Being raised in a home of Orthodox Faith had its pros and cons for me. My parents raised me in the faith that they truly believed would lead to me having my best life (and afterlife) – Mormonism. Being a Mormon is not a part time religion. It is your life. You eat sleep and breathe Mormonism. I attended church every Sunday, went to “Young Mens” once a week to learn about God as well as an evening of Scouting. When I got to high school I also woke up at 5 a.m. every morning to attend a church education class before school started five days a week. Mormonism truly was a part of my every decision since the day I was born.
It taught me to serve others and to feel comfort about the next life. Who doesn’t want to live for eternity and have a “mansion in heaven”? It sounded like a rad deal to me when I was in my teenage years. I wanted desperately to believe it all, but often found myself conflicted. I wrote about it in songs since the age of 14. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents though, so I often hid the meanings of my lyrics in metaphors that I thought I only understood. I shared the songs with my dad, always fearful that he would see through my lyrics and know that his son was very doubtful of the faith that meant so very much to him.
In junior high, I met Casey. He was Mormon and an incredibly talented singer. I remember being in sixth grade and hearing people call him gay behind his back, laughing and mocking him. He didn’t talk about his sexuality openly, as I’m sure he felt completely unsafe to do so, especially as a Mormon, since the church teaches to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” While this sounds like a good principle to many, it actually is a cloak and dagger suggestion. Mormon LGBTQ youth are told there is place for them within the church, however they must either practice celibacy, lie about their sexual practices in probing interviews with church leaders, enter into a mixed orientation marriage (marrying outside your sexual preference), or tell the truth about their sexual practices and face church discipline and excommunication.
So Casey didn’t feel like he had much a choice but to hide his sexuality. He went to dances with girls and projected to everyone around him that he was heterosexual. He was a devout Mormon that loved his faith and practiced it strictly. No drinking. No premarital sex. No swearing. No coffee. He was a picture-perfect Mormon, however he was holding on to a secret. Casey was one of the most gentle and loving individuals I had ever met. I desperately wanted to tell him that I knew that if there was a god that was indeed loving and worth following, that god would certainly be all for him being gay. I wanted him to know that he was safe to confide in me – though I never expressed it to him because, well, I was afraid and conflicted about what I was being taught at church.
I was not an ally to Casey when he needed me. I didn’t ridicule him, but I didn’t wrap my arms around him and tell him I loved him and that he was perfect just the way he was. I regret that even today.
Casey went on to serve a Mormon mission and didn’t come out until after his mission when he was in his twenties. I watched him face an onslaught of people not accepting him. Some did eventually, but I can’t imagine what he went through and how hard it was for him to live a life compartmentalizing and feeling needless guilt.
I also served a Mormon mission in Omaha Nebraska, with Tyler Glenn, who is now the lead singer of Neon Trees. He had a similar story to Casey. He lived a life hiding his sexuality and ended up coming out at 30 in a Rolling Stone interview. He lived with a lifetime of guilt and shame from what he was being taught at Sunday school. He also was a devout Mormon his entire life. He wanted to believe more than maybe any Mormon I’ve ever met. He wanted it with all his heart. However, there was no safe place for him within the community that he loved so dearly. Tyler ended up leaving the church and having an onslaught of judgment thrown at him from his very own community merely because he expressed the hurt he had dealt with for a lifetime.
Orthodox faith is contributing to increased suicide rates, depression and anxiety for our LGBTQ youth. This isn’t something up for debate. The statistics are staggering. Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to take their lives when not accepted in their home or community. How can they feel accepted when they are being taught that their innate sense of being is flawed? When they are told that something that is unchangeable should be changed? It is not the altitude in Utah that is leading to the increasing suicide rates in Utah, as some argue. The altitude hasn’t changed, however the suicide rate in Utah has been increasing exponentially.
I am still Mormon: I love many of the teachings and practices. I love the family values. Do I know there is a God? Some days I don’t. Do I believe Mormonism is the single and ultimate truth? No. Do I think all Mormons are bigots? No. We are generally good people that want others to feel loved and accepted, but we are broken and following a teaching that is literally killing our youth. We cannot continue down this path. Every month that goes by, we are losing LGBTQ youth to suicide. They do not feel accepted. To those who think the answer is simply for the youth to leave the faith, you are not educated on the matter. It is not safe to tell a teenager to do something that could potentially get them kicked out of the house or put them at higher risk within the community they are in. This could lead to even higher suicide rates. We need to foster a community that is safer for them until they are old enough to make decisions for themselves and if needed, move to find a safer space with a circle of people that love and accept them for who they are.
This is what Believer documents and this is why I created LoveLoud, an annual festival in Utah that is specifically for our LGBTQ youth to attend, feel loved and accepted. It was not easy creating a festival in Provo, Utah but, as you can see in the film, it was necessary and created a safe haven for families with LGBTQ adolescents. All the proceeds raised are distributed to grassroots charities – the Trevor Project, the Tegan and Sara Foundation, Encircle and others – that provide lifesaving services to our LGBTQ youth. LoveLoud isn’t just for the youth, but also their families and friends. They can attend and become educated on how to truly love and accept our LGBTQ youth. What does that entail? It means that you fully accept their sexuality and even celebrate their love in the same way that you celebrate your heterosexuality. We are excited to hear their stories of love and heartbreak at the dinner table. We should make it such a normal part of our lives and communities – so that one day our youth won’t even need to feel the need to “come out.” It shouldn’t be stigmatized as something that is even a “thing” that requires special discussion. Our LGBTQ youth are tired of explaining themselves and they are at risk. We cannot stand by for one more day and let them feel like they are “sinful” or “flawed.”
To our LGBTQ youth, especially those who are within the walls of an orthodox faith, I love you and accept you. I will fight to be a true ally for you, an ally that I wish I would have been for Casey and Tyler when they needed it. If the leaders won’t change the doctrine, then I will fight to change the culture. We as Mormons, or people of faith, cannot stand by for one more day and support these harmful teachings that are literally killing our youth. That is not Godly. That is not love.
As a heterosexual white man of privilege, I promise to do all I can to change my broken community, for truly we are broken. The number one reason for death among teenagers in Utah is suicide. This is not my opinion. That is a fact. I have been given a platform from God, or the universe or maybe just by chance, and I intend to use it to help create change. I will not apologize for speaking my truth. I hope you speak your truth with the platform you have been given.
To the people of orthodox faith that believe being gay is a sin when practiced upon, I hope you feel my heart. I hope you know that I respect your faith, but I cannot stand by and sit with one more parent as they weep and confide in me that they lost a child to suicide because they were LGBTQ and could not find acceptance within their community of faith. We must be better. We have to be better. If our leaders won’t change, we must change. We must Loveloud.
Believer, produced by Live Nation Productions, premieres on HBO on June 25th.