Remembering Paul Mortensen
by Olin Thomas
When memorializing a person who had a major impact in an organization, a much over-used expression is “it is the end of an era.” However, the passing of Paul Mortensen on December 5, 2021, really does feel like the end of an era. It is certainly a time to look back on that era and reflect on the contributions and legacy of a remarkable man to whom we owe so much.
Many current members of Affirmation may know of Paul through the award still given each year at our conference, which is named for him. Or they may have read the short history of Affirmation that is posted on our website. But most did not have the pleasure of knowing the person behind those stories. To remember Paul Mortensen, I don’t want to focus on just accomplishments and titles, but on the person and what motivated him to do so much for an organization called Affirmation.
Paul wasn’t the founder of Affirmation. A man named Matthew Price started trying to organize gay and lesbian Mormons first and Paul learned of those efforts and expressed an interest to start a chapter in Los Angeles. He was fond of telling people that his motivation initially was to meet some nice Mormon gay boys so he could find a partner who shared his values. But before the Los Angeles chapter was formed, Paul met Robert Jacobs. Robert was not LDS, but he and Paul immediately meshed and became a couple. What happened next shows the strength of Paul Mortensen’s character. He realized there was a great need for an organization to support gay and lesbian Mormons and to serve as a safe place for them. So he gathered a group of like-minded people and organized the Los Angeles Chapter of Affirmation – Gay Mormons United, which was the original name.
It was a good thing that he did, for some of the other chapters would soon falter, leaving Los Angeles as the strongest unit in the new organization. In 1979, gay Mormons marched in protest and pride for the first time in Los Angeles. The chapter, under Paul’s leadership, helped others to form chapters in San Francisco and Washington, DC. In December of that year, representatives from those two cities and the original Salt Lake City chapter meet with the Los Angeles group at Paul’s home to write a new charter for the organization, set up a leadership structure, and newsletter. The name was changed to Affirmation – Gay & Lesbian Mormons, which remained the legal name until very recently. Over the years we have expanded our mission to embrace those who are transgender, bisexual, and all within the intersections of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, but in 1979 that was not yet part of the lexicon.
The structure that was created then allowed Affirmation to grow and support the formation of chapters all over the country, and later the world. It would not have been possible without Paul Mortensen’s determination to push forward with creating the Los Angeles chapter and his support and guidance of the group. So while Paul was not the founder of Affirmation, he gave the current organization its start and set it on the road to success, making him the true father of Affirmation.
Paul did more than just organize, however. His apartment in Los Angeles became the national office of Affirmation for many years as he answered the national phone line there, responding to thousands of inquiries and calls for help over many, many years. While we have the safety and security of a website, email, and voicemail where folks can contact Affirmation today, in the 1970s and ’80s, the only option was to have a landline, connected to a home address, with no caller ID, that could ring anytime, day or night. It took courage and resolve to take on that duty. A post office box was established and became the address not only of the Los Angeles Chapter but for the new national organization, with Paul Mortensen as the Corresponding Secretary. He answered inquiries by mail and also oversaw the election of national leaders of Affirmation (the name and nature of the top position have changed several times) by counting ballots mailed to that post office box. Paul continued in that role until 2008, marking nearly thirty years of active leadership in Affirmation. I was honored to take over that role from him, becoming only the second Corresponding Secretary for Affirmation. That role is currently held by Todd Richardson.
This is a short summary of the accomplishments part of Paul Mortensen, but what was he like as a person? The first thing that those who knew him would say is that he would not want a lot of praise or attention for what he did. While he was proud of Affirmation’s growth and felt a bit paternal or protective towards it, his goal was always to help other gay or lesbian Mormons learn to accept and love themselves and lead happy lives, never to gain honor or authority for himself. He told later presidents of Affirmation not to ask him to get up to speak at conferences as he didn’t want the attention and felt the focus should be on the needs of the people who were currently seeking Affirmation’s support.
In the words of Ben Jarvis, “He was out, open, loud and unapologetic about his sexual orientation” at a time when that was still unusual, especially in a faith community. He felt firmly that you could be a Mormon without letting church leaders tell you how to do it or that you were on the wrong path. He was the original guru of understanding and accepting your own identity as a gay Mormon. Paul had the interesting experience of meeting with Spencer W. Kimball after his mission. This was while Kimball was an apostle with a special calling to help those dealing with homosexuality. Years later, Paul recounted his impressions of the meeting to Ron Schow, summarizing it by saying something like, “I concluded he didn’t have a clue! His understanding about my experience was just so warped.” Over the years, Paul came to doubt LDS doctrine, due to such cluelessness. Randall Thacker told me he remembers Paul telling him: “Randall, I don’t believe any of the Mormon doctrine anymore but I still deeply believe in Affirmation.” I think this is a great testament to how he always put the organization’s mission above his own current beliefs. He always understood the purpose of Affirmation wasn’t to shape anyone’s beliefs but to help them find their own faith- wherever that took them.
Paul was always direct and honest when asked for advice, as Scott MacKay reminded me. He would tell you what he really thought, even if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear. Yet he was never mean or cruel. He had an infectious laugh, loved telling stories, socializing, and having fun. He was humble and gracious and would admit when things went better than he thought they would. His humility became clear to me after I took over as chairman of the Mortensen Award, named for Paul as its first receipt in 1987. It was Paul’s example of service and leadership that inspired the award’s creation and criteria for getting it. Even though we had been giving the award out for 20 years by this time, or perhaps because of that, Paul suggested the name be changed so people would not think it was about him but about serving Affirmation. The committee decided to not change the name, however, as we felt he was a perfect example of the type of person we wanted in Affirmation. And, humble as ever, Paul continued to participate in selecting each year’s recipient of the award as just one more member of the committee, right up until last year.
He could get exasperated with cluelessness too. I still chuckle when I recall the 1996 Affirmation Conference in Palm Springs, California. Paul was part of the organizing committee for the conference. That year they decided to include a keepsake refrigerator magnet in the registration packet. It was a laminated rainbow flag overprinted with the letters LDS and a thin magnet glued to the back. Apparently, there were a great number of questions about what they were for. Paul went to the podium of the opening session and said he had an announcement. He calmly held up one of the magnets and mentioned that many people were questioning what they were. Then he raised his voice in aggravation, shook the magnet vigorously at us, and said loudly, “Girls, they’re refrigerator magnets!!!” and stomped off stage.
Several years ago Paul and I were talking about Affirmation reaching the milestone of 40 years in existence. He told me that when he participated in setting up the organization in 1979, that he never thought it would be around 40 years later. It had been his hope that the goals of Affirmation would have been achieved by then — full acceptance of LGBTQ people into the Church and society. He was a little dismayed that the struggle still continued but glad that the people who came after him continued to press for understanding and acceptance. He was delighted that same-sex marriage had become legal and was married to Robert as soon as was possible. We talked about his concern for those who still struggled to find love and acceptance from their Church, families, and society and how he could help support Affirmation in the future. That is the man I remember and honor. A man of great charm and humor, but great strength and courage, who wanted the best for his chosen people. There have been other great leaders in Affirmation over the years, but none of them would have had the chance if Paul had not stepped up back in 1979 and said, “we can do this.”
See Also: Paul Mortensen, Affirmation Co-Founder, Dies at 80 by Nathan Kitchen, A Farewell to Paul Mortensen by Ben Jarvis, Affirmation – In the Beginning, A History by Paul Mortensen
This article was submitted by an Affirmation community member. The opinions expressed are wholly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Affirmation, our leadership, or our staff. Affirmation welcomes the submission of articles by community members in accordance with our mission, which includes promoting the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and our vision for Affirmation to be a refuge to land, heal, share, and be authentic.