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Students and faculty start in Laie, Affirmation Hawaii, a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community

Members of Affirmation Hawaii take a picture together outside on the grass.

National non-profit organization Affirmation LGBTQ Mormons Family and Friends, began its first Hawaii chapter in the Laie community this year, said organizers, due to a need voiced by BYU–Hawaii students and faculty.

Four self-described “out and proud” BYUH students and one faculty member make up the newly formed presidency of Affirmation Hawaii Chapter. On Feb. 22 they said they held their opening social at a home of a community member expecting maybe a dozen people to show up but 45 people attended.

Affirmation was formed initially in the late 1970s in Utah, says its website, and there is a chapter in Provo, Utah. Ron Chand, the president of the Affirmation Hawaii Chapter and a senior from Fiji studying accounting and marketing, said he wants the organization to give people hope and empowerment.

“[We want] people to find meaning in their life and realize they have more options than to either commit suicide or go away from the Church,” said Chand. “This is a cause bigger than us. It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever known, and it’s helping lots of lives already.

“The big thing about our group is that we don’t push doctrine or LGBTQ+ agendas. We support individual journeys. We support them with their issues and help them feel loved … We want to bridge not only just things with the Mormon LGBTQ+ community, but also we want to create a place where people can heal.”

A safe haven for individual journeys

Because Affirmation Hawaii is separate from BYUH, the group’s faculty advisor, Michelle Johnson Blimes, an adjunct instructor in the Faculty of Education & Social Work, explained they wanted to create a good relationship with the university from the very beginning.

Affirmation Hawaii organizers said they met with Debbie Hippolite Wright, vice president for Student Development & Services, and John Bell, vice president for Academics, whose support gave them the confidence to push forward with their vision.

“It’s because our agenda is pretty clear. Our mission is something that doesn’t go against the gospel or the Honor Code,” said Chand. “For us, it’s a lifesaving work.”

Zion Kennach, a senior from Washington studying social work and the Affirmation Hawaii vice president of activities, said while they were beginning the group, he heard of students within the LGBTQ+ community who told the Counseling Center they felt like they didn’t belong.

Because of client confidentiality, Kennach did not know who these students were, but he wished he could reach out and tell them they do have a place.

“What we hope for [with Affirmation Hawaii] is to have a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community … To have a place where they feel accepted, and it’s okay to be them.... It’s a place where they can control their own journey.”

One of those people was Chand’s younger sister, Payal Devi, a sophomore from Fiji studying marine biology, who they asked to be the chapter’s treasurer.

“[Before] I was introduced to [Affirmation Hawaii], people looked at me as a different person. I did not know where to go. I did not feel comfortable,” said Devi. “I used to be locked in my room. I wouldn’t socialize with anyone. But when my brother said, ‘I need a female representative for the group to help us,’ I [looked at it as] an opportunity to be myself, to open up [and] to meet new people.”

Devi said she has been more active in reaching out to others. Blimes also added she noticed that Devi has become a significant source of support to others.

Chand said about the change he has noticed in his sister, “It’s a beautiful thing to come to know yourself and love yourself. To help someone in their journey to self-acceptance and self-awareness is a beautiful thing.” He added people have reached out to them seeking help and advice, including parents of LGBTQ+ children.

“Being gay is not just something that someone has to face [themselves], but their family also has to come to an acceptance with those things too. So, we’re not just there for that particular individual, but for the family as well.”

Allies, friends and families

Affirmation Hawaii is as much for members of the LGBTQ+ community, as it is for allies, friends and families, the presidency members explained.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve had such great success so far is because there are so many allies, students and faculty who want to support LGBTQ+ people and haven’t known how,” added Blimes.

“This is a great venue for the LGBTQ+ community and allies to join together and support each other.”

Iese Purcell Wilson, a junior from Hilo studying music and the vice president of public relations and resources, explained members of Affirmation Hawaii are not required to state their involvement.

“We don’t ask anybody if they are LGBTQ+ or an ally, so those closeted or in the process of questioning can come and be a part of all the allies, and no one will ever know. We invite any and all closeted or questioning to come and receive strength as an ally.”

Cam Prestwich, a junior from California studying business management, said she heard about the group when a presidency member announced it in her choir class. She said she knew it was something she wanted to be a part of, despite not usually joining clubs.

“I wanted people who are a part of that community to know they could turn to me if they need support, for anything, but especially in that regard because I know it can be really tough,” said Prestwich.

“I want them to know that this is a place of love that they can come to. I think that [LGBTQ+] people need to feel important, obviously, just as human beings, but I also want them to know that they’re accepted within the Church too.”

Chand said he was particularly impressed by people at the opening social who said they came because they wanted to learn how to support members of the LGBTQ+ community. “There are people who are willing to learn how to help, and we are willing to teach them.”

Humble beginnings

The idea for the group initially began, Chand explained, with two friends talking in a dorm room.

“We knew a bunch of gay people around the campus who were friends with us, and we wanted to form a community so we can have a place of safety and security like everybody else.”

From there, it expanded to a small support group of friends gathering for Bible studies, but efforts to start a club through Student Development & Services proved unsuccessful, explained Chand.

When Sarah Bowers, president for the Pacific region of Affirmation, reached out to BYUH students to see if they would be interested in starting a Hawaii chapter, Chand said he was determined to make it happen. “I didn’t want it to be another deadbeat idea that was going to fade away, so we moved really fast.”

Bowers said she oversees all West Coast chapters from Washington to California, and now Hawaii, and reached out after reading the February 2019 issue of the Ke Alaka’i, which discussed BYUH LGBTQ+ policy. “I knew that if a church community was present in Hawaii, LGBTQ+ church members would be there too.”

Bowers, through a mutual friend, contacted Blimes, who said she agreed to be the Affirmation Hawaii advisor because she has been concerned with LGBTQ+ issues in the Church for a long time.

“I’ve been here for 10 years, and every year students try to start an LGBTQ+ and Allies group on campus and haven’t been able to because the university hasn’t supported a campus group so far,” said Blimes. “But they’ve been very supportive of us as an off-campus group.”

Bowers shared she expected she would have to be very involved in the beginnings of the Affirmation Hawaii Chapter, but Chand, Blimes and the rest of the presidency said they wasted no time in setting things in motion.

“It was so delightful working with them. I'm used to working with volunteers who have good hearts and a desire to help, but aren't realistic about their time commitments, aren't organized or may not have the confidence to make decisions and lead the way,” said Bowers.

“But [with the Hawaii Chapter Presidency], it was completely the opposite. They were so ready to dive in. Ron set up a full-blown presidency with different VPs and advisors. They set up a meeting to talk with BYUH. I literally didn't do very much at all. They did everything.”

The bigger picture

“We want to be a resource for the school, [but] we are also the Affirmation chapter for the whole state of Hawaii, it’s not just BYUH,” said Wilson.

The group said their opening social was an opportunity to reach out to this community, but their vision involves a much broader scale.

Wilson said, “With access to 70 countries here at BYU–Hawaii, we have [a unique] chance. These are going to be the future leaders of the Church. This dialogue can be impactful for the Church worldwide. We have a better chance of that here than any other BYU campus in America.”

Despite plans to reach out to stakes all around Hawaii and goals to push public dialogue in general, the presidency frequently mentioned the importance of the individual.

“Our job is to help individuals come to terms with their identity and support them through whatever journey they choose to go on. We [as a presidency] can be there as a source of good influence because we are church-going gay Mormons,” said Chand.

“We can only hope they follow that example, but if they don’t, our job is not to judge them or make them feel any less of a human being. Our job is to love them and support them through whatever trial they go through or whatever joy they want to share with us.”

Wilson added a quote from Tom Christofferson, Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s brother, who identifies as gay, which clarifies the role of individuals. “Our love shouldn’t be qualified based on someone else’s repentance.”

Wilson noted, “And that’s what we offer at Affirmation, because they don’t have to qualify for love, whichever direction they belong, we love them.”

Chand said when Affirmation gave them the Facebook group to begin the Hawaii Chapter about two months ago, they had 16 members, not including the five of them. The group has now reached more than 130 members, is growing, and meets in the homes of community members, he said.