LDS officials to meet with gay group

Dialogue will be unprecedented move for church

Published: Monday, April 7 2008 12:18 a.m. MDT

After decades of silence, LDS Church officials have agreed to meet with a gay Mormon support group that has sought to forge understanding between the faith's leaders and its gay members.

In a letter received last week, leaders of Affirmation were invited to meet with Fred M. Riley, commissioner of Family Services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Harold C. Brown, the agency's past commissioner.

"We're pleased the church is opening up the possibility for dialogue," said Dave Melson, Affirmation's assistant executive director. "Affirmation has tried five or six times over the past 31 years to meet with church leaders. This is their second response."

Affirmation has repeatedly invited church leaders to meet or attend the group's annual conference, but the only response was a letter last year declining the conference invitation, Melson said.

In February, just three days after 80-year-old Thomas S. Monson was named president of the 13 million-member church, Affirmation petitioned the new leader to meet and begin an unprecedented conversation about gays in the church.

Riley's letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, says he and Brown were asked by President Monson to meet with Affirmation on his behalf.

"We believe that it is always important to have the opportunity to be given better understanding of your points of view so that the church can appropriately understand your organization and how best to be helpful," Riley wrote.

The meeting is scheduled for August, Riley confirmed Sunday in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Among the specifics Affirmation wants to address: the historical treatment of gays by the church, including recommendations for aversion therapies to "cure" homosexuality; recommendations for more effective counseling methods; ways to avoid family break-ups; and a change in the Honor Code at church-owned Brigham Young University that can result in expulsion for sexually active gay students. The same standard applies to straight students.

"None of this requires a change in doctrine," said Melson. "They're good for both gays and the church."

Melson, who spoke with Riley on Friday, said he asked if the meeting would result in any change or was simply an effort to placate Affirmation.

"They said that there won't be immediate changes, but they are definitely interested in helping ... that they are sincere," he said. "We would like to start to a dialogue, even if it isn't immediately fruitful."

For Affirmation, which has about 2,000 gay, lesbian and transgender members worldwide, an official meeting with anyone from the church organization is unprecedented.

Founded in secret by gay students at BYU in 1977, Affirmation has traditionally been ignored by church leaders, Melson said.

Latter-day Saints are taught that gay sex is a sin. Gays can continue to hold church callings if they remain celibate. Those who act on what the church calls "same-gender attraction" have sometimes been excommunicated.

Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, is hopeful.

"Any time that two groups come together there's a possibility, and I hope the possibility can lead to more understanding, more acceptance and less isolation," said Larabee.

Many gay, lesbian and transgender church members seek support from the center after failing to find the help they need at LDS Family Services, she said.

"Part of the reason Affirmation does their work is to build bridges," Larabee said. "This is definitely the building of a bridge ... sometimes that process is long and arduous."

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