Every couple months it seems, Mormonism and LBGT issues intersect on the public stage and cause another stir.
Last week a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed remorse for LGBT suicides in the Church, a move in response to information circulating in the media about an apparent increase in LGBT Mormon suicides following the Church's policy revisions in November about gay couples and their children.
The November policy announcement by the Church in essence declared firstly that members of the Church in same-sex marriages were apostates, and secondly that children of parents currently (or formerly) in same-sex committed relationships would be denied participation in Church ordinances until they were 18. There are more details, of course, but the salient point here is that the policy change (slipped into a church handbook meant only for leaders and then leaked to social media and the press) was another watershed moment in the history of friction between the LGBT community and the Church. Consternation about and condemnation of the policy was widespread, even among believing non-gay members of the church. At a minimum, several thousand people resigned from Church membership in response to the policy.
Seldom content to let dying positions extinguish peacefully when it comes to gay issues, Church leadership stirred controversy again several weeks ago when Elder Russell M Nelson, now second in seniority in church leadership, gave a speech at BYU Hawaii in which he described a process of deliberation about the policy among church leaders and claimed that the controversial policy was "revelation". That pronouncement seemed to up the stakes: the Church was now elevating the policy to a revelation (meaning it was God's will), and believing Church members unhappy with the policy could no longer readily dismiss it as just a human error by Church leaders, but had to grapple with the possibility that God really had something to do with this unsettling policy.
Finally, over the past week, discussion began circulating about a possible spike in the number of suicides among teenage LGBT Mormons following the November policy announcement by the Church. Active Mormons Wendy and Thomas Montgomery (parents of a gay teen) claimed that as many as 34 individuals have taken their life since the announcement. Names have not been released (understandably), but were collected through private conversations with family members or other individuals.
Last Thursday, through a spokesperson, the Church acknowledged the issue and expressed regret for this tragedy. That was followed by a lengthy article in the Church-owned Deseret News newspaper describing ways that families and church members can provide a more supporting environment for LGBT people. The article cited helpful information, including the evidence-based research produced by the Family Acceptance Project from
Francisco State University
This is the background. (If you're reading this blog you more likely than not already know much of this news). Now for a few thoughts:
First, it is fair to give the church due praise for acknowledging this important issue. For a church that has often been tone deaf to the needs of the LGBT community, public acknowledgement of this problem is welcome. However, much more can and should be done by the
if they genuinely
have concern for this demographic. Bishops and other church leaders need better
training on how to discuss sexuality in their congregations and minister to the
needs and concerns of LGBT members. Top LDS leaders need to use much more care
in how they talk about LGBT people and their relationships in public.
Condescension, demonization, or half truths are unacceptable. Finally, the
Church would do well to sincerely apologize for numerous harmful and factually
inaccurate statements made in past decades about homosexuality. LDS
Next I acknowledge that it is probably nearly impossible to verify numbers when it comes to LGBT suicides in the Church. The causal factors of suicide are complex and probably can't be known in most cases, let alone attributed to a single specific cause such as friction between gay identity and religious belief. It also appears that we don't have the relevant data about LGBT suicides that would allow anyone to make conclusive statements about trends over time. Anecdotal evidence abounds, and I don't doubt that the evidence in the aggregate points to a problem, but one can only discern trends accurately with carefully-collected data over a sufficient period of time. Moreover, because of deep stigmas around both homosexuality and suicide (especially in Mormon culture), it would be extremely difficult for even a motivated researcher to gather the data in a systematic way that overcomes the various challenges of sampling this demographic.
But as has been pointed out repeatedly, each and every case of suicide is serious and devastating to the families and friends involved. Each death is the loss of a unique individual. That any person affiliated with the church, especially a young person, would feel such despair should be alarming to Church leadership and to members. It should cause great reflection: is there something about our doctrines or practices that are causing real harm to this community of people? With or without exact numbers, we have enough evidence to raise a serious alarm. I know gay Mormons who have contemplated suicide. A gay Mormon friend of a gay Mormon friend ended his life. I myself at times have felt significant despair about my sexuality, including deep despair about the intractable juxtaposition of being a gay man in a straight marriage. The anguish in our community is widespread, and seldom given voice in the Church. When our community or allies speak out, some defenders of the Church respond with insensitivity, seemingly giving more concern to the reputation of an institution than the tragedy of living human beings.
Third, we may not have reliable data on LGBT Mormon suicides in relation to other LGBT communities or non-gay Mormon youth, but we do have data on the general vulnerability of gay youth relative to non-gay youth. For gay youth generally, we know that they have more than a two-fold greater risk of suicide attempts than their straight friends. LGBT youth also experience much higher risk factors than their straight peers. Nationwide (and in
up to about 40% of homeless youth are from the LGBT community (Durso and Gates
2012; Equality Utah). The top reasons for homelessness in these youth include
rejection of their sexual orientation by parents, abusive home environments,
and simply being kicked out because they were gay, lesbian, bisexual or
transgender. LGBT youth also tend to experience more bullying than straight
youth (CDC 2014). Utah
Fortunately, we also know some important things about how the risk of suicide and other harmful behaviors can be reduced. The Family Acceptance Project has shown that greater acceptance and love from families helps reduce risk of harmful behaviors in LGBT youth (Ryan et al. 2010). Letting youth explore and self identify as they see fit leads to greater happiness in these kids. Letting youth connect with other gay youth and supportive LGBT organizations helps too. A supportive school environment, free of homophobic teasing, also leads to greater well being of youth of all sexual orientations (CDC 2014).
Finally, I think it is vital to address what I feel is one of the root causes of despair sometimes felt in the Mormon LGBT community. As noted, the causes of suicide are complex and appear to often stem from other mental health issues for individuals who end their lives. But the Church bears some responsibility for creating a doctrinal and social environment in which harmful behaviors by LGBT youth or their families can become more likely. I think one of the roots of despair for many in the LGBT Mormon community is the exclusively heterocentric worldview of the Church, and the failure to theologically provide earthly and heavenly roles for LGBT people that are equally as hopeful and exalting as those promised to faithful married heterosexual couples and their families. How can a gay person feel fully connected with the divine when the very deepest of his or her desires are nothing like the heterosexual God of Mormonism? In LDS theology, same-sex relationships are forbidden here on earth and will have no part of heaven. For LGBT Mormons to feel fully accepted by God or the Church community, they have to deny, suppress or ignore a key part of who they are as a human being. They have to willingly forgo one of the key aspects of being human that brings joy. Even same-sex attractions, as promised by LDS leaders, are supposedly to disappear for gay members in the next life. It is no wonder then, as has been pointed out by many people, that a quick exit to the next life may at times seem like an attractive alternative for a gay person willing to do anything to rid himself or herself of same-sex attraction. But no rigid theology is worth a precious life.
The Church cannot address gay Mormon suffering simply through platitudes. Kind words do help; compassionate responses from parents when gay Mormon kids come out can indeed save lives; but some degree of despair will always be part of the overall gay Mormon experience until a more comfortable place can be made in the church for LGBT people. The divide between the living reality of LGBT individuals and the framework of Mormon theology must be narrowed. Whether or not that requires a change in Mormon theology is up to the church and the members to decide, but the loss of these gay Mormon youth - however many the count truely is - and the flood of LGBT members and their allies from the ranks of the Church demands a serious, innovative, and compassionate response from Mormonism.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health. Link to source.
Durso LE, Gates GJ. 2012. Serving Our Youth: Findings from a national survey of service providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund. Link to study. Los Angeles
Ryan C, Russel ST, Huebner D, Diaz R, Sanchez J. 2010. Family acceptance in adolescence and the health of LGBT young adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 4:205-213. Link to study.