Five years ago, my son was a 13-year-old deacon in our church. He came out on Super Bowl Sunday, 2012. For the year previous to that, my wife and I were very concerned as he was notably going downhill and we didn’t know why. His grades were suffering. This joyous kid was now sullen and reserved. He was withdrawing from most of his LDS Church friends and replacing them with questionable kids from school. Despite our best efforts, we were in the dark as to what was going on with him.
After Jordan came out, we were finally able to have the conversations that we needed to have for so long. The revelation that he was gay unraveled the life plan we as parents and the LDS Church had laid out for him. LDS theology extends the ordinances of salvation from not only baptism, but to temple ordinances and marriage. The discovery of a sexual orientation or gender identity that is incompatible with a ‘traditional marriage’ cuts you off from salvation. It cuts you out of your eternal family. And, depending on your parents, could cut you out of the family in a very immediate sense1.
Even a thirteen-year-old LDS child is intensely aware of this.
From the time a Mormon child can understand words, the Plan is laid out for them. It is reinforced year after year that their worth is directly tied to what their Heavenly Father wants them to do. Each stage of advancement is laid out step by step, especially for boys. They are baptized at 8. They become a deacon at 12, a teacher at 14, a priest at 16, a missionary at 18 and will marry in the temple, in a generally accepted timeframe of 20-23 years old. Each step is accompanied by an interview with the Bishop, as well as recognition by the ward and celebration by the family.
When that plan is stripped away, significant uncertainty is introduced. It is most often countered with a concerted effort toward extreme religiosity. An attempt to cure oneself. Prayers and bargains with God are often offered, “if only He will take this away.” But the true desperation comes when the devoted and sincere efforts toward religiosity end with failure. It becomes a rejection by not just family or friends, but from God2.
From 2007 to 2014, the suicide rates for age 11-17 have nearly tripled in Utah3. For those of us whose children are coming out in this time-period, it is obvious why these numbers are skyrocketing.
There has been a constant escalation of General Conference addresses, Sunday School and Priesthood lessons focused on the Proclamation on the Family. The Proclamation reinforces strict gender roles and a very narrow path to salvation as indicated above. There has been dramatically increased public political opposition by the Church against same sex marriage. Broadcasts and regional conferences specifically focused on “Religious Freedom” encourage and directly instruct members to donate time and money to oppose same sex marriage. In most wards, this manifests itself in a culture war against all things gay. Gay people are the enemy, both morally, politically, and spiritually.
For a child who discovers he or she is gay, this is devastating. They come to a quick realization that who they are on the inside is wrong and unacceptable. My son told us, “I couldn’t trust any of my relationships, because I knew if they knew I was gay, they would hate me.”
This is not an assault on the LDS Church’s doctrine. This is about saving lives and making these vulnerable kids the priority above creeds and belief. This isn’t about blame or trying to destroy the faith of others. As I was a Dad to a newly out LGBT child, I was completely blind to the experience of LGBT youth in the Church. My intent here is to simply open eyes to what the LDS LGBT experience is today. And to increase awareness that there is a direct correlation between the current policies, teachings and doctrine of the Church and increased depression and suicidality among LGBT youth.
My family’s experience is not unique. I personally know hundreds of youth and parents (all LDS) with similar experiences. Unfortunately, I know too many parents whose LGBT children have taken their own lives. Last year, my son had to bury his close friend at the age of 17.
LGBT adult members are also at risk. Many followed the LDS Church’s counsel to marry straight spouses (with or without their spouse’s knowledge). Now they are decades into a marriage that continuously strains every part of their mental and emotional resources to make it work. They feel trapped because failure impacts not only them, but their spouse and children. I know too many in this circumstance. Their lives are also at risk. Just last week, two of my friends suffered with suicidality. One was a failed attempt while the second was hospitalized before it was too late.
Suicide statistics for 2015 in Utah have recently been released and they are continuing to get worse4.
- Utah went from #11 to #6 in overall suicide rate in one year. (Idaho is #5).
- Utah is now #5 in suicide rate of age 15-24.
- The exponentially increasing suicide trend from 2007-2014 continued to escalate in 20155.
It is impossible to derive causality from the statistics. Primarily because statistics are analysis after the fact. The only way to derive causality is conversation and dialogue with those who are suicidal – before they are successful. In this regard, no one is saying they are suicidal due to altitude. The argument that altitude is a factor is a theory suggested to explain increased suicidality in mountainous areas. Yet the altitude isn’t changing while the numbers are increasing year after year. The conversation and dialogue with those at risk has consistently been driven by rejection by family, Church and community. And this is where the strong anecdotal evidence must start gaining relevance.
While, I am aware that there are no hard statistics specific to LGBT suicide or the LDS Church, all the warning signs are there. The warning signs have been increasing year after year but because of the religious and political implications, we continuously choose to ignore it. I am not looking for an assignment of blame. What I am asking of you is compassion for a very real and deadly situation sitting right in the pews with us. This is not a situation without hope. There is much that can be done both inside and outside the LDS Church:
- Please be aware that you have LGBT friends and youth who you do not know are LGBT.
- In holding to your ideals, be conscious that your ideals leave very little room for an LGBT friend or family member.
- Be conscious that through no fault of their own, they are experiencing high levels of rejection, often in the same spaces you are feeling safe6.
- While for you the stakes may be theoretical or doctrinal, for an LGBT person the stakes are often life or death.
- If the same labels of counterfeit and apostate were applied to your own marriage by anyone else, you would consider it hate speech.
- If you are lucky, you will find out that LGBT people are as diverse and amazing as any other part of society.
1 According to Outreach Resource Center (Ogden, UT) more than 50% of the homeless youth they service identify as LGBTQ. Statistically, the incidence of LGBT youth is estimated at 5%, so this is an alarming rate. https://www.equalityutah.org/issues/lgbt-youth
2 Sexual orientation change efforts among current or former LDS church members. Dehlin, John P.; Galliher, Renee V.; Bradshaw, William S.; Hyde, Daniel C.; Crowell, Katherine A. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol 62(2), Apr 2015, 95-105 http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/cou/62/2/95/
3 Utah youth suicide now leading cause of death for Utah kids ages 11 to 17. http://kutv.com/news/local/utah-youth-suicide-now-leading-cause-of-death-for-utah-kids-ages-11-17
4 American Association of Suicidology Facts and Statistics http://www.suicidology.org/resources/facts-statistics
5 Utah’s Escalating Suicide Crisis http://rationalfaiths.com/utahs-escalating-suicide-crisis-lds-lgbtq-despair/
6 Family Acceptance Project https://familyproject.sfsu.edu/