Participating in a Circling the Wagons conference is a challenge for several reasons. A first primary obstacle is the fact that Circling the Wagons conferences seek to be safe spaces for Mormons of diverse beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, political ideologies and life decisions. Secondly, there is a great deal of deep-seated emotional pain held by members of the LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormon community and their families. Interacting in diverse LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormon spaces can bring that pain to the forefront of one’s awareness and evoke anxiety and distress.
Any Mormon who subscribes to an LGBT-affirmative approach, for example, may feel emotional pain associated with the idea that he or she may attend a Circling the Wagons conference and interact with someone who believes it is important for LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormons to deny their sexuality. Likewise, any LGBT or same-sex attracted Mormon who seeks to uphold gospel standards and remain celibate or enter mixed-orientation marriages may feel emotional pain associated with the thought of talking to someone who has taken an LGBT-affirmative approach. LGBT and same-sex Mormons in both camps, so to speak, have a tendency to feel judged, rejected and excluded by those with whom they disagree. As a result, all potential attendees realize that if they participate in the conference, they might rub shoulders with someone different than themselves and that the interaction might evoke a painful emotional response. It seems, then, that the very diversity the conferences seek to foster becomes the reason why the conferences can not possibly be safe emotional spaces.
Circling the Wagons acknowledges that it makes sense to fear that if one were to interact in diverse LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormon communities, one might feel 1) emotional pain related to a sense that one is not acceptable to those who are different than the self, and 2) emotional pain that one has, in the past, associated with the ideas that contradict the beliefs one holds and the life decisions one is making. Listening to and interacting with those who do not subscribe to one’s own ideals and, further, trying to understand where they are coming from when one knows that one disagrees can feel threatening. The request that one participate in such an exercise can even, at times, feel insulting.
Circling the Wagons acknowledges that when one understands clearly who he or she is and what he or she believes, and when one has such painful personal reactions to certain ideas and issues, it’s likely that interacting in a diverse community environment might evoke a desire to fight or flee. In a way, our conferences are asking attendees to set aside that natural fight or flight response and to pause, just temporarily, to listen to others’ perspectives even while acknowledging that there may be personal emotional pain involved in the process.
It is important to note, however, that while Circling the Wagons does not deny the reality of emotional pain, the conferences seek to alleviate pain, not to be the source of it. We assert that while it is true that there can be a great deal of apprehension and anxiety associated with the idea of interacting in a diverse community spaces where one will have to sit side-by-side with those with whom one disagrees, it is not actually the interactions with those we disagree with that causes our pain, but our own past experiences with being rejected, judged, excluded and told that we are inherently less valuable if we make one choice or another. In reality, the diversity itself can be a remedy to emotional pain because we can learn together that there need not be judgement, pointing fingers and exclusion involved in interacting with those different than ourselves. We can find, instead, that we are safe sitting side-by-side and supporting each other in our differences. We can even discover valuable points of discussion that can be productively forwarded and common ground that can be healing to both individuals and the community as a whole.
In a nutshell, Circling the Wagons asserts that it can be soothing to both acknowledge the reality that one might experience pain AND to choose to walk forward into spaces that might one might at first believe will be uncomfortable for the purpose of finding relief, community support and resolution. The hope is that all will be able to leave the conference having experienced acceptance and empowerment and having felt listened to by those different than themselves. Likewise, the hope is that all will have had the opportunity to listen to others for the purpose of gaining greater understanding of those different than themselves. It may be that we will find just enough common ground to improve future interactions and to together make the lives of all LGBT and same-sex attracted Mormons better than they were before.