This summer, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from around the country will be marching in LGBT pride parades in nine cities, including in D.C.'s Capital Pride parade on June 9. Participants say they are motivated not in spite of Mormon teaching but because Jesus's message requires them to.
"Jesus didn't say, 'Love the person that is really easy to love or that you feel comfortable with.' He said, 'Love everybody,' " says Erika Munson, founder of the newly formed Mormons Building Bridges, which drove hundreds of church members to turn out June 3 for Salt Lake City's Utah Pride Parade.
Mormons are taught from childhood that their role in the world is to demonstrate Jesus's love to others, Munson and other Mormon activists say.
"This is part of our DNA," Munson says. "If there's a group out there that we have not been able to show this love to, we've got to figure out a way to do it. That's what Mormons Building Bridges is trying to do."
Munson, a mother of five, describes herself as a "devout Mormon" who attends church weekly and tithes. Her organization is not taking a position on marriage rights but instead is focusing on "reaching out to gay people."
"I felt like we needed to have a group here that had nothing to do with politics and had everything to do with love," Munson adds, noting that when she notified her bishop in Sandy, Utah, about her activism, he responded in a way that surprised her: "He was terrific. He said, 'This is wonderful, we need to do more of this.' "
The LDS church teaches that, for Mormons, marriage is an eternal relationship forged in this world, binding a husband and wife to their children in this life and the next. Like members of many other traditional religious denominations, gay Mormons are considered in good standing with the church "if they do not act upon these inclinations. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the church, then they are subject to the discipline of the church, just as others are," reads one church explanation.
In recent years, the Mormon church has more closely been associated with opposition to gay rights, most notably through its advocacy for the 2008 California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. A 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that "two-thirds of Mormons describe themselves as politically conservative," and three in four lean Republican, making them "the most conservative group among America's largest religions," as Time magazine's Swampland blog put it.
The church's largely progressive outliers involved with gay outreach and activism point to the church's teachings on marriage and see ample room to maneuver. Even among those who say they respect the church's theological position on the nature of marriage, they say much more can be done to heal relationships with the gay community, including making gays feel more welcome in the church and, for some, advocating for the civil rights of gay Americans.
Sara Long, with Mormons for Marriage Equality, is a 34-year-old mother who is an active Mormon and holds a calling within the Relief Society. She describes herself as a "straight Mormon ally for Obama."
Her organization, under whose banner Mormons will march during D.C.'s parade Saturday, goes further than Mormons Building Bridges in its political advocacy, and says in its mission statement that "we affirm an individual's right to marry the consenting adult partner of their choice regardless of gender or orientation."
Says Long: "One of the tenets on the Mormon faith is personal revelation, so you can pray for inspiration and guidance on an issue or any question you have before you, and there are many Mormons who arrived at the conclusion that equal rights for all people is the right thing."
Still, Long and Mormons for Marriage Equality separate the civil right to marriage from church definitions of marriage: "Any given religion's [definition of] marriage is completely separate from the civil right of marriage," she says.
Does that mean that Mormons should feel free to advocate for a definition of marriage in the public policy realm that is at odds with their church?
"The church is not directive to its members in relation to public policy or how they vote, but would obviously hope that church members would advocate for policies consistent with its moral position," says Michael Otterson, spokesman for the LDS Church.
Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons is a third organization that represents gay and allied active Mormon church members, former members and non-members. Its supporters will also be participating in this summer's pride marches. In a statement on its Web site, Affirmation moves the activism from the political to the theological: "We believe that our lives and relationships can be compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation, and that LGBT individuals are a special part of God's creation."
The group also believes that "same-sex relationships are entitled to the same recognition and blessings as heterosexual relationships."
Randall Thacker of the District serves as Affirmation's senior vice president and has helped publicize Mormon involvement in pride marches. Thacker, who served a as Spanish-language missionary in North Carolina, had been away from the church after coming out a decade ago when, in the fall of 2011, he introduced himself to a local bishop.
"I was really missing that part of my life and I was going to go in authentically as myself. I told my bishop, 'I'm gay, I'm in a relationship but I want to come here.' " Thacker says the bishop replied, "I'm not a gatekeeper for the Lord. I'm supposed to invite people to Christ and not push them away."
Thacker said that although he feels free to attend church, being at odds with LDS teaching on homosexuality means he can't hold a priesthood role or distribute the sacrament. "For now," he says, "it's more than enough."
"My spirituality is that I totally believe in a God that is much bigger than Mormonism and that there is goodness in most faiths out there. I visited many faiths. ... I spent time during the last 10 years doing that, but in the heart of me, I'm Mormon. I just could never get rid of that. It called me all the time. I felt like, 'These are my people.' "