In this context, I claim the title of "gay elder" for myself, mainly because I remember what it was like. And I want to talk for a moment about LGBT history, and where each of us -- middle aged, old and young -- fit into that history. I also want to carefully consider where Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons (founded in 1977) fits into that history as well.
For those not familiar with LGBT history, I'll start by acknowledging 1969 -- the year of the Stonewall Riots -- as a new beginning. 1969 became the year that -- led by the drag queens -- transgender people, lesbians, bisexuals and gay men stood up and said, "We're angry as hell and we're not going to take it any more." It's recognized as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Increasingly, LGBT people were courageously standing up, coming out to the world, and with patience and dignity (and sometimes with impatience and flamboyance) insisting: "We are human beings, and we deserve respect and equality."
If you'd like a taste of what the world was like before Stonewall, check out this 1967 CBS documentary, "The Homosexuals." I was born in 1963. I was on the cusp. I was five years old -- on summer vacation between kindergarten and first grade -- when the drag queens in Greenwich village refused to be hauled unceremoniously away to jail by the NYPD. But as I was coming out in the late 1980s, I encountered members of that Stonewall generation. I heard the stories from their lips. And, heard from them, I remember what it meant to be openly gay in those early days of the LGBT movement. Coming out potentially meant loss of everything: loss of job and reputation, complete rejection by family and friends, excommunication from your church, becoming a pariah and being exposed to violence.
The gay community, for all its flaws and strengths, was the sole refuge of the truly brave. The closet was our only other refuge and probably our greatest enemy. The closet protected us, but it also kept us from being seen. It allowed anti-gay stereotypes to flourish unchallenged. And that early generation of activists -- including political visionaries like Harvey Milk -- called gay people to come out and be counted. Harvey was assassinated in 1978, just as Affirmation was being organized.
Gay groups that were founded between 1969 and the early 1980s (like Affirmation) were visionary. They sought to take the outrage and pain that sparked Stonewall and convert it into something quite different. Like medieval alchemists seeking to transform lead into gold, that early generation of gay activists were trying to turn anger and pain into love, understanding and acceptance. They were visionaries.
And their pleas largely fell on deaf ears. The vast majority of Americans didn't listen, didn't care. Gay activists were ridiculed as crazy. Homosexuality -- the vast majority of Americans countered -- was a disease, a crime. A civil rights movement of homosexuals was like a movement of insane people demanding to be counted as sane. It didn't make sense.
Not all ears were deaf, though, not all eyes blind. A small, brave minority of straight people became allies during this period of LGBT history -- and these individuals helped to make a huge difference in coming years. Significant for LGBT Mormons, Bob Rees for instance was bishop of the Los Angeles 1st Ward during this period, where a large number of his parishioners were gay. It was as a result of his one-on-one interactions with gay members of this ward that Bro. Rees became convinced that gay people were not criminals, they were not crazy; and that most of what he had ever heard about homosexuals -- in disparaging jokes, or over the pulpit, or from the media -- was probably not true. And he decided to do something about it. Bob became one of Affirmation's earliest devout Mormon allies and supporters.
Looking at the big picture, though, in terms of the sheer numbers of Americans converted by the first two decades of LGBT activism, it might have looked to many as though there had not been a significant impact. The idea that gay folks might some day, for instance, be able to serve openly in the military; that they might be called as ordained ministers in mainline denominations; that they might be able to teach in schools without being fired; that they might be able to get legally married as couples seemed impossible, crazy. I remember that generation of hopeless visionaries, because when I came of age and came out in the late 1980s, I decided to join them.
I think the watershed moment in the LGBT rights movement was, ironically, the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Today we don't really even talk about it. AIDS -- for that generation of the gay community -- was the worst trauma imaginable. Preachers from pulpits everywhere declared it a sign of God's wrath. And perhaps many of us secretly wondered if the preachers weren't right.
But I look back, and -- I hope I won't be crucified for saying this -- now I think I recognize in AIDS God's mercy. I say this having lost far too many of my own friends to AIDS. Paul was the first. There was David, and Hank, and Michael. Most of that Stonewall generation can rattle off a list of names that is far longer. I came of age in a time when we understood clearly how to protect ourselves from AIDS, and when, shortly thereafter, effective treatments were devised to prevent it from becoming an instant death sentence, if it couldn't be cured.
I say a mercy of God for two reasons. First, because the AIDS epidemic taught the LGBT community how to really become nurturers and care givers. It taught us a very concrete, hands-on lesson in love and service. It transformed us spiritually. I remember walking for the first time into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and weeping at the sight of the AIDS quilt spread out, filled with stories, gay life after gay life remembered lovingly and three dimensionally in colored cloth. I remember seeing gay men give time and love and energy to the AIDS service organizations, caring for the sick and the dying. Back in those days, it often seemed as though only gay men and lesbians cared that gay men were dying.
But it wasn't true. God's mercy was evident in another result of the epidemic. The AIDS epidemic allowed the general American public to regard the gay community for the first time with real empathy. All of a sudden, as the stories began to be told, the world began to see us as real people.
It was that watershed moment, that consciousness-transforming moment that really laid the groundwork for what we see today. The late-1980s was the cusp. It was the turning point that allowed the gay movement, and support for gay rights to steadily grow until it could literally turn out electoral majorities in support of full marriage equality, as we did last week for the first time in American history. It was the turning point that allowed homosexuality to be publicly discussed in wide-ranging forums -- in churches, in the media, in community forums. The dream of Harvey Milk was finally being fulfilled. We were becoming an America where "the closet" no longer existed. Many of us left the closet in the late 1980s and early 1990s and never turned back. It could be said of many members of the current generation of LGBT youth that they were never in the closet. And this is largely what accounts for the overwhelming percentages of American youth who see homosexuality as a non-issue. America finally sees us for who we are, and having come to know and empathize with us, is rejecting the old structures of inequality that caricatured, silenced and shamed us.
I apologize for the length of this "introduction." But it's so easy to gloss over or even forget the past. And more importantly, to forget what it actually felt like and what it actually meant to live through the early days of the modern LGBT movement, before the late 1980s. We look at a documentary like "The Homosexuals" and we laugh, partly because it seems too grotesque to be true in the America we live in today. For anybody born after 1985, it's unimaginable. But very many of us remember. We remember the America that was a nightmarish dystopia for LGBT people. I count all of us who remember as gay elders.
So how does the LDS Church generally, and some of the LDS-specific LGBT/SSA groups, like Affirmation and Evergreen, fit into this picture? What does the Mormon thread in this tapestry have to teach us?
I want to start by acknowledging the important role played by Evergreen. I am not qualified to talk about Evergreen very much. I've never participated in it as an organization. But what I will say is that it has made one very important contribution to the conversation about homosexuality. The "reparative therapy" model of homosexuality, as well as the popular LDS belief that homosexuals could marry heterosexually and "overcome" their homosexuality was based on a rock-bottom belief in the value of all human beings. Mormon leaders unquestionably loved and wanted to help homosexuals. Furthermore, they insisted (like modern gay rights activists) that everyone is entitled to love, to a family; that love and family are God's intention for all of us in this life. Holding to that conviction, and believing that homosexuality (or celibacy) could not possibly be God's intention for anyone, they insisted that "overcoming" homosexual orientation and enabling gay people to find happiness in heterosexual marriage and family must be possible somehow.
That approach was applied steadfastly by the Church for decades, and it failed for the majority. I know many gay LDS men who married in the 1970s and beyond. I have never met one who regretted his marriage, or the children he'd had and raised -- even among the majority whose marriages ended in tragedy and divorce. So there must be a mercy of God in this. I know married men who have struggled to keep their marriages going, and have found happiness. I know some who still struggle; some who've graduated to a place of acceptance and stability in their marriages. I know two individuals who have gotten lots of press and whom I know personally to be happily married, and who seem blessedly free from the kinds of struggle that many others in their situation experience. But the Church has, as a matter of policy, rejected this approach since 1996. The viability of the new official model of celibacy as the proper faithful path for most LDS LGBT/SSA individuals is in the process of being tested.
Affirmation is an organization I can speak somewhat more about. The brief narrative history posted on Affirmation's own web site describes Affirmation as having its roots in a number of groups that formed and dissolved sporadically in Salt Lake, L.A. and at BYU from the early 1960s on. The fact that Affirmation finally coalesced in 1977 and 1978 into two local chapters which eventually became the core for the national organization Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons in 1979 definitely situates Affirmation as part of that post-Stonewall wave of gay community organizing.
Like many similar organizations of this era, Affirmation was founded on those alchemical principles of transmuting the lead of despair and anger into the gold of understanding, communion and love. The act that brought Affirmation into being was an authentic expression of faith: a group of individuals "kneeling in prayer and asking the Lord for guidance." Matt Price, one of the early guiding lights of the organization said:
Don't forget the work of the Spirit. I don't want to seem overly dependant on some 'mysterious' influence as to what makes Affirmation work, but there is a real need for prayer and reflection on what we are doing — reaching out to our Father in Heaven and to each other. We firmly believe that Affirmation had a place in the plan of our Father in Heaven and His Kingdom, and that the Holy Spirit is still with us, as individuals and as a group of His Children, guiding us in what we are seeking to accomplish. His Spirit is most reflected when we are working toward our goals, ever mindful of the needs of our sisters and brothers, ourselves, and the working of our Savior in our lives and in our hearts.
A reading of the founding, governing documents of the organization -- something I finally have done only within the past year -- leaves little doubt of the original intent of Affirmation's founders. They saw themselves gathering as people of faith, seeking God's light and guidance.
Also like many organizations of the same era, Affirmation's efforts to reach out and enter into dialog with the Church went largely either unnoticed or rejected. Many of those who turned to Affirmation for support were individuals who had experienced extreme, sometimes vicious rejection at the hands of their fellow Latter-day Saints.
From this point forward, the best account I could offer of Affirmation's history would be to describe my own rather complicated relationship with the organization. I first reached out to Affirmation in 1990. A friend of mine, who was Lutheran, asked me if I was aware of the existence of this organization for gay Mormons. I looked it up and called the number of the person who was at that time the primary contact for what was then the "Great Lakes Chapter" of Affirmation, based here in the Twin Cities. I left a message and he eventually called me back.
When I finally spoke with this individual, I said something to the effect of, "Well, so, Affirmation wouldn't actually be an organization of gay Mormons. It would have to be an organization of ex-Mormons. Because you can't possibly be gay and Mormon, right? The Church excommunicates you if you're gay."
There was a pause, and he responded calmly, "Some members of our chapter are members of the Church. Not everybody is excommunicated." I was startled to hear this. We continued to converse, and he described the organization and its activities. The "Great Lakes Chapter," I assume, was relatively small. It did not meet frequently. Once every other month, as I recall. What turned me off of Affirmation, however, was that after conversing with this individual, I concluded that Affirmation was not anti-Church enough. At that point in my life, I was very angry at the Church. I didn't see any point in having connection with any organization that had any connection to the Church whatsoever. And that was the end of it for me.
It was fifteen years later when I contacted the organization again, this time with a deep hunger for connection with the Church. In September 2005, I felt prompted to look the organization up on line. I noticed that there was no longer any "Great Lakes Chapter." Nothing really available locally in Minnesota. I contacted Olin Thomas, then President of Affirmation. We had a series of conversations, and ultimately Olin invited me to be the Minnesota contact for Affirmation. (I still am!)
The first time I attended a national conference of Affirmation was in October 2006, in Portland, Oregon. I was encouraged to attend by Hugo Salinas, whom I'd met at Sunstone. Olin Thomas asked if I would participate in a panel on relationships, which I did. Sometime later, during a family gathering in Utah, I was invited to speak at a gathering of the Wasatch chapter, where I bore my testimony, talked about my experience being active in the LDS Church as an excommunicated, gay man in a same-sex relationship, and shared my vision of what kind of calling we as LDS LGBT people might have in the Kingdom of God.
Over the years, as the Minnesota representative for Affirmation, I've been contacted by numerous individuals who have been interested in Affirmation for a variety of reasons -- sometimes as ex-Mormons seeking closure, sometimes as struggling Mormons, sometimes as faithful Mormons yearning for community that could affirm them as LGBT. I've organized a variety of meetings as it seemed appropriate. At one well attended meeting, we met to hear a scholar talk about his research on gay Mormons. For a while we had a group that met regularly to have discussions and watch videos of interest to LGBT Mormons. That group eventually fizzled, but shortly thereafter another group reformed, one that was more spiritually focused, gathering for prayer and scripture study. That group eventually fizzled, and then another group re-coalesced, or I should say two groups. One individual contacted me, who was interested in purely social events. So we had monthly "Affirmation dinners" that were sporadically attended by individuals who sort of came and went.
Simultaneously, I had organized a gay "Family Home Evening" group. The participants in that group preferred not to organize under the aegis of "Affirmation," because they perceived Affirmation as being too "anti-Church." That group was meeting regularly until my bike accident and subsequent brain-surgery made it impossible for me to organize anything, and one of the members of the group moved away from the Twin Cities. Now that I am almost fully recovered from my surgery, I'm planning to reconvene that group. My collaborator in the Affirmation "dinner" group decided that he wanted to see the groups merge, and has become a part of the FHE group.
During the summer of 2011, when the "Creating Change" conference, a national LGBT activists' conference, took place in Minnesota, a contingent of Affirmation leaders arrived, including Dave Melson, Josh Behn, and Fred Bowers. I expressed interest, and Affirmation helped me out financially so as to be able to register and participate in the conference as an Affirmation member. We began a conversation about the future of Affirmation, in which I expressed my belief that Affirmation could only ultimately grow and thrive as an organization if it adopted a more faith-positive, faith-oriented focus.
This past summer, I helped to organize a contingent of 30 Mormons to march in LGBT Pride Twin Cities under the banner "Mormon Allies." And beginning in December, I was helping to organize what eventually grew to a group of about 30 LDS LGBT and straight people to work for the defeat of the Minnesota Marriage Amendment. So within the last year there has been a dramatic upswing in local activity around Mormonism and homosexuality. Affirmation has been a resource for at least some of this activity.
During this period, I had complicated feelings about Affirmation. As I got to know people in the organization nationally, I found that most (though not all!) of the people I met were indifferent to or hostile to the Church. The only reason I'd reached out to Affirmation was because I had a deep hunger for connection with the Church, and I thought Affirmation might be able to support me in that. But it seemed not really able to do that. I loved the Affirmation members I met -- every single one of them. But there was too often a mutual disconnect. I sensed that many people I met through Affirmation regarded me as something of an oddball because I loved the Church, attended actively, and claimed to have a testimony -- and had been doing so since October 2005.
My dream was to organize a local chapter that was more faith-oriented. I yearned for a group of faithful LDS LGBT folks with whom I could pray, study the scriptures, sing hymns, and have discussions about faith and doctrine and the place of LGBT people in the Kingdom of God. If I could have that, I thought, I would have the best of both worlds. I loved the personal connections I had with active Affirmation members in other parts of the country. But I needed an Affirmation that could walk with me in a faith quest, something that no one in Affirmation at that time seemed able or willing to do.
There were members of Affirmation -- folks like Hugo and Olin, specifically -- who appreciated and maybe even understood my particular vision for Affirmation, even if they were not necessarily on the same page with me. I know Hugo in particular worked to give me a voice on the Affirmation web site. And in September 2011, I was invited to be a speaker at the devotional of the Kirtland, OH Affirmation conference. Even though I struggled with Affirmation, Affirmation was trying to be a "big tent," big enough, anyway, to include me.
Kirtland became a pivotal moment both for Affirmation and for me. It was the first time where I saw a more faith-oriented, faith-expressive Affirmation. There were a host of new faces: men and women who led and participated in Spirit-filled worship -- praying, singing and bearing testimony. The high point of the Kirtland conference was the testimony meeting in the Kirtland temple.
I wondered afterwards if Kirtland was an anomaly. But the Seattle conference proved that Kirtland was only a beginning. And the overwhelmingly positive response to the presidential candidacy of Randall Thacker, who is running on a platform of emphasizing faith and listening to the Spirit, in a sense, bringing Affirmation back to its faith-based roots, seems to be proving that it is not. Regardless of who is elected as president within the next couple of weeks, I can't help but see the organization moving back toward its faith-oriented roots. I am persuaded that a spiritual revival is underway in Affirmation, that we've reached a new milestone as an organization. Indeed, the LDS Church at large, LGBT people at large, and LGBT LDS in particular have reached a new milestone in a very long road that seems to be vindicating the vision of early Affirmation leaders so many years ago.
The spiritual outpouring we experienced at the Seattle Conference took place in the same year as the Mormon "summer of Pride," when hundreds of faithful LDS marched in gay pride parades in over a dozen cities in the US and Latin America. It took place in the same year that same-sex marriage was, for the first time ever, affirmed by the American electorate in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, as the culmination of state campaigns in which LDS participated in significant numbers in support of same-sex marriage. It took place in the same year when "Circling the Wagons" conferences were creating unprecedented opportunities for dialog involving ex-members, members, and leaders of the Church around issues affecting LGBT/SSA folks. It took place in the same context that allowed for the emergence of a vibrant, active LGBT/SSA student group at BYU (USGA or "Understanding Same Gender Attraction"). It took place in the same year that leaders of the San Francisco and Oakland Stakes announced that they were no longer excommunicating LGBT members in same-sex relationships, and in which there has been growing media attention on gay Mormons in same-sex relationships who are being allowed to participate in the Church, their membership intact. Far greater things lie in store.
The reason this post is so long is to provide sufficient consideration of these exciting events in historical context. I have wanted to focus not just on where we are now, but on where have come from. And I have particularly wanted to consider the role of our "gay elders" in bringing to pass what is coming to pass. And, more importantly, to draw attention to the fact that the work of our elders is not yet finished, and to consider what their/our work is or might be today.
First, as I reflect on our elders and pioneers, I am struck by a sense of tragedy. Many of us have been deeply wounded. Some mortally wounded. The harm done by the Church to so many of its LGBT members struck so deep, that many of these individuals may never experience total healing. (Though I still pray fervently for at least partial healing.) I recounted in my account of the Twin Cities "Mormon Allies" Pride March a story of a man who approached our contingent and told one of the marchers, "I was excommunicated three days after my lover died. I love you people. But get the f**k out."
There are still stories of heartbreak happening in the present day. LGBT suicide is still a problem. But the tragedies of today are mitigated and, more importantly, are increasingly prevented by a wide and ever-expanding network of support, both among straight and LGBT folks in and around the Church. Growing dialog and the accessibility of vast amounts of information are making the experience of present and future generations of LGBT Mormons more and more positive and hopeful. That information includes, significantly, a wealth of stories of LGBT Mormons that help us make sense of our own stories and help us each find our own way.
The Church is becoming open in a way that, to the founders of Affirmation, might have seemed like an impossible dream. Yet they dreamed it. We need to remember that they dreamed it.
Many of that generation literally experienced horror stories. And to the profound injury of unmitigated rejection that they experienced, is added the insult of new generations of Mormons -- LGBT and straight -- who may know, but don't fully appreciate what they went through. And I must say that I cringe every time I read accounts of Affirmation that describe it as a group of "angry old men." Let's please take that phrase out of circulation.
I came of age on that cusp of change that was rising in the late 1980s. So I remember. I experienced something of the world that these older men and women experienced. But I was privileged to be a part of the generation that saw our activism greeted with success. I was an activist -- playing a role in helping to establish Queer Studies as a legitimate field in Academia; challenging institutional homophobia at the University of Minnesota and helping to institute one of the first of four LGBT Programs Offices in the country. I was an activist for greater understanding in the Lutheran Church for a number of years. More recently, I participated as a volunteer and as a leader in the campaign to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota. That older generation were activists, but they tried and failed many times before the successes of my generation could be possible. They bore burdens that many of us will never understand what it is to bear.
I was also wounded by the Church, and angry at the Church for many years. But by the grace of God, I've also experienced a miraculous healing of the wounds and the anger. So I've been in the odd position of first being frustrated with Affirmation for being too "pro-Church," then later being frustrated with Affirmation for not being "pro-Church" enough. So I understand something about the anger. But I am mostly, today, moved by hope.
So this is my plea to the elders in Affirmation. I am speaking to those of you who helped found the organization and who have actively kept it together virtually since its inception. We need you. It's still not easy to be gay in America. And while things are much better, and are getting better all the time, and while fortunately our LGBT youth are increasingly surrounded by loving, understanding, supportive straight adults -- family, teachers, and even Church leaders -- they still need you. I know this from parenting a gay son. There are questions that young gay men and lesbians will have that only you can shed light on. There is a kind of hope that they need that only your presence and involvement in our communities can offer. You are the survivors and you remember the stories.
Wouldn't this be the fulfillment of the very first revelation of the Restoration received by the prophet Joseph? Weren't there promises that the Lord made to you that are being fulfilled now in the hearts of the children? Shouldn't our hearts now be turning toward each other?