LDS Church responds to alleged spike in LGBT youth suicides

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teen depression suicideYesterday a galley arrived for a book called Saving Alex, a memoir of a Mormon teen who confided to her parents in 2010 that she was gay.

The book will be out from Harper in about a month and I promise to feature it more then, but for now let me just say that it’s riveting and it breaks my heart.

Her mother’s first reaction was to scream and cry; then, some minutes later, she came to Alex’s room and ordered her to pack her bags:

“Go!” Her voice was hot and bitter. “Get out. Just go! . . .Take what you need, Alex. Because the next time you come back everything will be in garbage bags in the front yard.”

Alex was fifteen years old with no money, and had to crash with another family from the ward.  From there things actually got worse, when Alex’s parents checked her in to a conversion therapy home that turned out to be emotionally abusive.

I’m sure some people will say that Alex’s story is an aberration, that Latter-day Saints love and cherish LGBT youth. But that story has been replicated, degree by unloving degree, in wards all over the world.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read Mitch Mayne’s touching and powerful Huffington Post article on an apparent increase in LGBT youth suicides in the months since the handbook’s “exclusion policy” was leaked in November.

Within hours of the Huffington Post piece, the Deseret News came out with an in-depth article on the same topic, joining the Salt Lake Tribune’s outstanding coverage.

It’s good to be cautious about numbers here (see the Trib article); and it’s too simplistic to attribute any suicide to just one cause. However, even if it were just one suicide of a gay Mormon youth, it would be one too many.

We do know that suicide is the #1 cause of death among adolescents (both gay and straight) in Mormon-majority Utah, compared to #3 nationally (after accidental death and homicide).*

In fact, Utah ranks fifth among all U.S. states in teen suicide—which, as an official points out in this article, is not a top-ten list anyone wants to be on. While other factors may play a role (altitude, greater access to guns, lower access to health care), religion can’t be counted out—especially when it comes to the messages LGBT teens are receiving from the LDS Church.

I’m glad that the Church issued a statement of mourning yesterday to express love for LGBT kids. But the Deseret News headline is misleading on that score. When I read the article, which was titled “LDS Church leaders mourn reported deaths in Mormon LGBT community,” I was expecting to see evidence of top Mormon leaders reaching out to LGBT youth directly, or at least having an apostle address this problem with loving words.

Instead I learned that “Senior LDS leaders reiterated through a spokesman on Thursday that they expect church members to actively reach out to and care for young Mormon lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.”

There followed a lovely statement from someone in the Public Affairs department.

These were good words, but from the wrong source. The LGBT community is unlikely to feel the love when, on the one hand, they heard an apostle suggest earlier this month that the exclusionary policy was the will of God, and then, on the other hand, a Church employee followed up by saying that yes, of course, Mormons are to love absolutely everyone.

Yesterday’s statement was a beginning, and maybe it will cause some Latter-day Saints to think a little more carefully about the assumptions they make about the youth in our midst, about the words that come out of our mouths.

I also hope that those who support these kids will have the courage to speak out. In Saving Alex, the author talks about a watershed moment when an active Mormon took her aside and told her, “It’s totally fine to be gay . . . I think so, and I am certain God thinks so as well.” Alex writes:

Looking back, I realize that this was the first moment someone had spoken up as a member of my religion to tell me that they were on my side, and that God loved me just as I was . . . . it was so important to hear Sandra say as a Mormon that I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

We need to do much, much better by our LGBT youth.



* The statistic about suicide being the #3 cause of death among adolescents ages 15 to 19 is from the Center for Disease Control, but dates from 2010. A more recent statistic from the CDC (2015) specifies that it is #3 among youth ages 10 to 14, and #2 among older teens and young adults ages 15 to 34.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post attributed a remark to Sister Nelson that was not in fact made by her. She did not, in her devotional at BYU-Hawaii, urge LGBT students to pray that God would remove the inclination of same-sex attraction. I apologize for the error.