Affirmation, the gay Mormon support group, has seen a ‘sea change’ in its 40 years

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Affirmation LGBT Mormons march during the 2016 Pride Parade heads up 200S, Sunday, June 5, 2016.

Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons, was born in 1977, at a time when admission of same-sex attraction among the LDS faithful was a matter of inner turmoil, deep shame and religious rejection — even a cause for suicide.

At the time, the LDS Church viewed their sexuality as perverse and sinful, and their love as unholy. Any acceptance of gays had to be whispered.

Now, 40 years later, hundreds in the church’s LGBTQ community, their families and friends, are celebrating Affirmation’s anniversary openly and with gusto at a three-day conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo — many embracing their gayness and their Mormonness.

The group has a full-time paid executive director, John Gustav-Wrathall, members in more than a dozen countries and, by the end of 2017, will have hosted 19 events including regional conferences and this annual national gathering.

At this meeting, which began Friday, there were sessions for youths, mothers, fathers, allies, advocates, people of color, spouses and LDS lay leaders. Attendees could find presentations that best suit their situations, whether active Mormons, post-Mormons, never Mormons, Christian, spiritual but not religious, secular or atheist. On Sunday, the conference’s final day, participants can join a choir, practice yoga or attend a spiritual devotional.

“One of the most urgent needs for LGBTQ Mormons is making sense of contradictions between their religious upbringing or their faith as Mormons and their lived experience as LGBTQ individuals,” Affirmation President Sara Jade Woodhouse says in a news release. “Affirmation meets both those needs through a vibrant community where individuals can connect, compare notes, and find support in whichever path of reconciliation and healing they choose.”

The group has seen a “massive sea change,” Gustav-Wrathall says, in the relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its gay members.

“Ten years ago, the topic of the LGBTQ experience in Mormonism was simply a taboo,” he says. “Now there’s a flood of discussion that is happening every day.”

Once it was “almost unheard of for an LGBT person to come out over the pulpit,” he says. “Now that happens with some frequency.”

Affirmation began as a simple effort by activists at Brigham Young University: Assure gay Mormons they were loved and not alone, while striving to stop them from killing themselves. Before long, chapters emerged in Salt Lake City, Denver, Los Angeles and ultimately across the country.

Though many loved their faith, there simply was no way for them to remain an active member in the Utah-based church.

“You were either ex-gay and Mormon or ex-Mormon and gay,” says Gustav-Wrathall. “There was no happy middle space.”

Even when parents were accepting of their gay children, he says, “it was rare for them to become public advocates.”

Gustav-Wrathall’s own devout LDS mom and dad struggled with how to balance parental love with church standards, which, at the time, said even being gay was a sin.

“I came from a generation where you just expected that when you came out to your parent, this was a crisis for them,” he recalls, “and often it meant some intense alienation at least for a time.”

More than two decades ago, Gustav-Wrathall found a permanent same-sex partner, whom he was able to marry legally in 2008. The couple have three foster sons together.

“After our wedding, [my father] pulled me aside and said, ’[LDS leaders] don’t know what they are doing,” the Affirmation leader recalls. Adding that his father said “They don’t understand.”

The executive director was excommunicated from the church, but maintains his Mormon belief and has been attending his LDS congregation in Minneapolis since 2005.

Today’s LDS Church says being gay is not a sin, though acting on it is. It continues to oppose gay marriage, though it did support Salt Lake City’s and Utah’s anti-discrimination measures. It also recently endorsed the LoveLoud concert in Orem, whose mission was to raise money to prevent gay suicides.

Ironically, two of the church’s most visible actions — supporting California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman in 2008 and, in 2015, saying that same-sex Mormon couples are “apostates” and generally barring their offspring from Mormon rituals until they turn 18 — propelled the nascent LDS gay rights movements forward.

Both greatly enlarged the number of Affirmation participants, he says, but also stretched its resources to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. In 2013, the support group nearly filed for bankruptcy.

That was a wake-up call, Gustav-Wrathall says, forcing the group’s leaders to reach out to a wider spectrum of believers.

“We couldn’t be the angry ex-Mormon organization any more,” he says. “We needed to be a resource for those who are gay and Mormon, as well as those who have left the church.”

To that end, Affirmation officials have met regularly in the past few years with LDS leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

International leaders of Affirmation met LDS public affairs representatives at the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City. Courtesy photo

The bridge-building has not been without challenges and critics.

“Some of the old-timers you talk to won’t give us a good report,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “Some are pretty mad about the turn Affirmation took toward greater engagement with the church.”

The director defends the move.

“In my experience, the No. 1 factor in positive change around these issues is direct personal engagement with LGBT people,” he says. “We are trying to be nice to each other and trying to be civil and be in the same space at the same time, without the pressure of having a particular agenda.”

The gays tell their stories and church officials listen, he says, “then they tell us their stories and we listen.”

Unlike the silence and denial of the past, Gustav-Wrathall says, “now we can talk.”