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NORTHWEST NEWS

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Dan Merica, CNN


An image from a "It Gets Better" video created by BYU students

(CNN) -- Kevin Kloosterman, a former Mormon bishop, said he "came out" last year -- just not in the way that many people associate with coming out.

"I came out and basically made a personal apology to (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) folks for really not understanding their issues, not really taking the time to understand their lives and really not doing my homework," Kloosterman said in an interview with CNN.

Though not speaking on behalf of the church, the then-bishop stood in front of a crowd of gay and straight Mormons at a November conference on gay and lesbian issues in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered.

Donning a suit and tie, Kloosterman was visibly shaken, struggling to find the right words as tears welled up in his eyes.

"I'm sorry -- deeply, deeply sorry," Kloosterman told the group in a speech that was captured on video. "The only thing I can say to those of you who have been so patient, and have gone through so much, is for you to watch and look for any small changes with your loved ones, with your wards (Mormon congregations), with your leaders. And encourage them in this repentance process."

Kloosterman's apology was just one example of what many Mormons and church watchers see as a recent shift in the Mormon community's posture toward gays and lesbians, including by the official church itself.

Though the church's doctrine condemning homosexuality has not changed, and the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage, many say the church is subtly but unmistakably growing friendlier toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including voicing support for some gay rights.

Students at the church-owned Brigham Young University recently posted an "It Gets Better" video about the gay and lesbian community there, while a gay Mormon in San Francisco was selected last year for a church leadership position.

A new conference series on gay and lesbian Mormons -- the same one Kloosterman addressed last year -- is seeing an uptick in popularity.

Church spokesman Michael Purdy would not comment on whether church members are changing their stance toward gay and lesbian issues but said in an e-mail message: "In the Church, we strive to follow Jesus Christ who showed immense love and compassion towards all of God's children."

Purdy wrote, "If members are becoming more loving and Christ-like toward others then this can only be a positive development."

'It is definitely getting better'

The Brigham Young students who taped the pro-gay video this month were contributing to a popular video series meant to inspire hope in young people who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality identity.

The video featured students telling stories of being gay at Brigham Young, sharing tales of heartache, loss and even suicide.

"It kind of is a very different world to be gay and Mormon because it feels like neither community accepts you completely," said Bridey Jensen, a fifth-year senior and acting president of Understanding Same Gender Attraction, the group that posted the video.

"We put out the message for youth that are going through this, and we want them to know that we were them a few years ago, and it gets better and there is a place for you," she said.

Though chastity is a requirement at Brigham Young, gay and lesbian students say they are under more scrutiny. The school's honor code says that "homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates" the code.

But Jensen said reaction to the video, which has been viewed almost 400,000 times on YouTube, has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Carri Jenkins, an assistant to Brigham Young's president, told CNN that the production of the video is not a violation of the honor code and that the students will not be punished.

The honor code, Jenkins said, is "based on conduct, not on feeling and if same-gender attraction is only stated, that is not an honor code issue."

Jensen said that while gay and lesbian Mormons face a tough road, she sees a shift toward greater acceptance. It is definitely getting better within the church, she said. "They are not so quick to judge. They understand that they don't understand everything. I am glad I can be a little part of it."

Some scholars of Mormonism, such as Columbia University's Richard Bushman, said they see the very existence of such a gay rights group at Brigham Young as a step toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

"The last 10 years have been a huge sea change in terms of willingness to accept homosexuals," Bushman said. "Gay kids are still going to have a tough time in the church, but this level of acceptance and acknowledgment -- that is really that last decade I would say."

Most gay Mormons point to 2008's push for Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state but has faced legal challenge in the courts, as a low point in the relationship between the church and gay and lesbian community.

Mormons make up 2% of California's population, but they contributed half of the $40 million war chest used to defend Proposition 8, according to a Time magazine report.

The church's Proposition 8 activism angered many gay rights groups around the country, with some labeling the church "bigoted," "homophobic" and "anti-gay."

But church officials pushed back against the perception that the Proposition 8 backlash has provoked a Mormon softening on gay and lesbian issues.

"Many positive relationships have come from the Church's experience in supporting traditional marriage in California," Purdy, the church spokesman, said in an e-mail exchange with CNN.

Purdy draws a distinction between being against same-sex marriage and against equality for gays and lesbians.

He reiterated that the church was "strongly on the record as supporting traditional marriage," but he said its stance should never be used as justification for violence or unkindness.

"The Church's doctrine has not changed but we certainly believe you can be Christ-like, loving and civil, while advocating a strongly held moral position such as supporting traditional marriage," Purdy wrote in an e-mail message.

"We do not believe that strong support of traditional marriage is anti-gay," he wrote. "We love and cherish our brothers and sisters who experience same gender attraction. They are children of God."

Church doctrine says that sex outside marriage is a sin and can lead to excommunication. Since gay people cannot be married in the church, any sex for them would be premarital and, therefore, sinful.

"The distinction between feelings or inclinations on the one hand, and behavior on the other hand, is very clear," the church's website says. "It's no sin to have inclinations that if yielded to would produce behavior that would be a transgression. The sin is in yielding to temptation. Temptation is not unique. Even the Savior was tempted."

Openly gay and a church leader

Mitch Mayne seems to relish his role as a lightning rod.

Mayne, an openly gay Mormon who blogs about homosexuality and the church, received the calling -- a term Mormons use for being invited into a church position -- in August.

Mayne is now executive secretary in a San Francisco ward of the church.

"I view myself as gay and being completely whole as being gay," Mayne said.

Many observers of Mormonism say Mayne's calling marked a unique moment in church history. Purdy said that Mayne's appointment is "not unique," but it's hard to find precedent for an outspokenly gay executive secretary.

Mayne said he sees his job as building bridges with the gay community in San Francisco and showing them "there are pockets in the Mormon Church where you can be yourself."

The biggest obstacle toward building those bridges is the threat of excommunication, said Mayne, who told CNN that in some wards just being gay can lead to expulsion from the church.

According to church doctrine, a formal disciplinary council can be called at the request of church leader.

While the leaders of the church mandate councils called for murder, incest or apostasy, it has a long list of reasons to call a disciplinary council.

According to the church's website, the list of reasons includes "abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations. ..."

Some wards are observing that guidance while others aren't, Mayne said.

"Here in the Bay Area ... we are no longer seeking out LGBT members of the church and excommunicating them," Mayne said. "Our role is to bring people closer to the Savior, so if we are routinely excommunicating people, then we are really not doing our job."

Mayne said he believes the challenge is to convince church leaders that they don't ever have to excommunicate gay members.

And he said the Proposition 8 campaign was the "least Christ-like thing we have ever done as a church."

"Not only did we alienate gays and lesbians, but we alienated their parents, their friends, those who support them -- the ripple effect went way beyond the gay community, and I don't think we were prepared for such a negative fallout," Mayne said. "I think the church deserved the black eye they received."

He added, "As a result of that really horrible time, I think we are entering a really good time to be a gay Mormon. It is getting better."

'Mormonism doesn't simply wash off'

When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks, the City Council of Salt Lake City listens. At least the council seemed to in 2009 when it voted on an ordinance to make it illegal to discriminate against gay and transgendered residents in housing and employment.

"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," church spokesman Michael Otterson told the council.

Shortly after the church's expression, the City Council approved the measure unanimously.

Many gay rights activists said they saw the move as an olive branch after the Proposition 8 debate.

"The tone and the culture is evolving, and the way the LGBT people are being treated is changing. I don't think the church's policy has caught up to that change in culture," said Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "The Mormon church hasn't gotten nearly as politically involved as they had since 2009."

Though Murray sees the church lobbying for anti-discrimination laws as a positive step, he said the church's shift is more about style than substance.

"It is going to take a lot of intentional effort to actually prove they are different," Murray said. "That burden, because of the really public nature of their support of Prop 8, falls harder on the Mormon church than others."

Joanna Brooks, a popular Mormon blogger and president of Mormon Stories, a nonprofit group that facilitates conversations on Mormon issues, echoes Murray's sentiments.

She said she sees the church's stance as challenging gay Mormons to choose between the religion they most likely grew up with and their desire for romantic companionship.

"Mormonism doesn't simply wash off," she said, adding that the church can't make it that "either you are gay or you are Mormon, or either you support gay rights or you support the church."

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