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The LDS Church is not changing its tune about homosexuality, but it has launched a new website to alter the tone.
The site unveiled Thursday and called "Love One Another: A Discussion on Same Sex Attraction" includes video clips of Mormon leaders as well as gay members and their families promoting compassion and understanding toward homosexuals, and encouraging everyone to be "disciples of Christ." Found at mormonsandgays.org, it also urges gay Mormons to stick with the faith.
"Our hope with this site is that empathy will grow in families," LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson says in one clip. "We're trying to communicate that our love is inclusive, that we want to have the family remain intact, and the relationships we've treasured over the years to remain and to grow."
It's important, the apostle says, "to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real, that they are authentic, that we don't deny that someone feels a certain way."
Many gay-rights activists, inside and outside the LDS Church, applaud Mormonism's latest effort.
"This website is a tool, or resource, for LDS faithful for engaging in this topic," says Brandie Balkan, executive director of Equality Utah. "It is important that the core is inclusion, understanding and compassion. It is my hope that we will see a difference in the lived experience of the LGBT [community], especially of our young people."
LDS leaders have increasingly emphasized that Mormons not abandon or distance themselves from gay loved ones and have condemned bullying and homophobic rhetoric among members and in society at large.
The new site thrills newly elected state Sen. Jim Dabakis Utah's Democratic Party boss, a former returned Mormon missionary and soon to be the only openly gay person in the Legislature.
"I give tremendous credit to the LDS Church," Dabakis says. "This can't have been easy."
He points to recent evidence of improved relations between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the gay-rights community.
"After the harshness and bitterness of [California's] Proposition 8, [defining marriage as only between a man and a woman], the LDS Church has shown that its underlying principles of love and acceptance are present in this ongoing communication process," Dabakis says in a statement. "I salute leaders of the Mormon church and look forward to a continuing dialogue of respect and greater understanding."
Laurie Campbell, who tells her story on the site, was nervous to participate but felt it would be a valuable gift to her fellow believers.
Campbell, of Boulder City, Nev., always knew she was a lesbian growing up in her Mormon family. She had three successive gay relationships, but, finally, decided to give up her partner and return to her faith. She subsequently married a man and had three children. More than 20 years ago, she wrote about the experience in a bookcalled, Born That Way? A True Story of Overcoming Same-Sex Attraction With Insights for Friends, Families and Leaders.
Campbell used a pseudonym for that book, but is herself on the video.
"It was unnerving to come forward and be open about it even not living a gay relationship now, that still doesn't go over very well in the church," she says in a phone interview. "But I don't want people to feel ashamed if they identify as gay."
The fact the new LDS site uses people who identify as gay, she says, sends a "message of acceptance. I love that."
"Same-sex attraction is not a sin," the website emphasizes, "but acting on it is." Mormon doctrine decrees that sex should only be between a husband and a wife.
"It's no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression," apostle Dallin H. Oaks says in an interview posted on the church's newsroom website. "The sin is in yielding to temptation. Temptation is not unique. Even the Savior was tempted."
On the question of inborn tendencies, Oaks says, "the church does not have a position on the causes of any of these susceptibilities or inclinations, including those related to same-gender attraction."
Same-sex attraction is also "not an illness or a disease," LDS officials say in the new videos, noting that the church no longer encourages gay members to get married to someone of the opposite sex.
"On this website we witness something that church leaders rarely do: Admit that we've done things wrong in the past," Spencer W. Clark, executive directorof Mormons for Marriage Equality, says in a statement. "This is old news to gay children who were thrown out of their homes, spouses whose mixed-orientation marriages ended in disaster, or Mormons who felt so hopeless and persecuted that they were driven to suicide."
The new site also doesn't encourage Latter-day Saints to oppose legislation making gay marriage legal. Indeed, Dabakis notes the fact that the church "didn't get involved in any of the four races [gay marriage initiatives] that were on the [November] ballot not one volunteer, not one dollar is evidence of this kind of change, and our community has changed dramatically, too."
The new website has been in the works for more than two years, LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy says in an introduction, and was prompted by misunderstanding of Mormonism during the recent presidential election.
"Too often these types of big, important issues are dealt with in sound bites," Purdy says, "and often by individuals who do not have the complete picture of what the church is doing."
Like most observers, Mitch Mayne, an openly gay man who serves as the executive secretary in his San FranciscoLDS congregation, sees the site as an important step for his church.
Mayne likes the personal stories that are shared, including one by a woman named Judy, who was a member of Mayne's former ward. She talked about one gay member who struggled to figure out his place inside the faith, and he got an answer in church that, "You belong here. Not when you have it all figured out, not when you're straight, but right here right now."
Mayne is that gay member.
Still, the church needs to move beyond talk of "feelings of same-sex attraction," Mayne writes in an email, "since being gay is about sexual orientation, which encompasses much more than feelings. I think we need to begin to acknowledge decades of scientific research on sexual orientation (both gay and straight) before we can really formulate the most healthy response to LGBT members."
Mayne is pleased to see the website use "gay" in its Internet address, because in the past the church has avoided that term.
"Any time we can use the word 'gay' instead of same-sex attraction," he says, "I feel hope that we may be emerging from our misguided, primitive history on how we understand what it really means to be an LGBT individual a complete human, with a sexual orientation and identity equal to and as complex as that of our straight counterparts."
The "true message of Christ," Mayne believes, "is that everyone belongs, regardless of where they are in their personal lives. Whether they're in a relationship with a partner of their same gender, or living inside the confines of the policy as we understand it today our Savior wants us inside our family of faith."
Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.
The new site
The LDS Church's new website Love One Another: A Discussion on Same Sex Attraction can be found at mormonsandgays.org.