Salt Lake City -- 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, bixsexual 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 gay and lesbian 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 a national furor over a series of suicides by young gay men, including a Rutgers University first-year student who jumped to his death off New York’s George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him during a “sexual encounter” 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 gays and lesbian 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.
Mormon church officials take issue with the characterizations made by gay rights activists.
“It is disappointing when some try to use an emotional issue such as suicide to misrepresent the role of the church in the lives of its members,” said Mormon church spokesperson Kim Farah, in response to Ethington.
“The causes of suicide are many and complex and touch many levels of society. No one understands what ultimately leads someone to take this action but all can agree that even one loss of life is a tragedy.”
Ethington led some 4,500 black-clad activists in a silent protest of Packer’s sermon outside the church’s downtown Salt Lake City headquarters.
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay civil rights organization, lobbied the church for a retraction of what it called inaccurate and hurtful remarks in a petition signed by 150,000 of its members and supporters. Some critics said Packer’s words were dangerous in light of at least four known September suicides by young men across the country, following reported incidents of anti-gay bullying.
In a rare response, church leaders called the deaths tragic and said the faith joins others “in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty, or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different.”
Speaking on behalf of church leaders, spokesman Michael Otterson also said “each Latter-day Saint family and individual should carefully reconsider whether their attitudes and actions toward others properly reflect Jesus Christ’s second great commandment — to love one another.”
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 int00 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 gay marriage 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.
“Their struggle is our struggle,” said Otterson.
Some activists have expressed cautious appreciation for the church’s statement. Others say it does little to ease the sting of Packer’s words.
“We’ve all been to so many funerals. If they’re serious about stopping the rash of suicides so prevalent within their religion, they need to be taking a more active stance against preventing that harm,” Ethington said.
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 lesbian, gay and transgender youth. Utah’s suicide rates — 34.5 suicide deaths for every 100,000 persons in 2008 — are among the highest in the U.S., particularly among young men between the ages of 18 and 24.
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