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SALT LAKE CITY – A proposal to name a street after pioneering gay leader Harvey Milk is the latest display of Salt Lake City standing out as a blue dot in a deep-red state where the prevailing Mormon faith still has a fraught relationship with the LGBT community.
Utah's capital city recently elected its first openly gay mayor and its second sitting gay councilman, creating an increasingly friendly atmosphere for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The conservative religion's tone on gay issues has softened in recent years, but it still opposes same-sex marriage, believes homosexuality is a sin and recently banned baptisms for the children of gay parents. Faith leaders said the highly criticized move would avoid putting children in a tug-of-war between their parents and church teachings.
The Mormon church declined to comment on the street naming proposal, which the Salt Lake City Council may vote on Tuesday night.
Supporters say that Milk set the tone for the modern gay rights movement, and the street honoring him would be located near thoroughfares honoring civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977. His uncompromising calls for gay people to come out of the closet inspired a generation of activists. A disgruntled former city supervisor assassinated him and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone at City Hall in 1978.
The activist's life was memorialized in the Oscar-winning 2008 movie "Milk," and he also has been honored with a commemorative stamp and a posthumous Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. The San Diego City Council approved naming a street for Milk in 2012, something officials said was a first.
The Salt Lake City proposal comes from its first openly gay councilman, Stan Penfold. It would rename part of a street that is nine blocks from Mormon church headquarters. Temple Square was the site of protests in 2008 after the church supported efforts to pass a short-lived gay marriage ban in California.
Mormon leaders subsequently softened their tone, backing a Utah anti-discrimination law last year that protects gay and transgender people from housing and employment discrimination while safeguarding the rights of religious groups and individuals.
As many as two-thirds of Utah's 3 million residents are believed to be members of the Mormon religion, though some are more involved in the faith than others.
Utah's capital also has supported a thriving gay community. An annual LGBT pride parade is the second largest in the state — second only to a yearly celebration of Mormon pioneers.
The city's first openly gay mayor, Jackie Biskupski, took office this year, as well as its second sitting gay councilman. Derek Kitchen and his husband were one of three couples who sued to overturn the state's same-sex marriage ban.
After the mayoral vote, Biskupski, who isn't a church member, met with Mormon officials. She gave them a letter explaining her concerns about the policy targeting gay members and their children but spent most of the meeting talking about city issues like air quality and economic development.