Growing Together: A Report of the April 2005 GLBT Conference Fireside and Mission Reunion
by Brian Benington
Let me start with a confession: Affirmation's annual Sunday Fireside and Missionary Reunion over the General Conference weekend was the first GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) Mormon missionary reunion I have ever attended, though, of course, the Church does not sponsor it.
In October of last year, still smarting from my June divorce, and thinking that it would do me some good, I invited Duane Jennings to accompany me to a South African missionary reunion here in Salt Lake City-- the first either of us had been to in years. Turned out it was the missionary group who had preceded/overlapped the beginning year of my own mission, 1972--Duane arrived in South Africa in 1979, and was my brother's missionary companion. Since my first mission president is now in more Celestial spheres, the organizers went ahead anyway, and the reunion was held in honor of his wife. As the handful of men and their wives trickled in, and I recognized among them a few "elders" who were part of the crop of missionaries from that era who had inspired my reactivation. Some brought food so that typical South African Epicurean delights decorated the two long tables which had been set up in the middle of the hall. Between discoveries of forgotten foods and people, I fell into conversation with two South African brothers (and their wives) who now live in Utah. They had distinguished themselves for their dynamism and tirelessness as young missionaries in our homeland. Happy to see one another, we fell back into the pleasure of typical South African speech and colloquialisms; we were comfortable with one another. So I did what was probably inappropriate to the moment (though not given the recent events of my life) - I came out. ("After all," I reasoned, "it's taken me 40 years to get this far, why waste anymore time! Besides, I'm being a 'missionary!'"). Between the niceties of food and missionary experience chatter, my friends learned that "living the gospel" is not the antidote to homosexual attractions which Mormons think it is. Duane stood there a little bemused by the situation, but when we left, I felt newly empowered.
So what of a "gay" mission reunion? More food. A grander scale of Potluck. And an unusual array of dishes. Also, most gays seem to eat healthier than the average Mormon collective. These are the superficial things. I walk into the basement of the Metropolitan Community Church and people are already seated around tables and eating; Duane is forgoing the food and has walked upstairs into the chapel area to prepare for the Fireside. The buzz of voices is at a happy Cicada-like hum. Men of all ages are there, and there are some women as well. It's nice to take in faces that are familiar or new since I arrived in Salt Lake last June. People here are as diverse as you can get, and that is reflected in how comfortable some, quite different from one another, seem together. These are men and women who once put themselves on the line and served the LDS (Latter-day Saint) church as missionaries, or did lay service within their congregations; some have even taught at Church institutions--Seminary/Institute programs, or at BYU (Brigham Young University). We do not gather here to honor a particular Mission President, (no church hierarchy is representative here), and most of us were missionaries in different parts of the world. Instead, we come together, despite the differences in our ages, as men and women at different points in our life journeys as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered individuals.
Many of us, too, were once married; we are here now though, single, dating, or partnered. We hold in common our felt or physical disenfranchisement from the Mormon Church who, although no longer denying the reality of our homosexuality, still deny us the possibility of loving, committed relationships. As most of us know, there is within the LDS mindset and framework, no possibility for romance between two of the same gender: Celibacy takes precedence over civil unions, and gay marriage is unheard of. Contrary to what homophobes in or out of the Mormon Church might think, though, we are not a sorry lot. Conversation, chatter, and camaraderie flow easily as we share food. We have replaced our Mormon "frown-hiding-smiles" with easy laughter, and our smiles are more in keeping with the wry ironies of life.
Gone are the days of missionary or member statistics and quotas. We are a community bound together by a shared necessity -- the truth of ourselves, which over time we came to realize had more weight and validity than the words of those who do not know through experience what it is to be us. Though we celebrate the common heritage of Mormonism, we weary of the same deadening conservatism of those theologies which do not recognize the great diversity of the human family, or deny those who are different have place at God's table, and within God's family.
It is interesting to see as we go upstairs into the chapel, that a documentary filmmaker is recording our proceedings with her camera. She will be interviewing interested individuals later, after the Fireside. As I move to a bench on one side of the chapel (where those who do not want to be featured in the video are sitting) I observe to myself how easily some of us (for our various reasons) chose to sit here. We are in Utah, though, where truth is supposed to be preemminent. Yet the Mormon hierarchy, despite the vindication of homosexuality by the scientific community and mounting evidence of the unsuccessful attempts of thousands of their own devotees to "become" straight, continue to hold to old stereotypes and prejudices about homosexuality and gender. They refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality is as unambiguously a natural "state of being" for some people as is heterosexuality for most. So it is that some of us today, still disempowered by a fear of the rejection of our family and friends (who belong to this "society" which values truth above all things!) sit safely to one side of the chapel, away from the gaze of the camera. The Fireside part of the reunion starts with announcements, a hymn and a prayer. Then the guest speaker is introduce.
Steven Fales, actor, writer, and gay Mormon father who stands before us tonight is no stranger to the angst of those whose sexuality falls between the cracks of Mormon morality. So much so that he fled to New York and into a lifestyle which many conservatives characterize as "the gay lifestyle." Stylishly tanned, tall, dark, good-looking and gym-fit, Steven is poster-boy material. His blue shirt is unbuttoned seductively low; his hair falls with a planned casualness across his forehead. He moves with a cat-like, self-assured grace, his voice plying us with its theatrical resilience. An actor working his audience. He is narcissism personified, the creation/creature worshipping the created. After watching and listening for a while, I realize that this deliberate. Instead of the usual "fireside" address, Steven is drawing us into his experience. "God has seen me through excommunication, divorce, prostitution, and drugs. Now we're working on narcissism," he quips. This is the Steven created to fulfill everyone else's expectations of what a gay man is.
Steven's one-man-show, "Confessions of a Mormon Boy," penned in the wake of a painful divorce and his excommunication from the Mormon Church, chronicles his despairing descent into the world of male escorting, prostitution, and drugs. With pathos and humor his show enlightens theatergoers to the quandary of the many faithful Mormon men who remain chaste throughout youth and young adulthood, only to find out after they are married and have children, that they are still faced with the reality of their homosexual longings. The Steven who resurfaces has shed his self-loathing with the realization that he can be both gay and spiritual, and a loving and responsible father--that ascent is possible for someone who is honest with themselves and others. One can still find God in spite of the institutional church.
Tonight, Steven unveils that person. He tells us of his epiphany on a day that he took his two young children to a performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Steven found himself weeping uncontrollably; for in the quality of the music and the astounding voices of the choir, came the reassurance that God loves him as just as he is--a gay man, and that there is much within his Mormon heritage which he can still value. He tells us, "When I got excommunicated I threw God out with religion. I've now taken God back on my terms and it has made such a difference in my life. I know it sounds crazy, but I still feel God in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Despite the institutionalized bigotry of the Church, I want my kids to be exposed to the many good things in our Mormon pioneer heritage. The choir is one of those things."
Unexpectedly, Steven's hands move quickly to his head. We hear the sound of snaps loosening, and the hairpiece he has been wearing is tossed suddenly to the ground. Some of us gasp; some sit quietly, a little stunned. But here is the real Steven. In fact, a handsomely balding, more adult--and somehow, more human, Steven.
Why then a GLBT mission reunion? We come together to celebrate our diversity--indeed the diversity of all humankind, which humans so easily forget is as diverse as the rest of creation. At times like this we share our experiences and unique journeys, our struggles and achievements, and the joys and tears which characterize those. We are here learning and growing together as a community, addressing our whole selves emotionally, intellectually, culturally, sexually, and indeed, spiritually.