Or could I?
This morning I found an angry message in my email in-box from an Affirmation member who was furious about yesterday's post. His message said, among other things:
Your blog posting about conference was predictable. I was only asked to read it by someone else. Your criticism of Affirmation members who don't believe in what you believe in lacked respect and reminded me of the elitist shit I experienced in Church. Affirmation is for BOTH types, ppl. who still believe in the Church and those who don't....
I, sincerely, hope Affirmation doesn't continue to exclude those who don't believe in the Church, as I'm noticing it has begun to. If so, I'll be one of the many long-time members who'll leave. And, at the low rate of consistent new members that Affirmation has, that'll kill off an org. that's meant for all.
The end of his communication, which I won't quote here, was hurtful, though clearly written in anger. I responded personally and privately, and I'm still waiting to hear back from him. I'm hoping we can resolve our differences and still be friends.
Yet, though this was a personal email, and I still want to try to resolve our personal issues personally, I wanted to post and discuss his criticisms publicly because I'm aware that others feel the way he feels, and because I want to try to discuss some of these issues more broadly with people who -- for whatever reason -- disagree with me.
First, I wanted to address the complaint that statements I made "lacked respect" for "Affirmation members who don't believe in what [I] believe in." Regardless of how what I said may have come across to people, I feel utmost respect for all members of Affirmation -- those who believe as well as those who don't. So I feel bad and want to apologize if I said anything in a way that comes across otherwise. I categorized myself as an unbeliever for a good many years, and my doubts were honest doubts. I've been on both sides of the faith/doubt divide, and I don't discredit anybody who's on the doubt side. I understand why gay men and lesbians are alienated from and angry at the Church, and I also understand why honest people of all sexual orientations reject certain teachings/beliefs of the Church.
Having evaluated and lived with my doubts for many years, I eventually came to a place of faith that has been incredibly empowering. It's natural for me to want to share that empowerment with others, to point out that there are ways past doubt, back into faith again. This is no less natural than the desire unbelievers in the blogosphere seem to have to share their views with us "unenlightened" believers. Everybody thinks they're right, or they wouldn't think what they think. Fair enough? I'm not sure if that's "elitist" or not. But if we're having any sort of conversation at all, isn't it because we're committed to the notion of a free exchange of ideas? That isn't disrespectful is it? So long as we acknowledge the right of each to exist and hold opinions different from one's own?
I think the difference between me and this person boils down to a question alluded to in his remark that "Affirmation is for BOTH types, [people] who still believe in the Church and those who don't."
He says this. Everyone says this. But someone honestly looking at the history and make-up of the organization will acknowledge -- and I don't think this is just me! -- that at best both types have co-existed uneasily within the organization, and for the most part the believing types have ended up feeling there wasn't much of a place in the organization for them. I haven't taken a scientific poll, but based on the experience I have had, it seems most members of the organization consider themselves ex-Mormon and feel hostile toward the Church. And I've experienced a culture of ridicule for those who do believe ("how can you possibly believe...!") and who practice (being made fun of because I don't drink alcohol or coffee, for instance). I personally know and am aware of many believing gay Mormons who simply do not feel welcome at Affirmation. Many have tried it, and not come back when they experienced the prevailing culture of doubt, anger and ridicule. Many more have not even tried it, based on what they've heard.
OK, so believers definitely don't feel at home in the organization. And apparently, according to this individual (and other individuals), if the organization attempts to sponsor activities that will attract believers, unbelievers will feel "excluded." In his words, "I, sincerely, hope Affirmation doesn't continue to exclude those who don't believe in the Church, as I'm noticing it has begun to." "Exclude" is a strong term, and it's not technically true. I assume he means is that he feels unwelcome. But if he feels unwelcome because this year Affirmation chose to organize a conference that might be more appealing to believers, then there's a problem with his original statement that Affirmation is supposed to include both believers and non-believers. If the organization only ever sponsors activities that appeal to non-believers, and if the non-believers get pissed off and boycott whenever the organization does something that appeals to believers, clearly the organization can't be inclusive of both.
After reading through this person's email, I actually felt terrible. It was not my intention to disrespect anyone. I felt really happy about having been able to participate in a conference where I felt fully and wholly affirmed -- both in my faith and in my sexuality. So my post was meant as a celebration, not as a snub.
This person didn't specify which parts of my post he thought were "critical," "lacking respect," or "elitist." But in reading through my post, I can see how certain statements could be read that way:
Why have an organization of GLBT Mormons, if it doesn't include fostering a positive relationship with the Church and fostering a genuinely Mormon spirituality?...
Given the sea change taking place in the Church right now, and the growing understanding of GLBT issues among Mormons and the greater acceptance of GLBT members, will Affirmation have a future if it continues to position itself as an ex-Mormon gay organization?...
At least three different Affirmation leaders had told me before the conference that members of Affirmation were boycotting the conference this year because it was "too spiritual."... Perhaps the fact that it was in Kirtland this year had the opposite effect as well; perhaps it attracted individuals who yearn deeply for that spiritual connection.
I can see how some of these (and perhaps other) statements taken out of context could be seen as critical or disrespectful or elitist. All I can say in my defense is that I have really been trying to honestly appraise the organization and determine if there's a place for me in it. I said in the post that "I've always been careful to check that 'outsider' perception [that most Affirmation members are non-believers who are alienated from and angry at the Church] against the perceptions of active Affirmation members themselves." Is it not fair simply to ask: Is this a fair generalization? And when numerous committed, long-time members I've spoken with not only agree that it is a fair generalization, but accept that it applies to them personally, then is it not possible for me to discuss this generalization and its implications not just for the organization but for me personally, without being accused of being "disrespectful"?
So, stressing again that I have utmost respect for people who disagree with me (on all sides of this issue!), let me point out that this exchange highlights a fundamental problem for Affirmation as an organization. And I hope that pointing this out is not taken as a criticism of anybody. It is simply pointing out that perhaps we cannot both have our cake and eat it too.
GLBT folks who consider themselves "ex-Mormon" or "post-Mormon" or "non-believers," however they want to put it, will look to an organization like Affirmation mainly as a kind of "recovery" space. Right? Is that unfair? "Recovering Mormons." Their interest in Affirmation is its potential to connect them to others with similar background who can relate to that experience of having formerly been Mormon, and of having grown up gay in that context. Other than that, they have no desire for any significant connection with Mormon faith, spirituality or institutions. All of those things feel toxic to them, and they have no desire to be exposed to it, because it brings up too much painful stuff. Or, at best, maybe if they're further along in their healing process, they're simply indifferent to it. It does nothing for them and feels boring or like a waste of time.
GLBT folks, on the other hand, who consider themselves still LDS or Mormon or "believing" or "practicing" or however they want to put it, will look to Affirmation for something completely different. They will want Affirmation to help them find answers to difficult theological questions. Like, how can I reconcile my sexuality with my beliefs? What do the scriptures really say about homosexuality? Is there a future for me and my significant other in the Celestial Kingdom? How does the Gospel apply to me in my situation? They will want to connect with others who have testimonies of the Gospel, and they will yearn for contexts where they can both express and live their faith, and feel affirmed for who they are as GLB or T. They will feel like a gay religious organization needs to be religious, or it's a waste of time, because if all I'm looking for is gay-friendly social events, there are already plenty of secular gay organizations that will affirm my gayness. There are also plenty of non-Mormon spiritual organizations -- for Quakers, Lutherans, members of the UCC, etc. None of these groups have problems accepting ex-Mormons. But I personally need something that affirms me both as a gay person and as a Mormon -- which is not something that any other organization does.
OK, so you've potentially got two sets of people with needs that seem to run directly contrary to one another. An organization that plans activities to meet the needs of folks in category A will very likely end up turning off or even offending people in category B. On the other hand, an organization that plans activities to meet the needs of folks in category B will likely turn off or offend people in category A.
This is why conflicts over the role of alcoholic or caffeinated beverages in Affirmation events has been so contentious in the past. It's really kind of emblematic of this problem. Category A folks see nothing wrong with drinking in moderation, and certainly see nothing wrong at all with coffee or tea. In fact, for them, drinking wine, beer or coffee is sort of symbolic of their liberation from every other constraint of faith they find irrational. They like to imbibe because it makes them feel free. And so they get really offended when folks in Category B might suggest that if Affirmation is a gay Mormon organization, it might be inappropriate to serve alcohol or coffee. This can become a really shockingly emotional issue, something to which I can testify, having been ridiculed on numerous occasions for my decision to order a ginger ale when every other person at the table is ordering actual ale. And, by the way, most of my non-Mormon or never-Mormon friends would consider it totally gauche and uncouth to tease me for something like that, but ex-Mormon friends feel no pain at all. The emotional issues around this are clearly a "Mormon thang."
So let me again, as I did in my last post, simply pose the question: Is it possible to have a "big tent" Mormon organization that includes both believers and unbelievers? Or are our respective needs too incompatible for us to coexist within the same organization? The question is not intended as a criticism. It's asked in all honesty, with a desire for a factual, honest answer. Because if the answer is No, and if Affirmation feels that it must cater predominantly to those in Category A, then I must, with sadness, say that those of us in Category B need another organization.
I say with sadness, because I have a genuine love for every single person I've ever connected with at Affirmation (or in any other gay Mormon context for that matter). As a human being, at a very human level, I don't care what you believe or don't believe. I never have. I don't judge you. I don't disrespect you. I have fun fellowshipping and laughing and crying with you. I love you. I honor the journey you're on. I've experienced too much pain in my life around all these issues to think any less of you for having made whatever decisions you needed to make to survive.
If you think I judge you just because I am a believer, that's your stuff. You deal with it. Because I don't judge you. I really don't care what you do so long as you are happy. I do what I need to do to feel whole, to integrate my spirituality and my sexuality so I can survive and thrive.
Maybe we can have a big tent. Maybe we can have one organization that meets all our needs. And maybe it only seems like we can't because we haven't figured out how to love one another the right way yet.
And if that's the case, I'm still willing to give it a try.