When we read this, our jaws dropped: There was a week last year, in the summer of 2016, when in less than a 50-mile radius of central Utah, eight LGBTQ youths committed suicide. EIGHT. Those numbers come from Mama Dragons, an organization that acts as a support group for LGBTQ-accepting Mormon mothers. What is causing this completely insane spike in queer suicides? Well, unsurprisingly, many are pointing fingers at the Mormon Church.
This exposé of sorts from Vox.com opens with one suicide in particular: that of a teenage boy named Stockton — a kid who played guitar and loved to ski — and who in June 2016 took his own life. Stockton’s 18-year-old best friend, Jordan — incidentally, the guy who was also Stockton’s first kiss — acted as a pallbearer at the funeral (pictured above).
As the Vox story’s author, Nico Lang, posits, “Although 2016 saw several devastating legal and political setbacks for LGBTQ people across the country, few communities felt its immense weight greater than Utah.” In the state, suicide has become the leading cause of death among kids between the ages of 10 and 17, considerably higher than national rates.
For solid reasoning behind Utah’s staggering numbers, it depends on whom you ask. Some cite “the rugged, individualistic nature of Western states, where suffering can often be relegated to the shadows,” whatever that means. There’s even something called the “Utah paradox,” which seeks to answer why Utah ranks among the happiest places to live but also leads in antidepressant use.
And then you can speak to LGBTQ advocates, who cite a different reason for queer suicides altogether.
It of course killed Jordan’s mom, Wendy, to see her son have to bury his closest confidant. She co-founded the Mama Dragons three years ago when her son came out of the closet, and she tells Vox that she receives at least 100 messages every week from young kids having suicidal thoughts, many of whom are Mormon.
The Church of Latter Day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church, has for years targeted the LGBTQ community through its doctrine and internal church policies. Many queer advocates and organizations, including the Mama Dragons, believe changes in the way the church addresses queer people is crucial, and could even put a damper on the state’s rash of teen suicides.
The Mormon Church believes people in same-sex relationships are “apostates,” meaning they are opposed to the church and are sentenced to possible expulsion. Gay relationships are “a sin that warrants a church disciplinary council.”
Just take a look at the steps that parents of queer kids feel they are forced to take:
[Emily] Montgomery said that in the months after the leak, the damage done was “incalculable.” She estimates that at least 32 youth died by suicide across the state, and every one of the victims’ families that she personally spoke to was Mormon. Those numbers have been contested by the Utah Department of Health, but Montgomery says there’s a reason for that: Families who have lost a child often misreport the cause of their death in obituaries, claiming instead that their son or daughter “had a rare heart condition” or “died peacefully in their sleep.”
There’s only been one instance, Montgomery claims, where she read an obituary that was fully transparent about the reasons the child is no longer there. “I’ve talked to many policemen who are the first on scene to an obvious suicide, and the parent will beg the policeman to write ‘accidental death’ on the police report,” she said.
Many people are currently pushing the church to change, and the church is reportedly showing signs of improvement with regard to gay constituents. Vox cites a November change to a Mormon Church website with regard to LGBTQ issues. Whereas it was called “Mormons and Gays,” which suggests the two things are mutually exclusive, it’s now called “Mormon and Gay.” More substantially, the church has attempted to vocally show compassion for LGBTQ youth. Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, has said the church “[mourns] with [teens’] families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope.”
Also from Hawkins: “The Church has repeatedly stated that those who feel same-sex attraction and yet choose to live the commandments of God can live fulfilling lives as worthy members of the Church. We want all to enjoy the blessings and safety offered by embracing the teachings of Jesus Christ and living the principles of His gospel.”
But activists are still clamoring for more from the church. “They have no idea the kind of damage that kind of thinking does,” Mama Dragon President-elect Julie Packer says, referring to the church dogma that says God will make queer teens straight in the afterlife.
And when it comes to trans rights, the Mormon Church is opposed. It filed an amicus brief in opposition of Gavin Grimm’s fight to be able to use the boys’ restroom in his school.
Only time will tell whether 2017 sees the same number of queer youth suicides as 2016. One thing seems clear, though: the Mormon Church isn’t making enough headway to reduce its own culpability in this fight.
(Featured photo by Wendy Montgomery via Vox.com)