I had the opportunity to attend the Northstar conference this weekend. My feelings were somewhat mixed before I arrived. On the one hand I have many friends in Northstar, some who are among its leadership. I’ve advocated for their organization’s place in the queer Mormon community, even when I do not agree with all their tenets. On the other hand, Northstar has caused me very real pain. It was after watching one of their Voices of Hope videos that I ironically came close to ending my life. Rumors of conversion therapy, self-loathing, and denial of identity coupled with insistence on mixed-orientation marriages swam in my brain as I approached the Provo conference center with trepidation.
I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. The tables containing flyers for Journey into Manhood and similar programs were conspicuously absent. Similar philosophies of “brokenness” were gone, and the conference instead focused on healing the wounds of shame, loneliness, and family rifts while fomenting love, compassion, friendship, intimacy, and self-acceptance. Some leaders even used the word “gay” on occasion, though “SSA” was by far more frequent. There has been a narrative shift where same-sex attraction is no longer a trial to be overcome. Instead the difficulty is learning how to incorporate it into a Christ-centered life. Various members, of course, still might hold on to the old narrative, but the tone from the leadership and speakers was clearly one of self-acceptance.
Perhaps the most influential section of the conference was the session for ecclesiastic leaders. 30 bishops and 8 stake presidents were in attendance, as well as another 30 auxiliary leaders. All told there were 120 people in the room, who are now among the most educated ecclesiastic leaders in the church on queer issues. The presenters, two former bishops with same-sex attraction and the father of a transgender woman, emphasized love, acceptance, and understanding. The session was unabashedly in favor of transgender people, including those who choose to present as their true gender. A woman in attendance even said “If a bishop lets the relief society know that a transgender woman will be using our bathroom, what do we care? We have individual stalls anyway.”
While some Church leaders are adamantly against Northstar and even sent letters of warning to its leaders, it is clear that they are making significant inroads where other organizations are seen as too suspect. Virginia Pearce, daughter of President Hinckley, visited the conference as an invited speaker and gave it her approbation. She acknowledged her own ignorance on the subject of queer issues, our deep pain, and gave a tacit confession that some have done more harm than healing when trying to help. To hear such from a former Church leader was deeply healing for me.
Gender equality was a mixed bag. There were many women serving in leadership positions as well as speakers and session presenters, some as support for their husbands and many serving in their own right. The rhetoric sometimes focused more strongly on gay men, as though they were the only Mormons that were queer and that women were only involved if they were married to a gay man. However, leadership was aware of this problem and had set aside time for queer women to give feedback on how to improve Northstar to better meet their needs. I’m optimistic for improvement in this area.
A huge effort was made to include transgender Mormons throughout the conference. Because the Church has no official policy on the topic, neither does Northstar. There were many people presenting as their internal gender, and even the bathrooms were carefully labeled as gender inclusive. Several transgender individuals were on leadership, and many of the breakout sessions addressed their concerns specifically. It was perhaps the most trans-affirming space I’ve ever been in.
And that is what I loved most about the conference. Underneath all the trappings beats a deliciously queer heart. Sex may be reserved for husband and wife, but otherwise all bets are off. Northstar has, perhaps inadvertently, emphasized what all queer people preach but seldomly actualize: being queer is much more than whom you want to have sex with. Once sex is off the table, all other aspects of queerness jump into sharp relief.
One of the keynote speakers was a lesbian Catholic who had chosen to be celibate. But she went a step further and said we should demand of our leaders equal respect for those who forgo marriage. To choose celibacy (and not merely chaste singleness while miserably awaiting marriage) is just as subversive as gay marriage to the heteronormative narrative the Church upholds, yet carries little of the official sanction. There were also examples of couples who choose to live celibate lives together, breaking down traditional paradigms of what relationships are.
Likewise chaste polyamory abounds. While the cultural narratives both in the Church and our world more generally advocate all-consuming monogamy (even in groups such as Affirmation), Northstar is quite progressive in queering our ideas of love. While sex may be reserved for marriage, Northstar embraces promiscuous emotional intimacy, even an orgiastic public vulnerability. No doubt they would be loath to see it in such sexual terms, but their message is the queering of friendship into something as strong as marriage. In the end, they are as queer as the next gay Mormon, and their very existence, their struggle to survive in a Gospel context, queers the space around them.
Most hopeful of all were Northstar’s efforts to reach out to the broader queer Mormon community. Representatives of Affirmation, Mormons Building Bridges, and USGA were all in attendance. In fact, MBB hosted an online conversation earlier in the week, and it was amusing to watch the leaders of Northstar and Affirmation acknowledge that the other’s organization wasn’t so evil after all. There was an undercurrent of acceptance and refraining from judgement, with a great respect for each individual’s agency. It would seem that Northstar’s philosophy is to provide resources for those who choose to stay in the Church, but acknowledges other paths as legitimate choices to be treated with love.
Also, the food was fantastic.
I’m looking forward to next year’s conference with gusto.