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.

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