Religion

‘Endure until you die’: LDS Church’s LGBTQ policies put gay youth at risk, advocates say

12-year-old’s mic is cut off while coming out to her Mormon church

A 12-year-old Mormon girl named Savannah came out as a lesbian to her church in Utah on May 7. “I do believe he [God] made me this way on purpose. No part of me is a mistake," she said to her church congregation.
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A 12-year-old Mormon girl named Savannah came out as a lesbian to her church in Utah on May 7. “I do believe he [God] made me this way on purpose. No part of me is a mistake," she said to her church congregation.

Beckett Jones came out twice to his Latter-day Saints family as a teenager — first, at 13 years old, as a gay woman and then, at 18 years old, as a transgender man.

Jones’ self discovery, however, prompted a faith crisis as his family sought to reconcile their son’s identity with a religious doctrine that has long advocated for the suppression of homosexuality in its members.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been criticized by some for its controversial policies and treatment of LGBTQ individuals. Local LGBTQ members and their families say they struggle with their religion as leadership in Salt Lake City continues to build walls between the church and LGBTQ members.

But, for Latter-day Saints, leaving the church often means losing family and social circles. It’s not just your religion, Beckett Jones said, it’s like a “full-time job.”

“It’s your entire community; it’s all your friends and your family,” he said. “It’s such a huge part of your life, that there’s a hole when you leave. You have to find a new community.”

Latter-day Saints parents of LGBTQ youth have forged their own resources, creating support groups for families like theirs.

LGBTQ activists cite growing concern for the closeted youth that absorb the LDS messages about homosexuality — which they say has led many to self-harm. LGBTQ advocates cite Utah’s high levels of youth suicides and high population of Latter-day Saints as an indication of LDS youth suicides.

According to the Utah Violence and Injury Prevention Program, youth suicides quadrupled from 2007 to 2017 and were more than double national averages from 2011 to 2015. But little data exists specifically on suicide rates within different religious affiliations.

Idaho continually ranks within the top 10 states for highest suicide rates per capita. In 2017, the Gem State ranked 5th in suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34, according to statistics released in February 2018.

For the past year, the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline has created specific outreach channels to the LDS community and customized training in LDS suicide awareness through consulting with faith leaders.

Suicide and self-harm among LGBTQ youth in the LDS church has become a recognized problem among gay members and an unspoken problem for church leadership, they say.

Beckett Jones has known five LGBTQ LDS members who died by suicide. One of those, his best friend, died when they were 16.

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Beckett Jones, 20, stands for a portrait at Orval Krasen Park in Eagle on Aug. 10. Jones came out as gay and then transgender to his Latter-day Saints family at 13 years old. Now, he and his mom organize activities for LGBTQ youth, their parents and their allies to bring together others facing the same obstacles.

“Part of it is that LDS youth are told that everything gets fixed in Heaven,” he said. “That when they’re going through a rough period of faith and crisis, they think that it will fix the problem. That it’s their way out.”

According to a 2017 study released by the University of Georgia, 70% of the 278 LGBTQ Mormons surveyed showed signs of post-traumatic stress as a result of the teachings they heard at church.

Church representatives did not respond to the Statesman’s request for comment. It did provide a list of church content and resources including the church’s Mormon and Gay website, their suicide prevention website and a list of op-eds written by church-connected individuals who argue the link between LGBTQ individuals in the church and suicide is false.

However, a section of the Mormon and Gay website reads: “People who experience same-sex attraction or identify themselves as gay may be at higher risk for depression or suicide. People who are depressed or who may be contemplating suicide need to know they are loved and should be referred to a competent mental health professional.”

Church leadership continues to stress celibacy and suppression as a solution for homosexuality. A policy leaked from a memo to local bishops in 2015 banned children of same-sex partners from being blessed and baptized and labeled same-sex marriages as “apostates.”

The policy was reversed this year on grounds of a “continuing revelation,” but same-sex marriages are not recognized as “eternal marriages” in the same way that heterosexual marriages are.

Elder Todd D. Christofferson refers to same-sex attraction as a “horse to tame” and that the church’s stance on homosexuality that it is against its beliefs — will not change, according to a video on the church’s Mormon and Gay website.

“There shouldn’t be a perception or expectation that the Church’s doctrines or position, have changed or are changing, it is simply not true … ” Christofferson says. “Homosexual behavior is contrary to those doctrines, has been, always will be, and can never be anything but a transgression.”

However, he says, atonement and repentance will bring forgiveness.

“I don’t think people realize when they are saying things in church, especially in youth groups, that there are people listening that are gay Mormons,” Beckett Jones said. “That it is not as uncommon as they think. They absolutely know somebody who is gay or trans.”

Homosexuality still taboo subject in LDS Church

Beckett Jones, 20, was raised as a girl and started transitioning into a transgender man at 18. But as a teenager, he could not connect to the future his LDS faith said was in store for him as a woman. He didn’t want to get married, have children or be a stay-at-home mother.

The disconnect led to a battle with his identity, an eating disorder and, at 13-years-old, an email to his parents that said, “I think I might be gay.”

In church, Beckett Jones was told that being gay was “a sin,” “evil,” “a conspiracy to tear down family values.” After he came out as gay in Idaho Falls — with a population of just over 60,000 — where his family lived at the time, he was made to sleep alone in a tent at Young Women Camp that year, instead of among his female peers.

“Church was not a safe space for me, it was contributing to all the anxiety that I had. I started to realize that I was not the problem, that there were a lot of people like me,” Jones said. “I would go and hear things, and I was in a space where I couldn’t talk back. Where I couldn’t say ‘that’s not OK.’”

Beckett Jones didn’t even know what the word transgender meant until he came out, at first, as a gay woman. But when he learned the term, it resonated more.

“If I liked girls, that’s just what it was — that I liked girls. But being trans meant a whole lot of other things,” Beckett Jones said. “Was I going to medically transition? Was I going to change my name? And was I going to do all those things in a really tiny Mormon community?”

Transgender issues were never mentioned in church, he said, which was even more taboo than being gay.

By 16, Beckett Jones’ entire wardrobe was men’s clothing, and he asked his mom to cut his hair shorter and shorter. At 18 years old, his mother asked him if he wanted a different name, he pulled out a Microsoft Office document on his computer he had been keeping with names he liked.

Beckett Jones didn’t realize how uncomfortable and unhappy he had been with his previous female name and pronouns until he made the change. After that, he said, he wanted to do everything he had been putting off for so long, including testosterone shots and topsurgery, or reconstructive chest surgery.

“All the problems I had mentally and with my well-being really just kind of resolved themselves,” he said. “I started becoming more outgoing; I started becoming cheerful again. It was like rediscovering that happy kid that I had been, that I hadn’t been for a really long time.”

LGBTQ advocates hope to connect families

On Aug. 10 at Orval Krasen Park in Eagle, LGBTQ youth, their parents and community allies gathered under a gazebo with a rainbow flag strung above. Beckett Jones and his mother Shauna Jones started the Rainbow Coalition, a meet-up program for LGBTQ Mormons and non-Mormons to bring together families facing similar experiences and connect kids to other youth like them.

On that day, the group of nearly 30 painted designs on rocks. LGBTQ youth chatted about band teachers and testosterone shots while parents and allies sat off to the side confiding about the difficulties of finding support in Idaho.

“It’s hard being LGBT, especially in Idaho and other really conservative areas,” Shauna Jones said. “It’s isolating.”

The parents discussed the struggle of telling conservative Latter-day Saints family about their LGBTQ children, going to Boise Pride Festival for the first time and how to act when their child is not openly out of the closet yet.

When her son first came out she was “so Mormon,” she said. After the email Beckett Jones sent coming out as gay, she went into her closet and cried, not knowing how best to help.

“From that moment I started seeing the pain at church,” Shauna Jones said, “and once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

Shauna Jones used her previous experience as Young Women president to start planning activities to connect Beckett Jones to other LGBTQ youth and connect herself with parents that had the same obstacles as her.

“Most of the moms that get sent to me are LDS, and they just need someone to say ‘it’s going to be OK,’” she said.

The Church? Or your child?

When Jen Blair’s son, Jaxson, came out as gay at 16, he told her he knew he was going to hell.

But that wasn’t something Blair could accept. He was a great kid — loved video games and homeschooled with his three younger sisters who adored him. He had no exposure to the LGBTQ community — the family didn’t even have television in their Twin Falls home.

“He told me ‘Mom it took me four years to figure this out,” Blair said. “So, if it takes you awhile to figure this out and process this, that’s OK.’ So, I went to where I went for all the answers to everything that I ever had problems with. I went to the church.”

What little information Blair found in church literature about homosexuality was “horrible,” she said.

The book ‘Miracle of Forgiveness’ from 1969 — written by a former apostle and president — outlined that “excessive masturbation” leads to homosexuality. Blair didn’t even know if was possible to be a Latter-day Saint and gay, she said, but she knew you couldn’t turn gay from masturbating.

A collection of essays titled “Voices of Hope” compiled testimony after testimony of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints.

“They pretty much were all just white knuckling through life,” Blair said. “Saying ‘You all just have to endure until you die, endure until you die, it’s fine.’ And I remember thinking ‘not my kid.’”

It took Blair months of scouring the internet and Facebook groups before she found other Latter-day Saint moms who were facing the same conflict between what their faith preached and the well-being of their children who had come out as gay.

“Everything I knew about the church and what they say about homosexuality and everything I know about my son,” Blair said, “they couldn’t both be true … it broke my brain in half.”

When Jaxson came out in 2012, Blair and her family began to hear the church’s lessons through “new ears.” His three younger sisters struggled with church activities — wondering why God didn’t want the same things for their older brother that he did for them.

“I would tell them, ‘look at Jaxson, stare into his eyes, hold him and you tell me, is there a God or a Heaven that doesn’t include him? Of course, there isn’t,’” Blair said.

Eventually, Mormonism became “too small,” she said, so the family “graduated” and left.

Now, 7 years later, Blair is the board chairwoman of the organization Mama Dragons, a support group for mothers with LGBTQ children, and tries to reach other moms who face the same situation as she did — not always with the same outcome.

The group started on Facebook and has grown to have support groups throughout 14 countries — including regional three groups in Idaho. What started with 20 members has grown to over 3,700 — now open to all mothers, no matter their religion.

“Mama Dragons is a space in a patriarchal country and particularly in a patriarchal religion,” Blair said, “where women are able to follow their hearts.”

Local leadership seeks answers

Sunny Ernst Smart, not yet out as gay even to her children, took a public stand for same sex inclusion last fall, when the city of Meridian was holding a vote for Add the Words, a new city ordinance protecting LGBTQ individuals against discrimination.

“I had to stand up and speak as an ally and in that moment, I felt like a part of my soul was absolutely crushed,” Smart said. “Every time I felt like I denied who I was in any way, it felt like another brick of shame.”

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Sunny Ernst-Smart sits for a portrait in the kitchen of her home in Meridian. After nearly 20 years of marriage and four children, Sunny Ernst Smart came out to her family as gay last October. Now, Smart holds workshops where LDS leaders can come, ask questions without judgment and learn about how to include LGBTQ individuals within the LDS community.

Smart suppressed her feelings for women from as early as 12, as a child growing up in a “loving” but “extremely conservative” LDS home — her mother a state director for the “Stop the Equal Rights Amendment” group.

She slowly started to share with her husband of 20 years in her 30s her attraction to women, being bisexual and eventually coming out to him as gay a few years ago. Last October, she finally came out to her kids and close friends.

After coming out publicly, Smart started to see a desire from her local church leadership to expand their knowledge of LGBTQ individuals.

“The leaders, they are grasping for anything,” she said, “because they see this happening on the ground, they see families trying to deal with it and they don’t know how to counsel people.”

Smart started holding workshops in the Treasure Valley where LDS leaders can come, ask questions without judgment and learn about how to include LGBTQ individuals within the LDS community — conflicting with the institutional messages that come from Salt Lake City.

“What I realized early on, trying to work with my leaders, is that institutional church at that top level, I can’t affect that at all ...” she said. “So, my focus has become, what is the best we can do in the framework that is there?”

There are limitations for LBGTQ individuals in this church, Smart said, and members must be honest about that reality and should never try to “sugar-coat it.” But the first step? Talking about it.

“They’re so uncomfortable,” Smart said. “And there are so many mixed feelings where some people think it’s OK and some people literally think this is what is going to bring on Armageddon — gay people,”

A new normal

Around Christmas time in the ninth grade, Beckett Jones was hospitalized for two weeks for suicidality. His body changing with puberty, along with the messages the church preached about his future as a woman, had caused an eating disorder.

“It was a wake-up call for me, and it was a wake-up call for my family,” Beckett Jones said.

Beckett Jones attends group activities for LGBTQ LDS youth through Affirmation, an organization that supports the gay Mormon community. During one group session with nearly 60 participants, the leader asked those who have had had suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide or have done self-harm to raise their hands.

Every single person in that room, he said, raised their hand.

“It’s so common that it’s not surprising – but it should be … ” Beckett Jones said.

Early on, Beckett Jones never let himself be angry with the church. He didn’t want to be one of those “bitter, angry ex-Mormons.”

But that changed at his best friend’s funeral.

“I remember the bishop was just stone-faced when all these people were talking about his experience in the gay community because it was a big part of his life,” Beckett Jones said. “He didn’t really say anything. He got up and said it was a tragedy and sat back down. I was really angry after that.”

Some small changes are starting to occur, however. Suicide risk within the faith’s community has been a recent concern for church leadership.

A Jan 17. 2018 letter, sent from church leadership to local leaders, released a new update to the church’s website, additional resources for leader members to help prevent suicide and counsel ward members impacted by suicide.

The letter highlights new suicide prevention information on the Mormon and Gay website specific to LGBT individuals “who may be at greater risk of suicide.”

However, professors at Brigham Young Universities — higher education institutions owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — have written numerous opinion pieces in local media outlets decrying claims that suicide rates and LGBTQ individuals are linked.

Smart is sure to have a rainbow flag outside of her house in Meridian during Pride Month in June. Not for herself, she said, but to assure the kids walking through her neighborhood that there is someone who is safe, loves them for who they are and welcomes them.

She knows what is like to be a young, LDS member — who is struggling with their sexuality — being told there is something wrong with them.

“I am especially concerned about the youth who sit in the pews and absorb the messages that I absorbed,” she said. “They are picking up messages loud and clear about the abomination they are — that they are taboo.”

Shauna Jones said that it can be hard to work with mothers of LGBTQ youth who are holding tight to their ties to the LDS church.

“It’s a delicate balance because a lot of times my first reaction is to get that child out of there because it is not safe,” Shauna Jones said. “A lot of moms I meet, their child has already had a suicide attempt and that sometimes makes it easier, because then they can see. This is your child, do you want them to be in the Church or do you want them to be alive?”

Evidence of the issue circulating through the LDS communities in Idaho can only be found anecdotally, but suicide and self-harm isn’t the only risk.

LGBTQ youth are going to extremes to find companionship, Smart said, using potentially dangerous websites like Craigslist to connect with strangers.

“Because they don’t feel safe having these normal, teenage romances, they’re going to extremes and putting themselves at huge risk,” she said, “then driving themselves deeper into shame because of that behavior. That is happening in my neighborhood. Right here next to Rocky Mountain.”

Although he wasn’t a teen, there is one such recent example of that situation happening in Canyon County.

In 2017, Steve Nelson, 40, a gay Nampa man, was beaten and died of his injuries, after responding to a sexual ad online.

‘20 years behind the rest of the world’

The positions and lessons of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can change. Stances on polygamy and civil rights have evolved over time, but some members aren’t sure the church will budge on LGBTQ rights.

The church continues to release videos depicting and encouraging mixed orientation marriages — families with one openly gay parent who remains in a heterosexual relationship. The church’s Mormon and Gay website allows gay individuals to continue to participate in church, but only if they pledge to live a celibate lifestyle.

The church must change to survive, Beckett Jones said, but it will be “20 years behind the rest of the world.”

“Leadership will change, younger people in the church are not the same way their parents are … ” Beckett Jones said. “There’s a huge generational divide right now between younger LDS members and older LDS members. Younger people too can think a little bit more and question a little bit more about church history because they haven’t put in 30, 40 years of life work into being a Mormon.”

More and more members of the LDS church are coming out in both younger and later life as gay, but the progressive shift hasn’t been embraced by the church or all its members.

“Still, when someone says they’re LDS,” Beckett Jones said, “you have to protect yourself a little bit.”

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