The Evolution of Affirmation and What It Means for Gay Mormons and their Allies

Affirmation is the oldest organization specifically for LGBT Mormons. Affirmation came into being because of the conflict LGBT Mormons experienced between what they were being told about gender and same-sex attraction by Church leaders, and what they actually experienced.

I’ve read the founding documents of Affirmation, dating back to 1977-78, and I was surprised to find profound expressions of faith, testimonies of the Church, and trust that God would guide us individually and collectively toward greater understanding of the issues Affirmation’s founders wrestled with. That naive faith was put to the test as early leaders of the organization reached out to Church leaders and were harshly rebuffed.

In the years since, Affirmation acquired an unsavory reputation among the majority of Church members and leaders. Much of that reputation was the undeserved product of homophobia within LDS circles. Most Mormons in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s assumed that homosexuality was a choice and a sin, and that you could not be gay and Mormon. At best, you were Mormon and “struggling” with the “affliction” of “same-sex attraction,” which was assumed to be, in a best case scenario, something on a par with a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. So an organization for gay Mormons was considered a contradiction in terms by faithful and non-faithful alike. In the late 1980s, Evergreen emerged as a rival organization that claimed, with the blessing of Church leaders, that change of sexual orientation was possible. Evergreen represented a primitive attempt to offer a faithful path forward for gay Mormons, though the premises of Evergreen still begged the same questions that created Affirmation in the first place.

Gay Mormons experienced extreme rejection during these decades. Most had desperately tried to “overcome” their homosexuality without success, often willingly subjecting themselves to extreme “aversion therapies.” The accounts of these efforts at BYU are blood-chilling, like a horror novel. Gay Mormons tried to change and when that didn’t work, they tried telling their stories to family, friends and leaders in the Church, only to be told that their failure was due to a lack of faith on their part. Church leaders frequently urged gay individuals to “just get married” to straight spouses, far too often without the knowledge of the straight spouse. The Church reaped a harvest of heartache and broken marriages. Individuals who had offered lives of service were harshly ostracized and excommunicated. Children were disowned by their parents. The Church reaped a harvest of gay suicides.

Gay Mormons became understandably angry and frustrated with the Church. For many, the Church became “the enemy.” Thus, Affirmation acquired a deserved reputation as an organization for “angry ex-Mormons.” A handful of Mormon allies — like Wayne and Ron Schow, Bob Rees, Carol Lynn Pearson, Gary and Millie Watts, and Bill and Marge Bradshaw — understood what was going on, and stood by Affirmation. They understood where the anger came from, and they insisted that members of Affirmation deserved empathy, not condemnation.

Nevertheless, a polarized environment emerged. I’ve said elsewhere that in many ways Affirmation became the Gay ex-Mormon organization, while Evergreen became the ex-Gay Mormon organization. That would be a tad too simplistic. Evergreen did actually — intentionally or unintentionally — help many gay Mormons find a less stigmatic approach to their sexuality. Affirmation did actually — intentionally or unintentionally — help keep alive gay Mormons’ connection to the Church, however tenuous that connection might remain. But like in all stereotypes or generalizations, there was a kernel of truth in the notion of a bifurcation among gay Mormons between being gay and being Mormon. We were forced to choose, and we paid a painful price no matter what our choice was.

That was the scene I discovered when I turned to Affirmation in September 2005 seeking an organization that might support me as a gay man in my journey back to faith and back to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I found that Affirmation could not really help me much in that path at that time. But that was then.

*****

There are ways in which Affirmation always got it right.

Affirmation never tried to be a substitute for the Church. There was no Affirmation “doctrine.” Affirmation never officially opposed or supported Church teachings, nor did it consider it Affirmation’s place to say what Church doctrine was.

Affirmation never tried to tell gay Mormons precisely how they were supposed to reconcile being gay and being Mormon. It never tried to tell them that they were supposed to reconcile anything at all. Affirmation never required its members to pass any tests of orthodox belief or behavior. But it did provide a space where you could claim both your gayness and your faith as a Latter-day Saint, and work out your own salvation.

Affirmation was about letting people be real, not trying to conform people to a particular mold of what was considered faithful. Affirmation was always a place where you could tell your story as a gay Mormon and be heard.

But by the 1980s and 1990s, Affirmation members by and large had lost the faith that had originally motivated Affirmation’s founders. Every generation of gay Mormons, it seems, begins with the naive faith that prompted the formation of Affirmation. As Affirmation became more alienated from that faith, it became difficult for subsequent generations of gay Mormons to connect with Affirmation.

But in the first decade of the new millennium, imperceptible shifts laid the groundwork for a significant evolution in Affirmation.

For one thing, there was an older generation of gay Mormons (like myself) who had experienced the shattering pain and disillusionment and loss so many of us experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, who had drifted away from the Church, or who had remained at the margins of the Church, who were finding our faith rekindled and who were coming back, and who were discovering — to our amazement — that we were not unwelcome. We were connecting with the Church, though there were still enough challenges related to making that connection that we wanted support, and Affirmation seemed a logical organization to turn to.

There was also a younger generation of Mormons who were coming out and who were not experiencing the extreme forms of misunderstanding and rejection that earlier generations had been subjected to. They were finding it easier to manage their relationship with the Church, though that relationship was still fraught with a lot of the old baggage. And there was still the challenge of how to come to terms with the yearning for intimate relationship and for family that the Church supported for heterosexual couples but opposed for gay couples. The younger generation didn’t necessarily experience the intense rejection, but they smarted from their sense that Church policies were profoundly unfair and inhumane.

In recent years, starting with the Affirmation annual conference held in Kirtland, Ohio in 2011, there has been a visible, demonstrable resurgence of expressions of LDS faith within the organization. We saw a growth and a deepening of these expressions at the Seattle conference in 2012, which I felt I could only describe as a “A Gay Mormon Revival.” At the end of 2012, Randall Thacker was elected president of Affirmation running on a platform of affirming that we can be “both gay and Mormon.”

While Affirmation is what it always has been — a “big tent” that seeks to provide framework for LGBTQ/SSA Mormons to find their own answers to the big questions that confront us in relation to faith and sexuality, and that does not prescribe any one particular answer for anyone — Affirmation has very much returned to its roots, its founding conviction that the faith and the Church restored through Joseph Smith is big enough for all of us. We all can find the answers we need through faith, perseverance, hope, patience, kindness and love. As a Church, as a nation, and as citizens of creation, we can unconditionally love one another and care for one another. LGBT Saints can participate in the building of Zion for all of us, LGBT and straight.

We are excited to be seeing unprecedented levels of excitement about and participation in the preparation for the upcoming Affirmation conference in Salt Lake City, September 12-15, 2013. We have seen a tremendous influx of new members and energy, including individuals who are active in the Church, “millennial” generation LGBTQ LDS, and straight family, friends and allies.

We are very excited to be able to present as speakers Barb and Steve Young, Daniel Parkinson, Carol Lynn Pearson, Judy Finch, Wendy Williams and Thomas Montgomery, and Robin Linkhart (of the Community of Christ). As in Kirtland and Seattle, Affirmation will be graced by devotional performances by the Affirmation choir, and will hold a devotional and a testimony meeting (that have always been the highpoint of the conference for me).  There will also be an array of workshops that explore in deeper ways what it means to LGBTQ and Mormon.

We exclude no one based on Church membership status or belief or relationship status or yearning. Affirmation is the one LGBTQ/SSA Mormon organization that is open to all.

If you feel you have been burned by the Church and no longer desire to affiliate with it, but still feel you would benefit from connecting with others of LDS heritage, come! You will be loved and welcomed among us and you will find fun and dynamic social events where you can make connections and find a fantastic community of support!

If you are LGBTQ/SSA and have a testimony of the Gospel and the Church and want to work through the challenges that represents, come! There is a growing community of active LGBTQ Latter-day Saints who are learning and growing by practicing principles of the Gospel. We don’t necessarily have answers for you, but we are more than willing to ask and wrestle with questions together.

If you are a straight Latter-day Saint and want to become a better supporter of your LGBT/SSA family members, ward members or friends, come! Come learn more about the struggles and challenges, knowing that your faith and kindness and willingness to be an ally will make a concrete difference to real people and do some good in this world today.

See you in Salt Lake!

1 comment for “The Evolution of Affirmation and What It Means for Gay Mormons and their Allies

  1. Judy
    August 18, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    John,
    I am so grateful for this post and for all you do and for who you are. I still do not feel like I have all my answers and am relieved that it seems that many do not. I have found myself on both ends of the spectrum and many places in between and have always felt comfortable that I have a family in Affirmation. I am looking forward to Salt Lake and a wonderful conference!
    Love and blessings,
    Judy

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