September 24th, 2011
10:00 PM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - Early on in life, Mitch Mayne knew exactly who he was.
He would race home from school to watch reruns of “Star Trek” and swoon over his crush, Captain Kirk. At 8, after his parents converted, he was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith he embraced. Even after he drifted away from the LDS Church following his parents’ divorce, he came back to Mormonism on his own in his mid-20s.
It is where he feels spiritually at home, irrespective of the fact that, for the past 10 years, he’s been openly gay.
“I’m a man that lives in two worlds that a lot of people don’t think intersect,” Mayne said. “Both sides of myself exist in me. It’s part of my DNA, part of my makeup.”
Actively Mormon and openly gay: It's the sort of combo that might leave people wondering. After all, the LDS Church teaches that homosexuality, specifically if same-sex attractions are acted upon, is a sin. And the church has actively backed measures to ban same-sex marriages.
Now, Mayne finds himself in the spotlight as he embarks on a journey he says “belongs to all of us.” In mid-August he was selected, or called (as Mormons say) by local church officials to serve in an LDS Church leadership position in San Francisco.
Mayne’s appointment may have generated attention, but he’s not the first gay Mormon to assume a leadership role in the church.
In Seattle, Washington, and Oakland, California, gay men have reportedly served in LDS Church leadership roles, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote in her piece about Mayne in The Salt Lake Tribune. What makes Mayne unique, Stack said, is that he "may be the first local LDS leader to announce his orientation over the pulpit.”
Late last month, from the pulpit, Mayne revealed - to anyone who didn't already know - who he is:
Mayne shared these words during a farewell address to the Oakland ward he long attended, amid an announcement that he would be leaving because he had been named the executive secretary to the bishop of the Bay Ward. It is a role in which he'll offer administrative help but also take part in shaping congregational work.
“While that’s not a big accomplishment in and of itself,” Mayne said, “it is a remarkable accomplishment for the simple fact that maybe for the first time, a man was called to a priesthood leadership position not in spite of the fact that he is gay, but partly because he is gay.”
For those unfamiliar with LDS Church vernacular, a ward is essentially a congregation or, to use Catholic terminology, a parish. Various wards fall under the auspices of a stake, the rough equivalent of a diocese. In this case, the Bay Ward is one of three wards that make up the San Francisco Stake.
The LDS Church, which entrusts local leaders to determine local callings, does not pay clergy, nor does it send would-be bishops to seminary. So Mayne, like the bishop who called him to serve, is a volunteer who works for the church on top of his full-time corporate communications job.
Don Fletcher, an ophthalmologist, said that when he was called last month to serve as the bishop and leader of the Bay Ward he wanted to make sure every Latter-day Saint in his ward knew they were welcome, including the vast majority who weren't showing up. Of the 950 members on the books, only 150 were appearing in the pews.
Because the Bay Ward serves a geographic area in San Francisco that includes the famously gay, rainbow-flag-waving Castro neighborhood, it stands to reason that a segment of those not attending church are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Among those who have been absent are members who grew up steeped in Mormonism, faithfully served as missionaries and have families still active in the church. For Fletcher, making members of the LGBT community feel comfortable enough to walk through his congregation's doors is personal.
Fletcher has a gay family member with AIDS and says he has seen firsthand how isolating that can be in the Mormon world.
“I love my church and have a lot of faith, but culturally we haven’t done a good job in dealing with people who are gay when they face life challenges,” whether that be coming out, depression or struggles with suicide or illness, Fletcher said. “I wanted to address it in the ward I live in.”
The response in his ward, and from other Mormons he has heard from, has been nothing but positive, "uniformly, no exception," the bishop said. And, he added with a laugh, in the past month he’s broadened his own knowledge – or, rather, his lingo base - learning about “the ‘Moho community,' Mormons who are homosexual. That was a new one to me.”
The LDS Church's top leadership, and by extension many Mormons sitting in pews, heavily supported the campaign behind Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative to ban same-sex marriage, which is currently tied up in the state’s high court.
Church doctrine says members should avoid sexual relations until marriage, which only can exist between a man and a woman. But the church’s involvement in the Prop 8 battle, and the Mormons who financially fueled the effort, created rifts in wards, spawned protests outside LDS temples and pushed some members, likely already on the churchgoing fence, out the door.
The Oakland First Ward, which Mayne attended for more than a decade, held a series of meetings to help heal those post-Prop 8 wounds. He said he sees his new church position in San Francisco’s Bay Ward as an extension of such bridge-building and a positive evolution from where he once was. The appointment will allow him to do extensive outreach in the LGBT and Mormon communities.
“It’s been hard to be a gay Mormon,” Mayne said. In the course of his life, he said he came out "no less than three times to bishops and stake presidents, and each time I was pushed back into the closet. … This is an opportunity to take my own pain and challenges and make it an opportunity to help. How can I not do that?”
He and Fletcher have already seen dividends from Mayne's calling. On a recent Sunday, Fletcher said he looked out to see seven formerly absent members take their seats in the pews because Mayne is there.
“I talked to a couple that hadn’t been to church in 20 years,” Fletcher said. “I’m not reinventing doctrine. I’m just trying to put in place what Jesus Christ would have us doing. … Even if you’re in a gay relationship and have no interest in living all the commandments, you’re still welcome in church, by all means.”
The development has stirred up discussion far beyond California. In one week, Mayne said, his personal website, which links to a blog in which he writes openly about who he is, received 30,000 views from 67 countries.
“I’m not a lone wolf on this,” he said. “I just happen to be a face of it. … There is a place for everyone at our savior’s table.”
But not everyone is as confident that Mayne’s calling will make a difference.
“I’m conflicted about this,” said Eric Ethington of Salt Lake City, the founder of the LGBT blog PRIDEinUtah.
“On the one hand, I view this as a positive step forward for the church, a church that has a history of extreme persecutions against the LGBT community,” he said. “But on the other hand, I worry about LGBT people … because the church teaches you that you cannot reach your full potential and have full acceptance in the church unless you marry someone of the opposite sex.”
Ethington was raised in the LDS Church and says he was kicked out of the house when he came out at 17. He later closeted himself and married a woman in an LDS temple, only to divorce a couple of years later after realizing he was kidding himself.
“I can’t share (Mitch’s) optimism, but I share his hope,” he said. “Whether the church is ever going to change its policies, that’s a question for (LDS Church President) Thomas Monson. But one thing I hope the church will do, and maybe Mitch can help with this, is educate local leadership. Some kids are gay. … And that’s OK.”
Ethington pointed out, though, that Mayne, who was in a longtime monogamous relationship until a year ago, was only able to get his church calling because he’s not currently with someone.
“If he falls in love again and wants to be with that man, he won’t be allowed to serve,” he said.
Matt Mosman, a high councilor with the San Francisco Stake, said that if Mayne were to find himself in another romantic relationship, there would be an expectation that he would step down.
But the expectation that Mayne will abstain from premarital sex while in a leadership role, Mosman added, is no different from what would be expected of a single man who is not gay.
“The idea that a gay man who is not currently active in a gay relationship could serve actively in a high-ranking calling – that is a policy in the Mormon church that you could argue has been around since the church’s inception,” said Mosman, who works in corporate development.
For now, Mayne looks forward to his service and to promoting conversations and understanding. He will not, however, commit to a life of celibacy and hopes, “for all my gay brothers and sisters,” that same-sex marriage will someday be an option.
“I’m not saying I have an intent to go out and sin,” he said. “Here’s where I am; I am able and willing to serve. But I don’t have a crystal ball and don’t know what the future holds.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.