We really wanted to create a group where faithful practicing Mormons could feel comfortable and they could use the principles of their religion to reach out to their LGBT brothers and sisters. —Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges
SALT LAKE CITY — Participants in the Utah Pride parade have seen the event change over the years.
They started in 1983 with members of the Utah LGBT community holding small festivals in parks off the beaten path, keeping media at a distance in nearby parking lots to protect the identity of participants who feared retribution.
Utah's first "March for Lesbian and Gay Pride" was on June 27, 1990, commemorating the Stonewall Inn riot that occurred in New York two decades earlier and marked the beginning of gay rights demonstrations. Utah's march featured 270 people who walked from the steps of the state Capitol down Main Street and over to Abravanel Hall.
Few spectators watched the procession and many seemed surprised by the group, but most smiled and waved, recalled Utah Pride Festival entertainment director Matthew Landis. The following year, participation in the parade doubled, and the group, following a new route, was met by members of the Aryan Nation at the City-County Building, according to Connell O'Donovan, who organized the first two Pride marches in Utah.
Saturday's festival and Sunday's parade in Salt Lake City are expected to draw thousands of spectators and will have more than 100 parade entries. The festival has attracted more vendors than in the past, activities have expanded onto Library Square and festival organizers said Friday they expect to bring at least 30,000 people to events this weekend.
Landis estimates that LGBT supporters who are heterosexual could outnumber the LGBT participants, although the group does not "count who is and who isn't."
"There's a really strong sense of community in Salt Lake," Landis said. "I think people kind of band together and support each other in ways I haven't seen in other (festivals)."
Still, the growth of the parade and festival isn't pleasing everyone both within and outside the LGBT community.
Count among those supporters Mormons Building Bridges co-founder Erika Munson, who said she was seeking to connect communities when she decided to march as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah Pride Parade in 2012.
She said some in the LGBT community were marginalized by society and by some fellow church members and she wanted to show her love for those in the LGBT community.
"I wanted to try and see if there's anything we could do about that because there was a lot of good will among Mormons. We are welcoming, loving, non-judgmental people who follow the Savior and I felt like we could use that to help make a place for those people."
She emailed 25 people and expected as many people to show up. Munson was met with more than 300.
"We realized there's really a need for communication between the LGBT communities and the Mormon community and also providing love and support for LGBT Mormons within our wards and congregations and homes," she said. "What we really are about is the LDS community."
From this, Mormons Building Bridges was born.
"We really wanted to create a group where faithful practicing Mormons could feel comfortable and they could use the principles of their religion to reach out to their LGBT brothers and sisters."
Munson said it is an "interesting fine line to walk" to make sure Mormons Building Bridges operates distinctly and independently from the LDS Church while promoting the church's doctrine and policies. She sees the group as being similar to a blog that gives suggestions on how to be a better Primary teacher.
"We consider ourselves a bunch of saints who are sharing ideas with each other on how to better to reach out to our gay brothers and sisters," she said.
The case for civility
Some suggest that Mormons Building Bridges has been co-oped by political agendas, she said, but the group is committed to supporting LGBT and same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters "within existing doctrine and policy of the church. That is what we do."
Mormons Building Bridges seeks to "amplify the church's message. We send people to the Mormons and Gays website, we use the talks of General Authorities from our general conferences, we use the scriptures."
The doctrine and policies of the LDS Church call for members to love others, and to be civil where there are conflicting points of view.
"Just as those who promote same-sex marriage are entitled to civility, the same is true for those who oppose it. The Church insists on its leaders’ and members’ constitutionally protected right to express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family, and morality free from retaliation or retribution," reads a statement given earlier this year by The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church's lead governing bodies.
The statement later affirms: "The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree."
It is similar to sentiments expressed by The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of Salt Lake. While many Catholics may not agree with advocates for gay marriage, Wester said he sees his job as respecting others and helping them feel God's love.
“If they’ve considered it and they just don’t agree, that’s their prerogative. We don’t hate them because of it. We don’t treat them as less a human being because of it. We try to work with them as best we can. Stand shoulder to shoulder and find common ground and work with people and keep presenting them Christ’s love and God’s love and compassion and trying to help them in that regard," he said.
Munson sees her group as serving an apolitical role, even while marching in a parade whose grand marshals are the three couples who are plaintiffs in the Amendment 3 case. Mormons Building Bridges has not taken a stance on same-sex marriage.
"There's a nice place for us in the parade of continuing to figure out how we can reconcile these two different ways of looking at the world without taking a political stance on marriage itself," she said. "We don't have to be pro or con same-sex marriage, but we can help people talk to each other about it."
Munson has seen the parade turn into a "big community event" with bankers and real estate agents marching among advocates.
O'Donovan said not everyone agrees the growth of the parade is a good thing. While he is happy about the crowd presence during the parade and festival, he does not like that the festival and parade seem to cater to corporate sponsors. Where others feel a sense of community cohesion, he said he feels a loss.
"It used to be that we would honor all the people that do the community work and now we honor the people who donate all the money," he said. "That's not what we were about back in the day."
He moved away from Utah for a time and returned for the past two pride parades and festivals, but he does not recognize anyone there and does not feel like he belongs. What the festival has gained in attendance it has lost in cohesion, he said.
"It's become a way to make a buck. It's become a way to pay salaries for folks," he said, adding that he was not paid for organizing the early marches. "This was my gift to the community."
When he left Utah in 1991, admission to the festival was free. Now the Pride festival charges $8 a day for pre-admission and $10 a day at the gate. Other pride festivals across the country charge more, but some — like San Francisco — operate off of donations from those who attend, he said. This year he will only attend the parade because of the cost of festival admission.
"I know it's expensive but no one should be turned away for lack of funds," he said.
While there are no formal guidelines for what is and is not appropriate, the organizers "take in consideration the people who support the values and mission of Utah Pride," and ask entertainers and participants to do the same, Landis said.
For example, one entertainer whose material contained some adult content has agreed to only perform acts that are family friendly.
"We're conscious of it for sure," Landis said.
The festival is an opportunity for celebration in spite of political differences in the Amendment 3 case, John Netto, president of the Utah Pride board of directors, told media representatives Friday.
"We find that as we reach out in love, we get love in return and that is what is growing our numbers," he said. "This movement has always been about reaching others with love."