By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Religion News Service

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) After years of tension between Mormons and gay rights activists -- with political action and theological pronouncements on one side, protests and pain on the other -- the gulf between the two groups has begun to narrow.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acknowledged that homosexuality is neither a choice nor a sin. It has supported anti-discrimination ordinances in Utah communities, stayed away from the 2012 battles against same-sex marriage in four states, and launched a website to soften the rhetoric about homosexuality and allow gay Mormons to tell their stories.

In the midst of that warming trend came more than 300 straight Mormons in their Sunday best, marching in Utah's 2012 Gay Pride Parade, right behind "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and before the drag queens.

They called themselves Mormons Building Bridges. They were not out to debate politics or doctrine, organizers said, but to promote love and listening.

Still, their simple yet potent gesture echoed around the globe, setting an example for fellow believers who then took up the style, if not the name, in 15 other gay pride parades.

"It feels like something clicked in June 2012," says John Gustav-Wrathall, an excommunicated gay Mormon in a long-term same-sex relationship who nonetheless regularly attends weekly LDS services in Minneapolis. "This was a galvanizing moment. It fired everyone up."

Mormons typically view gay pride parades "with loathing and disdain," says Gustav-Wrathall, who became involved early on with Bridges. "It was electrifying that there would be a large contingent marching in Salt Lake City. And I figured if they can do that there, we can do it anywhere."

Attending church feels different now, he said. "The mood has shifted, a new tone has been struck. It is now safe for Mormons to talk openly about homosexuality, and Mormons Building Bridges played a key role in that."

Erika Munson, a straight, married Mormon mom who moved to Utah from Connecticut in 2009 and came up with the Bridges' idea, is a reluctant revolutionary.

Like other Mormons, Munson was troubled by her church's highly publicized push for California's Proposition 8 in 2008, defining marriage as exclusively between a husband and a wife. She watched helplessly as gays left the faith, resigned to the fear that there seemed to be no place for them in the pews.

And she saw her children struggle with the dissonance between the church's teachings about love and what they saw as its rejection of LGBT fellow believers.

In January, Munson decided she needed to do something, anything, so when she learned that the pride parade was the second largest in the state, she impulsively reserved a space.

As the date drew nearer, Munson enlisted award-winning Mormon filmmaker Kendall Wilcox and his co-producer Bianca Morrison Dillard to help with strategy and organizing.

Wilcox, a well-respected gay Mormon who last year began filming interviews with LGBT members, sensed Bridges' potential. He helped Munson clarify the group's mission and became an invaluable liaison with the LGBT community.

"There is an exponentially growing number of Mormon hearts that are turning toward compassion," he says. "We turned that into action."

Dillard, a straight, active, married Mormon in Provo, also signed on enthusiastically, bringing grass-roots organizing skills to the movement.

During the Prop 8 campaign, Dillard "didn't know what to make of all the gay Mormon stuff, so I ducked and covered. I kept my distance," she says. "But it didn't sit well."

Organizers knew there might be push-back against Bridges from the gay community -- for years, the LDS church considered homosexuality itself a sin, encouraged young gay men to marry women and supported efforts such as "reparative therapy" as a way of changing same-sex orientation.

Wilcox, who worked at church-owned Brigham Young University for years, had a well of empathy, but knew that, without gay participation, Bridges would have been a bridge to nowhere.

"Mormons are coming in peace," he told them. "We don't have all the answers."

Dillard also worried about the gay response.

For some pride participants, Mormons showing up at their parade and not advocating for marriage equality "is not enough," she said, "and I get that."

The LDS church's new website -- mormonsandgays.org -- reaffirms that "same-sex attraction is not a sin ... acting on it is," and Mormon leaders still insist that sex should be only between a husband and a wife.

Well aware of the gay community's concerns, Munson attended a planning meeting about a week before the parade. She listened politely and finally raised her hand and said: "A bunch of Mormons are planning to march in our Sunday dress. Is that OK? Will we be intruding?"

Troy Williams, radio host, writer and Salt Lake City gay rights proponent, likewise was worried about Bridges' participation.

"I went to that fear place immediately," he says, warning Munson, "You'll be booed and harassed."

Even so, Williams backed the idea at the Utah Pride Center and with grand marshal Black, who embraced it and insisted on putting Bridges at the front of the parade.

In the end, the positive response proved overwhelming. Up and down the parade route, the crowd cheered, clapped and, yes, cried.

"It was," Williams said, "one of the most beautiful moments of my life."

Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Mormon states in the United States:
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  • Utah

    69,124 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Salt_Lake_LDS_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Idaho

    26,108 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/Idaho_Falls_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Wyoming

    11,143 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Nevada

    6,486 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/Las_Vegas_Temple_1.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Arizona

    6,147 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Mesa_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Hawaii

    5,137 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/LDS_Laie_Hawaii_Temple_front_view.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Montana

    4,698 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/MTempleafar.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Alaska

    4,530 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b9/Anchorage_Alaska_Temple_by_artchase.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Washington

    3,975 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Columbia_river_temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Oregon

    3,862 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Portland_Oregon_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • New Mexico

    3,285 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Albuquerque_New_Mexico_Temple_by_a4gpa.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Colorado

    2,833 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Denver_LDSTemple.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • California

    2,050 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fresno_Temple_rear.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Nebraska

    1,281 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Winter_Quarters_Temple.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • South Dakota

    1,205 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Kansas

    1,198 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Texas

    1,178 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dallas_LDS_Temple_by_David_B.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Oklahoma

    1,147 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oklahoma_city_lds_mormon_temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Virginia

    1,122 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Missouri

    1,103 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St._Louis_Missouri_Temple_by_Ella_Minnow_Peas,_left_frame_only.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • North Dakota

    1,030 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BismarkTemple7.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Arkansas

    945 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Petit_Jean_State_Park_view.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • West Virginia

    902 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • South Carolina

    808 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Columbia_South_Carolina.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Iowa

    808 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • North Carolina

    805 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RaleighTemple.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Maine

    804 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A_beach_in_maine_on_a_clear_day.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Georgia

    801 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Atlanta_Georgia_Temple_04.07.07.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Maryland

    738 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_D.C._Temple_At_Dusk.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Kentucky

    737 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Louisville_Kentucky_Temple_by_Foto71.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Florida

    728 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Orlando_Florida_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Tennessee

    720 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memphis_Tennessee_Temple_01.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Alabama

    719 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Birmingham_Alabama_Temple_by_nateOne,_cropped.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Mississippi

    715 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Vermont

    701 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Burlington,_Vermont.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Indiana

    637 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Louisiana

    630 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Louisiana_State_Capital_at_night.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • New Hampshire

    625 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:New_hampshire_in_autumn_.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Minnesota

    577 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St._Paul_Minnesota_Temple_in_March_2008.jpeg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Delaware

    538 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Ohio

    508 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Columbus_Ohio_Temple_(cropped).png" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Illinois

    435 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chicago_Illinois_Temple3.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Wisconsin

    431 Mormons per 100,000 people.

  • Michigan

    428 Mormons per 100,000 people. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Detroit_Michigan_Temple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Connecticut

    419 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0a/Nhskyline_eastshore.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • New York

    403 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ManhattanTemple.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Pennsylvania

    392 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • Massachusetts

    381 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bostontemple.JPG" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Rhode Island

    364 Mormons per 100,000 persons. <br> Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Original photo <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/N3419822_37931820_6163Providence.jpg" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • New Jersey

    360 Mormons per 100,000 persons.

  • District of Columbia

    70 Mormons per 100,000 people.