Circling the Wagons, a support group for gay Mormons and their families, opened the second day of its Utah conference with three speakers, a full slate of panels and group discussions, along with no small amount of controversy.
More than 100 friends and allies of LGBT Mormons filled the pews of Wasatch Presbyterian Church on Saturday afternoon to hear intimate stories of personal struggle and religious faith. Arguably, though, it was Josh Weed, a soft-spoken marriage and family therapist from Seattle, who found himself an unintentional center of attention.
Weed sparked national attention on the Internet with a June 7 post on his website, "The Weed," in which he outed himself as a devout Mormon, gay man and happily married husband with three daughters. The 6,000-word essay, posted on the 10-year anniversary of his marriage to wife Lolly, earned Weed national headlines as "A Gay Man Leading a Straight Life."
His unique example kick-started a recurring argument in orthodox religious circles that gay men and lesbian women can cure their sexual attractions through "reparative therapy." That controversy was exacerbated again, when Circling the Wagons announced two weeks ago that Weed would speak during its second annual conference in Salt Lake City.
For Mitch Mayne, executive secretary to the bishop of a San Francisco LDS congregation and an openly gay Mormon, Weed's speaking engagement went one step too far, sending a message, indirect or otherwise, that change for gay Mormons is possible.
"We don't need another platform for that message especially a platform that has been established as a safety zone for those who have had pain, confusion and tragic consequences as a result of internalizing that message originally," Mayne told Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack during an Oct. 30 phone interview.
Weed, however, wasted no time condemning those who would use his story as a tool of fear and manipulation against gay people.
"To people who share my story in such a dreadful way, I say, 'Please stop!' " Weed told conference attendees. "And if you ever hear my story being used against you, feel free to say to that person, 'I heard the words out of Josh Weed's own mouth not to use his story to pressure others.' Doing so is the opposite of unconditional love."
At the same time, Weed defended his "authentic" marriage to the lifelong friend who grew up on his street in Kearns. "It was a decision we both made, with eyes wide open," he said.
He urged gay Mormons, along with their friends and families, to draw their own boundaries and chart their own journeys. "This is a decision between you and God," he said.
Other conference speakers also took pains to distance themselves from anyone who would confuse Circling the Wagons' invitation to Weed as an endorsement of reparative therapy.
Randall Thacker, vice president of the gay Mormon group Affirmation, pointed to fine print in the conference program stating that CTW aligns itself with organizations holding an "affirmative viewpoint that same-sex attractions per se do not indicate a mental illness or development disorder."
Allen Miller, the conference's third speaker after Weed, expressed his disappointment at protests over Weed's inclusion. A Salt Lake City management consultant and father of five, Miller and his wife divorced after his yearslong struggle to find peace and acceptance as a gay man. Although still LDS, he is an outspoken opponent of "mixed-orientation" marriages between gay men and heterosexual women.
"I congratulate him [Weed] and his wife on forging a successful marriage," Miller said. "At the same time, it's not what I'd recommend to the vast majority of gay men. More than 85 percent of such marriages end in divorce, devastating families and children."
Miller said he supported Weed's speaking engagement because Weed never encourages mixed-orientation marriages for others. Including Weed was an endorsement of dialogue, Miller said. And dialogue is crucial as gay men and lesbian women work toward equality at all levels of life, secular and religious.
"When we cut off discussion, inevitably our only option is conflict," Miller said. "It's conflicts that create the problems we face."
Anne Peffer, an LDS mother, student and self-described "straight ally" to gay Mormons, flew out from New Hampshire to help organize the two-day conference, which opened Friday at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City. Peffer, noting she received scores of angry emails in response to CTW's invitation to Weed, said she expected some push-back, but not its size or initial source.
"I'm so glad Josh said what he said, and said it so clearly," Peffer said. "We wanted to make the statement that it's possible for people with different stories to be in the same room together."