Kate Kelly of Vienna, Virginia, was a student at Brigham Young University when she attended her first same-sex wedding. The 2004 ceremony took place beneath an increasingly ominous sky in Spanish Fork, Utah. 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 Kelly. "It was a godly and positive and spiritual union."
Kelly was among the nearly 100 people who attended the second Circling the Wagons conference in Washington, D.C., from April 20-22. Mormon Stories, a group that seeks to create a safe space for LGBT Mormons and their families and allies, organized the three-day gathering that took place at the Community of Christ in northwest Washington.
Kelly was among conference attendees who noted they were not 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 Senator Jamie Raskin sat on Saturday. "Mormon churches are not a safe space for gay people."
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 are welcome at church as long as they remain celibate. The Mormon Church does not specifically single out gays and lesbians for excommunication, but those who have sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman could face expulsion.
Originally from the Los Angeles area, Jared Fronk was excommunicated from the church in April 2011 for what he said was his intention to have sex with his then-boyfriend. He had not seen him since his December 2010 deployment to Afghanistan by the time his trial had begun. Fronk had anticipated the 15-men panel's final decision 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," Fronk said he told the men. "I can't be part of an organization that is so anti-family."
Fronk moved to Washington, D.C., three months after the church excommunicated him to complete his doctoral program in economics at Georgetown University. He said that he has "a pretty good life" in the nation's capital.
Other LGBT Mormons have been far less fortunate.
Kelly attended her husband's gay cousin's funeral last summer after he committed suicide. She was 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 of Walnut Creek, California chronicled her marriage to a gay man and how she cared for him before he succumbed to AIDS in 1984 in her memoir Goodbye, I Love You . She struggled to find the words to describe the pain that leads some LGBT Mormons to take their own lives.
"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.
In addition to the suicides of LGBT Mormons, the church faced scathing criticism over its support of Proposition 8, the California same-sex marriage ban that voters passed nearly four years ago.
Mitch Mayne, an openly gay man whom Bishop Don Fletcher of the San Francisco Bay Ward appointed as his executive secretary last August, described this stance to CNN earlier this month as "the least Christ-like thing we have done as a church." He stressed to the Bay Area Reporter that he did not make this comment as an official church spokesman. Mayne added that he does not expect an immediate apology from the Mormon Church for supporting Prop 8.
"If we're hinging our healing on waiting for an apology for that, we're going to be in pain for a long time," he said. "I personally don't need anyone's apology to be happy."
In spite of this outrage, conference attendees stressed throughout the weekend that things have slowly begun to change within the church. The Salt Lake City Council in 2009 approved an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance that the church endorsed. 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 of Sandy, Utah, 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 faced this conundrum when her then-16-year-old son Blake came out to her as gay shortly after Christmas in 2005. She described him as her "seminary boy," but she and her family also firmly believed in the church's teachings on homosexuality.
"Here was my perfect little church boy that I now know was doing all he could to pray away that gay," said Farnsworth.
She said she turned to God for guidance on how she should treat her son. The answer came quickly: Love him.
"He's not any different now than he was an hour ago before he told you this information," said Farnsworth. "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 another calling: Supporting other 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 enough," said Farnsworth. "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."
The new It Gets Better video unveiled at the conference can be seen with the online version of this story at ebar.com.