in SALT LAKE CITY
After years of tension between Mormons and gay rights activists — with political action and theological pronouncements on one side, protests and pain on the other — the gulf between the two groups has begun to narrow.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acknowledged that homosexuality is neither a choice nor a sin. It has supported anti-discrimination ordinances in Utah communities, stayed away from the 2012 battles over same-sex marriage in four states and launched a Web site to soften the rhetoric about homosexuality and to allow gay Mormons to tell their stories.
In the midst of that warming trend, more than 300 straight Mormons marched in their Sunday best in Utah’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade — right behind “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and before the drag queens.
They called themselves Mormons Building Bridges. They were not out to debate politics or doctrine, organizers said, but to promote love and listening.
Still, their simple-yet-potent gesture echoed around the globe, setting an example for fellow believers who then took up the style, if not the name, in 15 other gay pride parades.
“It feels like something clicked in June 2012,” said John Gustav-Wrathall, an excommunicated gay Mormon in a long-term same-sex relationship who nonetheless regularly attends weekly LDS services in Minneapolis. “This was a galvanizing moment. It fired everyone up.”
Mormons typically view gay pride parades “with loathing and disdain,” said Gustav-Wrathall, who became involved early on with Bridges. “It was electrifying that there would be a large contingent marching in Salt Lake City. And I figured if they can do that there, we can do it anywhere.”
Attending church feels different now, he said. “The mood has shifted, a new tone has been struck. It is now safe for Mormons to talk openly about homosexuality, and Mormons Building Bridges played a key role in that.”
Erika Munson, a straight, married Mormon mother who moved to Utah from Connecticut in 2009 and came up with the Bridges idea, is a reluctant revolutionary.
Like other Mormons, Munson was troubled by her church’s highly publicized push in 2008 for California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as exclusively between a man and woman. She watched helplessly as gays left the faith, resigned to the idea that there was no place for them in the LDS pews.
And she saw her children struggle with the dissonance between the church’s teachings about love and what they saw as its rejection of LGBT fellow believers.
In January, Munson decided she needed to do something, anything. So when she learned that the pride parade was the second-largest in the state, she reserved a space.
As the date drew nearer, Munson enlisted award-winning Mormon filmmaker Kendall Wilcox and his co-producer Bianca Morrison Dillard to help with strategy and organizing.
Wilcox, a well-respected gay Mormon who last year began filming interviews with LGBT members, sensed the potential of Bridges. He helped Munson clarify the group’s mission and became an invaluable liaison with the LGBT community.
“There is an exponentially growing number of Mormon hearts that are turning toward compassion,” he says. “We turned that into action.”
Dillard, a straight, active, married Mormon from Provo, Utah, also signed on enthusiastically, bringing grass-roots organizing skills to the movement.
During the Prop 8 campaign, Dillard “didn’t know what to make of all the gay Mormon stuff, so I ducked and covered. I kept my distance,” she said. “But it didn’t sit well.”
Organizers knew there might be resistance to Bridges from the gay community. For years, the LDS church considered homosexuality itself a sin, encouraged young gay men to marry women and supported “reparative therapy” and other efforts to change same-sex orientation.
Wilcox, who worked at church-owned Brigham Young University for years, had a well of empathy, but knew that, without gay participation, Bridges would have been a bridge to nowhere. “Mormons are coming in peace,” he told them. “We don’t have all the answers.”
Dillard also worried about the gay response. For some pride participants, showing up at the parade without advocating for marriage equality “is not enough,” she said, “and I get that.”
The LDS church’s new Web site — mormonsandgays.org — reaffirms that “same-sex attraction is not a sin . . . acting on it is,” and Mormon leaders still insist that sex should take place only between a husband and a wife.
Well aware of the gay community’s concerns, Munson attended a planning meeting about a week before the parade. She listened politely and finally raised her hand and said: “A bunch of Mormons are planning to march in our Sunday dress. Is that okay? Will we be intruding?”
Troy Williams, radio host, writer and Salt Lake City gay rights proponent, likewise was worried about having Bridges participate.
“I went to that fear place immediately,” he said, warning Munson, “You’ll be booed and harassed.”
Even so, Williams backed the idea at the Utah Pride Center, as did grand marshal Black, who insisted on putting Bridges at the front of the parade.
In the end, the positive response proved overwhelming. Up and down the parade route, the crowd cheered, clapped and cried.
“It was,” Williams said, “one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”
Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for the Salt Lake Tribune.