By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Lori's son was 9 years old when he first told her that he had crushes on other boys - a revelation that brought considerable heartache and worry to the Mormon mom in conservative Utah.
"In our church, (homosexuality) is considered a sin," said the mother of four. "Marriage is between a man and a woman and gender identity, the mother's role and father's role, are such a huge part of our church.
"I just have to be careful for him. He's not out and we're living a tough road," she said, speaking with Reuters on the condition that she not be fully identified because she fears her family will be ostracized. "I do fear what will happen when it all comes out."
Lori said she found church-based resources for coping with the challenges of raising her son, who is now 13, to be unsatisfactory. But a newly published guidebook, co-written by a former church bishop with input from Mormon families and congregational leaders, may offer families like hers new hope and support for reconciling their faith's teachings with needs of their children.
"Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Latter-day Saint Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Children," is the first faith-based volume to emerge from a series of similar publications produced by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
University social scientist Caitlin Ryan launched her research for the cross-cultural, cross-denominational project in 2002, seeking to understand the impact of acceptance on the well-being of gay and gender-variant youth.
Her co-author for the 25-page booklet, due for online release on Thursday, was Robert Rees, a former literature professor from the University of California at Los Angeles who was a Mormon bishop in the 1980s.
KEEPING FAMILY TOGETHER
The guide blends Mormon scripture and statements on family from church presidents with research that shows family support and acceptance to be critical to the health and well-being of gay youths.
"Many parents have believed that if they came from a faith that was at odds with having a gay child that they had to choose between their child and their faith," said Ryan, who has been working on health issues in the gay and transgender community for nearly 40 years. "Our approach is really that even families that are struggling can modify their behavior and keep their family together."
According to Ryan's findings, gay youths who feel highly rejected are eight times more likely others to attempt suicide, six times more likely to have high levels of depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs and engage in risky sexual behaviors.
Rejected youth also are more likely to withdraw from their families, lose their faith and leave their church, the research found.
As a bishop in charge of a congregation for young adults, Rees has seen the power of rejection first-hand. Lacking acceptance and flooded with messages that homosexuality was unnatural, many gay Mormons have become disassociated with faith and family, he said.
Some have committed suicide, while others have sought "cures" through heterosexual marriages or reparative therapies, both of which were once recommended by church officials, Rees said.
Lori found Ryan's work on her own years ago while seeking resources outside her church and said it was immediately helpful.
"It was reassuring to realize that the things we do to support him are going to make a huge difference," said Lori, who resides in a Salt Lake City suburb, said of her son.
"It gave me a lot of courage. People can't question my choice when it comes to what I do with him because there it is in black and white."
Still, she remains troubled to feel at odds with the teachings of her faith.
"It's hard, because the church works really, really well, for the rest of my family ... and (her son) loves the church too, so we're in a terrible spot."
The Mormon faith, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is hardly the only religion in which homosexuality is considered a sin. But the stakes are especially high for gay Mormons.
Traditional marriage is deeply woven into Mormon theology, and the lines between religion and culture are blurred. Mormons also believe that families are eternal, so disassociation with family or excommunication from the church, which has occurred for some gays, can mean the loss of the promise of religious salvation, Rees said.
Church attitudes are shifting, however, he said. The faith now regards the origins of sexual orientation as less than fully understood and differentiates between feelings and actions when considering disciplinary action. Gay Mormons are welcome in church but only those who remain celibate can enjoy full membership.
While the Mormon church has worked vigorously for decades on political campaigns against gay marriage, including California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, church leaders more recently have endorsed Utah laws that bar housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and have denounced bullying of gays.
"I've seen significant progress in my lifetime," Rees said. "I am hopeful that this pamphlet will provide hope for families. This body of research affirms the very best teachings we have as Christians and as Latter-day Saints."
The booklet is not endorsed by the Utah-based church, though Ryan said Mormon officials are aware of the project and that she has met with several high-ranking church leaders since 2009 to discuss her research.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy declined in a statement on Thursday to comment directly on Ryan's project or her booklet, but said, "We have repeatedly expressed the importance of treating all of God's children with love and respect."
Ryan said she has used her research in workshops offered to Mormon bishops in California and Utah and that feedback she received showed "our approach is innately respectful."
"We're not thrusting our values on them," she said.
The "Supportive Families, Healthy Children" booklet was scheduled to be available online at http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott)