by Dennis Kelsch
My personal relationship with Affirmation hasn’t been too complicated. If membership is defined as a dues-paying member, then I’ve been in Affirmation only a little over a month. Friends convinced me to attend the conference in 2017, so I joined Affirmation when I paid the conference registration fee.
When I came out 14 years ago, I had heard of Affirmation but only vaguely. To be honest, at the time it sounded too Mormony for my taste. But as you know, the accusation that one can leave the church but never really leave it alone is an accurate description of any close, intense relationship. When family and friends remain LDS, it is impossible to make a clean break without even mild interactions occasionally. As my own son prepared for a mission two years ago I decided that this staunch Ex-Mormon would have to make progress in my own relationship with my former religion in order to better understand and relate to him. In a roundabout way, this effort has led to many new friendships with local active LDS, less-active LDS, or ex-Mormons like myself and many of them participate in Affirmation.
My first question to them was often, “What is the relationship between Affirmation and the LDS church?”
I received about as many answers as there were people.
In a general sense, the Ex-Mormons described Affirmation as “Mormon in name only. You don’t need to be a believing member.” But the LDS believers described Affirmation as “a spiritual home where I can be myself and still live the gospel as an out and proud member of the LGBTQ community.”
It all sounded a little too schizophrenic for my skeptical self.
Since I actually recently joined Affirmation, I decided to take it upon myself to research Affirmation’s historical approach towards the official LDS church since Affirmation’s inception. For full disclosure, I should admit my obvious biases: I’m not a part of Affirmation leadership in any capacity, nor am I a professional historian. As I said, I’m no longer LDS by belief nor on its records, having officially resigned my membership 12 years ago. Nevertheless, I spent 40 years as an active, born-in-the-covenant, temple recommend holding, BYU graduating, MTC teaching, calling accepting, scripture-reading, married-in-the-temple, procreating returned missionary.
The following information comes solely from a review of archived Affirmation’s Affinity newsletter in the ’80s and ’90s, available through some public and academic libraries.
The question I pursued could best be described as, “Historically, what has been the relationship between Affirmation and the LDS church as reflected in its newsletter?”
First of all, we must concede that Affirmation began in 1977 as an effort by active, believing gay BYU students as a group to unite gay Mormons. From the beginning, Affirmation was a movement for those not wanting to deny their testimonies but also keenly aware that their homosexuality did not align with the prevailing assumptions among LDS leadership. The early organizers of Affirmation were optimistic that educating church leadership and defying old myths about homosexuality would lead to a more supportive, better church.
As Affirmation organized nationally in 1979, Matt Price, the founder, said, “We firmly believe that Affirmation has a place in the plan of our Father in Heaven and His kingdom.”
Clearly, the original vision was to work and operate within the LDS paradigm rather than to contradict or challenge its foundation. In the early ’80s, newsletters included discussions on such topics as:
- Whether or not it’s possible for gay members to obtain the Celestial Kingdom, (July 1985)
- Spirituality and sexuality, (August 1985)
- Relating Jesus’ time on earth to our own gay persecution, (August 1985)
- Rebuking gays who don’t find spirituality, (August 1987)
- Church history discussion that Joseph Smith clearly wasn’t homophobic, (September 1987)
- A special call to fast for a new “Director of Homosexual Concerns” at the Church Office Building, (March 1988)
That’s not to say all was well in homo-Zion. As Affirmation grew nationally, it collected members with varied experiences beyond just the sheltered BYU environment. Among the ranks of these new members were those who had been excommunicated by the church, had experienced damaging reparative therapy at its hand, or had merely walked quietly away. Affirmation quickly comprised members from a wide spectrum of belief and practice in the LDS world. Over time individuals joined Affirmation, while others left it behind. Some left it because they considered Affirmation as “too church friendly” while others left because Affirmation wasn’t church friendly enough. In some instances, they formed counter groups. In one fascinating case, Affirmation members even formed their own church called the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ!
Before I spent the time to review and study past newsletters, I would have guessed that the Affirmation attitude towards the LDS church was like a pendulum swinging back and forth between favorable and unfavorable depending on who was in control of leadership. And it’s true that newsletter messages from the leadership over the years do tend to swing between the two extremes depending on who is in charge. But the real story is that the newsletter was willing to print opposing viewpoints right alongside each other at the same time.
For example, in the April 1987 edition of Affinity, the co-director of the New York/Upstate chapter of Affirmation Hanford W. Searle Jr. wrote to rebuke the national director Chris Alexander:
This sort of back and forth in the Affirmation newsletters throughout the ’80s and ’90s is commonplace. Someone is either too pro-church or too anti-church. In other words, the pendulum isn’t swinging back and forth as leadership comes and goes as I had assumed, it is swinging back and forth and knocking people on both sides at the same time!
In Chris Alexander’s defense, he pointed out in his reply that the original quote in the Hayward Daily Review was made before he was elected National Affirmation Director and therefore it had been solely his personal opinion, not an official Affirmation declaration.
Some further examples of less-than-favorable articles towards the church in Affinity would be:
- A letter to the editor, “How do you still believe and still print the stupid things leaders past and present have said and done?” (November 1993)
- A response to Elder Dallin H Oaks attempting to educate the apostle and calling for him to pray for further light and knowledge he clearly doesn’t yet have, (May 1987)
- A call for church change saying that there is no option for honesty for a homosexual in the church, only suffering. “Fear and ignorance are the only things keeping gays from achieving everything that heterosexuals can in the church.” (July 1987)
- A testimonial of experiences in other churches, “Why can’t the Latter-day Saints be more like them?” (August 1993)
- A leaked priesthood bulletin on AIDS, (August 1993)
- A critique of Gordon B. Hinckley’s General Conference address describing how the LDS church is un-Christlike to gays, (June 1986)
In the midst of all this lively back and forth between gay factions of Mormons and Ex-Mormons a certain middle ground rises to the top and becomes historically illuminating for Affirmation.
Even among those favorable to the church, there have been grand calls for the church to be more than it is, to be more serving of ALL people including those on the LGBTQ spectrum, to include ALL voices and opinions and to have more trust in personal revelation.
Affirmation has regularly been sought after as a safe avenue for ALL to express feeling towards the church; both pro and con. There have been petitions for ALL thoughts and feelings to be openly expressed so that members can form and congeal their own opinions (July 1987).
Among critics of the church, there was a recognition that there is “no one and only” right way to address the church (May 1987), that “God is Love” and therefore present in Affirmation. There have been frequent calls to recognize that only silence and ignorance are enemies and that we only “want the church to understand that it doesn’t understand.”
One Affirmation member wrote earnestly that Affirmation members should honor their Mormon tradition of tithing but that they should pay it to gay and lesbian causes to further our causes.
In small ways, I see both sides of the Mormon/Ex-Mormon aisle recognizing that the other has its reasons mixed with a firm desire to merge the two. That equanimity is often combined with strong emotions of course but the overall feeling is that together we are stronger if we can focus on friendships, while at the same time prioritizing strengthening and nurturing of Affirmation members.
In the November 1987 of Affinity, the Phoenix Chapter wrote in their report, “To abstain from judgement of those who judge us is our greatest challenge.”
It appears that that same challenge is still present with us today. Affirmation historically asks members to recognize the religion that nurtured us at one point, but in essence to be better “Christians” than the harsher factions within the church.
A certain amount of diversity in Affirmation makes us all uncomfortable. It’s generally more comforting to be around those exactly like us. Affirmation at its core merely affirms LGBTQ+ identity and lets the rest fight it out in the public sphere. But whether pro church or con, when we are divided amongst ourselves, those against us conquer. How can we expect a larger group of powerful heterosexuals at the church office building to ever listen if we can’t merely listen to each other? The threats to Affirmation and the church itself don’t come from questions or alternate viewpoints. Threats instead come from painting a false portrait of oneself.
We of all people in society and the LDS Church specifically know better than most people the dangers of acting dishonestly instead of openly with one another. Silencing each other and platitudes don’t work when people are confronted with issues of faith. Honestly and candor do.
From what I can tell, Affirmation has certainly been at its best over the years when the contradictions and extremes stand side by side in the full light of day, never shying away from opinions nor from their counterpoints.