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Affirmation confab draws LGBT Mormons to SF

by Brian Bromberger

Hearth Founders Katherine and Jeff Wise talked about their organization at the opening reception for the Affirmation conference. Photo: Brian Bromberger
Hearth Founders Katherine and Jeff Wise talked about their organization at the opening reception for the Affirmation conference. Photo: Brian Bromberger  

LGBT Mormons and their allies met in San Francisco recently, and talked about working to gain greater acceptance in a religion that shuns them.

The conference, held May 4-6 at the Harvey Milk Recreational Center, brought together members of Affirmation, the world's largest support group for LGBTQ Mormons and former Mormons.

"Affirmation works for the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions as full, equal, and worthy persons within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and society," according to Brandt Hill, co-chair of the group's Bay Area Regional Conference.

The event drew 160 attendees, many from Utah, where the Mormon Church is based, but also from across the country. They heard keynote addresses from LDS historian Greg Prince; Encircle board Presidents Barb Young and Will Spendlove, and breakout topics about parenting, trans and intersex issues, and sexual health, courtesy of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Strut health center.

Attendees also heard from outgoing National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Kate Kendell, herself a former Mormon, and Gary and Millie Watts, parents of a gay son and lesbian daughter.

At the conference's opening reception at Salesforce Tower, Jeff and Katherine Wise talked about their gay son, Talmage, who inspired them to start a support group in 2015 for Mormon parents that became known as the Hearth. The Hearth has sponsored, organized, and hosted events featuring speakers delivering fireside talks. It also has fellowship and services to build and strengthen an accepting, inclusive LGBTQ community. The support group was a significant step for the couple, as Jeff Wise was a bishop, one of the spiritual leaders of LDS.

Craig Mangum, president and co-founder of the Out Foundation, a network of LGBTQ alumni of Brigham Young University, spoke at the reception about the organization's purpose as a gathering place for queer alumni who felt alienated from BYU and wanted to express their concern for the well-being of current queer BYU students but had no way of showing their support.

In a 2017 study conducted by the Princeton Review, BYU ranked fourth among colleges most hostile to queer students. Out Foundation finances grants for queer students, provides network events and alumni gatherings, documents BYU's queer history, and gives a platform for alumni to tell their stories.

Mangum and other speakers said that suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah for people aged 15 to 24, with LGBTQ youth three times more likely to report suicide.
Spendlove talked about Encircle's mission as a resource center to embrace and sustain every LGBTQ youth and family.

"Encircle seeks to deepen and enrich the conversation among communities of faith and LGBTQ-plus people," he said at the reception. "By teaching individuals to love themselves and empowering families, Encircle helps cultivate an environment where LGBTQ-plus individuals can thrive."

Its programs and services meet people wherever they are in their lives with cultural competency and sensitivity, using community partnerships, best practices, and innovative techniques to create a family connection where there may no longer be one, as well as free counseling on site with licensed therapists.

Encircle has 11 support groups with storytelling, art classes, writing workshops, and music nights, with the help of 600-plus volunteers. There is an Encircle in Provo, Utah, with a new one opening in Salt Lake City this fall.

Carson Tueller, president of Affirmation, said the organization sponsors 20 gatherings in nine countries. Affirmation hopes to open a new chapter in San Francisco, and, during the conference, officials were trying to ascertain if there was enough interest to do so. This year the big focus was to get leaders and members trained in suicide prevention.

Prince, a scientist and independent Mormon historian, talked about his forthcoming book on the intersection of the LDS Church and LGBTQ issues, to be published at the end of the year by University of Utah Press. Prince spoke of how former LDS President Spencer Kimball in 1976 said homosexuality was a crime against nature and a sin equal to or greater than adultery. The church embraced the behavioral model that said homosexuality was chosen and thus can be rejected by a person.

Prince called for a paradigm shift in that there has been a gradual accumulation of scientific data that shows homosexuality cannot be changed, and that both genetic and epigenetic (biological processes working on a fetus) factors determine sexual orientation, which is immutable.

In the last few years, the Mormon Church has started to recognize that homosexuality may be inborn but still teaches that queer people shouldn't act on it, a teetering point according to Prince that is homophobic and not sustainable.

Throughout the conference, in talks with attendees (who didn't want to be named), they said that those who go to church are responsible to change the culture, not the doctrine.

"Be vocal, stand up for your beliefs, stand for truth, but don't be hostile," one person said.

Others have left Mormonism, rejecting the church's doctrinal authority and don't want to give any money until the problem is fixed. Many queer people have left because they don't feel safe and fear possible violence. Others maintain a spiritual connection outside the church: "my status as an ex-communicated gay man doesn't say anything about my relationship with God," one person said.

Two parents of gay children, Kristin Montgomery from Seattle and Julie Packer from outside Sacramento, said most Affirmation members have rejected the official teaching of the Mormon Church on homosexuality. This issue has also caused many to reexamine Mormon teachings on other issues and they have even termed themselves "Cafeteria Mormons," who, like "Cafeteria Catholics," pick and choose their beliefs. Montgomery considers herself a cultural Mormon, but is no longer active in the church.

"I feel like my ancestors came across the plains and sacrificed, so that is who I am," she said.

Packer has opted to stay, "and make change from within. I need to be one of those people who understand the situation that LGBTQ kids in the church face and make it as safe as possible for them. Change is happening at the grassroots and hopefully, someday it will trickle to the top leadership."

They see no hope with new church President Russell Nelson, a 93-year-old heart surgeon, and both women said that any change is at least 20 to 30 years away.

Honoree Millie Watts said that it wasn't until her son came out to her that "I started thinking for myself after letting the church tell me what to do about everything."

Kendell said she was fortunate that she had supportive parents, a strong indicator of better outcomes for LGBTQ children.

Kendell urged the audience to remain hopeful since, "in my lifetime, queer people have gone from complete stigma, degradation, and invisibility to legal marriage, which I never would have thought possible."

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