Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Win Win

I've been having a lot of conversations the past week about Affirmation and the LDS Church.

Speaking of a time when she felt alienated from Affirmation and dropped out of activity in it, one individual said to me: "I felt like... I had been disowned by my family again. ... Affirmation means so much to me. It is my only family."

Toward the end of another conversation, I looked into the eyes of the person I was speaking with. This individual and I see things quite differently. We had been having a very positive, but also very difficult conversation about Affirmation and the Church. Toward the end of our conversation, as I looked into her eyes, she smiled, but I also noticed a glistening of tears that signaled deep yearning.

I am struck by the sacredness of each person's path through life. I am also struck by how much we mean to each other, and how desperately we need each other's love and approval. The idea of Affirmation as a people to whom LGBT Mormons (however variously defined!) can turn for unconditional love and support is powerful. And when people who have found that at Affirmation feel it threatened, the "fight or flight" instinct can kick in. And we can fight.

People have been brutalized by the Church. You can say, "Well that was just some people. They weren't really living the Gospel." And that may well be true. But there's also a core challenge that relates to Church doctrine and policies and procedures and mores. To experience excommunication because you have chosen to pursue something as core to human happiness as love and intimate human connection is brutal, no matter how kind a face you try to put on it.

And I understand how some people need Affirmation to be a refuge from that. And I understand how it may even offend some people to find themselves in the midst of individuals in Affirmation who, in a variety of ways, embrace the Church. I've been accused of having "Stockholm Syndrome." It's the only way some people seem to be able to explain how I would want anything to do with the LDS Church.

Others can speak for themselves, but I can say that embracing my faith as a Latter-day Saint and choosing to be active in a Church where I remain excommunicated is the opposite of masochism or self-denigration. For me it is a profound affirmation of my humanity. It is an insistence that I am a child of God and I belong in his kingdom. That I feel the Spirit at Church is a weekly reminder that God agrees. For the LGBT person -- despite all the obstacles and adversity they may face -- to be active in the Church is to redeem the Church from homophobia and transphobia. It is to insist that those things are not what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about. I will not abandon my faith because of what other people think. I will not be moved for what anybody under Heaven thinks.

That affirmation of our humanity, of our divine heritage, and that redemption of the community from the worst instincts of our all-too-fallen nature is what I, in the core of my being, believe Affirmation must be about. If it isn't, we have sold ourselves way, way too short.

To affirm that, to insist on that, is not to denigrate another single soul in or out of Affirmation. I can hold fiercely to my faith, and still fiercely defend my brother or sister who, wounded in battle, has found it necessary to retreat.

What this means in practical terms for the organization, I think, is that holding to that core of faith is not about driving anybody out of the organization. It is not about valuing some in the organization more than others. It is not about saying that some are better or braver or have more faith than others. It is not about denying people their family. We must be loyal to each other. If we are not, we have misunderstood the Gospel. My life is built around commitments: my commitment to my husband, my commitment to my family, my commitment to God, my commitment to my fellow Saints in the Church, and if I desire to serve Affirmation as president, my commitment to you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why I Am Running for President of Affirmation

Up until a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure I would never want to be president of Affirmation. I served as senior vice president for two years, and have since been serving on the Board, and I have seen up close how hard Randall Thacker the current (and outgoing) president worked. I saw that to be president of Affirmation is pretty much to have a full-time unpaid job that involves a lot of travel at your own expense and that involves having one problem after another thrown at you – often the most painful kinds of problems one can try to solve. It means being constantly open to criticism not just from foes but from friends too. It means working to serve one of the most stressed communities it is possible to serve, a community that, among other things, is especially vulnerable to extreme depression and suicide, and many of whose members have experienced extreme rejection from family members and friends, including to the point of being turned out of their own homes. And lastly, it means serving a community that is sharply divided over what it means to be L, G, B or T or SSA and Mormon. How ironic that the identity that unites us often also seems to divide us so painfully!

Yet, it is precisely those challenges that call those of us who have served in Affirmation in its nearly four decades of existence to service. In the last few years, literally hundreds of individuals have answered that call – in local chapters, in regional and national gatherings, in organizing service projects and Pride marches, in working and dialoging with Church leadership, in managing social media and communications and virtual conferences, in organizing spiritual gatherings and leadership trainings. Randall has been the kind of leader who inspired people to answer that call. And that's another reason the idea of being president of Affirmation gives me pause. I worry that I might not be able to be the kind of leader who can inspire in the way he has inspired so many of us.

Affirmation is about service, and not just for ourselves. Yes, we are ministering to each other, within our organization. But we are also ministering to a larger community, many of whom may never attend an Affirmation event. Affirmation must be in the world about healing the injured, repairing the broken and gathering the lost. Affirmation should be about empowering LGBT Mormons for service in wide fields in the Church and in the world.

I have been extremely blessed. Superabundantly blessed. This month my husband and I are celebrating our 23rd anniversary as a couple. We have owned a beautiful home together for almost twenty of those years, and are blessed with financial stability. We were legally married in 2008. The most meaningful thing we've ever done as a couple was to parent an amazing foster son. We are blessed with family acceptance. We are embraced by large extended family networks – by my devout Mormon family, and by my husband's devout Christian family in Iowa and in Memphis, Tennessee.

My greatest personal blessing is my testimony of the Gospel. From that testimony, and from living it to the best of my ability, other blessings have flowed: the Holy Spirit's guidance and presence in my life, and opportunities for learning and service in my LDS ward. My ward and my Church leaders love me and support me the best they can. Through my activity in the Church – despite being formally excommunicated – I have experienced God's love and presence in my life in a way I never imagined possible. That has provided a foundation of peace and joy in my life for facing all the various challenges my life continues to throw at me. Through my activity in the Church, I have discerned and continue to discern a way forward. I know that God loves his LGBT sons and daughters with a fierce love, and that if we go forward in faith – even through the most difficult spaces in this lone and dreary world – God will prepare the way for the ultimate reconciliation we all yearn for.

Sam Wolfe, a member of the Affirmation Board, suggested at our last Board meeting that I consider running for president of Affirmation. After that, I began to give it some serious thought, counting the cost for me personally and for my husband. I talked to my husband about the sacrifice I felt that kind of service would entail, and we discussed whether he would be able to sustain me in it. We talked about it over the course of about a week, and he has committed to sustain me. I prayed about it, and as I prayed, I received some light on the subject and felt great peace about it. My sense is that if the general membership of Affirmation agrees and will have me in this role, this is something I should do, and something that, if I give heart and mind and hand to it, I can do well. I have been richly blessed, so it is appropriate for me to give back in this way, if I can.

I believe that someday, there will be no more need for Affirmation. LGBT Mormons will be fully integrated into the life of our Church. There will be no more misunderstanding or ostracism. We, as a Church, will have received fully satisfying answers to the deep existential questions that have troubled so many of us. We will truly be a Zion people in relation to the issues that affect LGBT individuals and our families and loved ones. Everything in my experience as a person of faith, and in my experience the last ten years of activity in the Church teaches me that that is where we are headed. I believe that Affirmation can and should play a positive role in preparing for that.

In the meantime, I believe Affirmation's on-going priorities need to be:
  • supporting LGBT individuals in finding faithful ways forward as Latter-day Saints,
  • sustaining an inclusive, safe and healing community for those who have been injured by homophobia within the Mormon community, and
  • providing resources for dialog and for greater understanding among Latter-day Saints about issues that affect LGBT/SSA Mormons.
Randall has been working hard to strengthen Affirmation in the Intermountain West, where, demographically, there is the greatest need for the kind of work that Affirmation does, and has also worked hard to develop support systems for LGBT Mormons in Latin America. I feel strongly that Affirmation needs to continue to develop our organizational infrastructure in these places. I've asked Sara Jade Woodhouse, who has been one of the most dynamic and articulate leaders within the trans community in Utah if she would, contingent on my being elected, consider being my senior vice president. I've asked Adryán Sán Román, currently the president of Affirmation Mexico, if he would be my other vice president. Despite potential challenges of having an international and bi-lingual executive committee, Adry, Sara Jade and I feel a great sense of excitement about the possibility of working together in these roles. I hope we will be given that opportunity.

At some level, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't see signs of the Spirit at work both within the LGBT community and within the Church bringing about a kind of convergence. Members and leaders of the Church at all levels are really wrestling to understand better what it really means to be LGBT or SSA and Mormon. They are showing deep empathy and a yearning for LDS Churches and wards to be welcoming, nurturing places where their LGBT brothers and sisters can worship and love and follow Christ alongside them. 

LGBT people are feeling the Spirit drawing them to faith in general and to the LDS Church in particular. Ten years ago I never would have imagined it possible, but I am no longer surprised to encounter LGBT individuals who had no exposure to Mormonism growing up, but who feel the Spirit and convert. When we come to the Church, it's not always clear to us exactly how that is going to work, especially for those of us who are in committed same-sex relationships or marriages. So it's a remarkable act of faith. Nevertheless, as unconventional as it may be both from the point of view of many in the LGBT community as well as from the point of view of many in the Church, those of us who have gone in that path are finding something to nurture our souls and we are finding the Spirit.

Matt Price, one of the founders of Affirmation, once wrote:

Don’t forget the work of the Spirit. I don’t want to seem overly dependent 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.

I believe we are at a pivotal moment in the work of the Kingdom as it regards God's LGBT children. I believe there is indeed a role and a purpose for Affirmation that we ourselves may not see yet in its entirety, but that involves helping us to connect to each other, to the Spirit, and to the Church.

If you feel that too, consider connecting with Affirmation, and see what service the Spirit might have for you in the larger LGBT Mormon community, in the Church and beyond!