Several groups across Utah County, such as Mormon Building Bridges and Mama Dragons, have emerged in recent years to support the local LGBTQ community. One group, however, originated in the county more than 40 years ago.
Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends, a group that supports LGBTQ members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holds conferences across the globe year round, including the 2019 Affirmation International Conference this weekend at the Utah Valley Convention Center.
“This conference is special because it is the largest one organized each year,” said John Gustav-Wrathall, executive director of Affirmation.
If a congregation typically found at LDS Sunday services were mixed with a crowd at a Pride festival, the result might look strikingly similar to this weekend’s Affirmation International Conference attendants.
Beginning with an opening song, “You’ve Got A Friend in Me,” the crowd of about 250 people sang together, prayed together and ate refreshments together as a way to bond over the two things everyone had in common: their relation to the LGBTQ community and their relation to the LDS Church.
After the devotional and keynote speakers, the 2018 film, “Jane and Emma,” was shown, wrapping up the first day of the three-day conference celebrating God and his LGBTQ children.
“A big part of this is training our leaders in Affirmation and inviting church leaders to attend,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “We have worldwide operations, and this is just one of the many things that we do year-round.”
Gustav-Wrathall said that he was in Columbia this year for two conferences, which is just one of the more than 20 countries that Affirmation has organizations in.
“We are organizing chapters around the world where people can meet and have access to online resources and a community,” Gustav-Wrathall said.
Each year, 500 to 700 people come to Utah’s conference, which is either held in Utah or Salt Lake counties.
“It’s right here in the heart of the LDS faith and we make efforts to bring relief society presidents, bishops and stake presidents here for training,” Gustav-Wrathall said.
Affirmation goes back to 1977 when a group at Brigham Young University came together to make a change on campus regarding LGBTQ awareness. Other groups formed in Denver and Los Angeles, but the group really started to grow after California’s Proposition 8 in 2008.
“There’s been a large influx in the past few years. Entire families are coming to this conference now,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “Basically, any country with a significant number of Mormons, Affirmation has grown there too.”
Gustav-Wrathall said many of the new Affirmation members are joining in response to the church’s policy changes in 2015 and BYU’s Honor Code.
“Our goal is to provide support no matter their walk of life,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “We have people who are members, ex-Mormons, active and nonactive people who want to find support from other LGBTQ Mormons because the church is their heritage and there are a lot of feelings tied up in that.”
The first day
Global leaders took part in panels, workshops, meetings and suicide prevention training.
Gregory Prince and Rebecca Solen were the first two keynote speakers of the conference. Prince is an author and historian who served his mission in Brazil. He spoke about the hope that as science and religion both change, an understanding will come in the church that may include the LGBTQ community.
Solen is an Army veteran, politician and advocate who came out as transgender to her wife and to the world after serving an LDS mission, going to the temple and raising four children.
“I’m just a person who is trying to make a difference in the world,” Solen said. “I’m a nobody to most people but I hit rock bottom because I was afraid.”
Solen said that she was raised as a boy and knew early on that she was different. When she was baptized at 8 years old, she realized that she would have to hide this part of her. By 9 years old, Solen said she was praying to God, asking for Him to kill her.
“The problem of the ‘pray it away’ method is that you try to bargain with God, and when it doesn’t get fixed you believe it is because God doesn’t want to bargain with you and that you have nothing that is of any worth to him,” Solen said.
She joined the military, went on a mission, got married in the temple and even ran for Congress against Paul Ryan. Every ounce of bargaining Solen had, she tried.
“All I’ve ever been told is that if I came out, it would end the world and the marriage wouldn’t work,” Solen said.
Solen’s wife and family accepted her, but she said that disciplinary action from the church was taken immediately.
“It didn’t matter that I had a testimony, that I understood God, that I understood the scriptures or that I understood how to recognize the spirit,” Solen said. “What mattered is that I wasn’t what they wanted me to be.
Solen said that she feels closer to God now more than ever and is happier than ever.
“Sometimes the only thing you need to change the world is to love the people in it,” Solen said, ending her talk. After, the audience sang the church hymn, “Love One Another.”
The conference continues
“I was really split between choosing religion or choosing happiness,” said Austin Wyatt, a conference attendee. “But through God I realized all things are possible.”
Wyatt came out as asexual and said that he worried his family would pressure him into getting married in the temple.
“Luckily, they understand, and I’ve come to realize that our personal relationship to God is more important than any religious institution.”
Classes included “Ministering to and with the LGBTQ community,” “Mixed Orientation Families” and “Happiness at the End of the Rainbow.”
Guests to the conference included Charlie Bird, a former BYU Cosmo the Cougar who came out recently; Stacey Harkey, a gay former “Studio C” member; and Matt Easton, whose coming-out moment in his BYU graduation speech went viral.
“We don’t provide answers. We offer a place for discussion and let you find answers for yourself,” Gustav Wrathall said. “I want people to know that LGBTQ people are part of our families and part of our wards. Many of us have been silent because we haven’t felt safe. The journey to be Mormon and LGBTQ is very painful and to have members of our wards, families and communities come together and say, ‘we will support and walk with you’ is very important.”
More information can be found at http://affirmation.org.