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Affirmation 2002 Conference Report

Prepared by James Kent and Hugo Salinas


Introduction

The annual conference of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons was held September 6-8, 2002, in Las Vegas. About 170 GLTBI Mormons, along with partners and friends, gathered that weekend to celebrate the diversity of our Affirmation family. Affirmation members came to Nevada from 16 states in the US and from places as distant as Hawaii, England, and Saudi Arabia. For the first time in Affirmation's history, the conference was attended by two members of the recently launched Mexico Chapter and by the founders of three gay LDS youth groups currently operating in Utah, Northern California, and Colorado.

Friday Events

The weekend kicked off on Friday afternoon with a welcome by executive director Scott MacKay and a poolside reception. In the evening, Pulitzer-prize winning editorial cartoonist Steve Benson and musician Dan Barker presented "Tunes & Toons: The Lighter Side of Religion and Politics." Combining humor, musical talent, wit, wisdom, and freethinking, Steve and Dan took a fresh look at national and international issues. Their show had us singing, laughing, and crying.

Later on that same evening the Las Vegas Gay & Lesbian Chorus performed "LesboHomo!" based on the popular 1930's Broadway musical, "Oklahoma!"--with a very queer twist. It was an enjoyable presentation, and several Affirmation members recognized in the choir Bob Axelson, one of the founders of the San Francisco Chapter of Affirmation.

Saturday Workshops

Saturday activities kicked off with a continental breakfast. Afterwards, eight workshops explored many topics relevant to the GLTBI Mormon community. Julie Hammer conducted a workshop that explored the pitfalls of labels and stereotypes, and Rod Foster moderated a discussion on gay dating. Wes Miller discussed the similarities and differences between Lesbian and Gay Mormons. Cheryl Curtis made a multimedia, interactive presentation on Queer Mormon websites. Aaron Cloward, Erik Kruse, and Micah Bisson discussed their experiences launching and coordinating three gay LDS youth groups currently functioning in Utah, Northern California, and Colorado. With their dedication and leadership, Aaron, Erik, and Micah have certainly become "the First Presidency" of gay LDS young adults!

Later that day, Dr. Gerry R. Earl facilitated a panel on transgender/intersex issues, with Aiden Key, Rebecca Marie Nay, and Tia Owen sharing their experiences as people living outside the traditional categories of gender. Chris Doss and Kraig Stephens, partners for more than seven years, shared some insights and personal experiences about the challenges and blessings of living in a long term relationship. Rod Foster drew from the writings of Alexandra Stoddard and others to discuss the benefits of turning daily routine into meaningful, enjoyable rituals in our lives.

At noon, 41 gay Mormon fathers attended the traditional Gamofite luncheon. Among them, these 41 Gamofites boasted 77 children and 42 grandchildren. The Michael Farr Award, which credits the contributions made by a Gamofite to the organization, went this year to Rod Foster. Past recipients of the Michael Farr award include Bob Olsen, Scott MacKay, Alan Blodgett, Dave Hoen, and Ken Taylor.

Saturday afternoon was set aside by conference organizers as free time, but for many conference attendees it was also a very busy time. Affirmation members spread and scattered in all directions. While many walked to Las Vegas Boulevard and explored the many attractions the city offers, some stayed in the hotel and relaxed. A small group gathered in a hotel room and watched the movie Big Eden.

Banquet

The Saturday evening banquet was one of the highlights of the conference. The Paul Mortensen Award, for outstanding leadership and service to Affirmation, was given this year to Olin Thomas, from Virginia. Olin was honored for his hard work in the organization, for his efforts in keeping his local monthly chapter meetings and family home evening gatherings going, and for having contributed his time, financial resources, and talents to Affirmation. "[Olin's] home has been a place of gathering for meetings, parties, and a place of refuge for members of Affirmation," said James Kent during the presentation of the award. "Under his leadership, Affirmation had its first National Conference East of the Mississippi in the year 2000. He is the embodiment of the Washington D.C. Chapter."

Past recipients of the Mortensen Award include Paul Mortensen, Clifford Barnes, Ina Mae Murri, Irwin Phelps, Ron Kershaw, Rick Fernandez, Larry Gates, Tere LaGiusa & Jacki Riedeman, James Kent, Duane Jennings, Ricky Gilbert, David Johnson, Henry Miller, Alan Blodgett, and Scott MacKay.

The recipients of Affirmation's third Award Writing Contest were then presented. First place went to "Winning and Losing: One Kid's Best Shot at BYU," by Sam Clayton. Second place went to "My Story," by James Cartwright. Third place was given to "There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today: Open Letter to a Friend," by Alan Blodgett. Tammy Bramwell, Robert J. Christensen, and Braulio Ventura received honorable mentions.

The banquet's keynote speaker was Patrick Califia, a renowned queer social commentator. Patrick shared his experiences growing up in a Mormon family and coming out as a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Utah. Speaking of sex as a celebration of love, not as something to be ashamed of, Patrick pointed out some of the lessons we learn as Mormons that can help us through our life's journeys as we find our own identity and become a positive influence in our communities. Patrick, who identifies as a bisexual transgendered person, is a therapist serving the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in San Francisco.

Confessions of a Mormon Boy

After the banquet, we boarded two buses for the Clark County Performance Arts Center to see Steven Fales' one-man show Confessions of a Mormon Boy. During the show, Steve recounts stories of growing up, performing as a BYU Young Ambassador, marrying, and trying to suppress his homosexual urges through extensive LDS Church-sponsored therapy. Six years of marriage and two children later, Steven gave up. "I did everything in my power [to live a straight lifestyle]," says the 31-year-old actor. "I white-knuckled it, and I slowly stopped smiling. And I don't believe people can smile unless they're being authentic." Steve's compelling story prompted both laughter and tears from the audience. The way he performs his "Confessions" proves to be a therapeutic and unflinchingly honest experience.

Family Memorial

The Sunday events started at 9:30 with a memorial service facilitated by Ricky Gilbert of the Los Angeles Chapter. Candles were used to remember those who died and are unknown. James Morris, of the San Francisco Chapter, read the poem "Stealth of Days," by Henry Vaughan. Tere LaGiusa and her partner Jacki Riedeman, both of the Los Angeles Chapter, read the names of gay and lesbian Mormons who committed suicide, who were victims of hate crimes, accident, or complications related to AIDS, or who died of natural causes. This list also included the names of partners and straight allies.

Rod Foster spoke about Michael Farr, who was a major organizer in the Gamofite movement, and whose name is given to the Gamofites' highest award for leadership and service in that organization. Paul Mortensen spoke about Emery Prickett, who was a General Coordinator to Affirmation in the early 1980's. Ricky Gilbert read Rick Fernández's remarks on Irwin Phelps, who was executive director of Affirmation in 1992 and was tragically murdered shortly after the Santa Cruz Conference in 1992.

Affirmation's AIDS Quilt was displayed during all three days of the conference in the lobby of the hotel's conference center. Affirmation continues to preserve the names and histories of gay Mormons who have died of AIDS. Anyone interested in creating a quilt panel, please contact Ricky Gilbert for special instructions (Affirmation quilt panels have a special size).

Devotional

A devotional, conducted by Rod Foster of the Los Angeles Chapter, focused on the joys and challenges of chartering our own spiritual journeys. With humor and eloquence, Mary Ann (Christensen) Benson shared some highlights of the process that took her and her husband Steve from full fellowship in the LDS Church to the development of more personal forms of spirituality. Mary Ann is a composer and a pianist working on her first CD. She is also the manager and instructor at the Scrapbook Barn in Gilbert, AZ. Married for 25 years, Mary Ann and Steve are the parents of two girls and two boys, ages 16-23.

Lani Graves was the closing speaker. Lani and her husband, Robert, are parents of three sons and a daughter, and their oldest son, Robert Jr. (a.k.a. Kerry), is gay. Lani told the compelling story of how her mother "excommunicated" her from their life, blaming her for Robert Junior's homosexuality. A former member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Lani is the religious affairs coordinator on the board of the Washington, DC Chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Music for the devotional included "One Song," sung by Mark Packer, and "Beacons of Truth," interpreted by Ken Salzman. The closing hymn was "Come, Come Ye Saints," with a special second verse written by Sikoki Layton.

At the Sunday Brunch, Scott MacKay announced his candidacy for Executive Director for 2003. His assistants will be Olin Thomas of Virginia and Darren Holman of California. Hugo Salinas of Salt Lake City was asked to be the next newsletter editor. James Kent will be the Administrative Secretary to the Executive Board, and Tia Owen will chair the Endowment Fund Committee.

The friendships that we built and the experiences that we shared in the Las Vegas conference will stay with us for years to come. Thank you to conference coordinator Michael Lambert and his outstanding team. God be with you till we meet again at the 2003 Conference to be held in Salt Lake City.

Comments by Conference Attendees

"I really enjoyed Patrick [Califia]'s comments. I was unaware of the controversy surrounding his choice as this year's keynote speaker. I was moved by much of what he said, especially the part of trying to find the good from his Mormon upbringing." —Dan Cash

"It was a pleasure to spend time with you and a few hundred of your best friends last weekend. Lani and I really felt fed spiritually to be with our friends in Affirmation to strengthen old friendships and to make new ones." —Robert Graves, Sr.

"I thought the conference was WONDERFUL!!! Each of the entertainers & speakers was truly exceptional. I can't imagine how we could match this quality every year, but kudos to the conference committee for their success and keep up the great work!" —Dana Christensen.

"I had a great time. My favorite was the Sunday devotional. I normally cringe at the thought of a devotional, but this one was awesome. I felt SO uplifted by the two talks by Lani Graves and Mary Ann Benson. I hope to hear either/both of them speak again at future conferences." —Aaron Vinck

"Congratulations to all who have made this conference such a success… in particular to my loving partner Michael Lambert and fabulous friend Ricky Gilbert, conference co-chairs and miracle workers. A hearty thanks to the Alexis Park resort and the Affirmation Conference committee." —Scott MacKay