Salt Lake PFLAG Conference Promotes Unity, Healing
LGBT » Statewide gathering is a first for Utah.
By Melinda Rogers
The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Apr 21 2012 03:20 pm • Last Updated Apr 21 2012 11:59 pm
The note left on the door for Brigham Young University professor James Birrell suggested he was in for a lecture.
"Come see me immediately," a department chair wrote to Birrell, a longtime elementary education professor who, among other duties, taught a course on multicultural issues to aspiring teachers at the Provo school.
Birrell had found himself in the principal’s office before, so to speak. Since learning in 2000 his now 26-year-old son is gay, the Lehi resident often spoke to his students about loving his child and the spiritual journey he went on to accept a lifestyle that clashed with the religious beliefs taught to him at church.
On the day he found himself in the hot seat with the department chair, Birrell had shared with students that while coming to terms with his son’s sexuality, he went to the temple to fast and pray. He reflected that the experience gave him peace; that he’d received an answer of love and acceptance that "no man could have given him."
Some students in the class didn’t appreciate Birrell’s story. They went to administrators at the Mormon-operated institution to complain. And at the meeting with the department chair, Birrell’s was instructed that he was "forbidden" from speaking about the topic of his gay son to students in the future.
Birrell was floored. In a class about multiculturalism, shouldn’t the topic of homosexuality be on the table? After all, he thought, weren’t future teachers going to deal with students of all sexualities someday?
Birrell spoke Saturday in a session titled "Family Love and Healing: A Journey" at the statewide PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in Salt Lake City. Hosted at Westminster College, the event was a first in Utah, which has seen new PFLAG chapters form in St. George, Ogden, Logan and Utah County in the last five years, said Kathy Godwin, PFLAG’s Mountain West director.
Topics discussed at the daylong conference included faith, creating safe school environments, and issues related to the transgender experience. Sessions on training and grant writing also took place.
PFLAG, a national group launched in the 1970s, has been in Salt Lake City since 1993. It promotes respect and understanding for the LGBT community and offers support for families discovering that a loved one is gay or transgender.
Saturday’s conference is timely in a climate where LGBT issues are on the forefront, especially in Utah, Godwin said. A video project produced by gay students at BYU last month advocated a message that they believe God loves them as they are.
"Circling the Wagons," a national conference for gay Mormons in Washington, D.C., took place Saturday as part of the "It Gets Better" project, which offers encouragement to bullied teens in the LGBT community.
"The national agenda has actually brought people to PFLAG in Utah. As youth are coming out , as siblings are coming out, and as LGBT people are looking for that family unit that PFLAG offers (more people are being drawn to the organization)," Godwin said.
"We’re Utah. We have our own sets of issues and concerns. This is a way for us to network and to discuss those things that are most personal to us," she said of the conference.
Birrell’s story struck a chord with many in the audience. He said he left BYU last fall after nearly two decades at the university and now runs his own counseling practice.
He said he’s not angry with BYU or the LDS Church, but felt his message of inclusion and loving others wasn’t being heard. He now teaches part time at Utah Valley University in Orem, which he calls a better fit. He said he thinks of former students who once knocked on his office door at BYU after being told it was a safe place.
He recalled a student who showed up one day to report that he’d "come out" to his BYU bishop the night before.
"He told me it would have better for me to never have been born," Birrell recalled the student saying of his bishop’s response.
"At BYU, students needed to be right all the time to be safe with their God. I get that. I used to be that way."
Birrell said accepting his son’s sexuality meant learning to believe in a God that was "bigger" than the idea of the God taught to him earlier in life, a God who wasn’t inclusive of the LGBT community. Today, he said he’s beyond simple acceptance — he celebrates his son’s sexuality and considers it gift.
"I just tell people, ‘Find a bigger God.’ If your God is small, you hold everyone small," Birrell said.
He has also changed his definition of unconditional love, he said.
"Unconditional love is not to love you despite the way you are. Unconditional love is to learn to love every aspect of you and to send love into every aspect of who you are," said Birrell.
mrogers [at] sltrib [dot] com