05/01/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Mormons Take Steps to Welcome Gay Community

You could hear a pin drop.

Dozens of faces gazed at Katy Adams as her eyes began to puddle, her voice shaking. Visibly reflective in thought, Katy relived the news of a phone call, five years ago, from her brother -- wanting to jump off a rooftop at Brigham Young University -- calling his parents, "to say goodbye." Katy paused, looked out into the crowd around her, and then shared another moment in her life. Her father's difficult journey from believing that homosexuality was "unnatural," to unconditionally loving his gay son. He used his BYU professorship to discuss homosexuality in the classroom, and provided a safe haven to gay students whose "LDS families abandoned them." The consequence of his action? He received threats from BYU -- the largest religious university in the United States, owned by the family's church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and was forced into early retirement, if "he wanted to keep his insurance benefits."

"My children know their uncle, and they know there is nothing wrong with him," Katy tearfully offered the attentive room. "And every one of my girlfriends that I left behind in Utah teach their children that there is nothing wrong with anybody. I guarantee you and I promise you this day that Utah will change, that the world will change, that the church will change."

As I listened during this breakout session at last month's "Circling the Wagons" conference in Washington, D.C., organized by Mormon Stories, I heard dozens of straight and gay Mormons vividly reflect their pain and optimism, their confidence and uncertainty, about their faith.

The day began with keynote speakers including Mitch Mayne, who last year made headlines for being called into church leadership at a San Francisco LDS congregation; and Carol Lynn Pearson, writer and author on religious and sociocultural issues. Their presentations and other activities throughout the conference were threaded by a theme of hope for change and openness to new ways of doing things to welcome LGBT people. "Our job is not to kick people out of the church; it's to bring people into the church," Mayne said during one session. Like many other Christian traditions, local LDS congregations can decide whether or not to welcome LGBT people. "Excommunicating gay and lesbian Mormons is not church doctrine; it is not church policy. It is something that we culturally do," he said. "It is a decision made by local state presidents and local Bishops. It is not mandated as an outcome for having a partner and being in the church."

While this gives LGBT Mormons the potential freedom to experience welcoming congregations, there are still barriers within the church structure for developing LGBT church leaders. Pearson, though, challenged Christians to look even deeper into what their faith says. "Go down into the basement, the source, the Mind of God, our own hearts, the original meanings of our Holy Books," she said, agitated by the use of Scripture (commonly the book of Leviticus in the Bible) to condemn homosexuality. "To condemn homosexuality, you must use parts of the Bible you don't yourself obey. Anyone who obeyed every part of Leviticus would rightly be put in prison." Animating the point, she jokingly mentioned having lunch with a gay friend. "Todd took me to lunch yesterday and ordered a shrimp sandwich. I had to sit there and look across the table at two abominations at the same time!" she said to a congregation of laughter, referencing the biblical condemnation of eating shellfish.

I walked into this conference both as a leader working on LGBT faith inclusion issues, and a student of how LGBT-welcome can work within Mormon tradition. Across the United States, there is a huge perception issue about what the church is and how the public believes it relates to other Christian traditions. Mitt Romney's rise as the inevitable Republican nominee, has helped to shed a spotlight on a community not well understood, which the Mormons are hoping to change. And the churches 2008 funding of nearly half of the $40 million to ban same-sex marriage in California during the Proposition 8 battle has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many on how LGBT issues are treated within Mormonism.

My takeaway is that LGBT welcome in LDS congregations can be achieved through the same ways it is achieved in any other faith or non-faith setting: unconditional love of the "outsider."

Katy shared afterwards why her connection to the progress of Mormons on this issue is important, noting some of the writings of Carol Lynn Pearson.

"There was a wagon train on its way to the Utah valley many years ago and they got caught in an early snow. They were freezing and starving and the Prophet Brigham Young said to those already in the valley 'Go and bring in those people on the plains'" she reflected. "This hit my heart, as no matter how hard I try to change and move away from Mormonism, it is in my blood, and it surrounds me on all sides. How can I now abandon my people out on the plains when they are freezing and starving? I think it is now time to gather them in and bring them to higher ground, just as many of my LGBTQ friends are doing."