Anxiously Engaged: Activism and the Future of Affirmation
"This conference will provide opportunities for people to get involved at any level they choose in an area where they feel strongly, and give them the tools to take action right away."
An interview conducted by Hugo Salinas
Affirmation has a long history of "doing activism"—by marching in pride parades, by responding to homophobic statements and actions, and by working to educate the LDS community. But ten years ago, when the LDS Church began to lobby nationwide against marriage equality, Affirmation widened our activist scope: We began to hold suicide vigils at LDS chapels and temples, wrote and endorsed "amicus briefs" in support of equality, and began to work more closely with the media. In January 2001, Affirmation issued a statement on education and activism. The statement says that "we must engage in open dialogue to achieve mutual understanding," but also points out that "addressing ignorance through non-violent confrontation is a positive vehicle for change."
In this interview, a group of Affirmation leaders share their opinions about the role of activism in Affirmation and suggest that the scope of activism may be much wider than we once thought.
The interviewees are Dave Melson, George Cole, and Micah Bisson (Affirmation's executive committee), Dale Burton (chair of the upcoming conference) and Robert Moore (director of outreach and advocacy).
We hope this will be the first in a series of articles discussing activism. If you are an Affirmation member and wish to share your own thoughts about activism, please send me a message.
The 2010 Affirmation Conference will include a lot of hands-on action groups. Why?
Dale Barton: We come from a rich Mormon heritage of helping other people—it's part of our DNA. However, we are often too busy planning how to help people that we don't get out and do something. Maybe we are waiting for permission or instructions or a calling. The reality is that we have all been called to make the world a better place for those around us and for those who will come after us. Right now, there are thousands of young people who are struggling with the negative judgment of their religion, their community, and their family against the biological reality of their sexual orientation. We have all been there. We know what they have been through, and we must be out there to help them survive.
What about those who want to come to the conference but are not particularly interested in activism?
Dale Barton: The conference is not about "activism;" it's about taking action. It is far less important what you do, than that you do something—anything at all. This conference will provide opportunities for people to get involved at any level they choose in an area where they feel strongly, and give them the tools to take action right away. It's simply taking the step beyond saying "Something needs to be done" and moving to "Let's go do something now."
The conference will be fun, interactive, and full of choices about what you want to do. At no time will participants be asked to do something they are not comfortable with, and there will be many alternatives. Ultimately, this is an opportunity to STAND UP for ourselves and for many others who cannot.
What does "activism" mean?
"I see activism as being a very, very broad category."
George Cole: Activism working toward change in a social or political system. Most people view activism as inherently militant or aggressive, but I don't think it has to be. I think that maybe a more useful way to think of activism, at least as I see it, might be "change-action" or "change-oriented action."
Do I have to carry a sign and a picket a building to do activism?
George Cole: I see activism as being a very, very broad category. On one extreme, activism can mean staging a large group sit-in with your partner and several other couples at the county offices, refusing to leave until each pair is granted a marriage license, never mind that state law prohibits it. But activism can also mean something less radical, like sending emails to all your friends and family asking them to vote in favor of marriage equality during the next election.
During the 2008 protests at several Mormon temples, some gay Mormons saw the coverage on TV and cried, while others were on the picketing line carrying the biggest signs. Doesn't this suggest that gay Mormons are hopelessly divided in their attitudes toward activism?
Dave Melson: No, it shows that within our community are a variety of opinions and levels of tolerance for the issues. Within Affirmation, you can find members who are active in the LDS Church, even holding callings and temple recommends, you can find people who have been so badly damaged by the church that they want nothing to ever do with it again, and you can find everything in between. Our faith recognizes that all men and women, even those at the head of the church, have been blessed with the gift of free agency and will, therefore, make mistakes. Those who cried and those who marched each engaged in activism in their own way.
"Those who cried and those who marched each engaged in activism in their own way."
"As long as someone is not impeding on someone else's rights, causing damage or hurting anyone, I will support and respect their freedom to do what they feel they need to do to get their feelings, concerns, anger or point across."
"I see us doing all this work so that generations who follow ours do not have to choose between their spirituality and sexuality."
|"The act of going to a search engine to look for 'gay Mormon' and then clicking on 'Affirmation' is in and of itself an act of activism." |
I think gay Mormons are divided in their attitudes toward activism, but I do not think there is anything wrong with this. As long as someone is not impeding on someone else's rights, causing damage or hurting anyone, I will support and respect their freedom to do what they feel they need to do to get their feelings, concerns, anger or point across. This is why I love being involved in Affirmation: No matter if you have been away from the church for 30 years and want nothing more then to see the end of the Mormon Church or you are still active and struggle with your orientation or gender identity and your testimony, there is a place for you in Affirmation. We are here to offer a safe space for all our sisters and brothers and we advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.
What is Affirmation's overall strategy toward the leaders of the LDS Church?
Dave Melson: When the leaders of the Church do something that affects members of Affirmation and that is good or right or positive, we will applaud them; when they do something that is hurtful, hateful, homophobic, or un-Christlike, we will criticize them appropriately. While we respect Church leaders, as we do all people, we recognize that they are imperfect mortals, as are we, and are subject to the foibles and errors that arise from free agency.
What single factor do you think would do the most to help advance the LGBT cause among the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve?
Robert Moore: The single most important factor is time. It is going to take time to have leaders who are open to accept new revelation on this issue. With that said, we all need to continue to push the church in the direction of full acceptance and respect of all God's children. We must let them know when they do good and positive things for our community as well as make them aware of our disappointment and sadness when they do things to hurt our community. If we back off and just wait, it will take longer for the revelation to come. We have seen from the past that it sometimes takes outside pressure to make church leaders open to a revelation. We must make sure church leaders know that there are LGBT members who are very devoted with strong testimonies in the church and deserve to be able to serve God through the LDS church.
In 2008 when you asked for a meeting with church leaders, a Utah gay activist said: "It reminds me of the battered wife constantly going back to her abusive husband." How do you respond to that?
Micah Bisson: The person making the comments may not have understood our goal. We were not going to the church to ask for forgiveness and acceptance, but to ask for a dialogue of understanding of the issues at hand. Beyond our moral obligation to do so, our charter mandates that we "work for the understanding and acceptance of gays and lesbians as full, equal and worthy persons within the [LDS] Church." That mandate hasn't changed in Affirmation's 30-year history, and it is still important to work towards that end. I see us doing all this work so that generations who follow ours do not have to choose between their spirituality and sexuality.
Do you think it is OK for Affirmation to organize a vigil next to a stake center? Boycott a Proposition 8 donor? Picket Temple Square?
Micah Bisson: I'm all about holding vigils as long as they are on-topic and are directly relevant to LGBT issues. I'm also in favor of actively supporting a boycott of a major Prop-8 donor. That was a direct attack on our families and those who supported it should have direct support for their businesses reduced as much as possible. Now, I think Affirmation can do better things with its time than picket near Temple Square, but I'm not opposed to someone taking that action. Just don't expect me to be there in the middle of it.
LDS leaders continue to call homosexuality an abomination and spend millions of dollars against marriage equality; LGBT Mormon youth face ostracism, rejection, depression; sometimes they even commit suicide. Wouldn't it better for the average LGBT Mormon to simply get out of Mormonism and join a welcoming church?
Dave Melson: For many it would be better, yes. For those who still believe in the gospel principles of the LDS Church, it makes sense to stay to work within the Church to create safe spaces for everyone, including God's LGBT children, and to work towards their full fellowship within the church. For others, it makes sense to work to end the damage that has been done to both Mormons and non-Mormons by our church's actions.
Is there a place in Affirmation for those who are not interested in activism?
Dave Melson: Affirmation provides a welcome and a safe space for all. Having said that, the act of going to a search engine to look for "gay Mormon" and then clicking on "Affirmation" is in and of itself an act of activism. Coming out to your family or to your ecclesiastical leaders as a lesbian woman or as a gay man is an act of activism. The pattern for our life, Jesus Christ, certainly lived a life of activism. As Christians, if we see a wrong, we must try to right it—that is the greatest form of activism. We need every level and every degree of activist in Affirmation.