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Gay Mormon group Affirmation celebrates 30th anniversary

When he was a teenager, Connell O'Donovan opened up to his Mormon seminary teacher and said that he was gay.

O'Donovan was greeted with kindness - and a prescription to chart the frequency of his sexual thoughts; fasting and praying when the urges came were suggested as a means of willing them away.

"He didn't know what to do," O'Donovan said of his teacher, who is now a church elder. "He was a super-nice guy, but just misinformed and all he had was the church handbook to go by."

Raised a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, O'Donovan, a writer and historian, served a church mission and married in the church's Salt Lake City Temple. He came out in 1985 and eventually left the faith, unable to reconcile his gay identity with the teachings of the church.

"I had to throw the baby out with the bath water. I started from scratch and rebuilt myself," he said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "I decided that I can use the word grace, but in a different way."

Last Sunday, the 43-year-old O'Donovan gave the keynote address at the 30th anniversary of Affirmation, a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Mormons in Salt Lake City.

Founded in Provo by a handful of students from the church-owned Brigham Young University, Affirmation grew out of concern over the increasing number of suicides among gay Mormons and from the frustration of living a closeted life. Today, the group, which is not recognized by or connected to the church, has chapters across the United States, in Australia, Canada, England, Italy and South Korea.

For many, Affirmation is the first place they connect with other gay Mormons.

"They helped me through in the beginning," said Buckley Jeppson, 48, a gay Mormon who lives in Washington, D.C. "That was useful. It was the first time I actually knew I wasn't the only person out there. It's comforting."

Officially, the Mormon church has taught that homosexuality is a sin and that traditional marriage is an institution ordained by God. In the 1990s, church elders modified that position to differentiate between homosexual orientation - same-gender attraction as they call it - and having an active gay sex life.

"The sin is in yielding to temptation," Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in an interview conducted by a public relations officer posted on the church Web site earlier this year.

Church officials declined to be interviewed for this story, instead referring the AP to the interview with Oaks and Elder Lance B. Wickman.

"What we know is that feelings can be controlled and behavior can be controlled," Oaks said.

Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has said gays who remain celibate can continue to enjoy full membership in the church, a standard seen in other faith traditions.

Affirmation's Salt Lake Chapter President Duane Jennings sees both positions as baby steps of progress. "They used to teach that the thoughts were evil," he said.

And there is other progress, Jennings said, beginning with the acknowledgment by leadership that they don't fully understand "these problems."

Marriage was once offered as a "cure" for homosexuality, but leaders now discourage that so women will not be married under false pretenses, Jennings said, adding that change has not been widely publicized since it was first announced in 1986.

It's almost impossible to imagine the church recognizing gay marriage. In fact, in the Web interview Oaks states clearly that "there is no such thing in the Lord's eyes as same-gender marriage."

Civil unions with legal protections equal to those in marriages also seem unlikely to win support. Wickham hedges a bit, saying church leaders have no position on legislation that might offer some lesser, limited rights.

What the church should do, Jennings said, is try to find a more honorable place in the church for gays who are living in celibacy, and for those in monogamous domestic partnerships, allowing them to remain in the church without fear of excommunication.

"It would go a long way in not creating such negative feelings in both gays and lesbians and their families," he said.

O'Donovan, who years ago was a self-described "angry radical gay activist," founded Queer Nation Utah and staged protests during the faith's twice-yearly general conference, agrees progress has been made but remains frustrated that the church continues to believe homosexuality is a temporary condition. What he wants from church leaders is repentance and an acknowledgment that while gay Mormons may not "fit" in with the church, they could find what he did in Affirmation - a place where he was welcomed, valued and respected.

O'Donovan has written that he sees gays and lesbians as metaphors for angels on earth.

"A big part of our purpose here is to see how people will treat us," he said. "And we don't have a very good report."

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