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David Nielson: Affirmation and Paradigm Shifts

On Sunday evening, David Nielson is busy with rehearsals for Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormon’s choir. But when QSaltLake calls him up, he ducks out of the room to talk. Now is the best time for it, he says, because as soon as the last note is sung, he’ll be busy stuffing program packets for this weekend’s Affirmation conference — no easy task, given that program’s truly gargantuan size.

“The program is 30 pages long, and every page is people and people and people,” he says. “People we’re having present, and perform and speak. There’s so much programming, it was really probably too much to fit into two days, but we did it anyway. It’s just huge and the way it has all come together is miraculous.”

There’s definitely a touch of the miraculous in pulling off any large gathering, especially one as stuffed to the gills with lectures, discussions and pure fun as is Affirmation’s 2009 national conference. But what makes Nielson’s work for Affirmation all that much more astonishing is not only his youth (he is just 25), but that his service to Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — and its LDS or formerly LDS contingent —began long before he ever sat down to hash out “all of the twitchy little details” of this year’s gathering.

Growing up in Taylorsville and Rose Park, Nielson attended East High, where he was part of the school’s gay-straight alliance. The club’s sponsors, Richard Teerlink and Paul Trane, he says, are still good friends and were “involved in my coming out process.” Like many in his generation, Nielson came out before graduation.

“Once I told [my mom and dad], it was over and I was totally out,” he says. “They took it remarkably well. I was very surprised. I think my dad was a little uncomfortable for awhile at first, but he’s become very supportive of me.”

After graduation, Nielson got a job sorting mail for the post office, which he still holds. He also became involved with Reconciliation, a separate group from Affirmation that nonetheless shares a similar mission: bringing gays and lesbians with an LDS background together in a supportive environment.

“When I realized I wasn’t ever going to turn straight I started looking on the internet for dates and I found someone who listed himself as gay and Mormon,” explains Nielson. “And when I asked him how it worked out, he introduced me to Reconciliation. I was really into the church, so it was important for me to find organizations that would help me reconcile my spirituality with my sexuality.” From there, it was a quick jump to Affirmation, of which he is a member, and later, to leading Reconciliation when its former director departed.

“There’s been a bit of a dearth of leadership within the group, and I have big ideas for it, so when the previous director stepped down, I was just the next logical choice,” he says. “[But the group] basically runs itself most of the time.”
Nielson says his ideas and his willingness to volunteer also got him the job of running this year’s Affirmation conference — and completely by accident, too.

“Two years ago when we were in Washington, D.C. and Olin Thomas was [Affirmation’s] executive director, I happened to be in the room for an executive committee meeting that I wasn’t invited to, but they didn’t kick me out,” he says. As the committee discussed where to hold their 2009 conference, one of them noted that Salt Lake City — one of the regular host cities — was about due for its turn.

“So, David, how are things in Salt Lake City for 2009?” Nielson says one of the member asked. “And then the whole room turned to me and I responded enthusiastically. That’s how I got it.”

And while the job hasn’t been easy, particularly with a flurry of last minute registrations, Nielson says he gladly does it and all of his work in Affirmation and Reconciliation to help people whose struggles with Mormonism and sexuality are similar to his own, even though he no longer participates in the church and identifies himself as an atheist.

“I have learned to grant everyone the space they need to be where they are and there’s nothing wrong with believing different things,” he says. “It’s just a choice people make differently.”

“When you see someone have a paradigm shift, realizing that they’re inherent worth means they don’t have to put up with being abused, or that they can be their own source of power, that is so rewarding, that makes everything else worth it,” he continues. “All the work and the trouble and the drama — and we have lots of it — is worth it to watch people have those paradigm shifts.”

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