Due primarily to not having much money to throw around, I didn't go to either the Affirmation or the Evergreen Conference this year, contrary to my whims of curiosity. At least, not exactly...
Saturday morning, I met up with an acquaintance visiting from out of town for breakfast. While he was waiting for me to arrive, he popped into the now-infamous Elder Hafen talk. I got a couple of entertaining text messages, such as, "I've heard the word 'struggle' five times in the three minutes I've been listening," and "He's preaching the gospel of reparative therapy."
My arrival saved--I mean, prevented--him from hearing more, and we went to grab breakfast at the Nauvoo Cafe in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Ever had muffin tops there? Pretty decent, despite the unpleasant images the name conjures. As we sat outside talking, a small group of men with a video camera looked at us inquisitively, and I couldn't help but wonder if they were with Affirmation because they just...had that look. You know the look: gay face with religious bitterness, smugly and confidently superior in their embraced sexual identity. Hey, for all the crap Evergreeners get, don't even try to deny Affirmationers have a look, too. I decided to ignore their gaze and have a pleasant conversation with my breakfast date...er...non-date. After a good chat, he was off, and I realized I only had an hour and a half until Evergreen got out for lunch, so I loitered in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in front of the elevators to await the outpouring of Evergreenies beaming with newfound belonging and hurriedly hiding their incriminating name tags.
After greeting several acquaintances bouncing out of the elevators and meeting some new ones, I ran to grab some lunch to-go with some friends. At the Lion House Pantry, the cashier was a funny, somewhat bubbly girl who asked what everyone was dressed up for. I figured my friends didn't want me answering because I would've said something like, "We're attending a conference for LDS homosexuals who want to live church standards and maybe even marry and have families. Many of these guys would like to take a nice young woman such as yourself to the temple someday. I'm pretty sure nobody right here is quite ready for that, but you seem to be flirting a bit, so if you'd like to give my friend your number, he'll call when he's feeling hetero enough to give it a go." I silenced myself and stifled my grin as I looked to my friends to answer. One of them, who had been counseled by a church leader not to reveal this aspect of himself except as inspired, didn't feel so inspired and instead replied, "We're attending a conference." She asked what kind of conference. "Oh, it's a conference about different kinds of therapy." The girl didn't seem quite satisfied with that clarification but nodded politely and said, "Oh, that's cool." I must admit I rolled my eyes and smiled as we left the restaurant and headed back to the conference.
As we stepped off the elevator onto the conference floor, I remembered that when I first went to Evergreen three years ago, I hoped there would be armed guards at the doors to make sure only registered guests entered, so curious passers by couldn't infiltrate the conference and take notes on who was attending. You know, sinister henchmen building a database of repressed mormon homos to spy on, so they can reveal when they fall to temptation, thereby bolstering the "gay agenda's" assertion that gays trying to live heternormative lifestyles are fooling themselves. Well, there are no such guards, so I was able to visit with friends without anybody seemingly caring whether I was a registered guest or not. Although I have to admit I was tempted to bring in my camera with its telephoto lens and randomly take pictures of the most nervous-looking faces, write some notes on a piece of paper, declare, "Another suspected struggler confirmed!" and run away. But I refrained.
In the hallway on the way back to the conference, where the post-lunch session was about to being, I ran into the family of one of a friend I'd had a semi-fling with. "What in tarnations is a 'semi-fling'?" you ask? I guess I consider it something more than just friendship but which couldn't reasonably be called an actual relationship, and without sex in any form. It's different from a friend with benefits because there was a strong romantic/passionate component, and it needn't have "benefits" to be a semi-fling. Clear as mud? Good. Moving on. For a long time, I felt somewhat awkward talking to them because I was the guy who got sort of romantically involved for a month or so with their son while they were all just beginning to deal with all of this. I felt stupid for having done so, especially since he'd introduced me to his dad, while this was going on, as someone involved with North Star and I'd thought, "Oh man, don't set me up as...what the @#$% am I doing with you? I really should know better." But it was good to see his family (I really do like them) and not feel the awkwardness I used to feel. Hopefully it's all water under the bridge at this point.
While I waited for a friend, I picked up one of the books being sold in the entrance area that was apparently being highlighted and is an anthology of clinical, ecclesiastical, and personal perspectives on homosexuality in the Church. I thought it looked interesting and was glad to see "personal stories" included. I opened it up and, since I'm somewhat well-connected in the LDS "SSA" community, figured I might recognize at least one name. No such luck. Then it dawned on me. Were these real names? Any of them? I flipped to one of the stories and found an asterisk next to the author's name. I was informed, by the corresponding footnote, that this was not the author's real name. Apparently, the leading authors believe nobody should use their real name in connection with this issue. Presumably "for the children" or some such noble reason. Right, <sarcasm>because this issue needs to be made less personal, with fewer actual faces.</sarcasm> ...don't get me started on this kind of thinking. While I believe anonymity in each forum should be maintained or broken in each person's own time table and in wisdom and order, and I understand the ramifications "coming out" can potentially have on current or unforeseen future families, I believe in changing the playing field over time, which can only come from courageous pioneers willing to take risks, and I believe the staunch assertion that all should remain anonymous is destructive and sometimes a form of old-school information-control. If you don't have real people telling their stories, nobody can follow up after ten years to see how they're doing, and nobody can rely on them as authorities with real lives, leaving the "authority" to the "experts" with PhDs. But I may be a touch cynical towards certain "experts".
Since I was already at the conference lobby, and I'd been to two Evergreen conferences in the past, and I've been pretty involved with overlapping communities (North Star) quite a bit in the past, and I know I'm respectful, and I knew so many people there, and I really was curious to see the crowd this year, and some friends were singing a musical number in the next session, I decided to stay for the post-lunch session. I sat towards the front with a friend and scanned the crowd: buttoned-up conservative repressed types, flamboyant-haired pretty types, regular Joes and ...Janes? you'd probably never expect to be gay, let alone attending an EG conference, parents and siblings with and without their gay--I mean, SSA--family members, the clusters of age-grouped guys magnetized to each other, the familiar faces from years past I've only ever seen at Evergreen conferences... The session opened with a prayer and intro and musical number. The guys sang beautifully. I must say the song selection was pretty "gay": "Go The Distance" from Disney's Hercules, but it was good. But what moved me almost to tears was not the lyrics or the music but the tension of juxtaposing the uncertainty of whether our paths would eventually lead in the same direction or diverge with the strong love I felt for these good-hearted guys I counted as friends.
The presentation was by Nicolosi, and I have plenty to say about it, but I think I'll save it for another post. What I will say is that despite his air of apparent arrogance and his sometimes offensive sense of humor, he was pretty engaging and funny, he doesn't sugar-coat things (which can be alternately refreshing and abrasive), and hearing his theory out of his mouth was much better than reading it online or hearing it from antagonists. I almost questioned whether he might be on to something, though not on the absolute scale he asserts, once I shoved my emotional reactions, pride, and PC sensibilities aside long enough to actually fairly consider his theory and statistics.
After that, I was actually tempted to stay for more of the conference. I could stay for the Q&A panels or for Nicolosi's second presentation. I could stalk out Boskers and find out who he is and whether our mutual love of jazz and manflesh are the only things we have in common. I could go to the friends and family session and see the parents begin to understand, or cry, or pump each other up about educating themselves and their wards to try to make sure no gay kid feels rejected or alone enough to attempt suicide or run away from home. I might have overheard the parent telling my friend they wished their son were like him and how proud his parents must be that he's hanging in there, along with his stifled expression as he wanted to tell them their son probably wouldn't appreciate them expressing their pride to someone they just met and whose frailties they don't even know. I might have overheard a friend getting interrupted, upon mentioning North Star during one session, by a prominent LDS social work professor who apparently proclaimed something to the effect of Evergreen not supporting North Star, who was countered by a wife who defended North Star to her. What the professor may not have known is that the vast majority of session attendees were grateful members of North Star's discussion groups. Oops. Wrong crowd, ma'am. I would've liked to see that exchange. But I didn't because I decided to take a nap at a friend's house instead, from which I awoke feeling mighty good.
The rest of my contact with the conference was incidental and uneventful. I chatted with friends I hadn't talked to in quite a while. I incidentally observed the demeanor of a certain well-known, cantankerous therapist, whose biggest fan I am not, and found his interactions to be about as I'd expected, though I must admit to the possibility of confirmation bias, mustn't I? *tongue in cheek* I met some new acquaintances. I had a paradigm or two re-challenged. I wondered whether that guy just tried to hit on me outside the chapel...
Some people leave the conference feeling broken or self-loathing, others like the opportunity to hook up with impressionable, vulnerable guys, others only see awkwardness and hypocrisy, and others leave feeling uplifted and hopeful and full of insight and energy. I come away feeling glad to have spent time with some good people with good hearts, having heard different perspectives, considering the stuff that I can't refute, discarding the stuff I just don't buy, having enjoyed a laugh or two at the awkwardness of some attendees, and understanding that of course some guys will be playing footsie under the table or are not there for the reasons the organizers would hope, but recognizing that many are sincere and well-behaved. I think it, like most things, is what you make of it and what you let your bias or perspective tell you. Evergreen conference: it may not be your cup of tea, but it's not so bad.