Wendy Montgomery’s son buried his best friend in July. There’s a photo Montgomery keeps close, encapsulating their grief: Her son Jordan, just 18, leads a group of men in white shirts carrying the casket. He doesn’t look tearful. He looks empty, as if the shock has drained him of feeling. Jordan bears the look of a young man who didn’t realize this could happen to him — that he could lose the boy who was not only his closest companion and confidant, but his first kiss.
Jordan’s friend’s name was Stockton. He took his own life in June. He played the guitar and loved to ski.
“Watching my son be a pallbearer for his best friend just about undid me,” Montgomery recalled over the phone.
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 same week Stockton was laid to rest, at least seven other LGBTQ youths died by suicide in central Utah, all within a 50-mile radius. Those numbers come from Mama Dragons, a support group of LGBTQ-affirming mothers who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
Montgomery, who co-founded the group three and a half years ago after her son came out, said that she receives at least 100 messages each week from other young people experiencing suicidal ideation. She told Vox that she knows of five young people who took their lives last June, who were Mormon.
“I see my son in every one of them,” she added.
In recent years, suicide has become the leading cause of death in Utah among adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17, whereas national rates of youth suicide are considerably lower. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers across the US each year. Hard data on the youth suicide rate is difficult to come by for 2016 because the year has only recently drawn to a close.
The state has struggled to understand the risk factors that contribute to this wave of tragedies. Kimberly Myers, the suicide prevention coordinator for the Utah state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, told Vox in September that the suicide rate may actually turn out to be lower than in previous years.
Andrea Hood, a suicide prevention coordinator for Utah’s Department of Health, surmises that the state’s high suicide rate speaks to the rugged, individualistic nature of Western states, where suffering can often be relegated to the shadows. Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, blames a phenomenon he’s studying called the “Utah paradox,” in which the state commonly ranks among the happiest places to live but has been known to lead the nation in antidepressant use.
But some LGBTQ advocates say there is something else putting youth at risk in the state: the LDS Church. Internal policies passed in recent years targeting queer people highlight the struggle the community faces in Utah for positive recognition.
That burden is particularly felt by LGBTQ youth and their loved ones like the Mama Dragons. Their stories illustrate the gravity of LDS doctrine, as well as what advocates argue is the crucial need for change in the church. Although it’s difficult to know how much of an influence the Mormon faith played in the deaths, they believe creating an open and affirming environment could give LDS youth the hope they so desperately need.
Some say this is the repercussion of Mormon doctrine
In November 2015, an internal document from the church was leaked three days before it was ready to be made public. The proclamation stated that parishioners in same-sex marriages would now be labeled “apostates,” a term the LDS handbook describes as members who “repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.” That triggers an automatic hearing by the disciplinary council, possibly leading to expulsion from the church.
In addition, children raised by same-sex couples — even unmarried ones — are unable to be baptized in the church until they are 18 and have moved out of their parents’ home. To receive the baptism, they must also publicly renounce same-sex unions.
After days of national outcry, Mormon Church leaders issued a statement to clarify the leaked changes in the handbook. They said children already baptized by the church can continue in the faith if a parent later enters a same-sex marriage. Those with committed or married same-sex parents are “welcome to attend Church meetings and participate in Church activities,” they wrote. “All children may receive priesthood blessings of healing and spiritual guidance.” Overall, though, the church would still operate under the belief that same-sex relationships would be “committing a sin that warrants a Church disciplinary council.”
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.
The sad truth is that we will never have a full understanding of just how many LGBTQ youths take their own lives each year. Although five states are currently in the process of changing their death certificates to list the deceased’s sexual orientation, Utah is not one of them. Such a change would impact the ability of advocates and governmental organizations to track LGBTQ suicides, and perhaps even prevent them by taking action when they see a pattern.
The problem is that Utah’s own policies don’t even recognize many of the suicides that take place. Currently, the state only formally classifies three causes of death as being the result of suicide, as Montgomery explained: “hanging, self-inflicted gunshot wound, and poisoning.” These limited definitions don’t include scenarios like jumping off a bridge or intentionally crashing your car, both of which are classified as “accidental death.”
Growing up Mormon and LGBTQ
John Gustav-Wrathall is the president of Affirmation, a group of LGBTQ Mormons, families, and friends pushing for inclusion in the church. Gustav-Wrathall said over the phone that he advocates for greater compassion and understanding because the issue of suicide is personal for him.
“I was born in the church,” he said. “My dad was a fifth-generation Mormon, which means that on my dad’s side, there have been Mormons as long as there has been Mormonism.”
When Gustav-Wrathall was a teenager, he became plagued by a feeling of difference, as if something unnameable separated him from the other members of his congregation. Having started to connect the dots, he looked up the word “homosexual” in the dictionary one day. After enrolling at Brigham Young University, the largest Mormon-affiliated college in the world, he became depressed and suicidal as the realization continued to plague him.
Gustav-Wrathall said he felt increasingly hopeless, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to openly about what he was going through.
“I had friends who were gay at BYU,” he said. “We never really talked about it. We were all struggling and miserable. At the end of my junior year, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t take this anymore and I wanted it to end.”
Robbie Pierce, who also went to BYU, said he also understands how difficult it can be to be gay and Mormon. After all, growing up is hard enough as it is.
Pierce, a writer for the LGBTQ magazine the Advocate, said he realized he was gay when he was 12. His parents, who lived in California at the time, practice an extremely orthodox version of Mormonism — Pierce didn’t have his first sip of coffee until he was 33. His parents also told him that having gay children would be one of the worst possible things that could happen to their family.
“I kept it hidden for a long time and felt an immense shame and guilt about it,” Pierce said in a phone interview.
Pierce came out to his parents many times. The first time, he told his mother that he was “same-sex attracted,” but his plan was to remain in the Church. The next time, Pierce further explained that he would not be dating women, instead upholding a vow of celibacy to keep from being excommunicated. But the final coming out he remembers being the hardest: When Pierce was 30, he told his mother he would be leaving the faith in order to pursue same-sex relationships.
“The idea of my being Mormon and gay was fine,” he said. “But the idea of my not being Mormon anymore was the struggle. My mom’s vision for me was just to go to the celestial kingdom when I die so we could all be together as a family. It’s been rocked.”
How Mormons’ beliefs about the afterlife drive views on sexual identity
In the Mormon faith, there are three tiers of heaven, also referred to as the “degrees of glory.” The highest is the celestial kingdom, which is structured around the family. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that when the righteous and faithful die, they will be reunited with their families in the uppermost tier of heaven, parents sealed with their children for all eternity. These families are given their own kingdom to rule over, a new world of their own making to repopulate.
“They will essentially become gods,” Pierce said.
Below the celestial kingdom are two lower levels of heaven: the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms, respectively. The middle tier is open to non-Mormons who accept the gospel of Jesus Christ in the afterlife, as well as Mormons who were “blinded by the craftiness of men,” as 76:75 of the Doctrine and Covenants states. The latter are essentially good and noble yet led astray by mortal temptations.
The telestial kingdom is left to the “liars,” “adulterers,” “whoremongers,” and “sorcerers,” as 76:103 reads, who shall not “be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work.”
The latter is where LGBTQ people, depending on one’s interpretation, might find themselves after death — at the very best. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has previously referred to same-sex marriage as “a particularly grievous or significant serious kind of sin.” Such comments from the governing body of the LDS Church suggest that LGBTQ people could then be “cast out” into what’s known as outer darkness. Although it’s commonly synonymous with the Christian concept of hell, it’s more akin to a total separation from not only God but your loved ones.
As Pierce explains, Mormon doctrine isn’t clear on the subject.
But the message that you will be “exiled from [your] family for time and all eternity” can have a devastating impact on LGBTQ youth, according to Troy Williams of Equality Utah. “The threat of that eternal expulsion from your family can do immense psychological damage to a questioning child,” said Williams, who serves as the LGBTQ advocacy group’s executive director.
The dangers of isolation
What exacerbates this harm is a theme that often came up in interviews: the isolation that LGBTQ youth experience, both in the church and in their local communities. Many children fear coming out to their parents, afraid they will be kicked out of their homes. Statistics from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California Los Angeles, estimate that as much as 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ nationwide.
Marian Edmonds-Allen, the executive director of Parity, an LGBTQ faith organization, claimed that on the surface, the numbers in Utah would appear to match those estimates. Many youth in the state, however, may not outwardly identify as queer, afraid of further bias. That means these numbers could be considerably higher.
It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of the LDS Church on every aspect of life in Utah — from churches and families to schools. About 60 percent of the population identifies as Mormon, and more than 80 percent of state legislators are also members of the LDS church. Although Utah became the first Republican-controlled state to pass a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015, a bill that passed with the church’s blessing, there are extremely few supports in place for LGBTQ youth across the state.
Until this month, Utah was one of eight states with “No Promo Homo” laws on the books that bar faculty from discussing issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity in K-12 schools. In 1995, a group of students applied to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at East High School in Salt Lake City. To keep the club from forming, the district decided to ban all extracurricular student groups. That decision was later overturned in 2000 following a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, and at least 30 schools across the state were allowed to establish GSAs on school grounds.
But generally, because educators had been legally barred from discussing LGBTQ issues, it can be difficult to counsel students, and many young people find themselves without GSAs at their schools to discuss difficulties they may be experiencing.
Edmonds-Allen said that most of the resources for LGBTQ youth are concentrated in Salt Lake City, an oasis for the state’s queer population. The city has a lesbian mayor and two out city council members. Harvey Milk Boulevard, which was renamed in honor of the famed gay rights activist last year, stretches 20 blocks in the city center. But outside of Salt Lake, there’s just one homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth. Located in Ogden, the shelter is 40 miles north of the capital and has just 14 beds.
That leaves many youth with nowhere to go and extremely vulnerable.
“If there is a homeless youth that is not in Salt Lake and not in Ogden,” Allen said, “what they need to do is to figure out if they know about those resources, and then if they do, how to get there.”
The weight of silence
The isolation LGBTQ often experience — alienated from their families, peer groups, and communities — can have grave consequences. Rebecca Stuart, who lives in Riverton, Utah, said that a year after her daughter, Amelia, came out to her parents as a lesbian, the 16-year-old posted about it on Facebook. As Stuart remembers, the reaction from her friends on social media was “like crickets.” The lack of response was crushing.
“The silence speaks a lot louder than someone saying something,” Stuart said. “People don’t clap and cheer very often.”
Stuart, who says she knew her daughter was a lesbian since Amelia was 3 years old, supported Amelia throughout the coming-out process. There was one question, however, Stuart struggled with: “How can God love my daughter when he created her like this?” If she had to choose between her faith and her family, there was only one answer. Stuart decided then to leave the church.
Despite her mother’s support, Amelia continued to struggle in school. She felt like an outcast, as if she didn’t fit into their predominantly Mormon town. Riverton, a suburb of Salt Lake, is the kind of place people often describe as a nice place to raise your children — clean and friendly. Its good schools and perfectly mowed lawns are set against the astoundingly beautiful backdrop of the vast mountainscape, a horizon fit for a postcard.
But as Stuart explained, that beauty can be deceptive.
“One of the things about Utah is that the culture here is a culture of perfection, based on what the teachings are in the church,” she said. “If you live righteously, you’re not supposed to be sad. Your life is supposed to be successful and happy. They equate any kind of struggle or misfortune as if there must be something that you’re doing wrong. You’re not praying enough or reading your scriptures.”
As her feelings of depression rapidly spiraled out of control, Amelia attempted suicide in 2014. While Stuart sat with her daughter in the hospital, she was ready to say goodbye. “I was ready to accept that she was gone,” she said.
Although many of the other members of her church didn’t understand what her family was going through, Stuart joined the Mama Dragons to help her cope. In addition to providing support for mothers who have lost LGBTQ children to suicide, members of the group often provide shelter and community for youth. Debra Coe lives in Lehi, a small suburb of Salt Lake, where she hosts a weekly “queer Sunday family dinner” at her home. Although the gathering is usually attended by students from nearby colleges, the meal is open to all.
Pushing the church to change
Julie Packer, whose son took his own life in 2015, said it was the Mama Dragons that helped her through a difficult time.
A week before her son’s passing, she found the organization on Facebook and asked members of the group to keep her family in their prayers. Battling drug addiction, her son had relapsed a number of times, and Packer held out hope this time would be different. Her son was starting college. He was excited about his classes. At his funeral, as he was being laid to rest, five Mama Dragons showed up and sat with Packer. She was taken aback by their generosity. She had never met these women, let alone had a conversation with them.
“Out of the people who were there, those were the most important to me,” she explained.
Packer, who is currently the president-elect of the Mama Dragons, pulled away from the LDS Church for a few years following her son’s death. She stayed, though, because she believes the church is worth fighting for. Although church leaders remain decades behind on acceptance, Packer said churchgoers have “becoming more informed, more tolerant, and more loving” in recent years. Many of the members of her church also have LGBTQ children.
There are some signs of improvement from the church, if small. In November, the LDS Church revamped its website addressing LGBTQ issues. Prior to the update, it was called “Mormons and Gays,” which suggested that the two groups are separate and discrete. Its header now reads “Mormon and Gay,” advertising the fact that many LGBTQ people will choose to remain among the faithful. The first message on the church’s site broadcasts a shift toward inclusion: “God Loveth His Children.”
In a statement, Eric Hawkins, a spokesperson for the LDS Church, stressed love and compassion for LGBTQ youth, saying that the church “[mourns] with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope.”
“Each congregation should welcome everyone,” Hawkins said. “Leaders and members are taught to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to reach out in an active, caring way to all, especially to youth who feel estranged or isolated. 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.”
What’s holding back the church?
Despite the progress the church has made, Packer said the hierarchy will continue to hold back the culture. While it’s not in scripture, she explained that many church leaders continue to preach that LGBTQ youth will be “made whole” when they finally reach the telestial kingdom in the afterlife. God will make them straight.
“They have no idea the kind of damage that kind of thinking does,” Packer said.
The LDS Church recently filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of rolling back protections for transgender students, a statement written in conjunction with the National Association of Evangelicals and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. That brief was filed in regards to G.G. v. Gloucester, a case that was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court until it was sent back down to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month. The case concerns Gavin Grimm, a trans high school student in Virginia, who sued his school district to be allowed to use the bathroom that most closely matched his gender identity.
Hawkins told the Deseret News, the church’s official newspaper, that coming out against protections for students like Grimm doesn’t signal a change in policy by Mormon leaders. Instead the amicus brief is a “restatement” of the religion’s beliefs.
For many, 2017 is already feeling like déjà vu all over again. Montgomery said that in Arizona, she recently visited three families who sat with their LGBTQ loved ones in the hospital following suicide attempts — all within the same week. Two of the survivors were adults, one a child. “My heart feels like it’s in shreds,” she said. “I want to grab a megaphone and shout from street corners. I have a front-row seat to all of it, and I cannot handle this.”
While advocates attempt to make the Mormon Church safer for LGBTQ youth, Montgomery argued that the time for soul searching is now — in order to prevent another year of tragedy.
“We can never say that all of these suicides we can definitively lay at the LDS Church’s feet,” she said. “But if we know that the church is, even in part, culpable, what does that mean about the men who are leading the church? Or the people who are following unquestionably? This is why the church needs to change and get better. Our children are dying.”
Nico Lang is a national LGBT reporter and a contributor at the L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Salon, and Harper's Bazaar.
Correction: The article previously stated that suicide claims the lives of 11 percent of teenagers in the US each year. The statistic was incorrect, and has been changed.
Note: LGBTQ youth in need of support can contact the Trevor Project's Trevor Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. Trans people struggling with thoughts of suicide can reach TransLifeline 24 hours a day at (877) 565-8860 in the US and (877) 330-6366 in Canada. People of all identities struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time by calling 1-800-273-8255.