Monday, May 11, 2015

Report on the Second Annual North Star Conference

 Two weeks ago North Star held their second annual conference in Provo, UT. Unlike last year, I wasn't heavily involved in the planning or the execution of the conference. But I did help out as a volunteer, which enabled me to give back in a small way, while still having enough time to attend many of the sessions and interact with people at the conference.

The theme of this year's North Star Conference was “Let Your Light Shine Forth.” Everyone that volunteered or played a role in the organization of the conference was given a blue t-shirt to wear with the conference theme on it. Wearing the t-shirt was a good reminder of the theme, as it clearly showed that we were involved in supporting the conference.

Even though my role as a volunteer was intended to be more logistical, I had the opportunity to be a greeter for a while as well. Anyone that knows me well knows that I struggle with social anxiety. So standing in the lobby greeting people and asking if they were attending the conference was definitely outside of my comfort zone. But it also turned out to be a good experience for me as well, as I'm sure some of those attending for the first time were a lot more anxious than me.

The conference started out Thursday evening with an informal dinner, social and service activity. The social was very well attended. In fact, my only real complaint about it was that there were more people there than could comfortably fit in the room they used for it. And although I found the social to be a bit too crowded for me to get to know new people, I did get the chance to interact with a lot of friends, some of whom I had not seen in some time.

The conference proper began Friday morning. I did not attend the opening session, as that was when one of my volunteer shifts was scheduled. I did, however, get the opportunity to attend all the rest of the sessions and events of the day.

In the morning I attended a session about allowing our experiences to help us and others develop a deeper spiritual connection. I sat with some friends during lunch. After lunch was a general session with gospel writer James Ferrell speaking. I got to be a session chair (meaning I introduced the speakers and conducted the session) for the first of the afternoon sessions, which was on ways to get involved in serving in North Star and the Voices of Hope project. And for the last session of the day, I attended a session about learning how to manage perfectionism. And the day closed with a social mixer (and I was pleased with myself that I stayed for the whole thing, and didn't spend most of my time hiding in a corner).

On Saturday morning, the first general session featured Chad Hymas, who shared about how the adversity he experienced from becoming a quadriplegic improved his life and his connection with God. For the morning breakout session, I attended a session presented by Josh Weed and his father about understanding a child or sibling that experiences same-sex attraction. I sat with a different group of people at lunch and got to know a few new people.

For the first of the afternoon sessions, I attended a more interactive workshop about overcoming the negative effects of body shame. And for the session after that I listened to experiences from a couple of men that shared why it was worth it for them to stay in the gospel. The closing session featured Mariama Kallon, who was a convert to the church from Africa, and shared of her experiences with losing most of her family in a civil war in her native country, and how her trials brought her to Christ. After she spoke, there was an awards ceremony, and the incoming President of North Star was announced to be Greg Harris, who has done a wonderful job of being a conference chair for both of the first two North Star Conferences, and has served as a vice president of North Star.

Even though most of the topics at the conference were not new to me, many of them were still a great review. And overall, I think I got more out of the fellowship and giving service than anything else. I had the chance to catch up with a lot of old friends, met some people in person that I had only known online before, met a number of new people, and better got to know some people that I didn't know very well before the conference.

In the past, I have been afraid of letting others know about me. I have shared before that I have feared what those on either extreme would think of me if they knew of my attractions and how I choose to live my life. I am grateful now to be living more authentically and out of the shadows. The conference theme was a good reminder for me to continue to let my light shine.

I am glad I got to be involved in this year's conference, and I look forward to the conference next year.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Report on the 2015 Circling the Wagons Conference

 A couple of weeks ago, Circling the Wagons held their annual conference. Though initially I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to attend this year, as I've been less involved in discussions around Mormon and SSA/LGBTQ topics lately. Though after attending, I am glad I went.

The theme of the conference this year was “Courageous Conversations.” And just as in years past, the goal of the conference was to “open and expand a more understanding atmosphere for ourselves, for our loved ones with conflicting viewpoints.”

The conference was divided into opening and closing keynote sessions, along with two sessions in between dedicated to dialogue workshops. There was also a session the evening before the day of the main conference, which I was not able to attend, as well as a closing social.

The first speaker at the opening session was Tom Christofferson, who is a brother to Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He spoke of his experiences growing up in the LDS Church, as well as his decision to leave his membership in the church, as well as his decision to become active in the church again.

He spoke of his loving parents, and how they made a decision early on that the most important thing was having him continue to be the part of the family, and that they showed just as much love and concern for his partner, as they did for him.

Laurie Campbell was the next scheduled speaker. But before she spoke, her daughter, who had attended with her, briefly spoke. Her daughter describes herself as a liberal bisexual agnostic. She described how grateful she is for her mother, and the environment which she grew up in that allowed her to be herself while still knowing that her family loved her.

Laurie then spoke about some of her life experiences, and how she feels the same way about her daughter. She spoke about making family relationships the most important thing, and taking the time to listen to and hear and understand what the other person is saying.

The final speaker for the opening session was Justin Lee. Justin is a leader within the Gay Christian Network. He shared of his experience growing up in a conservative Christian church, and how the way he viewed things changed as he became more aware of his sexuality.

He spoke of how the Gay Christian Network serves a similar purpose as Circling the Wagons for the broader Christian community, and how that within the network they have individuals with a variety of beliefs regarding the expression of sexuality.

I next went to the dialogue workshop on “Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Same-Sex Attraction,” which was facilitated by Lee Beckstead and David Pruden. This was a smaller group, with only about fifteen or so people in attendance, and I found myself contributing to the discussion.

We discussed the spectrum of types of therapies available related to sexuality from sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) to gay-affirmative therapy, as well as the pros and cons to different approaches, as well as some of the benefits therapies at either end of the spectrum might have. As many of the things discussed were things I had studied on my own beginning at the time I was an undergrad psychology major, I found the discussion very interesting, in part because I have had the opportunity to speak to both of the moderators (who come from different places in their personal approaches) about these types of therapy.

For the following session, I went to the dialogue workshop on “Responsibly Addressing Suicide.” In contrast to the earlier workshop, this one was heavily attended, with about forty or so people seated inside a small classroom. Kendall Wilcox was the main facilitator, with Ty Mansfield, John Bonner, and Marian Edmonds Allen serving as co-facilitators.

There was some good information provided concerning suicide, and a number of experiences shared by those who have either been suicidal or actually attempted suicide in the past. However, I found the structure of the discussion rather limiting, as talk about solutions was largely curtailed.

The closing session began with a discussion about the future of Circling the Wagons, as well as what could be done to improve the lives of SSA and LGBTQ Mormons. Kendall Wilcox facilitated the discussion, and it was interesting to hear so many views and ideas.

The final keynote speaker was Lisa Tensmeyer Hansen, who is a marriage and family therapist. She spoke on the importance of empathy.

Just as much as attending the conference was beneficial for what I got out of it, I also enjoyed attending it for the opportunity to see people I don't often see. These types of conferences tend to be reunions for me, and it was great to see people that for whatever reasons I don't see very often anymore.

I am grateful for Circling the Wagons and other groups and organizations like it. Though it's not always a fast process, I am excited to see the growth in understanding and empathy that comes from the courageous discussions that happen in places like this, and I am eager to see it continue to grow and reach more people.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Timely Message

Two weeks ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held their semi-annual General Conference. The day after this conference concluded, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it would not be hearing an appeal to the case that ruled in favor of legalizing marriage between same-sex couples in Utah. Normally these two events would not be closely related to one another. But one of the talks given during the LDS General Conference proved to be very timely.

LDS Conference Center where General Conference is held
On the afternoon of Sat. Oct. 4th, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave a talk titled, "Loving Others and Living With Differences." The theme of the talk was following Christ's counsel to avoid contention and showing love to others despite differences in values and beliefs. As part of his talk, he stated that this counsel applies in a variety of settings, including respecting laws that may differ from our spiritual beliefs. One in particular that he mentioned was the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Elder Oaks stated, "Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious."

He went on to say, "When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries. In any event, we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation."

Elder Dallin H. Oaks giving a talk at General Conference
This is the first time that I'm aware of that the term sexual orientation has been spoken in General Conference, let alone by an apostle. Though Church leaders have condemned persecution of gays and lesbians in the past, I was pleased to see the term sexual orientation used, as it is more inclusive than merely speaking of "those who experience same-gender attraction," as is generally been how it has been spoken of before. And in addition to stating that we should reject persecution, Elder Oaks also said that we should "be persons of goodwill toward all" specifically including those with different sexual orientations.

As I mentioned earlier, this talk was very timely. After the district court ruling last December, my initial impulse was to find a hole to hide in for a few weeks, as I knew the hateful rhetoric and contention among those both in favor and opposed to the ruling was sure to follow.

But here, just two days before same-sex marriages were once again legally recognized in Utah, Elder Oaks was telling Church members to disagree without being disagreeable, to avoid contention and to show good will toward those of differing sexual orientations.

And the difference I've seen between the response two weeks ago compared to ten months ago has been like night and day. I have heard very few people say anything negative against those with opposing views. In fact, by comparison, the change in the legal recognition of same-sex marriage has been discussed very little this time around as far as I have noticed. It was very heartening for me to see this change.

Elder Oaks closed his talk by saying that "as followers of Christ we should live peacefully with others who do not share our values or accept the teachings upon which they are based," that we should "lov[e] our neighbors of different cultures and beliefs as He has loved us...[and] we must press forward, having 'a love of God and of all men.'" (Elder Oaks's full talk can be found here.)

The interior of the Conference Center during General Conference
Hearing this message was very encouraging for me. It is how I strive to live my life, and it is my hope that we all may show love and acceptance of all, even when others may have beliefs and values that are very different than our own.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Building Bridges at Pride

A year ago, I shared a blog post titled "The Pros and Cons of Pride", which discussed both the good that results from Pride events, as well as the ways in which Pride does a disservice to the queer community. In my post, I shared that the two areas that I felt did the most harm included the anti-religious tone that I felt when attending, and the overt display of sexuality and sexual content.

There is little I can do regarding the latter, though I have decided that I can take steps to address the first.

Three weeks ago, the annual Pride Celebration was held in Salt Lake City. Though I had no real interest in attending the festival or exposing myself to the overt displays of sexuality that I have seen in the past, there were a few events at Pride that resonated with me that I did want to attend.

Two years ago at Pride, I attended the Interfaith Service and March. Much of what was shared in the Interfaith Service resonated with me. In contrast to the anti-religious tone I felt the first year I attended Pride, here was a place where people were coming together to celebrate their spirituality, and combat the message that coming out means one can no longer be a person of faith. For me, it was great to see so many people from so many different spiritual backgrounds come together and offer a contrast to the tone I felt at many of the other events at Pride.

I was interested in attending the Interfaith Service at Pride this year, though unfortunately my schedule did not permit it. But I was free at the time of the Interfaith Rally and March. And I also had the time available to march with Mormons Building Bridges in the parade.

As I considered attending events at Pride this year, I had to make a decision. Would the positive that I experienced and was able to share with others outweigh the negative that might come of it?

On the positive side, I would be giving myself the opportunity to spend time with and connect with others in the queer community for whom spirituality and faith was important and I would be able to take action to show others that there are people of faith (including people of the LDS faith) that show love, compassion and acceptance to those in the queer community.

On the negative side, I would potentially be exposing myself to the displays of sexuality that I mentioned (which I would prefer to avoid), and my attendance at both the Interfaith Rally and March and with Mormons Building Bridges in the parade could be potentially misinterpreted as messages that either I am open to or intend to pursue romantic and/or sexual relationships with men, or that I am lobbying my church to change its doctrines, policies or positions on same-sex relationships and marriage.

In the end, I decided that the positive outweighed the negative. I decided that by attending only these events, I could limit my exposure to sexual displays and content, and that I would be very clear that the only message I was sending was that of the sign I carried in the parade: "Love One Another."

I attended the Interfaith Rally and March with a couple of friends. There were things that were said or shared that resonated with me, and there were other things that did not. Likewise, when I marched with Mormons Building Bridges, there were others around me carrying signs that had messages that resonated me, while there were others that did not. And that was okay. With any group or organization that I associate with, I have learned to take what fits and leave the rest, and allow others to do the same. Someone else having a different opinion or belief than my own does nothing to diminish or threaten my own opinions and beliefs.

One of things that resonated the most with me was an exercise on compassion shared at the Interfaith Rally. The invitation is to look on someone who is different than me and that I may be tempted to judge, and take these five steps:
1. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: "Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness in his/her life."
2. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: "Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life."
3. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: "Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair."
4. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: "Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill his/her needs."
5. With attention on the person, repeat to yourself: "Just like me, this person is learning about life."

I was glad to take a part in building bridges of compassion, love and understanding. Though I have long expressed so what I've said and written, it has been far more powerful to express it through my actions. I look forward to further opportunities to participate in building bridges.

As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Experience with the Inaugural North Star Conference

Two weeks ago, for the first time since the organization was created eight years ago, North Star hosted a conference. The theme was: "At Home in the Gospel of Christ."

For those new to my blog, and who may be unfamiliar with North Star, the following is North Star's mission statement:

"The mission of North Star is to provide a place of community for Latter-day Saints who experience homosexual attraction or gender identity incongruence, as well as their family, friends, and ecclesiastical leaders. North Star serves those who desire the spiritual and social support that strengthens faith, builds character, and empowers men and women to live in joy and harmony within their covenants, values, and beliefs as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

North Star stated the following to be the purpose of the conference:

  • Create a safe and respectful place for all people to discuss experiences and perspectives on same-sex attraction and gender-identity issues within the framework of the established doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Promote Christ-like love and unity within our communities by listening and sharing one with another.
  • Learn spiritual and practical tools that enable individuals to cultivate inner peace and gain an increased ability to live an authentic, gospel-centered life.
  • Empower individuals to participate in furthering the Lord's work. We affirm that Jesus Christ alone has the power to heal, strengthen, and enable one's self to find eternal peace through living His gospel.
More information on North Star can be found on the organization's website.

Last September, North Star sent out an announcement inviting those within the North Star community to apply to be members of the organization committee for North Star's inaugural conference. Though I have been involved in several of North Star's discussion groups since they came about, I have never really taken the opportunity to serve or be more involved (as I had been in the past with other organizations). I saw this as a wonderful opportunity for me to get more involved as I had been wanting to do.

I was selected to help organize the conference and was placed on the logistics and hospitality committee. The committee I was on searched for and selected the venue for the conference, made arrangements with group rates for conference attendees at nearby hotels, and organized the volunteer efforts at the conference.

My biggest role was assisting with organizing the volunteer efforts. As I had previous experience in the past, I volunteered to create the volunteer schedule for the conference. Though it worked out in the end, and my previous experience was an asset, it was a much bigger task than anything I had done in the past. Rather than two different volunteer roles and about fifteen volunteers to schedule as I had in the past, there were six different volunteer roles and 40 volunteers to schedule. It was a daunting task, especially since I was busy preparing for a professional licensing exam and being a best man at a close friend's wedding in the weeks before the conference. And in spite of it all, everything worked out well in the end.

As I spent much of my time at the conference coordinating the volunteers, I was not able to attend all of the sessions. In spite of this, my experience of the conference was very positive.

The conference went from Thurs. May 29th through Sat. May 31st.

It started Thursday evening with a picnic. This was an informal gathering to give those that would be attending the conference the opportunity to socialize before the conference formally began. In particular, it was designed to give those who were new to events like the conference a chance to get to know other people that would be there. For those like me who have been attending similar events for years, it was a chance to socialize with old friends, and an opportunity to meet new people. I was able to do both.

The conference formally began Friday morning. I did not have the opportunity to attend very much of the opening session, though I did attend one of the breakout sessions later that morning (in fact, I had been asked to serve as the session chair, meaning I basically conducted the session), as well as part of one of the sessions later that afternoon. I was also able to take part in the catered lunch and the networking mixer later in the evening. Both provided great food, as well as the opportunity to socialize.

The evening ended with a concert by the local band Eclipse. I was not very familiar with Eclipse beforehand, and was considering leaving early, as it had been a long day. Though in the end, I am glad I went to the concert. I enjoyed the music, and it was a positive note to end the day with.

Saturday was a lot easier for me. Most of the volunteers knew what they were doing at this point, and so I had an opportunity to attend more of the sessions. In addition, my parents and my bishop also attended the conference on Saturday. For lunch that day, I sat at a table with my parents, their stake president (who I knew from my time growing up in the same ward), two of the conference chairs that I had worked closely with, and several others.

The lunch also consisted of an awards presentation. There were three awards: the Light Keeper Award (three recipients were awarded this year to make up for the lack of conferences in the first seven or eight years of North Star's existence), the Beacon of Light Award (an award that had been awarded annually at the Evergreen Conference, and a tradition which North Star chose to continue after Evergreen was consolidated under the North Star umbrella), and the Fred and Marilyn Matis Award (which appropriately was awarded to Fred and Marilyn Matis).

The conference ended with a closing session, after which I helped clean up and said goodbye to many friends, old and new.

For me personally, the conference served a number of purposes. First, it gave me an opportunity to serve and give back to an organization that has done a lot to provide me and countless others community, support in living a life of integrity, and hope along the journey. It also gave me an opportunity to re-connect with old friends, meet new friends, and gain more support in living my values. Attending the sessions also gave me the opportunity to hear others' perspectives, and to learn or review tools that can be of value for me.

From what I have been told, it is estimated that about 500 people attended the conference over the three days it was held. It was the success the organizers hoped it would be, and many of us are looking forward to next year's conference.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Report of the 2014 Circling the Wagons Conference

Last week, I posted a preview of this year's Circling the Wagons Conference. This week, I will be reporting on the talks and panel discussions at the conference. If you missed it, you can read it here.

The first speaker of the conference was Randall Thacker, who is the president of Affirmation. Randall spoke of how when people of different perspectives come together, we can provide a future and a hope, and that there is more than one way to do so.

He also spoke of the importance of allowing individuals to come to themselves, and to learn things for themselves, and that others cannot do this for them. He spoke of the parable of the Prodigal Son as an example of how God allows us to learn things for ourselves, to wander away, if that is what we choose, but will welcome us home with loving arms if we choose to return.

Lee Beckstead was the next speaker. He started by speaking of the great divide between mental health professionals on what the best way to respond to individuals experiencing same-sex attraction is. Many of them have viewed those who believe differently as the enemy, and these views have been based largely on fear.

He spoke of how there has been much wrong-doing, inaccuracies and misunderstandings among those on each side of the divide, and how this has forced those with more moderate views to feel that they have to choose a side. But he also spoke of how this divide could be bridged, and how he and others have been doing so.

Respectful and open dialogue is the key. When these are present, fear is decreased and barriers are broken down. He also spoke of the importance of safety, and how that can come both from within and from those around us. We are each responsible for our boundaries and needs, and we can help others by respecting their boundaries and needs.

He spoke of the necessity of conflict and opposition for growth, that without them, things remain stagnant. He closed by speaking of the need of the LGBTQ and SSA communities to combine for their common welfare.

David Matheson spoke next. He started by acknowledging that a lot of people were probably asking why he was speaking at the conference. He went on to present three questions: 1) How well do I handle ambiguity? 2) How aptly to I accept diversity? 3) How do I respond to the unknown or the unknowable?

He spoke of how things are created based on how individuals perceive things. There is opposition in all things, and this opposition creates contrast and diversity.

He shared the story of his own journey and how his own views and perceptions have shifted over the years. He spoke about how each of us can be authentic and own our own truth without imposing it onto others.

He spoke of the similarities and shared goals that those with diverse views share and how all of us are responsible for the community we are in. Each of us can be part of the solution to ending the misunderstanding and fear that have divided the community for so long.

The next segment of the conference consisted of sessions of dialogue workshops. As I've mentioned in other posts, I find it difficult to take notes from panel or group discussions, so what I report on these will be my impressions and what I remember from them.

For the first session, I attended the workshop titled “Navigating Church Activity as an LGBTQ or SSA Mormon." The moderator was Jamison Manwaring, and the panelists were Tom Christofferson, Ty Mansfield, John Gustav-Wrathall and Kayla Burningham. The panelists came from a variety of backgrounds, two of them currently in same-sex marriages, one in an opposite-sex marriage, and another single. Three had spent time away from activity in the LDS Church, though all actively attend now.

The panelists were asked a number of questions, including what motivates them to stay active in church, how they respond to misunderstanding from other Mormons and how to navigate the differences between Mormon culture, the LDS Church and spirituality. Members of the audience were also given the opportunity to ask and answer questions.

For the next session, I attended the workshop titled, “The Value of Listening to All Sides Respectfully.”
Jay Jacobsen was the moderator for this informal group discussion. Jay described his interest as coming from one who was one of the original founders of North Star, but later had a shift in his beliefs. He had noticed as he listened to both “sides” of the debate on homosexuality, that there were misperceptions, and in some cases, vilification of those on the other “side.” Having friends and those he cared about on both sides of the debate, he developed an interest in helping all to listen respectfully and work to understand those with different beliefs and perspectives.

We were each given the opportunity to participate in a discussion around why we were interested in respectful dialogue. I spoke a couple of times myself (which required stepping out of my self-consciousnessness, as the session was being audio recorded), and shared that my reasons for wanting to have respectful dialogue basically came down to the Golden Rule, and that I found that to truly listen to someone else respectfully and understand them that I had to suspend my own judgments, and realize that listening to a different point of view didn't mean that I had to change my own point of view, and that if I were in someone else's place, I would want the same respect, acceptance and understanding.

I enjoyed the discussion, and found it to be very productive. There was talk about it being easier to listen respectfully when we stopped viewing others as being on another “side.” There was also discussion about picking our battles. We may not be ready to engage in dialogue with some people, and there may be some that are not willing to dialogue with others in a respectful way.

The final session was broken into two parts. The first part consisted of a panel discussion titled,
Opening the Circle: Growing Out of Exclusivity,” and consisted of the therapists that have been meeting together that was mentioned earlier. The panel consisted of Lee Beckstead, David Matheson, Marybeth Raynes, Jim Struve, Jerry Buie, Shirley Cox and David Pruden.

The panelists discussed a number of the experiences they have had in the last year that they have been meeting together. Having been familiar with several of the panelists (and knowing a couple of them pretty well) beforehand, I was impressed with how well that these men and women had come to understand and respect one another. Some viewed others as enemies not long ago. But now, they have been able to set aside the differences and no longer view the others as being on another “side.” As one panelist said, “We all want what's best for our clients and those in this community.”

The second part of the final session was a talk given by Marybeth Raynes, who is a social worker and marriage and family therapist, who has years of experience counseling LGBT and SSA clients, as well as clients with unrelated issues.

She started by pointing out that when something seems too simple, it is often the case that we don't completely understand it. She continued by discussing child development, and how young children see those that are similar to themselves as good, and those that are different as bad. This is a type of black and white thinking that most children grow out of, though with a number of individuals, it persists into adulthood.

She spoke of how we do not need to identify with any one aspect of ourselves, but see our whole selves. And when we are able to integrate all of ourselves and feel whole and at peace, we can then see others that are different and listen to opinions and beliefs that are different than our own without feeling threatened. We will be able to truly listen and understand others.

Bridges are built and walls are torn down when we look for parallels and things we have in common. When we find things that can be agreed on, we can then expand from there. The key is to listen, understand and negotiate.

The conference ended with a social that included musical entertainment, as well as a chance to socialize and get to know one another.

Overall, I would consider the conference a success. Although there are still important issues to be discussed, I believe this year's conference has shown that it is possible to get people together from opposite sides of the divide on how to respond to homosexuality to talk and to understand and respect one another. I look forward to next year's conference.

* * * * * 

As always, comments and feedback are appreciated.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Preview of the 2014 Circling the Wagons Conference

Over this last weekend, the Circling the Wagons Conference was held. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend it.

The best way of describing Circling the Wagons is to read their statement of purpose:

The goal of Circling the Wagons Conference is to create spaces where LGBTQ or SSA Mormons and their families and friends can gather to acknowledge, explore and honor shared experiences. No issues strike more deeply than whom we love and how we understand our beliefs about ourselves and God. These issues carry an especially profound weight in Mormon communities and have been the source of a great deal of misunderstanding, judgment and hurt. Consequently, gay Mormons are deeply divided over how to address same-sex attraction and negotiate the choices they face.

In convening this conference, we are inviting LGBTQ/SSA Mormons and their families and friends to step beyond historic divisions to establish a shared space where all who have ever self-identified as Mormon can speak truthfully and respectfully. We welcome all who wish to participate in a spirit of fellowship and openness, with condemnation for none and compassion for all, in the hopes that all will experience personal renewal and discover a basis for common ground in our shared heritage.

Many of the goals of Circling the Wagons coincide with my own. In many ways, Circling the Wagons embodies my own goals of building bridges between those of different perspectives on how to approach homosexuality.

In the press release of the conference a couple of months ago, it was announced that two of the keynote speakers would be Lee Beckstead and David Matheson. Lee Beckstead is a psychologist who was on the APA task force that came out with the statement on the appropriate therapeutic response to homosexuality, and practices LGBT-affirming therapy in his private practice. David Matheson is a clinical mental health counselor who was one of the original founders of Evergreen, was a co-creator of the Journey into Manhood and is the director of the Center for Gender Wholeness whose purpose is to help men who experience their SSA as unwanted to diminish their feelings and change their self-perceptions.

These two men both come from Mormon backgrounds (Lee is no longer a practicing member of the LDS Church, while David is), and have very different views on the origins of homosexuality and how to approach it in a therapeutic setting. And yet they were coming together to speak at this conference, to talk about their differences of opinion in a respectful manner and to speak of the common ground that they have found.

The press release for this year's Circling the Wagons Conference included the following: “Beckstead, Matheson, and other therapists who have had disagreements about how to respond to same-sex attraction have met on several occasions during the last year in hopes that constructive communication will make it possible for them to work together for the benefit of all LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormons. To our knowledge, this is the first time an LGBT-affirming therapist and a therapist who helps individuals diminish homosexuality have spoken peacefully together at one conference.”

David Matheson was also quoted in the press release as saying, “I’m excited for the opportunity to speak at Circling the Wagons and to tell people about the hope Lee, myself and the other therapists have that LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormons and their families and friends can work together to help the people we all care about. Too many families experience too much conflict regarding same-sex attraction. I want to work towards healing those families and relationships. Sure, Lee and I have differences, but we've been genuinely surprised at how much we have in common and how much we genuinely care about each other. We want to demonstrate how we can work together for the good of everyone.”

I started this blog in large part to pursue these goals. At the time, I felt alone in my desire. While I knew that there were some others that felt on the fringes of both the SSA and LGBT communities, not being able to fully embrace or be completely accepted by either, I felt that people like me were few and far between. And it seemed that few others were really working to end the misunderstanding between these groups and focus on the common goals that they share.

I admit that I felt slightly uncomfortable going to the last Circling the Wagons Conference. My perception was that while the goals were good, there was an underlying tension preventing those goals from being fully realized. I didn't feel completely safe to completely be myself or speak my truth. This year had a much different, much more welcoming feel to it for me, and I was able to speak my truth without fear of being judged or shut down.

At the end of the conference, I took the opportunity to briefly speak with Lee Beckstead. Over ten years ago, when I was a young undergrad psychology student, I contacted Lee, trying to get different perspectives on approaches to homosexuality from and LDS perspective. Lee had invited me to meet with him at his office to discuss these topics. Although Lee was opposed to conversion therapy, I remember being impressed with the balanced view he had in respecting clients' religious beliefs and supporting them in living according to their values, even if that meant not taking on a gay identity. That was not something I saw a lot of back then.

When I spoke to Lee after the conference, I reminded him of our meeting, and told him that when I spoke to him before, the dialogue that was happening at this conference now was what I was looking for then. We both expressed joy that it was finally coming about.

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Next week, I will break with the tradition of only posting every other week, and I will post my report of the Circling the Wagons Conference. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.