"I am proof that hearts can change."
It was one of dozens of signs carried down Fifth Avenue by Mormons in June for New York City's annual gay pride parade. 2012 marked the first year that an organized group of Mormons--straight and LGBT--took part in the NYC Pride March. The effort was coordinated by the New York City chapter of Affirmation, an international organization of gay and lesbian Mormons, which helped promote Mormons' participation in similar marches around the nation.
At the time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was quiet. But now, nearly five months later, the LDS Church has a response in the form of a new website. Mormonsandgays.org explains the Church's official stance on same-sex attraction and calls for compassion from its members toward the LGBT community:
The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
In a video on the site, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, one of the Church's senior apostles, says the purpose of mormonsandgays.org is not to "address every issue that could be, and needs to be, addressed in different settings relating to same-sex attraction. But the idea is to open us, all of us, to greater understanding." He's hopeful that the stories featured on the site will lead Church members to "greater sensitivity and better understanding" of the LGBT community and the struggles they face.
People with same-sex attractions can be members in good standing of the LDS Church and fully participate in the Mormon faith, so long as they follow the rules of chastity and the teachings of the gospel--the same standards that apply to heterosexual Mormons. The LDS Church is working with bishops to provide training and resources to help them understand and support their LGBT members, says Christofferson.
But homosexual orientation still presents a dilemma for Mormons--if not in this life, then in the next. LDS theology holds that in order to gain access to the Celestial level of heaven (the highest of three levels) and to become gods themselves, Mormons must be married in a Temple ceremony where the couple is "sealed" for eternity, according to verses 19-20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Marriage is defined by the LDS Church as being between one man and one woman.
It's not clear whether Mormons with same-sex attractions can achieve the Celestial level of heaven, or how they might do so. Will they need to be sealed to someone of the opposite sex in the afterlife? Will they want to? In response to questions from msnbc.com, Church spokesman Michael Purdy wrote:
The Church teaches that people who are attracted to individuals of the same sex, but stay faithful to the Church’s teachings, enjoy full fellowship in the Church including attending temples, and will receive all the blessings afforded to those who live the commandments of God.While we don’t fully understand all that will take place after this life, we can be sure that a loving God knows how to bless everyone’s life, and that those who strive to live according to God’s commandments will not be denied any blessing.
Peter Danzig, a Mormon who resigned from the Church in 2008 after voicing his concern over the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage in a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune, told msnbc.com in June he was hopeful that things were slowly changing. The new website, he now says, is an important step for the Church to remove taboos on the topic and encourage understanding within the community.
But while Danzig believes the site serves as "a possible antidote to the most egregious of abuses perpetrated by LDS Church leaders and members on their LGBTQ congregants," he is still troubled by the Church's stance. "The website continues to portray non-heterosexual orientations as an affliction, a problem, or something an individual will have to suffer with," he said. "This perpetuates the view of non-heterosexual orientation as an illness, something to be dealt with, or if possible cured."
He adds that there is still no acknowledgment of the Church's support for Prop 8 and other similar measures, and the burden that placed on LGBT members and their families.
In June at the NYC Pride March, Randall Thacker shared his story of coming out a decade ago. He said he felt out of place in the community and stopped attending church about a year after coming out. But last October, he decided to go back and felt surprisingly welcome.
"I went back to church and told the bishop, ‘Look, I’m coming here authentically as me, and I’m gay and in a relationship, and I want to be spiritually nourished. I don’t want to be excommunicated," he said.
Thacker, who was recently elected president of Affirmation, wrote in the Washington Post Monday, "With this new Web site, the church seems to be finally encouraging those members who had been previously unwilling 'of their own free will' to accept and include their gay family and church members on religious grounds, to now engage in Christian empathy and understanding around the subject of homosexuality."
"I am hopeful that the invitation for dialogue and more loving relationships with LGBT family members can help to prevent problems of suicide, teen homelessness, and failed mixed-orientation marriages that have been a tremendous problem in the past," said Karin Hendricks, vice president-elect for Affirmation, told msnbc.com. "I do wish, however, that it also contained more complete truths about LGBT individuals, such as the possibility for loving, spirit-centered relationships that are enjoyed by a great number of same-sex couples."
David Baker, communications director for Affirmation, echoed Hendricks' optimism. "The position the Church has taken will, if heeded by its members, certainly help to reduce instances of parents forcing their kids out of the home and will hopefully arm parents with the tools and understanding to be able to embrace their child in love," he said.
Straight, gay and lesbian Mormons came together on Sunday, June 24 to participate in the NYC Pride March to show their support for LGBT rights and marriage equality. (Reporting and video by Traci G. Lee and Evan Puschak for msnbc.com)