Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dynamic Tension: Affirmation's Constituency and Mission

Affirmation, the world's oldest and largest organization of, by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mormons and their families and friends, has, since its inception in the late 1970s, had to deal with tension along the spectrum of how individuals understand their Mormon identity and manage their relationship with the LDS Church. Bluntly put, Affirmation has always experienced tension between those who are fundamentally committed to the LDS belief system and to some form of connection with the institutional Church, and those who see the LDS faith and Church at fundamental odds with being self-affirming as an LGBT person. As a result, in its three and a half decades or so of existence, both at the international and local levels, the organization has experienced a number of pendulum swings between approaches that are, on the one hand, secular, activist and confrontational, and, on the other hand, devout, conciliatory and committed to the Church.

There has been a tendency for individuals on both poles to see these “modes” of managing the tensions implicit in being gay and Mormon as fundamentally at odds. The assumption has been that the organization has had to choose between being fundamentally secular and activist or being fundamentally religious and devout. If the organization emphasized the former approach, it is often assumed, then those who valued their ties to Mormonism would not and could not feel comfortable participating in the organization. If the organization favored the latter, it is correlatively assumed, then those who saw their primary commitment as secular activism would secede from the organization. This “either/or” approach or mentality is unwarranted, unnecessary and harmful to the organization, for three reasons.

First, an organization that prioritizes one approach over the other cannot effectively reach or serve Affirmation's stated constituency: LGBT Mormons. There will always be LGBT Mormons in both categories, and an organization that chooses one approach over the other will always fail to serve a significant portion of those it claims to serve.

Second, very few if any members of Affirmation have always been or will always be adherents of one approach over the other. People can and do, in their individual life journeys, experience their own pendulum swings between faith and doubt, confrontation and conciliation, activism and quietism. Some leave faith and then come back. Some experience a conversion, and then later wrestle with doubt. If Affirmation chooses one pole over the other, it will effectively only serve people in one mode of their life journeys, and will fail to support folks at the most crucial times in their lives: when they are in transition!

Third, and most importantly, despite the persistence of perceptions to the contrary, significant goals of individual members of the organization can best be accomplished if the full range of view points and responses is present within the organization. In short, we need each other, and our fundamental goals are not as incompatible as we sometimes assume. It is this last point that this essay will explore in a bit more depth.

What I offer here is obviously a bit of an oversimplification. I'll draw the two poles or modes as “ideal types,” in their most extreme mode, in order to demonstrate my point. Obviously, real-life members of the organization may have more nuanced views and approaches to the fundamental problem.

I'll start with the “LDS devout” ideal type (since that's the type I currently identify with). Folks in this category fully identify as Mormon or as LDS. They might describe themselves as having some sort of “testimony” of the Gospel. They value their connection to the Church, and this implies some deference to the lines of priesthood authority and leadership in the Church. They hope for positive relationships with Church leaders and members. They hope to be involved, as much as possible, as active, faithful Church members. They recognize the Church's long history of poor treatment of LGBT individuals, and they recognize that many Church doctrines and practices (specifically focussed around temple marriage) don't seem to recognize the legitimacy of gay identities or relationships. But they still don't see this as an insuperable obstacle to the full and equal participation of LGBT individuals in the Church. In the history of the Church, past teachings have been refined or revised in light of expanded understanding; and the Church still holds to the doctrine of continuing revelation.

Goals of individuals in this “LDS devout” category typically include:
  • to live a devout life that includes prayer and worship with others of like mind (both gay and straight) and to feel and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit
  • to find some personal spiritual/theological resolution to the dilemmas inherent in being gay in a Church that in its public, institutional forums makes little space for being gay
  • to participate in dialog with Church members and leaders about homosexuality, with a goal of greater inclusiveness in the Church

The other ideal type might be called the “secular activist” type.

Though I don't currently identify with this type, I did for almost two decades, so I think I am capable of treating it with empathy. Since the purpose of this paper is understanding, I encourage any who currently identify with this ideal type to let me know if my presentation of it is deficient, as my goal is to develop a common platform within Affirmation across these two poles of “devout” versus “activist.”

Secular activist” members of Affirmation have disaffiliated from the LDS Church, and no longer believe it to be “the” or even “a” “true church.” However, they may have family members or friends who are active, believing LDS, and may hope for positive relationships with those individuals, even if only on the basis of “agreeing to disagree.” They may consider themselves “culturally” Mormon, in much the same sense that “secular Jews” consider themselves Jews. Their primary concern in relation to the LDS Church revolves around the active harm they see the Church doing by inculcating LGBT youth with negative attitudes toward homosexuality that will eventually lead to severe internal conflict, including depression and suicide, and contribute to other social problems such as homelessness among LGBT youth, and various other forms of self-destructive behavior among LGBT youth and adults. Their personal solution to the problem of uncharitable and inequitable treatment of LGBT people in the Church has been to remove themselves from the Church. If the Church maintained political neutrality, that might be enough. However, to the extent that the LDS Church gets involved in political campaigns to deny equal rights and equal treatment of LGBT people in the larger society, they feel a moral obligation to protest and resist such efforts. They feel that as former Mormons, they are in a unique position to be able to address what they see as some of the more extreme abuses of the Church.

Goals of individuals in this “secular activist” category typically include:
  • getting a sense of personal closure in relation to their former faith, and then moving on, perhaps with no faith at all, or perhaps in another community of faith that they see as more welcoming of LGBT people and more congenial to their values
  • saving” LGBT Mormon youth from “internalized homophobia”
  • working for full political and social equality of LGBT people or working to serve the LGBT community (through political efforts to pass anti-discrimination laws and/or marriage equality, and through AIDS outreach work, outreach to homeless youth, etc.)

Of course the constellation of concerns I've identified within these two “ideal types” are not mutually exclusive. A devout member of the Church with a testimony could also believe in marriage equality and be concerned about helping homeless youth or people living with AIDS. A person who has left the LDS Church and is no longer affiliated with it in any way might still value aspects of his or her Mormon upbringing, and might value various forms of worship, personal piety and spiritual expression (albeit in a community of faith other than the LDS Church). That's why, I think, it's important to address some of the “fears” and “stereotypes” that typically drive tension and conflict between folks who identify with one of these poles or another. My purpose in identifying “fears” and “stereotypes” is not to perpetuate them, but hopefully to deflate them.

Individuals who choose to affiliate with the Church are not “mindlessly obedient” to the dictates of Church leaders. They haven't “turned off their brains” or closed themselves off to “rational critiques” of Mormon belief. The fact that they choose to affiliate is usually actually a sign of the opposite; that they are willing to wrestle to find a thoughtful faith that works for them. They are not unwilling to dialog, but they do tend to get weary of constant carping about everything that's negative in the Church. They are not unconcerned about social action; in fact, they may be very activist. But they seek ways to do activism that involve building alliances with faithful Church members and that avoid harsh public criticism of the Church or its leaders. They do not have it as a goal to “force” members of Affirmation to “believe” a certain way; but they do want the organization to be friendly to expressions of traditional LDS devotion, and they want the organization to present a public face that will not automatically turn off their active LDS family members, friends, and fellow parishioners.

Individuals who choose not to affiliate with the Church are not “angry naysayers” or people who have “left the Church but can't leave it alone.” They are not “anti-Mormon.” Rather, they see dissent and criticism as constructive, as something that could help those active in the Church make it a better Church if they were only willing to listen. They do not deny Mormonism a rightful place in the world; indeed, they see their commitment to separation of Church and state as Mormonism's likeliest, best guarantee of that rightful place, given that everywhere but in small portions of the Intermountain West, Mormons are less than 1-2% of the population. They don't want Affirmation to be unfriendly to individuals who identify as Mormon. In fact, they recognize that Affirmation will fail in its mission long term if it doesn't appeal to people in this category. But they want to be able to express themselves without feeling they have to censor themselves, and they don't generally have much interest in participating in activities where LDS-style devotion is a prominent feature.

Having gotten some of that out of the way (certainly not in any comprehensive way), I think it's worth pointing out now how having both types of members active and visible in the organization will be critical to serving Affirmation's primary constituency, and achieving the goals that different members of the organization have.

First, I hope it will be more obvious now than it was when I earlier stated it in this essay that having a diversity of viewpoints in the organization will actually be more functional for individuals who are wrestling or struggling or in transition in relation to their faith and/or sexuality. Seeing that there are a variety of healthy ways to respond to the challenges of being LGBT and Mormon will give people choices. It will empower individuals to make their own decisions about precisely how faith fits or does not fit into his or her life. They will see different ways to manage choices about relationships, and seeing the outcomes in others' lives of trying to manage these choices in different ways. They can encounter individuals who are single and dating, or individuals who are celibate; individuals who have been or who currently are in so-called “mixed orientation marriages,” as well as individuals in same-sex marriages or committed relationships. They can encounter individuals who are finding various positive ways to make LDS faith work in their lives, and judge for themselves whether they find it healthier to sever their ties with Mormonism. Personal authenticity and autonomy can only be enhanced through participation in a healthy community that embraces diversity. Authenticity (honesty) and autonomy (or “agency” in Mormonspeak) are strong, positive values for folks on both ends of the spectrum discussed here.

For those who value constructive dialog with the Church, it will be good to have relationships with individuals who have left the Church. The Church needs to hear the stories of disaffiliated LGBT people to fully understand the nature of the challenges faced by LGBT LDS people. Political activism will have the effect of promoting discussion in the Church, even when that discussion starts out in a negative way. For instance, the backlash experienced by the Church in the wake of Proposition 8 has had a leavening effect on dialog within the Church, and has motivated large numbers of Church members to open up a dialog they were previously unwilling to engage in.

For those outside the Church, who want to see the Church “do less harm” to LGBT youth, the presence and activity of devout LGBT members can only be seen as a positive thing; they should be supportive and encouraging of those who find ways to be present and visible in the Church. Those individuals' presence will also promote the kinds of dialog that might eventually persuade Church leaders to be more conciliatory in the public, political sphere. The Church is unlikely to feel motivated to examine teachings and doctrines that have a history of causing heartache and harm if they don't see a solid core of LGBT individuals who have a deep love for the Church and are committed to it, even as they struggle with some of its teachings.

Affirmation needs to be an organization where devout LDS LGBT people can come together to pray, sing hymns, wrestle with faith questions from a faithful perspective, and find support in the challenges of being LGBT and faithful. Affirmation also needs to be an organization where people can come together and unburden their doubts, ask difficult questions, and process difficult emotions (including anger and grieving that come along with leaving the Church or experiencing family rejection). An organization that would do all those things would serve all of its members far better.

In the last few years, Affirmation has been moving toward a more Church- and faith-positive position, and this move has attracted a large influx of members, energy and new leaders. It has also turned some folks off. Some have posed the question: Will Affirmation now become unfriendly to questioners or those who have disaffiliated from the Church? The only honest answer, I think, is it could but it doesn't have to. I've tried to make a case here for why it shouldn't, and I do so as one of the advocates of incorporating a stronger faith-positive component into the organization. It would be nice to see Affirmation find a healthy balance and an optimal, dynamic tension between the two poles described here, rather than constantly being in some devout-LDS vs. secular-activist pendulum swing.

The kinds of tensions that Affirmation is experiencing are not unique in the Mormon world. Other organizations such as the “Mormon Stories” and “Circling the Wagons” communities, “Mormons Building Bridges,” and the “Sunstone” symposia and affiliated communities have wrestled with the same tensions. I believe that developing a core ethic of empathy along the lines developed by the “Empathy First Intiative” and “Circles of Empathy” may be a key to moving forward. The better we can do at asking questions rather than making assumptions, and allowing for changing organizational dynamics without assuming the worst about these changes, the more staying power and dynamism we will have as an organization.