By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Nearly 300 Mormons marched in a gay pride parade on Sunday, holding signs that read "God Loves His Children" in a unique display of support from believers of a religious tradition that has long opposed homosexuality.
"When people hear that Mormons are marching with gay and lesbian people in Salt Lake City... I think that's going to be a surprise," said Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the 2008 movie "Milk" about slain San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk. Black, who is gay and was raised Mormon, was the parade's grand marshal.
"They are fostering a level of acceptance that hasn't traditionally been there," he said.
Erika Munson, 52, a devout Mormon and mother of five, founded the group Mormons Building Bridges and led it in the annual Utah Pride Parade in support of the gay community. She had grown uncomfortable with the image of their church as anti-gay.
"I feel like this is the time to speak up. I've always felt like I was supportive in my own way of the LGBT community but I've had to keep that and my commitment for the church separate," she said, using a common term for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people.
Munson's group is not endorsed by or directly affiliated with Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon faith teaches that gay sex is a sin and for decades church leaders have denounced homosexuality as unnatural, endorsed reparative therapies aimed at altering sexual orientation and excommunicated some gay members.
Since the 1990s, the church also has publicly backed campaigns to block legalized gay marriage.
SHIFT IN SENTIMENT
Church leaders have softened their stance on homosexuality in recent years, saying the origins of sexuality are not fully understood. The church also has endorsed Utah laws to protect LGBT people from job and housing discrimination and in 2010 denounced gay bullying.
The Mormon group in Sunday's parade waved signs saying "LDS (loves) LGBT" and drew cheers from bystanders lining the route, just blocks from the Mormon Church headquarters. They marched in suits and conservative dresses and were in stark contrast to the thousands of other participants.
The revelers ranged from supporters of Planned Parenthood to members of the Queer Utah Aquatic Club who danced along the street wearing only swimming suits, bow ties and top hats. A man who went by the name of Penelope Pap Smear marched in a pink dress.
Sharon Griffiths, 58, a lesbian and former Mormon who recently lost a gay nephew to suicide, said she was grateful for the Mormon representation in the parade.
"My heart is absolutely full in gratefulness that this Christ-like love they talk about in church, I see here in action today," said Griffiths, who came out in the 1970s after years of being active in the church.
Utah has the nation's 12th highest rate of youth suicide, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, two teens a day are treated in Utah emergency rooms after suicide attempts, state health department data from 2008 to 2010 showed.
While it is not clear how many of Utah's youth suicides occur in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, experts say that LGBT youth are at already at an increased risk for suicide and attempted suicide, and could be cause for concern in Utah.
"I know we have a lot work to do still and there's still a lot we don't agree about yet," Black said. "But certainly, today felt like a first step in a healing process."
(Editing by Lily Kuo and Bill Trott)