San Francisco Mormon Church Reaches Out to Gay Community

March 14, 2013

In the 18 months since Mitch Mayne became executive secretary of his San Francisco Mormon church, attendance has expanded from an unlikely community: gay and lesbian people and their supporters.

Mr. Mayne is gay and is one of the few out officials in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a history of opposing gay-rights causes and considers acting on same-sex attraction a sin.

That means Mr. Mayne has found himself in a national spotlight in both the Mormon and the gay communities, at times asked to defend one to the other. It is a role that Mr. Mayne, a technology public-relations executive in his 40s, has welcomed.

"That cloak of fear we wear often as gay Mormons-we can take that off," says Mr. Mayne, who as executive secretary is responsible for providing administrative support to his church's bishop and for helping lead the spiritual development of his church.

"We don't have to live under the constant worry that we might be excommunicated or disciplined for being our authentic selves," he says.

Mr. Mayne's message is now resonating in some Mormon circles. Soon after taking his role as executive secretary in August 2011, Mr. Mayne helped draft a letter, which was sent to Mormons in the area who hadn't participated in services recently, saying that being gay is no reason to "hold back from their faith." The letter's plea: "Please come back."

More than a dozen gay and lesbian Mormons and their supporters in San Francisco have taken up the offer, says Mr. Mayne.

While the San Francisco church is unusual in explicitly welcoming people in same-sex relationships to its worship services, it still imposes limits on their ability to participate fully, including not being allowed to get baptized or married.

Russel Thompson, who lives in San Francisco and owns a business there with his partner of 21 years, Mickey Aguilera, grew up in the Mormon church but hadn't been to church for some 30 years after he came out. After he got the letter, he decided to give the church another try.

"It was very surprising," says Mr. Thompson, 45. He found the church "warm and inviting," and now the couple tries to attend weekly.

A spokesman for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City, Michael Purdy, referred questions about Mr. Mayne to church officials in San Francisco. He said in a statement that the efforts of the San Francisco Bay ward, or church, "are in harmony with the teachings of the church that all are welcome in our worship services," adding that "local leaders make decisions about the members of their congregations and their ability to serve."

The Mormon church, Mr. Purdy said, "has a single moral standard for all members, which is chastity before marriage and total fidelity within marriage, and marriage is defined as between a man and a woman." Anyone who lives by those standards is "entitled to full participation in the church, including serving in leadership positions," he said.

Mr. Mayne was raised as a Mormon in Idaho but says he stopped attending church as a teenager because of the way it treated gays. While at graduate school at Stanford University in 1997, however, he says he reconnected with the church. "I'm a gay man-but also a Mormon," he says. "I realized that I'm going to have to reconcile these two parts of myself."

To take on the executive secretary role, Mr. Mayne agreed to stay single. He doesn't rule out getting into a relationship-though this would mean having to leave his leadership position in the church. He also says gay and lesbian people, Mormons included, should be allowed to marry their same-sex partners and enjoy full participation in the Mormon church.

Bishop Don Fletcher, the 57-year-old head of the San Francisco Bay ward, who asked Mr. Mayne to join his leadership team, says he wanted to send a message with the appointment. "I don't care if they are gay, straight, spotted or striped-they are welcome here and should feel comfortable," he says.

Mr. Fletcher says the needs of gay and lesbian Mormons became personal when his brother came out of the closet six years ago. "There is just a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance," he says.

The San Francisco Mormon church likely has the highest density of gay and lesbian members of any in the nation, Mr. Fletcher says-but also one of the lowest participation rates in the Bay Area. Of the roughly 1,000 Mormons who live in Mr. Fletcher's ward, only about 150 show up regularly for church, Mr. Fletcher says. Mr. Mayne's profile and message have helped draw back some inactive Mormons, both gay and straight, say both men.

While there are other Mormon churches around the country that welcome gay members, San Francisco's ward has gone a step further in explicitly welcoming even those in same-sex relationships. Some Mormon churches conduct disciplinary hearings or excommunicate gay members, but Mr. Fletcher says the church rules give local leaders leeway in how to handle such issues.

Since Mr. Mayne's appointment, nobody has left his San Francisco church because of its stance on gays, says Mr. Fletcher. Church leaders in California and Salt Lake City haven't censured him or given "any significant pushback," he says.

"I think people would be surprised at how it was not perceived to be that big of a deal," says Matt Mosman, a high councilman of the San Francisco stake, the regional authority that oversees Mr. Fletcher's church. He says his stake leadership "didn't seek clearance" from Salt Lake City for Mr. Mayne's appointment, and none was needed.

After actively supporting passage of California's 2008 Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban, the Mormon church largely kept out of 2012 ballot battles over the topic. In 2009, the church supported a Salt Lake City law extending discrimination protections in housing and employment to gay and lesbian people. It recently filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in opposition to gay marriage, as the court prepares to hear challenges to the national Defense of Marriage Act and Prop. 8.

"In San Francisco, I'm not surprised that the bishop would reach out to people-that is what Christians are supposed to do," says Paul T. Mero, president of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute, a conservative policy think tank that has opposed same-sex marriage and other gay-rights causes. "I think the unspoken rub is if there's a kind of delusional thinking that you are either born that way or you can be a practicing homosexual and be technically worthy. But I am not anybody's judge."

Even Mr. Mayne's advocates think he faces an uphill battle. "The hierarchy of the church won't change its mind until there is a huge enough groundswell to support a change in policy," says Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values at national gay advocacy organization GLAAD. "I think that can happen, but there is bound to be resistance to it."

Mr. Mayne says he has talked with churches nationwide that want to understand what San Francisco is doing. Next month, he is giving the keynote address to a conference about gay and lesbian Mormons in Gilbert, Ariz., called "All Are Alike Unto God."

"Knowing what's going on in his ward has an impact," says Bryce Cook, a Mormon father of a gay son in Mesa, Ariz., who is helping to organize the conference. "Because we see people like Mitch and see it getting better around the church, we think it's time to act the same way."

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