Activists: Mormon beliefs factor in LGBT struggles

Posted by Jennifer Dobner on

"Ben Jarvis has heard a lot of coming out stories.

"For the past 15 years, the southern California-based urban planner has been answering a hotline number for Mormons struggling with their sexual identity. Jarvis, a volunteer for Affirmation, a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, estimates he's talked to as many as 3,000 people.

"Many of them are 'deathly afraid,' their secret will be discovered by friends, family, or members of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations, he said.

"In a faith where the traditional family is deeply woven into theology and where there is seemingly no line between religion and culture, the potential losses for LGBT Mormons who come out can be devastating, Jarvis and others say.

"'There are so many great things about Mormon culture and the LDS church, but it is not a safe place for gay and lesbian people,' said Jarvis, 42, a seventh-generation Mormon who came out in 1993 and has since left the church.

"Some gay rights activists say the timing and content of an Oct. 3 sermon by Elder Boyd K. Packer, the second-highest ranking church leader, that denounced homosexual attraction as unnatural and immoral only exacerbated the troubled relationship. Packer suggested gays could change their orientation with enough faith.

"His remarks came in the wake of the national furor over a Rutgers University freshman jumping to his death off New York's George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him during a 'sexual encounter' in his dorm room and posted it live on the Internet.

"The student was not Mormon, but Utah's gay rights activists, some with roots in Mormonism, were quick to draw a connection to their own situation. They say the painful isolation that some LGBT individuals experience can lead to suicide. Anecdotes about the suicides of gay Mormons from Affirmation's website, posts on the PrideinUtah blog and other sites seem to support the contention.

"'It's an enormous problem, especially in Utah,' said Eric Ethington, who runs the PrideinUtah blog.

... "Like many faiths, Mormonism teaches that any sex outside of marriage is a sin and the church defines marriage as only being between a man and a woman. Families are considered part of God's plan, under church doctrine, and are eternal institutions that extend into the afterlife.

"In decades past, church leaders had preached that homosexual feelings were a sin and sometimes ordered up prescriptions of vigilant prayer, marriage or reparative therapy to resist or reverse those feelings.

"The rhetoric has softened since the 1990s, although the church has remained politically active in campaigns to prevent legalizing marriage equality in California and elsewhere. The church now differentiates between feelings and actions, with disciplinary action or excommunication limited to those engaging in homosexual relationships.

"Celibate gays can remain active in church callings and retain full membership, including performing sacred Mormon rites in church temples. Church leaders have counseled the faithful followers to reach out to gay Mormons with compassion and love.

... "'For LDS youth, it's not just losing your faith, it's losing a cultural connection, which can seem more desperate,' he said. 'When you read the obituaries and see those young faces, you would never know which were accidental deaths and which were suicides, because there's no mention of it. I'm always left wondering.'

"Although there's no hard data directly linking faith and suicide, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted with the Religion News Service found that 65 percent of 1,010 respondents believe messages from the pulpits of American churches contribute.

"The survey, conducted Oct. 14-17, has margin of error of 3 percentage points. Survey data posted on the institute website did not specify denominations, nor indicate whether Mormons were polled.

"The Massachusetts based Suicide Prevention Resource Center cites suicide as the leading cause of death for LBGT youth. Utah's suicide rates - 34.5 suicide deaths for every 100,000 persons in 2008 - are among the highest in the nation, particularly among young men between the ages of 18 and 24.

"An ongoing, first-of-its-kind, family acceptance study by San Francisco State University researcher Caitlin Ryan has found LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide if they experience rejection from their parents, including being excluded from family activities, expressions of shame, keeping a child's sexual orientation secret or engaging in verbal or physical abuse.

"The study, which includes families of all faiths, has also found that family religious acceptance or rejection also has a profound outcome on an LGBT youth's mental well being and safety."

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