Gay Mormons to Hold Conference in Salt Lake City

In the last year, the Utah-based LDS Church has found itself at the center of swirling storm over gay rights, thanks to its support for California’s Proposition 8, which re-banned gay marriage in the Bay State last November. Given the church’s position and the negative press it has received ever since, one might think that the scheduling of a conference for gay and lesbian Mormons just a short drive from the downtown LDS temple was a deliberate move. A protest against the church’s policies, perhaps, or a simple reminder that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mormons are here, queer and not going anywhere?

Actually, it was just a coincidence.

“This is about the fifth time we’ve been here,” said David Melson, the executive director of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, noting that the group’s leadership actually scheduled the conference for Salt Lake City in 2007, at least a year before the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution did not prohibit same-sex marriage. “Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Salt Lake City are our standard locations. It was kind of time.”

This year’s Affirmation conference will be held Sept. 18 – 20 at the University of Utah Guest House, 110 South Ft. Douglas. These three days of presentations, panels and entertainment promise to be one of the group’s most exciting conferences in recent memory, as well as one of their most diverse.

“We’ve really pulled out all the stops to get as many people here in as many different situations as possible,” said David Nielson, the 2009 Conference Director. “It’s not just going to be gay people. We have a lot of straight supporters coming, bloggers, people in mixed-orientation marriages.”

And there will likely be at least one thing on the programming that all of these diverse attendees will find interesting. This year’s Affirmation conference will feature favorites such as Carol Lynn Pearson, the California-based Mormon author of No More Goodbyes, about her marriage to a gay man, and the critically acclaimed play Facing East, about a Mormon couple trying to come to terms with their gay son’s suicide. This year, said Nielsen, Pearson will be “tag-team” teaching a session with her daughter, Emily. Other gay and lesbian-friendly Mormon groups such as Gamofites, an organization for gay Mormon fathers and LDS Family Fellowship will also hold meetings and forums.

But this conference also boasts some exciting new additions alongside the familiar.

On Sept. 18, the band Jason & deMarco will kick off the conference with an evening performance. The band, fronted by two singers who are Christians as well as a couple, plays a combination of “acoustic pop/folk,” and are very popular in the Bible Belt, according to Melson. Recently, the duo filmed an autobiographical documentary called We’re All Angels, chronicling their lives and their appearances in dance clubs and churches alike.

“Some of the members of the conference committee are real fans of theirs,” said Melson.

“I don’t think they’re really well-known around here, but I think as people find out about them, they’re really going to like them,” said Nielson. “The thing that makes them interesting in the Bible Belt is the same thing that will make them interesting here.”

Saturday, Sept. 19 will feature a wide array of workshops. Clay Essig, an out gay man and a practicing Mormon who was interviewed in a 2004 Deseret News story about gays and the church, will lead one of the morning workshops, in which Nielson said he will discuss his views on gays in the Gospel “and how he fits his sexuality with the broader ideas of Mormonism.”

“Clay completely informed my worldview about spirituality and Mormonism, because the way that he gets those two ideas to work together is so seamless and so perfect,” said Nielson. “I think [his ideas are] a model for how things are going to be when the church finally comes around.”

Joan and Bill Atkinson, a straight couple from Southern California, will also present a workshop. The two are parents to gay children and to many in their home state, said Nielson.

“To a lot of gay Mormons who live in Southern California they were like surrogate parents after they were disowned by their own parents,” he said. “A lot of gay and lesbian Mormons call them mom and dad.”

Saturday afternoon will feature a number of treats for attendees. During the 1:00 p.m. luncheon, Robert Kirby, the self-described “oxy-Mormon” Salt Lake Tribune columnist will speak. Kirby, who has often received criticism from some Mormons for his irreverent meditations on Mormon culture and theology, has written in support of gays and same-sex marriage in the past.

“He is a great supporter, and the way he talks about [gay marriage] is really great: ‘I don’t see what the big deal about it is, let’s give everyone equality,’” said Nielson. Kirby will also be joined by Sister Dottie Dixon, KRCL radio star and outspoken Mormon mother of a gay son.

At 3:00 p.m., Sister Dottie will emcee a show featuring some of the models from Men on a Mission, the popular, cheeky but tasteful, Mormon beefcake calendars that came to the world’s attention when their publisher, Chad Hardy, was excommunicated from the LDS Church last year, in part because of the project.

“If you could imagine the Men on a Mission calendar doing a runway show with dancing? Yeah, that’s what that’s gonna be like. It’ll be a lot of fun,” said Nielson. “It looks like we’re going to be able to have four or five of Chad’s regular models and then a few that we haven’t seen yet, and maybe even some female models. There should be lots of hotness to go around.”

That evening will also feature a first for Affirmation: one of two rehearsals for an “instant choir” performance. Affirmation commissioned local composer David Naylor to create a song inspired by the conference’s theme, “The View from Here.” The song that bears the same title will be performed by a choir made up of Affirmation attendees.

Sunday afternoon’s luncheon speaker will be Carl Sciortino, an openly gay Massachusetts Representative who lead the fight to defeat an amendment seeking to re-ban gay marriage in his home state, and who has recently filed legislation in favor of legal protections for transgender people.

“Carl is actually a personal friend of one of the people on Affirmation’s executive committee, so we get to have him,” said Nielson. “He’s flying in from Massachusetts just to speak at our conference.”

Other presenters of interest include University of Utah psychology professor Lisa Diamond, who will discuss her research into female bisexuality and theories about the biological roots of homosexuality, the school’s LGBT Resource Center director Cathy Martinez, and Stephen Williams, director of Voicings, an independent film about a gay Mormon man married to a woman. The film will be screened on Saturday after Kirby’s talk.

For a complete schedule of events, visit affirmation2009.com. Tickets to the Jason & deMarco concert may be purchased at the door or by calling Morgan Smith at (801) 580-0843.

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