Gay Mormon, church officials to meet

Associated Press/April 6, 2008

Salt Lake City - After decades of silence, Mormon 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 5 or 6 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 Monson to meet with Affirmation on his behalf.

"We believe that 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 and 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.

In the 1990s, the church openly fought same-sex marriage legislation nationwide and, in 2006, joined other religious denominations in asking Congress for a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

LDS Family Services, with offices across the country, is the only church-endorsed source of counsel for gay members and their families. All therapists are licensed and trained to use treatments that best fit the individual, Riley said.

But gay Mormons say the agency's track record of assistance is marked by a lack of understanding and a prescription for clinical treatments that were sometimes horrific and painful.

"My personal story - I got recommended for electroshock therapy. They told me to hate and be angry at my parents for making me gay," said Rob Killian, a Seattle physician who has frequently spoken publicly about his experiences. "They've destroyed families."

It's not clear what treatment methods LDS Family Services therapists currently recommend, but in a 2007 interview posted on the church Web site, Apostle Dallin Oaks acknowledged that some abusive practices, including over-medication and aversion therapies, had been used in the past and phased out by professionals over time. Oaks said the church has no position on the types of treatment used by doctors and accepts no responsibility for out-of-date treatments.

"Even though they are addressed at helping people we would have liked to see helped," Oaks said in the interview. "We can't endorse every kind of technique."

Killian called a meeting between Affirmation and the church a "small improvement" and said he thinks the church may be acting for public relations reasons. He fears it will perpetuate a false belief that the church will change.

"There is no way under the current system or the current administration that our story would be even listened to or heard," he said.

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