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.

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As always, comments and feedback are appreciated.

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