SALT LAKE CITY - Mormon leaders made their most significant outreach yet to gays and lesbians, unveiling a new website Thursday that encourages church members to be more compassionate in discussions about homosexuality.
Church officials insist they haven't changed the Mormon teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that same-sex relationships are sinful. However, the website states that Mormons should be loving and respectful toward gays and lesbians, while appealing to gay and lesbian Mormons to stay in the church.
"Reconciling same-sex attraction with a religious life can present an especially trying dilemma," church leaders wrote on the website. "Anyone who lives in both worlds can attest to its difficulty. But with faith, love and perspective, it can be done."
Gay rights advocates welcomed the effort while expressing hope that the church would someday accept same-sex marriage.
"My hope that this assists our most vulnerable, our youth, to have a safe place to be able to talk about their identity and maintain a safe place within their families and communities," said Valerie Balken, of Equality Utah, the state's largest gay rights advocacy group.
Balken said her organization was alerted earlier this week to the website launch, but was not consulted over the two years the church developed the site.
The site, titled "Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction," states that it reflects the views of the highest authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Church leaders say in the presentation that gay and lesbian Mormons who are not in same-sex relationships can have "full fellowship in the church," including holding the priesthood and participating in temple rituals - a privilege reserved only for church members in good standing. And the church said it would no longer "necessarily advise" gays to "marry those of the opposite sex."
"Same-sex attraction itself is not a sin, but yielding to it is," the website states. "However, through repentance Jesus Christ will offer forgiveness."
Church officials also posted video testimony from Latter-day Saints who struggled with the issue, either through having gay children or realizing they were gay.
Among the testimonies is a lengthy, emotional one from a man identified only as Tyler, about how he struggled with hopelessness and alienation from God as he tried to reconcile his attraction to other men with his dedication to the church. The issue is particularly challenging for Latter-day Saints, who believe that Mormons in good standing spend eternity together with their families. A family member who leaves the church, a common occurrence for gay and lesbian Mormons, will remain separated from their relatives.
Tyler eventually married a woman, Danielle, who is also featured, and the couple has a baby boy. Danielle said they were able to discuss his homosexuality and find a way to be happy, but "having that eternal perspective was a very important thing for us."
The website is the latest step from LDS leaders to make gays and lesbians feel more welcome in the church.
Mormons faced intense criticism after church leaders helped fund and lead the fight for California's Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry. Since then, church leaders have been trying to heal tensions.
In 2009, a senior LDS spokesman made a rare public appearance before Salt Lake City lawmakers to support regulations protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment.
In 2010, the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay civil rights group, protested after a high-ranking LDS leader called same-sex relationships unnatural. The church responded by condemning bias or cruelty toward others over any issue, including sexual orientation. Given the persecution Latter-day Saints have faced, church members should be "especially sensitive to the vulnerable in society," including gays, the church said. In the 2012 election, the LDS church took no public role in state ballot measures over gay marriage.
"We must not judge anyone for the feelings they experience," church authorities wrote, saying homosexuality "should not be viewed as a disease or illness."
The website rarely uses the words "gay" or "lesbian," the terms preferred by the gay community. Instead, the site refers mostly to people "with same-sex attraction." Still, John Gustav-Wrathall, 49, said it was significant that the site used the term gay or lesbian at all. He was excommunicated from the LDS church in 1986 after revealing to his bishop that he was gay.
"This is huge," said Gustav-Wrathall, who has been with his partner for 20 years. "I don't see any hint of condemnation."
Gustav-Wrathall grew up Mormon, served a mission and started college at Brigham Young University. As he grappled with being gay, he considered marrying a woman and eventually fell into deep depression and nearly committed suicide.
He left BYU and figured he would never return to the Mormon church. But in 2005, he felt called to begin going to worship services again at a ward in Minneapolis. Although he remains ex-communicated, he said many of the church members and the bishop have gradually accepted him even knowing he's openly gay and married to a man.
Gustav-Wrathall thinks this new official communication from church leaders will push open the door for even the most resistant church members to form friendships with gay and lesbians.
"This is an opportunity that God is giving us to learn patience, love, forgiveness," he said. "We have to wrestle with these things without having a clear cut answer."