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.