Story and slideshow by JAKE GORDON
In many opinions, society as a whole is slowly becoming more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Organized religion, however, is almost the complete opposite. Most religions do not accept gays and lesbians, and often opposes them in many of their actions.
The problem is, many inside the LGBT community still hold on to their religion beliefs that they grew up with. Affirmation is a national not-for-profit organization with a chapter in Salt Lake City that helps provide much-needed support and belonging for gay and lesbian Mormons.
Affirmation President Joshua Howard Behn expresses the importance of having the group for gays and lesbians who still feel the need for their spiritual side.
“Affirmation essentially is a group that provides a safe place for those that are trying to reconcile their faith with their orientation and that is within the context of the LDS Mormon faith or heritage,” Behn said while sitting down for an interview in front of Café Marmalade in Salt Lake City. “For those who are just coming out, it gives them a place to talk to people who have been there and done that. It also gives them a safe environment where they can ask questions and not have to worry about the faith itself, because that can come later.”
Behn said there are other resources for the gay and lesbian community in Salt Lake City, but they are broader in scope. Affirmation specifically helps gay and lesbian Mormons with the spiritual aspect.
“We understand our people and we can speak the language,” Behn said. “When you are talking to somebody that is having a very difficult time, it helps to hear from somebody who relates to you directly and knows your story.”
The history of Affirmation goes as far back as 1977, when a group of gay Mormons quietly met at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, talk about faith and their same-sex attractions. Matthew Price was at those first meetings and became enthused at the idea of a national organization of gay LDS people. Although it hit its fair share of speed bumps of not being able to meet regularly, the meeting in December 1979 marked the real beginning of Affirmation as a national organization.
Currently, 11 regional chapters of Affirmation exist in the United States and the first official chapters started in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
As the president of Affirmation for 2012, Behn admits that the group has hit a crossroads after nearly 35 years of existence.
“Historically, we have tried to have a big tent model where we don’t care if you are in the church, we try to maintain everybody,” Behn said. “But now, there are needs that really aren’t being met because things are changing. The church is becoming more open.”
The crossroads of the organization is its struggle to define itself.
“There are those in the group that still want their faith very much and so it comes down to whether to define for those that want their faith or do we define it for all,” Behn said. “Personally, I don’t think that we can’t be everything to everybody as a group because we don’t have the resources for that.”
Chapter members range in age from 18 to 60-plus.
The group informally gets together as a chapter, but Affirmation also has national parties and events that all members are encouraged to attend.
Behn has noticed that church membership is changing more toward acceptance far more drastically than the leadership is. Those living in a ward would be hard-pressed not to find a family that currently doesn’t have a member that is either gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, he said. A ward is a neighborhood of church members who meet together for worship.
Mark Packer, who has been a member of Affirmation since he came out in 1991, has found comfort in the group. He was introduced to Affirmation that year by his partner. Packer at first was admittedly scared out of his mind to socialize with a group of gay and lesbian Mormons.
“I have a lot of friends in Affirmation,” Packer said during an interview at the Salt Lake City Library. “Early on, it was critical for me because I was early in my coming-out stages. To hear other peoples stories and to hear what they have gone through and what they are going through helped me to be able to survive at the time.”
Packer admitted that he thought occasionally about suicide during the coming-out process. He said it is also helpful to tell his story to fellow members, and he likes to be there for others who are coming out and need the same support that he received.
“It’s the old thing where I had a position in the church,” Packer said. “I had a wife and I had kids and at first I was scared to be found out. I was just scared of other gay guys.”
Before coming out, Packer was heavily involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and even held callings of elder’s quorum president and ward executive secretary, both of which are responsible leadership positions.
“Looking back now I chuckle because it was complete chaos for a while and very unpleasant,” Packer said about his active life in the church.
Packer said he hasn’t attended church services since 2010, but he hasn’t really left the church.
“I was excommunicated (stripped of membership) in 1999,” Packer said. “The way I look at it is the church left me because that was not something I was looking to do.”
One of the last times Packer attended church was in November 2010, when he came out in front of his ward in fast and testimony meeting, where members share their spiritual feelings.
“I didn’t think it would cause trouble but it did,” Packer said. “I just felt like I needed to do it. It caused trouble with the leadership, not with the ward members.”
Like Behn, Packer has noted more willingness among younger Mormons to accept gays and lesbians. However, the church leadership is much slower when it comes to accepting gays and lesbians.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been firm on its position of what marriage is and who is supposed to get married. As part of a message given in the General Relief Society Meeting in September 1995 titled, “Family, A Proclamation to the World,” Gordon B. Hinckley, who was president of the church, said, “The Family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.”
Utah voters mirrored this sentiment in 2004 with the passing of Amendment 3, a same-sex marriage ban.
Two years later, Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, shared his thoughts of the homosexual lifestyle in a press release.
“This is much bigger than just a question of whether or not society should be more tolerant of the homosexual lifestyle,” Oaks said. “This is more than a social issue – ultimately it may be a test of our most basic religious freedoms to teach what we know our Father in Heaven wants us to teach.”
Scott Trotter, media spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined an interview request for this story.
Behn and Packer do hope for change in the church, but both men know that change won’t come swiftly.
Affirmation President Behn knows that members in the church hold a lot of power for change inside and outside the church as well.
“Once the membership is ready for it to change on a massive scale, then the leadership will be ready,” Behn said.