John D. Gustav-Wrathall, President, Affirmation
Delivered at the Affirmation Donor Dinner, Salt Lake City, UT, April 1, 2016
Occasionally I am asked a question about Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends. Sometimes the question is asked by someone who is a devout LDS believer in relation to those who no longer believe. Sometimes it is asked by ex-Mormons about those who believe. The question is: “Why don’t those people leave us be and go form their own organization?”
I understand why people ask that question. I have learned that, depending on how you position yourself at any given moment in relation to the LDS faith or the LDS Church, the kinds of activities you find life-sustaining and compelling will be very different. The language you use to talk about yourself and your journey through life will be very different. And very often, the language that makes sense, and the activities that are most life-sustaining and compelling to a person who is an active, believing Mormon trigger emotional pain for those who have left the Church. Very often, the language that makes sense, and the activities that are most life-sustaining and compelling to a person who has left the Church and no longer believes leave believers feeling sad, empty and unfulfilled. People on both sides of the Church/faith divide often experience varying degrees of alienation, disconnect, boredom, frustration and annoyance when confronted with the values of folks on the other side of the divide.
The intensity of that divide dramatically increased after the unveiling of the LDS Church’s new policy on gay families in November 2015.
People who had left the Church and no longer believed saw the policy as definitive proof that the Church will never change its views on sexuality and gender. They saw the policy as a declaration of war on the LGBT community, as a sign that Mormons (or at least their leaders, and those who supported the leaders) were hateful and bigoted. They saw the policy as the ultimate validation of their decision to leave the Church and reject the Mormon belief system. A fair number of believing and active LGBT Mormons and allies were convinced by the policy that there was no place for them in the Church any more and that a Church that could institute such a policy could not be guided by revelation or by Christ-like compassion, and have since left as well.
I at one point wondered if any more than a small handful of out LGBT Mormons would remain in the Church after the policy. Over the months since the policy I have reached out to as many LGBT individuals I knew to be active in the Church as I could, and have asked them, “How are you doing? Are you still going to church?” I have been astonished to learn that the vast majority of these individuals still believed and remained active in the Church. All struggled because of the policy. Many have had compelling spiritual experiences that reassured them and gave them hope. Many have witnessed an outpouring of love from members and leaders of the Church, and have witnessed growing numbers of Mormons who were disillusioned by the policy and were asking hard questions about it. And many are more determined than ever to claim their faith and their Church, and not to let anybody deny them their identity as followers of Christ or participants in what Dieter F. Uchtdorf has called the “ongoing process of the Restoration.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Are You Sleeping through the Restoration,” April 2014 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
LGBT Mormons, in other words, still exist on both sides of the Church/faith divide, even as the new policy has seemed to dramatically widen the gulf between them. LGBT Mormon believers are more determined than ever to hold to their faith, come hell or high water. LGBT ex-Mormons find belief or allegiance to the Church more impossible and more incomprehensible than ever. So it may seem more natural than ever to ask if everyone wouldn’t be better off if there were two separate organizations. There are definitely moments when it feels to me, as president of Affirmation, that that would make things so much easier.
But for reasons that I find more compelling than ever, I believe that far from making things better or easier for everybody concerned, a schism would make things far worse for everybody. It would make any successor organization or organizations far less helpful or useful or capable of serving, strengthening and saving the lives of LGBT Mormons. The truth is that we need each other.
It’s no secret that I am one of those LGBT Mormons on the church side of the divide. So I want to start by telling you why I as a testimony-bearing, believing gay Mormon need you who are truly done with the LDS Church. Then I want to discuss what I think those of us who still believe have to offer those of you who don’t. And finally I want to reflect on the synergies that occur when we all work together, and on the ways we are of far greater service as a united community than we can possibly be when we are disunited.
So I want to talk very personally and specifically to my fellow believing LGBT Mormons. I was on the ex-Mormon side of the divide for 19 years. In terms of my development and growth as a human being and as a person of faith, this was the most important and in many ways most sacred time of my life. It was during those years away from the Church that I was able to come out of the closet and come to a place of self acceptance. It was during that time that I dated, that I learned very important lessons about my sexuality, met my husband of the past 23 years, and we married and established a life and a home together. The most important lessons I’ve learned in life I have learned through that relationship. Mostly it taught me the discipline that true love requires. It taught me that true love learns to let go of what we want and put ahead instead what our significant other needs.
The most important elements of that time in my life were the element of freedom and the element of an unfettered search for the truth. There is a purifying aspect of freedom and of doubt. If we don’t have the freedom to ask any question, no matter how uncomfortable, we will never have the confidence that our answers are really the true answers. Doubt, my fellow believers, is actually a gift that allows us to sort truth from error by scrutinizing every truth claim.
These elements of freedom and skepticism are the core difference between Affirmation and other groups like Evergreen and North Star that have sought to serve the LGBT Mormon population. These other organizations have a valid role, but they have claimed to have the answers in advance. They know what the answers to our problems are, and their goal is to help us live that. Our goal, Affirmation’s goal, is to provide an unconditionally loving community where you can find your own answers.
I have occasionally heard the fear expressed by individuals who were questioning or experiencing doubt in relation to their Mormon beliefs that they might no longer be welcome at Affirmation if they were to cross that divide from belief into doubt. Nothing would more effectively undermine Affirmation’s mission, its goals and its values than that. We need those questions. We need those doubts. We need a community whose core value is freedom and the unfettered search for truth. We demonstrate our commitment to those values by welcoming and including all who want to participate in Affirmation without respect to their specific religious beliefs or church affiliation. You are not merely welcome in Affirmation if you do not believe, you are needed in Affirmation. Your experience, your hopes, your dreams, your love, your life are needed in Affirmation, in order to help all of us question and dream and sort out truth from error.
Now I want to specifically address you who have left the Church, who are done with it, who no longer believe in Mormonism. What do I and my fellow believers have to offer you? The answer is a better, less homophobic world.
Solid, scientifically validated, empirical studies have shown time and time again that the number one factor in convincing straight people to abandon homophobic and transphobic attitudes in favor of attitudes of tolerance, acceptance and support, the number one factor, is significant contact with an L, G, B or T person. Scientific research done in California around the time of Prop 8 showed, for instance, that if an opponent of marriage equality had at least one conversation on the subject of marriage with a gay person, one in four opponents of marriage equality would actually change their minds on the subject. One in four changed their minds after one conversation! But it couldn’t be just any conversation. The most effective conversations were the conversations in which those conversing with each other found significant common ground and shared values.
This research was put to the test in Minnesota during the Amendment 1 campaign, and it was validated. When the Amendment 1 campaign began, supporters of marriage for gay couples were significantly behind in the polls. Campaign leaders did the math. They realized that in order to ensure victory, 250,000 Minnesotans needed to change their minds about gay marriage. Based on the research done in California, they concluded that we needed to foster one million conversations. The entire campaign against Amendment 1 was based on helping people to have these conversations. Faith-based conversations were a critical part of the strategy: Catholics talking to other Catholics, Lutherans talking to Lutherans, Jews talking to Jews and, yes, Mormons talking to other Mormons. I was part of the faith round table in Minnesota that was helping to promote those religious conversations. It was critical to have conversations centered in shared values about faith, family and the meaning and nature of marriage. And to make a long story short, we had our million conversations, and we pulled ahead in the polls and we defeated Amendment 1.
The root problem for all LGBT Mormons is homophobia and transphobia in the Church. Leaving the Church may give you at least some space and some respite from it. But you will still have family members and friends who are believing Mormons. Many of you will still live in communities where the LDS Church can influence and have an impact on politics and on attitudes toward LGBT people. And the challenges created by anti-LGBT attitudes in the Church won’t be fixed with a single conversation, because we’re not just talking about a political amendment on a ballot, we’re talking about deep, on-going questions of life, death and meaning.
Those of us who believe, who remain active in the Church, who are finding ways forward through lives of faith and piety and a search for personal revelation and a deeper relationship with God are laying the groundwork for an LDS faith and and LDS Church that can transcend homophobia and transphobia. It is our shared values and our belief in the Restoration and our deep and lasting and on-going relationships with other Latter-day Saints that will be the key to that transcendence, if such a transcendence there is to be.
So what are the synergies that are created when those of us on both sides of that Church/faith divide embrace each other, when we find unity within Affirmation and embrace the unique strengths that are offered by others who don’t think like us?
Well, first I’d like to point out that not everybody is on one side or the other of that divide. There are very, very many of us who straddle that rift, very many who are questioning and confused and who still don’t know what to think about faith. If Affirmation were to split in two between believers and post-believers, that would only exacerbate the conflict for those who don’t know what to think. Those folks would no longer fit completely in any organization. But an organization that accommodates and welcomes both believers and post-believers easily accommodates those who are wrestling and questioning and who don’t know if they believe or doubt. It provides them options and examples and community where they know they will belong and be loved no matter what, and where they have freedom to ask hard questions and find ultimately satisfying answers, answers that have the possibility of embracing faith, or refining faith, or, if their heart so leads, moving beyond faith.
It is this last point, this idea that Affirmation needs to be an unconditionally loving community that is the key to one of the most desperate and dangerous challenges that the LGBT Mormon community faces: the problem of suicide. Again, I wish to appeal to what we know from scientific, empirical research on the phenomenon of suicide. It shows us that whatever existential challenges a suicidal individual may be facing, the number one protection and defense against suicide is a strong support network of family, friends and community. That is why it is of vital importance that Affirmation reach out to and be able to work with the entire family of an LGBT individual, not just LGBT individuals themselves somehow isolated or alienated from their families. It needs to work with the broader LDS community to help make LDS wards and stakes safer for vulnerable youth and adults. And Affirmation needs to be an unconditionally loving community, it needs to model and be what we want to see in the totality of social and familial networks that affect LGBT Mormons. And in order to do this effectively, Affirmation needs to embrace both faith and doubt and the realm in between faith and doubt.
For me there is a final reason, a very personal reason, why we must have an Affirmation that is solidly united across the Church/faith divide, and that is the people who have blessed my life and been friends to me, the individuals, with their unique quirks and strengths, their humor and ideas and creativity that touch me and inspire me and teach me and help me. What would my life be without people like Jen Blair or Daniel Parkinson or Kathy Carlston or Ellen Koester (who as of the writing of this talk is re-exploring her Roman Catholic beliefs and heritage, even as she remains solidly rooted in the Affirmation community) or Sam Wolfe (who as of the writing of this talk seems to be re-exploring his relationship with the LDS Church)? If Affirmation were an organization that had a religious test for membership, so many of these brilliant, compassionate, energetic, smart souls would not be able to participate. And I want and need them to be able to participate fully. I want more people like them to join us. We could not do what we need to do without them.
When I first encountered Affirmation in 2005, it was an organization that had swung very far toward only accommodating those who had left the Church and who didn’t believe. It did not feel like an organization that wanted or was very safe for believing or active LGBT Mormons. And that Affirmation came to a point of crisis, where, as an organization, we were literally on the verge of closing our doors because we didn’t have the money or the energy or the human resources to keep Affirmation going. And it was not an Affirmation that could effectively help those who were in deepest crisis around conflicts they experienced between their sexual orientation or gender identity and their faith. You can’t navigate that conflict if there is no space for faith. Affirmation wanted to reach out to and support youth, but it wasn’t doing it effectively, because an organization that is not safe for faith will not be safe for LGBT Mormon youth or their families. So I hope that Affirmation faithfuls like James Kent will be able to testify what a difference it has made to Affirmation to be able to bring in and retain people like Randall Thacker or the Montgomery family or Nick Einbender and Spencer Mickelson or Ron and Sue Raynes or, most recently, Bill Evans and Laura Dulin.
So, we desperately need an Affirmation that is united across the Church/faith divide, but just saying that we need it is not enough. If we really want it, we need to work at it. The tensions between folks on the opposite sides of that divide are very real. Nothing about the fact that we need each other changes the fact that the tensions can be painful at times. And I won’t, in this talk at least, offer a lot of concrete solutions to that problem. In keeping with the aforementioned values of Affirmation, I will suggest that finding solutions will require freedom and skepticism, hope and faith, and a rock solid commitment to community and to each other. It will, in other words, require lots of love.
And in keeping with that core value of love, I would like to offer one suggestion that I think could go a long way toward helping us bridge the divide, and reduce the tensions and heal the hurts that have been caused by the divide. If you are on the post-Mormon side of the divide, and you hear someone criticizing or attacking a member of Affirmation because of their LDS beliefs or because they are “too cozy with the Church,” please speak up for them. Please defend them. If you are on the church side of the divide, and you’re involved in planning an Affirmation activity, ask questions of individuals who are no longer believing Mormons, to find out how that activity could be more inclusive of them. Let’s try to be advocates for those who are on the other side of the divide from us. Let’s try to stop and think and instead of single-mindedly pursuing our own wants and needs and advocating our own agenda, consider the wants and needs of others as well. It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t speak up for ourselves. Affirmation won’t work if we don’t! But how healing will it be for each of us to acknowledge that our needs are not the only needs in Affirmation, and that we are all in this together!
In my years of involvement in Affirmation, I have consistently, some might say single-mindedly, been an advocate for the church side of the divide. What I am learning as president of Affirmation is that the role of president demands that I become an advocate for those on the other side of the divide. So I’m here to ask forgiveness for the times when I have pursued my agenda without sensitivity. I’m here to state in the strongest terms possible that I need help in making space in Affirmation for doubt and in serving those who have left the Church and who will never come back to it. One of my core spiritual values as a believing Latter-day Saint is that when I am in the service of my fellow human beings — and there can’t be any strings attached to that service, and no qualifiers on who I will or will not serve — I am only in the service of my God. I am intensely grateful for wise advisors like Jen Blair and Daniel Parkinson who are helping me live more fully into that role of service. I ask members and leaders of Affirmation throughout the world to help me live into it better.
I ask whoever feels called, believer or non-believer, church active or church absent, to come join us in this work of loving one another, saving lives and healing souls. And I ask us all to work at living into our mutual service to one another better.