Thoughts on the Affirmation Conference

Two weeks ago I attended the annual Affirmation Conference in Salt Lake. It was well attended and overall a great success. Kudos to the Affirmation leaders who put it together. For specifics on the conference I’ll just refer you to Affirmation’s website. There really isn’t much point in me going over things that are already online there.

These conferences are wonderful in helping gay people realize that God loves them just as they are, and have great value in “harm reduction” for gay youth. Caitlan Ryan, one of the presenters and a professor at San Francisco State, is a hero who has done much research on helping people of faith to be less rejecting of their LGBT family members thus greatly reducing risks for suicide, drug abuse etc. I have tremendous admiration for her and her work. Getting young LGBT people to adulthood emotionally unscathed and healthy is a very worthy goal.

Having said that, I must concede some misgivings. Affirmation at times seems too focused on helping gay Mormons maintain their faith in, and ties to the Mormon Church. It was pointed out that Affirmation is for everyone regardless of where one is on the Mormon spectrum, but the conference failed to adequately address the feelings of those of us who no longer believe in the Church and feel that Mormonism is still, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a toxic place for gay people. Even if “loved,” we are very much second class. I say we need to get young people to adulthood in one healthy piece, but self-loathing gay adults are also a problem. I understand the need for a “big tent” and really believe we need to love and accept each other even if we have conflicting world views. Affirmation simply needs to address more world views.

As I’ve said before, you can take a person out of Mormonism but you can’t take Mormonism out of the person. At least not completely. Mormonism is such an all encompassing way of life that it’ll always be a part of us. Some of us non-believers want to maintain some ties to our Mormon past but have no desire to ever again be a part of the Church. Affirmation needs us, and needs to address our concerns too.

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9 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    That is a very interesting development. I’ve heard that there’s always been a lot of tension between the people in Affirmation who want to affirm affiliation with the CoJCoL-dS and the people who see it as a toxic place for gay people. I heard a rumor a few years ago that the latter group had essentially won, but then this recent post by J G-W seemed to indicate a shift the other direction, which your experience confirms.

  2. Just Jill says:

    I remember the first Affirmation conference I attended. Seattle 1996ish. I met the love of my life there so I’ll always be glad I went. There was such a mix of people there; all along the belief/faith spectrum and, to me, that was what made Affirmation excellent. I saw it evolve to just a big gay general conference and felt it didn’t meet my needs anymore.

    It was okay because I had moved past a lot of insecurities by then and healed a lot of wounds. I just left Affirmation and moved on. But like J G-W I too wish the good ol’ days of Affirmation ‘one for all and all for one’ was back.

  3. chanson says:

    I met the love of my life there so I’ll always be glad I went.

    That’s so sweet!! I like the adventure of being married to someone from a totally different culture, but there’s definitely something to be said for being with someone who understands where you’re coming from. 😀

  4. Alan says:

    I heard a rumor a few years ago that the latter group had essentially won, but then this recent post by J G-W seemed to indicate a shift the other direction, which your experience confirms.

    The latter group had won for decades because there wasn’t much room to be gay in the Church. Church leaders have always been like, “You’re not really gay” and “You shouldn’t concentrate on this gayness thing, especially with other people who experience it, cuz you’ll be tempted,” etc. People more drastically turned away from the Church, or to Evergreen and North Star who admittedly have helped break down the barrier of gay association, though they both still would assert that gayness is essentially an “earthly problem.” Hopefully, Affirmation would still uphold that gays are gay in Heaven….but since I haven’t been keeping up with the org, I don’t know how assimilationist they’ve become in recent years.

    The difficulty Affirmation has had historically is that it’s been a stepping stone for gays who eventually leave the Church because there was no space to be “gay” in Mormonism. So, Affirmation had trouble maintaining its membership. But now that the Church is more “welcoming,” more open to gay self-identification… people want to stick around (i.e., they’re not pushed away). So, this reflects in the make-up of Affirmation’s attendees and its level of LDS spiritual engagement.

    I’m not one to critique the “believing” aspect; my only concern is that a critical eye has been lost. Especially when I see hand-holding between, say, Affirmation and Mormons Building Bridges, etc. I’m not a fan of, I guess what you could call “Mormon politics,” where you’re never supposed to express anger, or seem too much like an outsider, or directly critique church leaders. Personally, I received a lot of validation during a speech I gave recently to a group of believing Mormons, where I critiqued the Proc on the Family, the Church, Mormons Building Bridges, etc, that my way of engaging and critiquing the Church is appropriate…(hopefully videos of the “Compassionate Cause” conference that was here in Seattle in August will be posted soon)…. so with all that said, the “less-agitating” turn that Affirmation has taken leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because “more spirituality” seems to correlate with being “less critical.” (Why?)

    Fortunately, I don’t think necessarily that the Church is winning in convincing its young gay people of its message by showing more “love.” Rather, I think that the agitation is being internalized rather than externalized, or the borders are less obvious between inside and outside on this issue.

  5. TGD says:

    When I first joined Affirmation back in 2008, I was looking for an in-between place. Someplace where I knew people understood the terrible and toxic environment I came out of but would not try to approach my situation with any religious speak. And that’s what I got, for a time. A secular and grounded viewpoint to what was happening to me.

    But within a year it started shifting as people would come to the pride festival Affirmation booth inquiring about the organization but saying outright that they wouldn’t be interested if was just people bashing the church. And here I was, talking to someone else at the booth and doing just that, harshly and unapologetically bashing the church. It became pretty apparent to me within the next year that I would be unwelcome if I continued on that course.

    I excused myself from the organization eventually. I pretty much got what I needed out of it for the sake of that transition time. There really wasn’t any social reason to stay as my ideas and philosophy didn’t connect with anyone anymore. And my attitudes about religion and the church just created a lot of drama with the folks there. And the few friends I found there have all since moved on and drifted away.

    I got involved in the Mormon Stories groups after that. Found it to be a bit more broad, a much better Big Tent Mormonismâ„¢ and with much less drama. Where as in the new Affirmation group I had found it to be moving towards a tone similar to the Mormons Building Bridges groups where there was no hard discussions about the realities of life, spirituality, and religion. To do so would be inviting the devil. Essentially Affirmation is now really only for the believers. But then, it may have always been that way, it’s just that when I joined it, it didn’t seem like it.

  6. Andrew S says:

    Although I’ve read about the shift in Affirmation’s direction and what not, I had a different reaction to it after reading this discussion.

    So, one major problem in a lot of these “big tent” spaces is that it’s pretty easy to become overly critical. I suppose that for LGBT issues, this is really justified, because the church simply isn’t doing much that’s constructive on the issue.

    But take something like mormon stories. John D often wants to change the direction of the FB community to being something more constructive. The Mormon Hub, when MSPC was temporarily shut down, was the attempt to try to create that environment. In this sense, big tent really means something more like “truth claim agnostic”, where the emphasis is really on creating a space for liberal/uncorrelated types who discuss issues about the church separate from either truth claims or the “worst” aspects of the church.

    The problem is that, without moderation or some other way to set and reinforce the direction, it really is easy for any board to go critical, and the church doesn’t really make it easier, lol, so there’s often new fodder to criticize the church for.

  7. TGD says:

    There is also the Gay Mormon Storiesâ„¢ effort that John D. put together that seemed to help Affirmation advance quicker to be more for the faithful types. There was a definite need for this shift in the type of support on line and many groups on Facebook popped up where Affirmation was greatly lagging behind on the social network scene. I only participated in the Facebook version of Gay Mormon Storiesâ„¢ and found, again, that I was not a good fit there either as it was attracting the faithful types.

    I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a broad “big tent” to encompass everyone as John D. envisions. Everyone is at very different and conflicting stages in their lives and because of the drastic differences in everyone’s emotional maturity, the groups have to be narrowly focused to avoid the enviable drama.

    I found that most of what gets talked about in any of the Mormon Stores Facebook groups have had very little interest for me anymore. I cared very little to nothing about church history problems or about any matters of reinterpreting doctrine. My initial want for being there was so I could take a critical look at the dysfunctional Mormon culture in order to help me sort out what a mind fuck I had been through. They have essentially been transitional spaces for me just like Affirmation.

    My only real interest in sticking around now, mostly just tangentially observing rather than immersive participation, is so that I don’t miss the inevitable slow motion train wreck the current Mormon culture is headed for.

  8. ExMoHoMoDon says:

    I was one of the original members of Affirmation–made wonderful friends there and found lots of direction and support. My essay about aversion therapy at BYU I think is still on the Affirmation website. However, my attitude about Affirmation began to change when Affirmation was looking for former BYU students to join Soulforce at a BYU stop. I was told by Affirmation leaders that although I was willing to go (I thought my experience with aversion therapy might be relevant) that I was ‘too old’ and that BYU students couldn’t relate to someone of my age. After that, the direction towards becoming an apologetic organization for the Mormon Church solidified and I was kind of done with it after that. Anyhow, people need to fulfill their needs and have their own experience in dealing with their Mormon issues. To me, Affirmation is no longer relevant, and definitely not a ‘big tent’. If others find that it is, more power to them–I hope that it fills their needs.

  9. Alan says:

    @ 8: YES. This is a big issue that is concerning.

    As the Church becomes more “accepting,” there’s a danger of the injustices of the past being brushed over for the hopes of a better future. For a long time, Affirmation had a “grudge” problem: the anger of older gay Mormons who endured aversion therapy, who were disowned, told they were evil, etc, made for a bitter organization that was not appealing to young people. But that bitterness came from a very critical place….now Affirmation seems more content to work at Church’s pace, which is glacially slooooow……


    so that I don’t miss the inevitable slow motion train wreck the current Mormon culture is headed for.

    If it moves at the speed of glacier, can it really be considered a “wreck?” I think that’s the Church’s strategy. Change as slowly as possible to limit the perception of a “wreck.”

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