SALT LAKE CITY — The unique challenges encountered by those who identify themselves as both Mormons and gay were explored Saturday morning during the first general session of "Circling the Wagons," a three-day conference dedicated to the issues of homosexuality within LDS faith and culture.

The conference, which drew 300 people to the First Baptist Church on Saturday, is sponsored by Mormon Stories, an organization with no affiliation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon Stories claims to "build bridges between all who identify as Mormon."

The conference featured a number of presentations that conference organizer Joseph Broom said were aimed at "creating a space where LGBTQ or SSA (same-sex attraction) individuals and their families and allies can gather to acknowledge, explore and honor shared experiences."

Broom conducted the first session of the gathering and read the following from its statement of purpose:

"No issues strike more deeply than whom we love and how we understand and honor God In convening this conference, we are inviting LGBTQ Mormons and their families and allies to step beyond historic divisions to establish a shared space where all who have ever self-identified as Mormon and have experienced same-sex attraction can speak truthfully and respectfully."

According to the LDS Church's Handbook of Instructions, "homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel. ... While opposing homosexual behavior, the Church reaches out with understanding and respect to individuals who are attracted to those of the same gender."

During the Saturday morning session, Dr. Lee Beckstead, a Salt Lake therapist whose research has focused on resolving sexual, social and religious conflicts, said Mormons with same-gender attraction often feel torn apart by individuals urging them to "get off the fence — to be gay or be Mormon," suggesting that one can't be both.

Beckstead said either choice is painful.

"You can't cut off a part of yourself and not do harm — even if you're doing it to please God, or parents, or family or friends," he said. While Beckstead said that he personally had a hard time being both gay and Mormon, the same may not be true for others.

"My resolution may not be your resolution," he said, urging conferencegoers to "keep exploring for yourself what your truth is, what is right for you. That is where you will find your happiness."

Poet and author Carol Lynn Pearson referenced "the Hero's Journey" from Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" and said "in a way, we're all on a hero's journey."

She outlined what might be considered the gay Mormon person's "Hero's Journey," which, she noted, can also be shared by that person's parents, spouse or other allies. She spoke of a number of her friends and acquaintances who have taken different approaches to life as gay Mormons, and urged those in attendance to find the path that works best for them.

Music for the session was provided by a chorus under the direction of David Zabriskie. It included the premiere of "Pioneers," one of Pearson's poems set to music by Zabriskie.

Other speakers during the three-day conference included filmmaker Kendall Wilcox, Utah State Democratic Party Chair Jim Debakis, former Methodist pastor Jimmy Creech, the Rev. Mary June Nestler of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah and Mormon Matters founder John Dehlin.