I first attended the ExMormon Conference in 2001. Back then it was held in Las Vegas. The event included two powerful open mic sessions, a couple of afternoon presentations that I admit I’ve forgotten, and a fantastic talk by Richard Packham. After Richard’s remarks came an insanely irreverent “talent” show that featured a belly dancer, an actor who gave a convincing performance of Brigham Young and various skits of dubious quality. (I landed the minor role of a drunken Primary chorister.) Oh yes, that reminds me. There was drinking — plenty of drinking, thanks to an overflowing cash bar staffed by a tireless bartender. After the show, Brigham and the belly dancer left to party together in the casino, while the rest of us retired upstairs to the Hospitality Room for … you guessed it … more drinking.
When I think of the 2001 ExMormon Conference in Las Vegas, two things stand out in my memory. First, the embarrassing spectacle of middle-aged people getting drunk for the first time in their lives; and second, the painful and emotional confessionals that dominated the two open mic sessions. People who had recently left the LDS Church came to the podium with stories of rejection, severe depression, suicide attempts, extreme ecclesiastical abuse, and most of all,fear. While there were a few who claimed to have moved beyond, the vast majority of those who “testified” before the convention were still very much victims. They feared discipline from church authorities and shunning from their family and friends, so much so, that many refused to be filmed or to use their real names. It may have been the ExMormon Conference, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still seemed to quietly preside. But then, every movement has its early days. I suppose these were ours.
So how did 2001 measure up with 2012?Well, for starters the conference had been moved to Salt Lake City, just minutes away from Temple Square. Also the mood was decidedly different.
Half an hour into the Friday night’s opening program, David Twede of Mormon Thinkstrolled up to the podium of the open mic session and announced that he was resigning from the LDS Church. He then read his highly amusing exit letter that offered no apologies or explanations. — Only a request for the latest “temple hottie,” Eve’s, phone number and the hope that the Brethren will discipline the next Mormon Think editor so that the website’s popularity might be propelled “into orbit around Kolob.” Then he held his laptop up for the audience to see and pressed “send.”
On Saturday there were some presentations I will never forget.
Tom Donofrio delved into the origins of the language in the Book of Mormon, citing sources ranging from Solomon Spaulding to Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift. (Guess what Gulliver’s first name was. – snort –Lemuel.)
Sue Emmett spoke about the encroaching influence of religious extremism on our government, a topic she’s been researching since the author and investigative reporter, Jeff Sharlet, spoke at the conference a couple of years ago. (See, we’re branching out beyond Mormonism now.)
Grant Palmer’s fantastic talk, “My Ah-ha Moments While Researching Mormon History,” drew heavily on his excellent book, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.However he also spoke about the lack of vitality in today’s LDS Church and its borderline desperate attempts to regain ground by changing its approach to history and scripture (as shown by the firing of Daniel C. Peterson); also its efforts to reinvigorate the flagging missionary program (as shown by the Brethren’s recent change in the minimum age requirement for full time missionaries.) In what was perhaps the most powerful analogy of this year’s conference, Palmer compared today’s LDS Church to “a helium balloon that’s been hanging in the corner of the room for the past three days.”
I unfortunately had to miss Lori Fazzino’s presentation. (That’s the trouble with having family in Utah.) She spoke about “Becoming Unsaved: The Road to Deconversion and Beyond.” I heard it was fantastic.
Finally “Wade Wilson” – otherwise known as Raptor Jesus – gave a hilarious and poignant account of his mission experience and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed. Unlike 2001, “Wade” was the only person that I met at this year’s conference who used an alias. It wasn’t because he was afraid of being shunned by his family, however. He just didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
People who were there at the beginning of San Francisco’s Gay Rights Movement say the population of the city’s famous Castro district began as a party heavy crowd of closeted gay revelers who clung to their anonymity for fear of being shunned by their loved ones. Today the Castro is a family friendly community of openly gay and lesbian citizens and activists.
Perhaps that’s the direction the ExMormon Movement will take. At any rate, at the ExMormon Foundation Conference 2012 the LDS Church hung in the corner of the room like a three day old helium balloon. Meanwhile, the ExMormons stepped forward to preside with confidence, good humor and much hope for the future. But there were no skits or belly dancers. And, Bo, who tended Friday and Saturday night’s cash bar, found himself with long stretches of time on his hands.