I met up with a friend of mine the other day -- I'll call her Alice. She wanted to talk about Mormon LGBT youth suicide and the new policy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), that many have considered a frontal attack on the LGBT community.
It's a subject and a controversy she knows first-hand.
Alice (not her real name) was born and raised in a devout Mormon family near Salt Lake. In her late teens, she became pregnant and gave her child up for adoption. She believed that was the best option to provide her daughter a stable home given her age, and the fact that was beginning to come to terms with her own bisexuality and transition out of the Mormon faith herself. Her child, a baby girl, was quickly adopted by another devout Mormon family in the area.
Alice has maintained contact with her daughter throughout the years, and last summer, Alice's daughter divulged to her adoptive parents and to Alice that she is a lesbian. When she shared the news, Alice recalls, her daughter was both hopeful and enthusiastic. In fact, when the SCOTUS ruling was announced, she told Alice she hoped this signaled an increasing welcome for LGBT Mormons, and shared her hopes to someday serve a mission for her church and eventually have a temple marriage with the woman she hoped she would someday meet.
But Alice shared decidedly different news this time -- that her daughter was hospitalized after attempting to take her own life on January 11th. This comes at the same time as Mormon-affiliated groups are reportedly tracking 32 completed suicides of LGBT Mormon youth in the wake of the new Mormon policy, which has been dubbed "the exclusion policy" by many practicing Mormons. And just last week the Utah Attorney General noted that "statistics devastatingly show that suicide is the number one cause of death of Utah children ages 10-17."
The new church policy calls for mandatory church discipline for LGBT individuals married to those of the same gender, and bars children of LGBT parents from baptism and other saving rights until they are 18, and only then if they openly disavow their parents' relationships. It also instructs that any member who supports same sex marriage, including the laws that make such marriages possible, are cross-wise with church teaching, despite repeated pronouncements from the pulpit and in Sunday School classes for nearly 200 years that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God.
Many faithful Latter-day Saints (straight, gay and everywhere in between) hoped the policy, which was announced clumsily last November, would be adjusted and made more consistent with other church policies, teachings and doctrines before it was incorporated into the church's Handbook of Instruction for local lay-clergy, slated to happen early this year.
However, a clarification on January 10th from Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and next in line to be prophet and president of the entire church, pronounced the administrative policy a revelation from God, elevating it to near doctrinal status.
While it's impossible to know whether the new policy triggered the reaction of Alice's daughter or the other suicides, the circumstantial evidence can't be ignored. Alice's daughter's attempt came just 24 hours after Nelson delivered his clarification on a world-wide broadcast, preceded by his wife's counsel to homosexual members that they should turn to prayer to solve their "inclinations."
For many Mormons, Nelson's talk was a "Back to the Future" moment, especially for those familiar with the church's attempts to thump racist polices as doctrine over the pulpit in the 1960s and 70s. Those racist policies (which barred priesthood ordination for black men of African descent and temple ordinances for them and their wives) have since been updated and were the recent subject of church essays, clarifying where the church stands on the issue of race -- but falling short of any apology or admission of racism by Mormon leaders.
Equally troubling was Elder Nelson's sanitized chronology of how the policy came to be in the first place -- an account that varies wildly from that of half-dozen or so other high ranking members of church leadership.
Prior to the new policy, any decision for or against Church discipline for an LGBT member was left to local leaders, and there was a consistent tide of welcoming sweeping through the Mormon culture. Congregations from Seattle to Boston had begun to emulate what was started in San Francisco Bay Area in 2011, where everyone was welcome -- including LGBT members married to those of their own gender. Under this approach, LGBT Mormon youth had at least an inkling of hope that if they weren't able to adhere to a rigid standard of lifelong celibacy and ended up with someone they loved, they could still find a congregation that would extend to them the hand of Christlike love and inclusion.
But now that's changed. Today, the message to LGBT Mormon youth is clear, and it's a bleak Sophie's Choice: either resign yourself to life of celibacy, or be ejected from your church and family -- for all time and eternity. Regardless of which option Mormon youth choose, they lose.
It should come as no surprise, then, when depression and suicide attempts increase among gay Mormon kids. Nor should it come as a surprise when more LGBT youth find themselves disenfranchised or disowned by their sincerely religious parents, who now feel more compelled than ever to choose between their child and their church.
While charity, kindness, love and concern are said to be behind the new policy, it is quite clear that many active church members, gay and straight, see it for what it is: another unabashed rejection of LGBT members. And evidence-based research done by the Family Acceptance Project tells us that children who experience high levels of rejection are:
• More than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide
• Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
• More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs
• More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STIs
Mormon children aren't immune from that science. Yet, that same research provides us a way out. In fact, in 2012 the Family Acceptance Project released an LDS version of their research booklet (which was presented to church officials that same year, but has yet to be formally adopted) which shows LDS parents how to respond to LGBT youth in ways that are scientifically proven to reduce risk for negative health and mental health risks, and which align with Mormon doctrine. While this information is spreading among Mormon families at a grass-roots level, much more needs to be done at an official church level -- especially now.
One of the oft repeated phrases used to defend the new policy is that it's being enacted to protect children. Most people, including throngs of devout, active Latter-day Saints -- aren't buying that defense. Yet I continue to believe that the Mormon Church wants to do the right thing, and does indeed want to protect the vulnerable among us.
The evidence of the church's authentic desire to protect children will come when we take concrete steps to reduce the risks for LGBT youth and young people. A great start would be to make the life-saving materials from Family Acceptance Project available through formal church channels, and for the church to require training on the research for all local lay leaders -- from those who work with youth all the way to bishops, relief society presidents and stake leaders.
If we fail to take action -- yet again -- we will likely end up with more tragedies like Alice's on our hands, and on our conscience. We can continue to placate ourselves by justifying this exclusion policy with flowery words, but let's not forget that it is ultimately our actions that people will believe -- and our fruits by which we shall be known.