Salt Lake City -- Even without the beauty of the Wasatch Range, with its chiseled slopes and snow-capped peaks, visitors traveling Interstate Highway 15 would know instinctively that they're in Utah.
In a state where 70 percent of the population is Mormon, the billboards that line the main artery reflect the unique needs of the majority: Knee-length shorts for missionaries, "modest" bridal gowns, church Web sites and--gay pride?
But right there--in blazing yellow, red and black--are signs that seem as out of place here as a pork chop at a kosher banquet. They use the slogan "Equal rights. No more. No less."
The 10 billboards tout "Utah Pride 2005," a five-day celebration that kicked off Wednesday with a gay film festival and culminates Sunday with a parade and party in the shadow of Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We are excited because these billboards help strengthen those who may feel like they are alone in a part of our state where so many messages come out saying `being gay is immoral,'" said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Utah in Salt Lake City. "It was quite a thrill when they went up."
The $14,000 tab for the billboard blitz was picked up by two local philanthropists and ex-Mormons to raise the profile of the gay community. The University of Chicago's National Health Social Life Survey estimates that about 3 percent of Utah's population--roughly 70,000 of 2.3 million residents--are attracted to those of the same sex.
The church, which is one of the world's fastest-growing denominations with nearly 12 million members globally, spurns same-sex partnerships of any kind.
In October, church President Gordon Hinckley called for followers to "reach out with understanding and respect for individuals who are attracted to those of the same gender. We realize there may be great loneliness in their lives but . . . the powers of procreation are to be exercised only between a man and a woman lawfully wedded as husband and wife."
"Homosexuals are welcome in our faith, just as long as they are not practicing," said Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman, adding that the church has taken no position on either the Utah Pride festival or the ad campaign.
Yet in Utah, religion, government and power cannot help but be inextricably intertwined.
The state's two senators and governor are Mormon, as is virtually all of the Legislature and the state Supreme Court.
Steven Fales, 34, concedes the uphill battle but is undeterred.
"A lot of ex-Mormons take that can-do attitude that we all learned growing up and are now putting it to use for gay rights," he said.
Fales, a sixth-generation Mormon, is not bitter. He knew he was different from an early age.
"When my friends had a crush on Marie Osmond, I was lusting after Donny," he said.
Nonetheless he tried to fit in, and after graduating from Brigham Young University, he married and fathered two children. When he no longer could deny his sexuality, he divorced his wife, moved to New York and started "self-destructing," he said.
Then he found a healthier outlet for all that pain and anger, channeling it into his one-man show, "Confessions of a Mormon Boy," which played earlier this year at Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. Its universal theme of self-acceptance has struck a chord with audiences, and this fall he said the production moves to off-Broadway.
"Little by little, I got my integrity and my belief in God back," Fales said.
The actor will be on hand at this weekend's festivities, which include an interfaith service and a parade.
What started as a handful of gays holding a picnic in the early 1970s has swelled to almost 30,000 participants from several states.
"When I came out here, people said, `What are you thinking?'" said Larabee, 43, who grew up in Maine and is not a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints. "But people here have been very nice to me . . . and every day I feel the beauty of this place."'
Still, participants expect some protests, just as there were earlier this month, when the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy group, held its first gala at the home of Bruce Bastian, co-founder of the WordPerfect software company and one of the billboard underwriters.
According to news reports, signs denouncing homosexuality greeted the 600 guests, who included Tipper Gore, wife of the former vice president.
To people like Larabee and Fales, the flap didn't matter. The victory is that such an event could take place at all here.
"There's a precedent for the church to change, just as it did in 1978," said Fales, referring to the year when church leaders allowed black men to hold the priesthood.
"The more we tell our stories, the more attitudes are shifting, and good people are opening their hearts."