PORTLAND, Ore. -- To many, the concept of a gay Mormon is an oxymoron. For a religion that bans cigarettes, coffee and alcohol, homosexual practices are a definite sin.
"Sometimes it pushes the boundary to tell them you're a gay Mormon," said Rick Fernandez, speaking of the reaction of other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 40-year-old Portland lawyer added, "They think you must be crazy or confused."
But he said being Mormon is "part of your identity," regardless of sexual orientation.
Nearly 300 gay Mormons met in Portland last week for the 20th annual conference of Affirmation, a gay Mormon support group. Among their topics: Gay marriage, gay youth in the church, and parenting gays.
Mormon spokesman Don LeFevre in Salt Lake City said the church believes, "It's the behavior that's wrong."
He added in a telephone interview: "The church has never taken a stance on the cause of homosexuality. The church believes we have choices and we make them ourselves.
"Those who want to change homosexual practice are encouraged to do so, and we will work with them."
The Mormon Church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Some credit the church's emphasis on traditional family values with its quick growth to a current worldwide membership of 10 million.
Affirmation estimates that thousands of gay Mormons remain in the closet, reluctant to reveal their sexual identity because of the church's hard-line stance.
When gays do step outside, local bishops can enlist various disciplinary actions, including probation, disfellowship and excommunication from the church.
For gays wanting to preserve their religious heritage, these are not idle threats.
Believer Drew Smith straddles the line. "My involvement in the church is important enough to me that I haven't decided to partake in sexual activities because I know that would jeopardize my role with the church," Smith said.
The 32-year-old came out to his Seattle ward church two years ago and stays active as the bishop's administrative assistant. He swears off alcohol and cigarettes, believes the divine revelations of church founder Joseph Smith, and tries his best to live by the "Book of Mormon."
He also goes to gay clubs to dance with friends.
Other gays have not adjusted that easily and some gradually have left the fold because of feelings of guilt and isolation.
"When I told church members I was gay, I said, 'OK, God has realized I'm gay but I've got to know if he still loves me.' That whole aspect darn near drove me to suicide," said Jay Bell, 50, a computer engineer from Salt Lake City.
Although he's at peace with himself and God, Bell said he now belongs to a religion of one.
While other denominations debate the ordination of gay clergy and begin to champion gay rights, Affirmation members do not expect the Mormon church to loosen up anytime soon.
"To Mormons," he said, "it's still one of those scary issues people don't want to talk about."