Apostle’s WCF speech is opportunity to deliver LDS message of inclusion

The following was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on September 5th 2015

It was disheartening to hear that Elder M. Russell Ballard has accepted an invitation from the World Congress of Families to be a keynote speaker at their conference in Salt Lake City in October.

Although there are positive ways the WCF seeks to support families, there are also very troubling aspects of the Congress that LGBT advocates (including pro-family people of faith) have publicly voiced their concerns about.

By sending Elder Ballard — a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who is considered by Latter-day Saints to be a special witness of Jesus Christ — the church is appearing to bless all the activities of the WCF. This sends a mixed message: while we frequently hear LDS general authorities affirming love and respect for all people, in this case church leaders are partnering with a group whose activities have at best excluded and at worst hurt LGBT people. The result of this cognitive dissonance is that all families — including Latter-day Saint families — are harmed.

The distressing activities of the WCF abroad are well known. Participants in past conferences, as well as members of its current staff cannot, despite their best efforts, separate themselves from initiatives in Africa and Russia that have supported anti-gay legislation and fanned the flames of homophobia around the world. During the conference in October some of the victims of these activities will be in Salt Lake City to tell their stories.

But closer to home is the concept of the “natural family” that is at the core of the WCF’s message. In a strange transposition of the 16th Article of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the WCF has created a concept that fundamentally calls into question the value of all family units. If your family is not headed by a married man and a woman, then is it artificial?

I adhere to the teachings of my church, which does not perform same-sex marriage and cherishes the eternal union between a man and a woman, but I am not willing to support an organization that tells my gay neighbors (in a city that has the largest percentage of same-sex couples rearing children in the United States) that their family is false. The “natural family” is not a term we use in the LDS Church. It does not support. It divides and weakens.

The World Congress organizers have said that they are not an anti-gay organization and have reached out to LGBT groups in an attempt to prove this. Taking them at their word, Mormons Building Bridges submitted a proposal to present at the conference the latest academic research on best practices for raising LGBT children: the work of The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. We hoped to share Dr. Caitlin Ryan’s award-winning materials that help families keep their gay and transgender kids happy and healthy without abandoning their religious principles. Ryan was eager to come to Salt Lake City and present her findings in person.

The proposal was rejected. If the organizers of the conferences are not even open to hearing what research shows are the impacts of parenting behaviors on the long-term health outcomes of LGBT youth — and they are willing to keep this information away from attendees who are coming to learn how to keep their families strong — then the organizers reveal themselves to be truly close-minded and more concerned with their own political interests than the health and well-being of youth.

The past year has shown productive engagement between the LDS Church and the local, national and global community on issues important to LGBT people and their families. The support of non-discrimination legislation, a financial contribution to the Utah Pride Center that will help homeless youth and a willingness to stick with the Boy Scouts as they embrace a new policy of inclusion have proved that it is possible for institutions and individuals that have been adversaries in the past to find common ground. If the church’s cooperation with the WCF is another example of that, then they ought to clarify which of the group’s initiatives they support and be very clear about what they cannot condone.

Mormons Building Bridges will have representatives attending the World Congress of Families, listening, asking questions and sharing the stories of LGBT Mormons and what they want for their families. In an LDS General Conference in 2001, Elder Ballard delivered a beautiful talk titled”The Doctrine of Inclusion”:

“If we are truly disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we will reach out with love and understanding to all of our neighbors at all times.”

We look forward to hearing Elder Ballard’s keynote. It would be gratifying if he used the opportunity to do what he has done so well in the past — bring families together with the love, not divide them with fear.

Erika Munson is a mother, grandmother, educator and co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.