Thursday, November 1, 2012

Affirmation at the Crossroads

Affirmation presidential campaigns have been contested the last couple of years, because Affirmation is at a crossroads.
The experiences and testimonials of Affirmation members in decades past have challenged the Church to question and reevaluate old policies and teachings that emphasized heterosexual marriage and "reparative therapy". Long-time pioneers and allies in the LDS church like Bob Rees, Bill Bradshaw, and Gary and Millie Watts, have relied on Affirmation for many years to provide the data that supported their calls for a more tolerant, accepting and loving Church.

Since 2006, there has been a distinct shift in rhetoric and policy within the LDS church, that has made it more and more possible for LGBT Mormons to be active and embraced in their wards. Although official policy still rejects same-sex relationships, the members in the pews by and large are reaching out to all LGBT folks, regardless of relationship or Church membership status. I, an excommunicated gay man in a committed relationship of 20 years, have certainly experienced this in my LDS ward, where I am routinely reminded by the Saints that I am a valued "member," and where I have never felt more loved and supported in any church community, Mormon or non-Mormon. This has been the experience of other LGBT Mormons like Randall Thacker, who returned to activity in his Washington DC ward, and was told that, despite his committed same-sex relationship, he would not be excommunicated. It is the experience of many LGBT Mormons in the San Francisco and Oakland stakes, where there is an effective moratorium currently in place on excommunicating LGBT members in committed same-sex relationships. 

Affirmation came of age as an organization in a time when LGBT Mormons were forced to choose between Church membership and full self-acceptance as gay or lesbian. Thus, Affirmation evolved into an organization which was, by and large, an organization of ex-Mormon gays. Affirmation members largely came to regard the Church,  its leaders and members with fear and hostility, while Church members and leaders largely viewed affirmation with apprehension and skepticism. 

Generations of LDS church members came to view Affirmation, rightly or wrongly, as anti-Church. In an age where the Church's attitudes toward and positions on homosexuality are much more complex and nuanced, and in which church members are much more accepting of LGBT people, this old hostility is dysfunctional for Affirmation as an organization. It is an obstacle to dialogue. Younger generations of LGBT Mormons are less likely to see Affirmation as an organization that can meet their needs, and Church members are less likely to see Affirmation as a resource. 

There have always been LGBT LDS who have had testimonies of the Church, who have also accepted their sexuality as an inherent and good part of who they are, and have been open to the possibilities, gifts, and goodness of a committed same-sex relationship. Many have stayed active in the Church, preferring the blessings of Church membership. Many have established same-sex relationships and families. Some of these have stayed away from the Church for fear of excommunication or other forms of rejection. Some have faced excommunication, even as they knew privately that both the Church and their relationship were true and good. Many have wrestled with their faith, but eventually found themselves drawn back to the Church in one way or another. Many of us in this awkward (some would say inherently contradictory) situation are finding it increasingly possible in the current, evolving environment to "come out" as Mormons, who also happen to be gay and fully accepting of our gayness.

What we have never had is an organization that could represent us in the fullness of who we are, both gay and Mormon. 

Affirmation has always been the one organization that has had the potential to provide those of us in this situation this kind of support. But for good, understandable reasons it historically has not.

But Affirmation is now at a crossroads. A critical mass of those of us who consider ourselves Mormon and gay have been gravitating to the organization. We've been getting involved, as members, as leaders, as conference planners. We've seen the fruit of this involvement in the last two Affirmation conferences, which have been profoundly spiritual and profoundly devotional in nature. Devotionals in the last two years have been attended by LDS bishops and senior missionaries, who felt the Spirit present and were deeply moved.  These experiences have offered a vision of a different, more inclusive Affirmation.  The upcoming election is an opportunity for us to register whether we want to see more of less of this as part of the mission and vision of Affirmation.

Please note that what I am NOT talking about here is Affirmation as a para-church, or a substitute for involvement in and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have a testimony of the Church. I practice my faith and I grow spiritually as an individual through involvement in my ward. I do not want Affirmation to be a substitute for the Church. What I do want is an organization that represents me in the fullness of who I am as both gay and Mormon. I want an organization that will foster and be involved in constructive dialogue between LGBT and straight LDS  members and leaders. I want an organization where I can meet regularly and experience human contact with other individuals who experience the same challenges and trials that I do, trying to practice my faith as a Latter-day Saint who is also gay. I want a place where I can meet at least once a year, where I can hug and be hugged, sing, pray, and weep with other LGBT Mormons as we wrestle and learn how to be more faithful and more loving.

Please also note that I don't hope for an Affirmation whose purpose is to pressure individuals to return to the Church, or exclude individuals who feel no desire for connection with the Church.  Affirmation has always been and should always be a place of healing and unconditional love for those of us who've been deeply wounded by homophobia in the Church. It has always been and should always be a place of support for all of us, regardless of where we are in our journeys -- in the LDS Church, in other churches, or in no church at all. It can and should always be a safe place for those of us who long to connect with others who understand the unique experience and challenges we've experienced or experience around some intersection at some point in our lives of LGBT identity and Mormonism.
 If you feel a greater desire for integration of your sexual or gender identity with your faith and experience as a Mormon, and have been keeping Affirmation at arm's distance because you weren't sure if it could represent you and support you in your spiritual journey, I urge you to get involved. Now is the time for you to get involved and help make Affirmation what you want it to be.

If you want to participate in the election, you need to join as soon as possible, before the November 3 deadline, when the election begins. Go to the Affirmation website and learn about the candidates, Robert Moore and Randall Thacker. 

Whether or not you participate in this year's election, I encourage you to get involved. We have a work to do. We LGBT Mormons have a vital role to play in the building of a better Church and a better world. Zion cannot be complete without us, without our testimonies, without our faith and love. I believe that Affirmation can be a school for us, a place where we develop resources to help us face the challenges we face, and make a difference in the world.

Our next annual conference will be in Salt Lake City.  Come join us and become part of something marvelous!


Danette Ricks said...

Thanks for your post. I found it to be very interesting. When I first went in search of a gay/Mormon organization I was looking for more of a post-Mormon kind of group where I could find healing and support as I left the Church. I was not, and still am not, interested in finding an active group trying to bring about change within the Mormon Church. I know you mention that you do not want it to be an organization "whose purpose is to pressure individuals to return to the Church, or exclude individuals who feel no desire for connection with the Church," but I'm not sure how one organization can have it both ways. If some are uncomfortable with prayer and Mormon scripture, participating in a faith-based organization is hard to do - even if each member of that organization believes in unconditional love and inclusiveness. It sounds like two separate organizations and purposes...and perhaps, depending on which road Affirmation takes, the time has come for a new organization to be formed?

J G-W said...


That sounds reasonable in theory. But what I've found in practice, from interacting with very many ex-Mormon gay folks is that -- while they think that the existence of an organization for ex-Mormon gays is a GREAT idea -- they are not willing in practice to join, participate in, or support one.

There is a very simple reason for that... We do not generally invest energy in something that is all about what we are not. Most folks who leave the Church (and this was certainly true of me in 1986, when I left the Church) do for a while need to process their complex feelings about leaving an institution that played an important role in their lives. But eventually, they finish processing, and then they're done and they prefer to move on. They prefer not to dwell in the past.

So an organization of ex-Mormons (or ex-Anythings for that matter) is by definition moribund. And without hanging out a lot of dirty laundry in public, I think it is safe to say that Affirmation is in the process of proving that. So long as it continues to be an organization of ex-Mormons, it is not likely to last more than a few years.

Unless you and others are really interested in stepping up and keeping it alive? But I doubt you are... Like most ex-Mormons, you've probably moved on...

The real energy that's coming into the organization right now -- the vital energy that will inspire commitment of time, talents and money -- is coming from people who see Affirmation as being about supporting something positive, supporting who and what we are, here and now, in the present: LGBT Mormons.

That is as it should be. I'd invite you to take a tour of the various LGBT religious organizations. ReconcilingWorks (formerly Lutherans Concerned) is not an organization of ex-Lutheran gays. It is an organization of gay Lutherans. Dignity is not an organization of ex-Catholic gays, but of gay Catholics. And so on with Affirmation (Methodists), the Gay Christian Network, Interweave (LGBT Unitarians), etc.

I mean, look at our name... Shouldn't "Affirmation" be about "affirming" us as gay and Mormon?

Now, what I would say to those who are LGBT and ex-Mormon... If you want an organization where you can be fully affirmed as who you are as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, come to Affirmation. We will affirm you fully and unconditionally in that aspect of yourself -- because most of us have wrestled with that and we've found answers, and we know of our goodness in that aspect of us.

(According the John Dehlin and Bill Bradshaw's recent study, something on the order of half of us have actually prayed to God and received direct affirmation from the Lord of who we are as LGBT. We have testimonies of the goodness of that aspect of us.)

Do you want an organization where you can celebrate the goodness of your loving, committed relationship to your spouse? Come to Affirmation. It is one of the a handful of Mormon organizations where you can find support for your relationship as well.

Do you want an organization where you can process the complex feelings about having been Mormon and lesbian? Where you can talk to others who've been down that path and hear about their experiences and struggles with that, and compare their experiences with your own? There's no organization in the world better equipped to help you with that than Affirmation.

If you come to our annual conferences, and you think prayers and hymn singing and testimony bearing is so much mumbo-jumbo, you're free to abstain from that in whatever way you see fit. (I'm sure there are conference participants who go to the panels and social events and who skip the testimony meeting and the devotional on Sunday morning.)

But I think it does not make organizational sense to suppress that. I think we are way overdue for Affirmation to be what it should always have been destined to be. An organization that supports us in our journeys as LGBT Mormons.

Actually Textual said...

John, you have a great vision. We all need help, I need help, and you have reminded me that I will get help by giving it. I really appreciate your posting. Thank you.

J G-W said...

Hey Actually - I hope you will consider coming to our next Affirmation conference, currently planned for SLC. (We're not sure yet about the dates... Stay tuned on the Affirmation web site.)