Vienna, Virginia resident Kate Kelly was a student at Brigham Young University in 2004 when she attended her first same-sex wedding. It took place beneath an increasingly ominous sky in Spanish Fork, Utah, but a large rainbow suddenly appeared just as her friend and his partner began to exchange their vows.
"It was symbolic that the union was blessed by our heavenly parents and that it was far from being an abomination," said an emotional Kelly during the Circling the Wagons Conference that drew nearly 100 LGBT Mormons, their families and allies from across the country to Washington, D.C., from April 20-22. "It was a godly and positive and spiritual union."
Mormon Stories, a group that seeks to create a safe space for LGBT Mormons, organized the three-day conference that took place at the Community of Christ in Northwest Washington. The first gathering took place last November in Salt Lake City, but Kelly noted that this specific conference did not take place at a Mormon church.
"We are very grateful for the Community of Christ for welcoming us to their space, she said during a marriage equality panel on which Sharon Graves of the Human Rights Campaign, Hugo Salinas of the LGBT Mormon group Affirmations and Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin sat on Saturday. "Mormon churches are not a safe space for gay people."
Like the Mormon Church, the Community of Christ considers itself a disciple of Joseph Smith's original Church of Latter-Day Saints. But it differs from the much-larger Mormon Church in several areas of doctrine. It's position on LGBT members has been ambivalent: It originally sanctioned out-gay priests, then disallowed them while allowing ones already ordained to serve.
Pray the Gay Away
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically taught that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation. Those who come out can remain in the church as long as they remain celibate. While Mormon hierarchy do not specifically single out gays and lesbians for excommunication, those who are found to have violated the Law of Chastity can face expulsion.
Originally from the Los Angeles area, Jared Fronk came out in May 2010. He had begun to date his then-boyfriend when his bishop asked him six months later whether he planned to change his sexual orientation. Fronk said no.
"He was confident that if I prayed hard enough God would cure me, or at least I could learn to be celibate and be okay with that," said Fronk.
Fronk had a month to reconsider his decision before his bishop began the excommunication process on grounds that he had intended to have sex with his boyfriend. Fronk had not seen his boyfriend who had been deployed to Afghanistan for more than four months by the time his trial began in April 2011. He had anticipated the 15-men panel's verdict that was to have ultimately excommunicated him from the church, but he made one final statement on his behalf.
"I've always believed that the Mormon Church is a pro-family organization, but since I've come out I've met many gay families that are happy with kids or just monogamous couples or non-monogamous couples-happy families and you want to destroy that," said Fronk. "I can't be part of an organization that is so anti-family."
Fronk moved to the nation's capital three months after his excommunication to complete his doctoral program in economics at Georgetown University. He stressed that he has "a pretty good life" in the nation's capital. Other LGBT Mormons, however, have not fared nearly as well.
Kelly's husband's gay cousin committed suicide last summer. They attended his funeral and were immediately struck by the way his family dealt with his sexual orientation.
"His family approached the fact that he was gay and they treated it as though it was a burden on the family and they had passed through a trial," said Kelly as she became emotional. "I was sitting there thinking, this person is dead because of what you felt and the way that you treated him and a lot of other factors in his life."
Carol Lynn Pearson, whose memoir "Goodbye, I Love You" chronicles her marriage to a gay man and how she cared for him before he succumbed to AIDS in 1984, spoke about LGBT Mormons who have taken their own lives. She literally struggled to find the word to describe her feelings on the subject on Saturday.
"It's being so, so full of shame and so full of regret for what we as a body, as a religious organization-church family-have done to our gay brothers and sisters," said Pearson.
From Proposition 8 to "It Gets Better" The Mormon Church faced scathing criticism over its support of the ballot measure that banned marriage for same-sex couples in California. In spite of this outrage, conference attendees stressed throughout the weekend that things have slowly begun to change. The Salt Lake City Council in 2009 approved an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance that the church endorsed. Bishop Don Fletcher of the San Francisco Bay Ward last August appointed Mitch Mayne, who is openly gay, as his executive secretary.
A group of gay and lesbian BYU students earlier this month released an "It Gets Better" video. Parents of LGBT Mormons appeared in a second "It Gets Better" video that Julia Hunter, who came out in 2010, unveiled at the conference.
"For us in the Mormon faith, it's a whole community of relationships which are affected by this single utterance; 'I'm gay," she said.
Alanna Miller Farnsworth, who joined LDS when she was a student at Arizona State University, said she initially did not believe that her then 16-year-old son Blake was gay when he came out to her shortly after Christmas in 2005. She described him as her "seminary boy" and "testimony boy," but she and her family also firmly believed in church doctrine on homosexuality.
"Here was my perfect little church boy that I now know was doing all he could to pray away that gay," she said.
Farnsworth said she turned to God for an answer as to how she would treat him.
"I was blessed with the answer: Just love him," she said. "He's not any different now than he was an hour ago before he told you this information. He's just the same. Just love him."
Farnsworth reached out to other parents of LGBT Mormons through Affirmations' website after her son came out. This journey has brought her to what she described as another mission: Supporting LGBT Mormons who have been shunned by their families and their church.
"The more stories I heard, the more my heart swelled with love and compassion for these people who had lived their lives being told that they were not good enough," she said. "Some of them had even been kicked to the curb by their parents and thrown right out of their forever families. And I decided from that point that I would make myself available to anyone who needed a mom. That has brought immense joy to my life."