DETROIT -- Most of the people carrying signs and rainbow flags while marching slowly along the sidewalk in front of the Archdiocese of Detroit on Thursday afternoon didn't fit the typical profile of a church protester. A majority of the group of 30 or so sign-holders were in their 50s and much older -- and they called themselves Catholics.
Linda Karle-Nelson, 72, and her husband Tom Nelson, 83, organized Thursday's event in response to recent remarks made by Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron asserting that those who support gay marriage and take Communion are contradicting themselves.
"This sort of behavior would result in publicly renouncing one's integrity and logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury," Vigneron said last month. The archbishop thinks gay marriage supporters should, instead, abstain from receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.
But Nelson and his wife couldn't reconcile Vigneron's statements with their own understanding of their faith, nor with their experience as parents of gay children.
"The trauma that exists in families today over this issue is virtually unrecognized, except by folks like us," Nelson said. "When we hear rhetoric from the church that demeans our children, we just can't be silent."
The Archdiocese of Detroit declined to comment on the protest earlier on Thursday.
Nelson and Karle-Nelson are members of the national organization Fortunate Families, a group that represents Catholics with LGBT children and sponsored Thursday's event. They were both widowed and had fully grown children from those previous marriages before they wed six years ago.
Nelson recalled "pontificating religious doctrine" in his household when his kids were younger. His view of the church changed when he learned that his gay son attempted suicide while he was in college.
"That was the beginning of my journey and completely changed my attitude," Nelson said. "His struggles, what he was going through -- he was so closeted, he kept it so veiled. I had no clue."
"The greatest blessing of my life was having a gay son, because of what it's taught me," he added.
Nelson's son continued to worship as a practicing Catholic after coming out, until the LGBTQ Catholic group he practiced with was asked to leave the church they attended. He, and four of his five siblings, have since left the church.
Karle-Nelson's son, who is also gay, had a different experience. He left the church shortly after he left home to attend college. But several years ago, he returned to services when he found a Jesuit parish that was welcoming and diverse.
"It shows you that where there is acceptance and a welcoming [environment], people flower," Karle-Nelson said.
Mary Ellen Lopata, who is the co-founder and on the board of directors of Fortunate Families, said it's a "sad situation" that many children have left the Catholic church over its lack of acceptance of gays and lesbians.
"We encourage people to speak up, because the bishops don't know our children and they need to hear our children, and understand that our children are every bit as whole and holy," Lopata said.
Fortunate Families is part of Equally Blessed, a coalition of groups that support full equality in the church and society for LGBT people. The organization does not have local chapters, instead representing constituents from its base in Rochester, N.Y., and supporting actions like the Nelsons' and drawing attention to injustices within the church.
"We're starting to see tiny glimmers of hope that pastors and members of the hierarchy might be willing to talk," Lopata said. "We do believe that if they would just talk to us and talk to children and listen to what they would have to say, their hearts would be changed."
Nelson and Karle-Nelson attend St. Alexanders Parish in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. "I think ... many of the clergy [there] are sympathetic to our cause," Nelson said. "But because of the leadership and the Archdiocese, they have to fly under the radar and be careful how they respond to issues like this."
"There have been many instances in the history of the church where they have made statements [that they withdrew]," Nelson said, rattling off a list that included child labor laws, women's suffrage and democracy. "It took them 400 years to apologize to Galileo," he noted.
"But guess what? They changed," he said. "They will change on this too, but it will take a long time."
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