Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why I Went to Salt Lake City Last Weekend

I attended the Mormon Stories - Circling the Wagons conference this last weekend. I've tried to gather my thoughts and make some sense of what happened there. Please understand that these are my reflections and interpretations of the conference. I was deeply moved by it. I apologize if I have put words in the mouths of people that I have mentioned in this posting. I've tried to be faithful to what I observed, but of course, I may have gotten it wrong.

First off, thank you Joseph Broom for getting the ball rolling for this conference. A special thanks to the Open Stories Foundation, to John Dehlin, and to Anne Peffer for their efforts. Thank you to the women and men who gave of their time, talents, and resources to make this conference happen. Also, a shoutout to all of the presenters who told their stories, to all the sisters and brothers who told their stories at the testimony session, to the speakers at the interfaith service for reminding us of the overpowering love of our heavenly parents and for the prophetic messages that we can take back to our wards and stakes. I am grateful for this weekend.

I came away from Circling the Wagons hopeful for LGBTQ-SSA individuals, their families, and allies. Although the road is still very long, the distance that has already been traveled is great, too. The message for me goes something like this: the LDS church is at a crossroads with its policies and practices regarding LGBTQ-SSA Mormons. Some stakes and wards are reaching out to LGBTQ members, but the support given to us varies dramatically from stake to stake and ward to ward. Homosexuality as a social construct and as a scientific fact is a divisive issue within the LDS church. Church leaders, therapists, support groups, and LGBTQ members and their families need appropriate therapeutic models and tools that reflect the nuanced journey that LDS church members often find themselves on when they address or are affected by these issues. Church members affected by the issues of homosexuality and gender identity have to develop strategic and tactical approaches within their wards and stakes that promote understanding and support for LGBTQ-SSA members, and that bear prophetic witness to God's love for all of God's children.

The LDS church is in difficult straits. What worked in the past isn't working today. As LGBTQ-SSA members continue to come out and navigate the very difficult course for them within (and without) the LDS church, many families recognize and share the pain and suffering of their sons and daughters. As LGBTQ members suffer, or request to be removed from the LDS church rolls, or are disciplined by priesthood leaders, their families increasingly follow them out of the LDS church. After all, this is the church that taught all of us that love of family trumps all. When faced with the double-bind of supporting their children, their wives or husbands, their brothers or sisters or maintaining ties with an organization and priesthood leadership that does not understand or does not have the tools to help its members, increasingly those families choose their loved ones over the LDS church.

During the course of the conference, Carol Lynn Pearson, and other attendees described some of the outreach being made in some stakes and wards. Carol Lynn spoke several times about the affirming work that has been done in the Oakland stake, and how that could be used to model similar programs elsewhere. The South Jordan stake presents a monthly fireside for LGBTQ-SSA members, their families, and allies. Mention was made of various wards that have also reached out specifically to LGBTQ members. The key to these programs is that members in the pews have to approach their leaders and press them to help develop the information and resources. Because this isn't coming out of the Church Office Building, it has to come from and bubble up from the branches, wards, and stakes. It's risky. It requires a lot of discretion, patience, and prayer, but it is being done, and it has to be done. Some of this reaching out to local priesthood leaders is best done by allies, but those of us who are directly affected by the LDS church's understanding of homosexuality also have to play a role in breaking down the prejudice, discrimination, and misunderstanding that has often characterized relations between our priesthood leaders and us.

We are not all on the same journey. We have to recognize that fact among ourselves. We have to realize that we can't all use the same approaches in our personal journeys, and in our dealings with church leaders on all levels. Whether one agrees or disagrees with leadership pronouncements about homosexuality or same-sex attraction, we have to recognize the reality that the issues are described and dealt with in many different ways, some of which are harmful and dangerous, and others that can be supportive and personally successful, but still may lead members to leave the LDS church. To be a member of the LDS church, and to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual, to be transgendered, or to experience same-sex attraction is a difficult route to navigate. Members who are LGBTQ-SSA often experience an internalized stigma because they fail to live up to a personal holiness code. These same members can face anguish, pain, and ostracism if their situation becomes known in their branches and wards. Most other members in their wards know little or nothing about homosexuality, except that it's just plain awful.

Dr. Lee Beckstead suggested that we need therapeutic approaches and models that support the needs of the LGBTQ-SSA members and their families. Members need assistance that will help them and their families reach a place of congruence about who they innately are, how they behave, and how they experience their spiritual life. This therapeutic assistance is a highly personal choice, but it should be focused on the needs and welfare of the member, and reflect that member's needs and autonomy. Therapies should not ultimately be harmful to the client.

Dr. Bill Bradshaw reported on research that he and others have done that explores in part therapeutic approaches and their effectiveness and potential harm. This research focused specifically on LGBTQ-SSA individuals who identify as being currently or formerly members of the LDS church. Bill reported preliminary results, and more results and analysis will be reported as it becomes available. Research like this that can provide guidance about the relative effectiveness and harm of various therapeutic approaches needs to be available to local LDS church leaders as well as to members.

Bishops and stake presidents need education, training, and sensitivity around the issues of homosexuality. Church discipline is applied differently throughout the LDS church. Too often, priesthood leaders simply don't know what to do when counseling members about these issues. I believe that if the church leadership in Salt Lake City can't provide solid information to bishops and stake presidents, perhaps LGBTQ members and their allies need to approach local leaders with resources to help them be more effective in their leadership and counseling roles.

Carol Lynn Pearson gave a talk that described the heroic journeys that LGBTQ-SSA members take, how we leave our tribe, go into the wilderness in search of something of great value, and at great personal risk, and finally how we may return to the tribe as heroes. Her talk was beautiful in its scope and message. We have a valuable and prophetic place in the LDS church. The LDS church, ultimately, needs our voices calling for repentance and healing. The institution may not yet know that, but the women and men in the LDS church are waiting for their hearts to be changed by our lives and our stories. The LDS church needs us.

Jimmy Creech, a Methodist Minister removed from his ministry because he celebrated commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples within his church, offered this advice: God shouldn't be confused with the institution. On these issues of homosexuality, remember, we are right. God and justice are on our side. We are part of God's creation, and finally our loving heavenly parents will hold us up and bear our burdens. God moves through history, and as Carol Lynn Pearson said, "History happens because you and I do something." Reverend Creech asked at the Interfaith service on Sunday, what does it mean to be whole children of God. Love is the very presence of God. God is a lover, and created us to be lovers. We are whole people.

Finally, a word to Bishop Kevin Kloosterman. Thank you for your heartfelt presence at the conference. Thank you for beginning your own personal journey of truth and justice. Thank you for wrestling with angels. With you, Carol Lynn, Jimmy, and 10,000 other allies of faith, we're going to change the plight of those at the edge of the LDS faith. Change always occurs at the edge.

I want to end this posting by suggesting that all of us can take some concrete steps to improve the situations of LGBTQ-SSA members, families, and allies within the LDS church. Many of you are already doing these things.

  1. Write letters to local leaders and to the general authorities about what you believe the church needs to do to better support LGBTQ-SSA members and their families. Write from your heart and your experience. Be thoughtful, prayerful, and respectful, but be quite clear with your message. Leaders need to hear from us. If you feel that you can write them, consider doing so.
  2. If you can, be a resource for your priesthood leaders. Approach local leaders and offer to help develop educational and support presentations, programs, and resources to increase the understanding that LDS church members have about issues surrounding homosexuality.
  3. Educate yourself about different therapeutic approaches. If you have had therapy, was it useful? Was it harmful? Did it produce the results you wanted or expected? Use the internet to help disseminate information about therapies. Information was shared at the conference that would be very useful for local church leaders and for church members who are therapists. Dr. Lee Beckstead mentioned resources in his presentation, and possibly his presentation along with the research that Dr. Bill Bradshaw reported on can be used as a springboard to developing guidance on what is useful, helpful, and healing.
  4. Let bishops and stake presidents know that information and resources are available that can help them navigate issues of homosexuality with members that they counsel. Communicate with general authorities that bishops and stake presidents need training on these issues.
  5. Use the enthusiasm, resources, and contacts from this conference as a basis for continued action. Get connected through the Mormon Stories LGBTQ and Allies Facebook page. Start developing your own lists of resources, then disseminate them using Mormon Stories and other social media. If we can raise visibility through Mormon Stories, we can more easily disseminate information throughout the wards and stakes in the church. Use social media to end our isolation, to provide resources and information, and to respond quickly to what is happening in the LDS church with regard to our issues.
  6. All of us have been on difficult spiritual journeys, in and outside of the LDS church. We need to be witnesses about our own journeys within our wards and stakes. This is a big risk for many of us. For some of us, it means being open and honest about who we are, and about our struggles with conflicting LDS church teachings about family, exaltation, and moral purity. For some of us it means coming back to a place that deeply wounded us and cast us aside. We have to stop the spiritual violence that has been perpetrated upon us. We need to learn skills to deflect the shame and pain that is often inflicted, sometimes quite cluelessly by leaders, other members, and even our loved ones. We don't have to be in any member's face: we need but witness in love to their hearts. For that to happen we need to be in the pews with them on Sunday.

So I'm hopeful. No clear answers came from this conference. No clarion calls were sounded. But we made history this last weekend. History is on a march, is on our side. I heard that many times throughout the weekend. This gay apostate atheist Mormon is feeling a strong spirit-filled call to get back to the pew.