It was an article in Newsweek called “To Be Gay and Mormon” that brought me from New York to Salt Lake City nearly a decade ago.
The brief story centered on gay Mormon Henry “Stuart” Matis and the difficulties he faced rectifying his faith and his sexuality. Ultimately he couldn’t: On February 25, 2000, Stuart Matis drove to a nearby Mormon church headquarters and shot himself in the head.
I couldn’t comprehend how a gay man could kill himself over religion in the 21st century. Did this really happen? And why?
So, in 2005, I spent a year researching what it meant to be gay and Mormon, working toward writing a play about Stuart’s struggle. I went to Salt Lake to get first-hand accounts from people going through the same struggle. That’s how I met Dylan at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks in Gateway Mall.
“Are you Roman?” a wavering voice asked.
I looked up to see a young kid, who couldn’t have been over the legal drinking age. (His tousled hair, thin frame and acne-flecked baby face said maybe 16.) The idea that torment was coursing though this boy wasn’t evidenced by his youthful charm.
We introduced ourselves and I offered him something to drink. He declined. “Right. The coffee thing,” I reminded myself. I explained briefly what I was doing there in Salt Lake, and told him that he could begin the question and answers with me if it made him feel less nervous. I turned on my recorder and we dove right in.
Silence at first, then in a low, even register he said, “I tried to kill myself with a pencil.” His tone was grave.
“I’m sorry?” I balked, as if I hadn’t heard him correctly.
Dylan, who was actually 20, had come to terms with his same-gender attraction (SGA) four months prior. He was skeptical about being interviewed—so much so that he almost canceled on me. He admitted that he almost ran back to his car in the parking lot three times. Considering the Mormon Church’s history with homosexual members, I wasn’t surprised.
In the end, he decided it was in his best interest to go through with it. “I prayed about it,” he told me. “It’s the right thing to do.”
But he was still a complete mess.
“I did. I tried to force a pencil into my chest. I just thought it was the easiest way to kill myself,” he explained. “First I tried to hang myself with a towel. Then I tried the pencil. When I couldn’t get it to pierce my skin I tried to put it in my neck—but it hurt a lot.”
So Dylan, a Salt Lake native, took some sleeping pills and just started driving around. “I was praying really hard that someone would just slam right into me and end my life for me. But no one did.”
According to a survey conducted by the LGBT Mormon group Affirmations, 57% of gay and lesbian Mormons have considered or attempted suicide.
The day after taking the pills, Dylan went to see his bishop. “He was surprised. He told me that my homosexuality was a test from God. He said, ‘In life you can have a wrong answer and still fix it, but, suicide, there’s no fixing.’” Dylan’s bishop also assured him he could be cured of his homosexuality as long as he didn’t “act on his impulses.’”
After Dylan came out, though, his bishop canceled his mission, the two-year trip most young Mormons take to spread the Gospel around the world. “I was really upset because I had saved up my entire life to serve a mission for the Church,” Dylan explained. “I started to feel really depressed, you know? I mean, I had told my parents when I first realized I was gay.”
His parents told Dylan they suspected as much: “They’re very busy people and just sort of reacted like, ‘Well, if this is what you want to be,’ and moved on. Then, when I told my bishop, they had a bigger reaction. It was weird.”
Dylan, who was attending the University of Utah at the time, said he was definitely born gay: “Nobody ever taught this to me. In high school, I was never interested in dating girls. They were really just friends. And then it hit me: I’m gay.”
I asked him what he thought about the Church and its stance on gay Mormons.
“They send a very confusing message. To a certain degree I understand the Church’s stance: Don’t act on these emotions and don’t go around and fuck someone and you’ll be okay. But that doesn’t allow me to be who I am. My mom and dad can be who they are and follow Christ’s message. What can’t I? God made me, right?”
Despite his crisis of faith, Dylan still strongly believed in the Church’s core tenets: “I believe the Book of Mormon is true,” he told me. “I just don’t think the Church has gotten its revelation on what’s going on with me… with us.”
He explains there are two parts to the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints: The body of people and the gospel. “I can’t trust the people but I still believe in the gospel—my understanding of the gospel.”
Dylan’s not alone: More and more gay Mormons are looking at their faith, their Church and their Christ, and questioning what is being asked of them.
The LDS Church appears to be extending the olive branch of late: A new website, MormonsAndGays.org, seems to be trying to begin a three-way dialogue between the Church, its gay members and their straight counterparts. But is it a step in the right direction or just some public-relations window-dressing?
Considering the Church’s track record on homosexuality, gay Mormons are wise to be skeptical. From electro-shock therapy in the 1970s to reparative therapy in the 21st century, the LDS hierarchy has made it clear it’s not comfortable with homosexuality.
Even MormonsAndGays.org has the proviso “The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is.”
That doesn’t leave much wiggle room. But maybe there’s more to this—maybe.
The Church has been able to bring to bear its formidable monetary, organizational and human resources to achieve a conservative agenda that directly impacts of millions of non-Mormons. In California alone, the LDS Church mobilized 80-90% of the door-to-door volunteers, and almost half of the $40 million raised, to push Proposition 8—even though Mormons make up less than 2% of the state’s population.
The tenets of the religion are deeply entrenched in all aspects of the culture: There is virtually no corner of people’s lives that is not prescribed by church doctrine. Home and family are at the very heart of Mormonism, and those are conceived exclusively in heterosexual terms. In fact, marriage and the “eternal family” are considered essential to salvation and heavenly happiness.
An aspect of Mormonism that holds major import for gay members is the belief that the church’s leaders, called prophets, continue to receive revelations from God. A policy on a question of personal conduct such as homosexuality can become religious law merely by a church leader stating he received divine instruction about it.
Obedience is another cornerstone: to God, to church authorities, to Mormon law, and to authority figures within the home, school and workplace. But with no built-in facility for evolution, there’s little place for gays. It’s impossible to conceive of being truly Mormon without adopting a lifestyle of heterosexual marriage and children.
And yet, for many queer Mormons, it’s increasingly impossible to conform to that mold. Especially now that change is afoot in the larger culture.
It’s no wonder LGBT Mormons have a substantially higher suicide rate. (Actually, according to the Utah Department of Health, Utah’s suicide rate overall has been higher than the U.S. average for the last decade.)
“From a public relations perspective it would be easier for the Church to simply accept homosexual behavior,” reads MormonsAndGays.org. “That we cannot do, for God’s law is not ours to change. There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right. But what is changing— and what needs to change — is to help Church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully when they encounter same-sex attraction in their own families, among other Church members, or elsewhere.”
For a religion that’s a hair under 200 years old, the Mormon faith is really missing out on a major opportunity: By embracing its gay children—and not simply having “conversations” about them—the Church could set a precedent. It could be the forward-thinking faith, and a catalyst for change across religious denominations.
It could do the right thing, and follow in Christ’s footsteps by welcoming all, regardless of sexual orientation.
The Church has changed its laws before—African-Americans members weren’t allowed to be priesthood holders as recent as 1978. (And let’s not forget the whole plural-marriage thing.) It can change its laws again.
The Mormon Church has an obligation to learn from its own history of being ostracized, harassed and discriminated against, and welcome its LGBT children into the flock openly, as God intended.
Roman Fesser is the writer of a play about Stuart Matis, Missa Solemnis, or The Play About Henry, which opened in 2008 at the TBG Theatre in NYC and the Rose Wagner Theatre in Salt Lake. He is currently working on A Stranger at the Table: Why God Hates Gay Mormons, a journalistic memoir of his experiences in Utah. He resides in New York City.