life, where I don’t have the opportunity to really fall in love with somebody, and to share a life with them. I’m glad that I live in a time that things are different. I’m heartened by the changes my Church has made in its acceptance of gay people. Although, there are still some conflicts, I feel welcome in my ward, and I plan to attend Church and be active in my religion for the rest of my life. I love my religion. I’ve given years to fulfill its mission and to serve its members. I look forward to being a part of a Church that accepts me, even if I’m gay.

Pain, Frustration–and Hopes for the Future

What ensued was a very hearty discussion, where points of view from many sides of the issue were expressed and engaged in a safe forum that promoted faith, acceptance, and continued discussion. The following day (March 25), offering an assessment of the dialogue, John Gustav-Wrathall posted the following on Facebook (excerpt):

There were very frank expressions of pain and frustration. Straight participants were invited to share their observations (which took some courage, I think!). Some of the LGBT individuals present were invited to share with the group why they had left the Church and/or found it difficult to come back. Some of us also shared how and why we chose to stay connected to the Church. We all talked about our hopes for the future.

On the same Facebook thread, Kevin Kloosterman remarked, “The Spirit was so strong there,” observing how the evening as a whole was “an incredible event.” Beth Ellsworth, another participant, posted on Facebook:

This was a beautiful evening. All were truly working at creating Zion together. Space was made and held for authentic expressions of both pain and joy. You can’t bear one another’s burdens unless you feel truly free to share those burdens. [We were] invited… to be vulnerable with each other and to truly share our experiences, including the pain.

During our dialogue participants were free to entertain hopes that did not necessarily fit within the constraints of the Church’s official policies, which added to the authenticity referred to above.

President Blakely’s participation in the dialogue touched a few, as well. That is, both Kevin and John noted the way in which they were moved by his empathic, supportive, and inspired presence. John writes,

What was most moving to me was the participation of Devan and Brooke’s stake president, who set the tone of openness, listening and empathy, and who helped close the meeting by reminding us of the Great Commandment and speaking of his commitment to keep these conversations going.

It was essential to have President and Sister Blakely’s company. Latter-day Saints rarely take seriously activities in the Church that do not feature its leadership. Furthermore, both served as objects of hope for those bisexual, lesbian and gay Mormons present, as well as effectual objects for one’s process of working through pain, loss, hopelessness, anger/rage, and so forth. The large group dialogue lasted for about an hour and a half. We closed with another children’s hymn, “Teach Me to Walk in the Light of His Love,” followed by a prayer.

Dialogues Should Continue

The consensus of those who gave me feedback after the event was that the evening was productive and that the dialogues should continue. One attendee responded, by saying “I felt the evening was miraculous,” with the observation, “I felt a spirit of love and empathy and peace in the room.” One of our straight-identifying participants remarked:

I was quite impressed and touched by the spiritual strength of the members who are faithful and continue to be active in the church despite huge challenges, inner conflicts, and potential cruelty. The strength of their testimonies of the gospel is inspiring.

All agreed that the event was a faith-building exercise. Most of the responses from our straight-identifying attendees mention the desire to better understand the issues and experiences of LGBTQ/SSA Mormons.

As of early April, President and Sister Blakely, Brooke, and I have been in conversation about applying the model we utilized for this dialogue to a series of others. Furthermore, we are exploring ways that we might deepen the space, so as to encourage even more authentic discussion. The next dialogue is scheduled for sometime in the summer of 2013.

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