Friday, November 2, 2012

Salt Lake City - CTW Conference

I'm in Salt Lake City getting ready to attend the Circling the Wagons conference that begins later today. The conference is at the center of a great deal of controversy, and we'll see how that plays out as the weekend unfolds.

At the center of the controversy are questions of authenticity, identity, and life journeys that certain presenters at the conference have claimed and experienced. Much has already been written in blogs, and in online groups and forums. The tone has been strident and vituperative. I found the lack of dialogue, the anger, the personal attacks, and the bitterness of the exchanges to be uncharitable, uncomprehending, stigmatizing, and generally not useful to examine and explore perspectives and understanding that people coming from different backgrounds might have for the issues confronting Mormons grappling with gender, sexual orientation and attraction, and institutional stigmatization. And all of this happened before the conference even began!

This is what I hope happens here: I hope all of us can open our ears so that our heads and hearts can hear what is spoken. I hope we can ascribe all presenters good intentions, and proceed from that foundation. I hope we can be humble, be open to questions rather than answers, be satisfied with a carefully studied ambivalence, be able to bridge a wide gulf that in the past has been full of bitterness, hurt, despair, and loss.


Authenticity refers to our credibility, our truthfulness, our commitments, and our intentions. In short, it examines whether our conscious life choices are congruent with our values and beliefs. Gauging another person's authenticity is a difficult task because no empirical method exists to determine a person's values and beliefs other than that person's assertions. Consequently, we often use a person's behavior as a surrogate measure of his or her values and beliefs, without having a reliable understanding of that person's motivations that give rise to the observed behavior. Human beings attribute behavior to motivation, and almost always get the motivation wrong. We simply cannot look at behavior and claim it is based on a specific motivation. Because we cannot clearly explain another person's behavior, our comprehension of another person's authenticity is often incomplete.

Rather than search for authenticity in others, I hope that each of us look for our own authentic expression, and in the process, that we ascribe best intentions to others. I believe that will bring us closer to an honest and engaging dialogue with each other.


Identity names us, tells us who we are. It labels personal, social, and cultural characteristics with which a person describes him or herself. Struggles about identity chiefly affect members of subcultural groups. Members of a dominant culture don't, for the most part, struggle with issues of identity, except as identity affects people who they care about in a subculture. Identity serves a couple of purposes: it defines who is part of a subculture, and it serves as a brake against assimilation in the larger culture. Identity is not only what a subculture names itself, but it is also what the dominant culture labels the subculture.

Problems of identity arise out of stigmatization. A dominant culture almost always stigmatizes the subcultures within it. Subcultures are viewed by their dominant culture as problems, "other," mentally ill, dangerous, and immoral. Identity becomes an issue for members in a subculture when they internalize these kinds of stigmatizations.

Subcultures also identify themselves, and stigmatize and separate out their own subgroups. For example, within group of Mormons characterized by the larger Mormon society as having "homosexual inclinations," a rainbow of subgroups exist that don't identify with each other, but are grouped together by the Mormon society from which they spring. A lot of name-calling ensues, and I believe that identity issues lay at the root of the current controversy.

I offer a thought experiment: rather than making specific claims of identity, recast those claims such that they do not rest on attribution of being. For example, instead of saying, "I am a gay man," you could reformulate that as, "I prefer to have intimate relationships with other men." Identity that isn't rooted in physical characteristics is often culturally driven. Maybe we should practice some studied ambivalence about our orientation/attraction until we have heard what other stigmatized Mormons with "homosexual inclinations" might have to say about their individual situations. I believe their stories are important and that they should be heard.

Life Journeys

We are all on life journeys. No journey is identical to another. Every one of them is unique. I hope we can approach other peoples' journeys with a humility and respect for the sacredness of a path that ultimately is one's own. We are all broken. We have all stumbled. We are all bloodied. Let's not compound the injury and the pain that we have felt. We are taught in church to love, not judge. He who has ears, let him hear.