Some folks I spoke with after the conference had ended expressed frustration that so much of the focus in the conference had been on how people with divergent perspectives on a contentious issue should speak with one another. Much of the focus of the conference was on the ethics of communication. I heard people say they wished that the speakers at the conference had entered into discussion about the substantive issues that divide us.
I understand this feeling, but I disagree. I think the conference did just what we most needed it to do. Before we discuss the substantive areas of disagreement on an issue that has caused as much pain and division as this issue, we need to believe whole-heartedly that those who disagree with us are not our enemies. We've already tried to enter into dialog with people who disagree with us when there is not this trust, believing that somehow the "facts" themselves would resolve the issues. And the results of that kind of dialog have resulted in schism and recrimination, usually escalating into ideological warfare. And we've seen the tragic casualties of that warfare. Real people whose lives are shattered, many of whose shattered lives end in suicide.
What this conference did more than any before it was to bring together many of the most influential LGBT/SSA leaders in the Mormon community, and it provided us an opportunity to try something different than what has been tried before. And we did in fact do something different from what has ever been done before. So there lies my hope.
My skepticism lies in the fact that we spent the weekend investing in a process that requires the development of relationships, and that will require substantially more time, energy, patience and charity. If we don't follow through with the requisite relationship building work, if the main players don't remain committed to the process, we're back at square one in very short order.
In the workshop I participated in, entitled "Navigating Church Activity as an LGBTQ or SSA Mormon," I shared the stand with Ty Mansfield, Tom Christofferson, Kayla Burningham and Jamison Manwaring (our moderator). We had two Northstar members (Ty and Kayla) and two Affirmation members (Tom and I) discuss a common value shared by all of us: activity in the Church. We presented the workshop twice.
What astonished me when all was said and done was how strong our common ground had been. There was no substantial disagreement on any of the major issues we discussed. Common threads included:
- our desire for Church activity was motivated by a profound yearning for a deeper relationship with God
- yes, Church leaders and members make mistakes and "fall short of the mark," and yes it is painful when they do that
- we can and should distinguish between our devotion to God and our activity in the Church
- misunderstanding of and poor treatment of us by other Saints provides us an opportunity to learn the core Christian value of love
- activity in the Church has blessed our lives and made us better people
Were there areas of difference? Yes. There were profound differences in terms of our perceptions of the role of "same-sex attraction" or "gayness" in our lives, and our perception of how we needed to respond to it.
We were brutally honest about our own experiences, and we didn't hide the parts of our stories that might have starkly set us apart or against one another. The power of the presentation was in the common ground we had found, despite dramatically different backgrounds and stories.
I am certain we will need to explore the differences in greater depth at some future time. But I am hopeful that when that time comes, we will be grounded in the love and the empathy we felt for each other when we focused on what we share.
Though the focus of the conference was on the ethics of communication, and on beginning to find common grounds and common meeting spaces, that did not mean that the conference was devoid of substantive discussion.
The talk which I found most moving and most interesting was David Matheson's talk. David said two things that struck me, and that I felt pointed to a starting point for future substantive discussion.
First, at one point in his talk, he said, "I was aware that I could have chosen to be homosexual." He spoke of the satisfactions that came from same-sex relationships for him, both physical and emotional. But for him it was ultimately always something that he saw as separate from the core of who he was.
I have been profoundly aware, especially recently, how alien that experience is to me. I have never had any sense that being gay was something that was not just inherently there, so core a part of me that the greatest challenge of my life was to conceptualize how I might possibly have been something different. Unlike many of my peers in the LGBT/SSA Mormon world, I never attempted any form of "reparative therapy." At one point in my journey I blamed myself for not trying everything possible to "change." But as I have matured, and as I have reflected on why I never went to some therapist to get fixed, I have realized it was from a profound wisdom. It was from a deep awareness of how utterly artificial and misguided any such attempt would have been.
I believe that what we have categorized under the artificially simple concept of "sexual orientation" is much more complex than that. And whatever "sexual orientation" is or means, I do not have the same sexual orientation as David Matheson. And it is an error to compare his story to mine, or my story to his.
The second thing David Matheson said that was both substantive and helpful was his admission that in his practice of helping reduce or eliminate unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction, there were individuals he could help and individuals he simply could not. I was grateful for this acknowledgment that there is difference, and that difference matters.
In reflecting on my experience at the conference in general, I realized that finding common ground will help us to learn how to talk authentically to one another. And in reflecting on David Matheson's talk, I realized that talking openly about difference is critical to understanding both ourselves and others.
I don't believe our time together this past weekend was time wasted.