Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

LDS Church responds to alleged spike in LGBT youth suicides

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.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Every time I read the term “[church] spokesman,” my view is reinforced that the 15 men at the top of the LDS church have no special powers of discernment or otherwise.

    The fact that they use a PR department to communicate on a tragic issue like this one or on anything else ecclesiastic affirms that as well.

    What a shame.

  • The hardest thing for me to read was Elder Oaks linked statement of “You’re my son. You will always be my son, and I’ll always be there to help you.”

    Because this was followed by later in the transcript: “ELDER OAKS: I can imagine that in most circumstances the parents would say, ‘Please don’t do that. Don’t put us into that position.’ Surely if there are children in the home who would be influenced by this example, the answer would likely be that. There would also be other factors that would make that the likely answer.

    I can also imagine some circumstances in which it might be possible to say, ‘Yes, come, but don’t expect to stay overnight. Don’t expect to be a lengthy house guest. Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your ‘partnership.'”

  • The statement is not on the LDS website, or in it’s social media feed. For Leaders that are mourning this is odd. A search using the term “mourn” produced stories about long dead leaders or their wives. There is no evidence that any LDS leader has attend a funeral of an LGBT Youth. This feels much more like spin, than sympathy. Like the NRA sending prayers to youth killed in mass shootings.

  • Back in the ’70’s, when I first came out, we were talking about the Mormon abuse of gay kids– forced reparative therapy, re-orientation “camps”, rejection, and stigmatization. The material we had to read, all coming directly from the church, BYU, and Mormon authorities, was horrendous– one side of their mouths talking about so-called Christian so-called love, the other side repeating the most vicious nonsense, lies, and threats. I met a few Mormon boys in Hawaii at that time– every one of them living a double life on the down low. One of them even told me all about his upcoming wedding while he tried desperately to get into my pants.

    The Mormon record in regards to their gay children is terrible, but no worse than many other so-called christian so-called churches. all of this belies the idea that this is just a sin. It’s not “just” a sin– it’s the ONLY.

    Nothing could convince me more of the phoniness of all religion than the antics of the antigay ones.

  • “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.”

    Whoever you are. May God bless you. This kind of courageous compassion on a member-by-member level is what’s needed to save children’s lives. Not slick PR. Not arguments about altitude and statistics. Not blame shifting. Not word smithing (“we love you, but your ‘lifestyle’ is a sin”). Not hateful messages from leaders that might or might not be revelation. Not handbook directives that might be policy or might be doctrine. Not pedantic debates about scripture and doctrine. Not judging, shunning, marginalizing, emotional abuse, nor “therapy”.

    No. What saves these innocent young children is total loving acceptance just as they are. That is Christ’s message.

  • I have heard WAY too many posts like the above; where a teen comes out to a family member that he/she is gay/transgender, whatever, and the answer is to kick them out on the streets.

    I finally, this past year, took some action. I live 3 blocks from the local HS. I have registered with PFLAG and with the school officials. I have a bedroom not in use, with a decent bed. I will take any teen getting kicked out of their houses, on an emergency basis. I can’t offer permanent housing, but if I can keep one kid from ending up selling themselves or worse, I will have done a good deed. I have sat down with my PD as well, and have an emergency response that I and both my housemates know how to follow, and we will offer a teen a month (somewhat flexible)’s free room and board. They must agree to go to school regularly and no drugs or smoking in the house. But I have heard so many stories like this that I’m haunted by them. I can take this small step.

    PR chris

  • I keep thinking about how “the blood of the saints” cries from the ground against us. I hope that we as a people can repent of this.

  • USGA, a same-sex support group at BYU, released a great post today sharing the personal stories of four of their BYU student members who once attempted suicide and are now doing well:

    From the article:
    At one point a girl in his ward was saying disparaging remarks about Caitlyn Jenner, not realizing that Sebastian was trans as well. “We often think that there are no queer people at BYU,” says Alex, “when nothing could be further from the truth. There are closeted people in every ward and every class. Every time you say something, assume a queer person is listening.”

  • I wonder if the new “no baptism”/”no ordination” policy may be contributing to the recent rise…hmmmm…..

  • I’m definitely not espousing this kind of rhetoric. Just pointing out that this is the type of double bind language LDS leaders have promoted.

  • Just remember we’re all just people so try to do the best you can. You can’t expect perfection from others when we’re not perfect ourselves. God and Jesus are perfect and I trust in them.

  • Robert, I think you missed the point of what EmJen was trying to say: that this kind of “we love you, but you can’t visit for more than a day” talk is awful.

    What Elder Oaks said to qualify his original statement about loving unconditionally shows in fact that he is telling people in practice to love with conditions firmly attached.

  • My son is gay. He choose to move to salt lake from NC. He has not had anyone treat him badly at church or otherwise. I also have a daughter that is gay. When she came out as gay she did it openly at a church event. Since that event she has always been treated kindly by the people of our ward. I think as in any religion there are those who are zealots and treat their children badly but I don’t think that speaks for the majority of Mormons.

  • Robert – please note that this is a direct quote of the more full transcript of what E. Oaks says about being a parent of a gay son. It’s still out there on EmJen objects just as much as anyone to this approach.

  • Gay is a small part of the Big Picture. How unfair and un-Godlike is it to be placed in an eternal position based on a Final Judgement after a single pass through this world?

    The variety of life experiences that will qualify us with all the attributes of a God requires that we make MANY passages through mortality in every possible learning situation. Only then will we be able to say, with meaningful experiences, that we are also Gods.

    Judge no one, because you never know what goals they have in this life’s passage. Gay is one of the qualities that the ultimate God knows. LGBT are in a learning experience that you, too, must know.

  • After some thought, I realized that the Deseret News article discusses “LGBT” (as the article put it) as if it were some sort of horrible medical syndrome. The fact is, that the vast spectrum of human sexual behaviors are part of who we are. Some people want to have sex with partners of the same gender. Some people want to live life as a gender that differs from their birth gender. This spectrum is the way God made us, and it’s a beautiful thing.

    Another thing that disturbed me was the constant repetition of the innocent-sounding disclaimer “as long as they live God’s commandments”. This is code for “as long as they don’t have homosexual sex” or “as long as they don’t enter same-sex marriages”. So, we love and accept you… until you have sex with or marry a same-gender partner.

    When the Church accepts and loves everyone as God made them, the entire issue evaporates… no need for handbooks.

  • Can I just say how tired I am of the Church’s handling of homosexuality? It’s like every few weeks they fumble on this one. And they were doing better (for them) the first part of 2015.

    I’m not advocating that the Church necessarily change it’s stance towards homosexuality (though I would not mind THAT revelation so much). But if divorce can be against God’s plan and still there are times when it is given a pass (see Elder Oaks talk on divorce a few years ago) why can we not figure out how to be more opening to and understanding of our LGBT brothers and sisters?

  • My question is why do the apostles speak when they are defending their position on the policy? When there is a compassion statement it comes from a spokesman. Why is that? That seems backwards to me. One other thing along these lines-the website by the church dedicated to understanding the LGBT community has only been updates ONE time since it went online. It went up and was quickly forgotten until recently went they received backlash and presto, it was updated.

  • Although I am not Mormon, I am a believer in Christ. Over the past few years I have gradually softened my stance regarding homosexuality. These youngsters killing themselves is just too much. We must alter our attitudes and accept them with Christlike love. Condemning them to the point of suicide is just evil. This world is so harsh. All of us who profess faith in Christ must put LOVE first on our agendas or we do not have the right to call ourselves Christians.

  • What a shame that LGBT youth pay so much attention to churches and their spokesmen.

    An open minded reading of the NT will reveal many loving glimpses of ‘spiritual acceptance’ of themselves. That should lead to ‘working out your own salvation’ which no man or church can do for you.

    The Christian faith that is WITHOUT good works and chock full of all kinds of loving attitudes is dead and worthless……James 2:26. It’s also a “do it yourself” experience. There’s no other way.

    And the benefits are your enjoyment and happiness in life.

  • Leaders of the LDS Church derive their power and influence directly from obedient members.

    It’s not enough to chastise the leadership for the evil they do; shame also on every “temple worthy” Mormon who sustains them.

  • Utah is in the inter-mountain states area known as the “suicide belt.” Why there are so many suicides in this area, no one knows for sure. Utah has the _lowest_ teen suicide rate of all the inter-mountain states. Teen suicide is rising in just about every US state and in many countries. The numbers touted by many in the media, including and especially Dan Reynolds, are numbers associated with the general population and should not be attributed to solely the LDS Church.