This article was originally published in print on May 13.
Content Warning: This article discusses suicide, and has a brief mention of sexual assault.
“Continuing revelation from God.” That is what the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cited when reversing the controversial November 2015 policy which prohibited the baptism of children of LGBTQ parents and labeled faithful LGBTQ church members “apostates.” However simple an explanation, when President Dallin H. Oaks made this announcement, he forgot to mention the devastating impacts of this policy: the state’s increased suicide rate, the reinforcement of bigotry and fear within the Latter-day Saint community and the hundreds of Latter-day Saints who resigned or lost their membership over this policy. By ignoring these consequences and instead choosing to remind members that “policy isn’t doctrine” during this revocation, church leadership has quietly skirted accountability for the pain inflicted by the anti-LGBTQ policy they enacted.
In Utah, the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 14 and 21 is suicide. Anecdotally, it is known that after the church announced the anti-LGBTQ policy in November 2015, even more young lives were lost. While some researchers like Justin Dyer claim there just is not enough data to connect the church with the state’s ever-increasing suicide rate, the correlation is not far-fetched when considering the church’s stance towards same-sex attraction. Experiencing same-sex attraction is no longer considered a sin in the Latter-day Saint faith, but acting on such attraction can not only result in a loss of membership, but may even cost an individual their eternal family. This is compounded by the inconsistency of enforcement within lower-level leadership — some bishops consider a formal same-sex relationship to be the line in the sand, whereas others recommend discipline for holding hands or kissing, acts that are not usually disciplined in opposite-sex relationships.
Considering the severity of the consequence for their sexuality, young LGBTQ members may begin to believe that their only chance at salvation is by choosing to end their own lives — in their religion, suicide has little impact on their eternal standing. Even though previous church documents established the church’s position that “marriage [is] between a man and a woman” prior to the November 2015 policy, this policy singled out LGBTQ members to label and isolate them from their religious community. Research shows that social isolation is one of the main risk factors associated with suicidal outcomes.
The November 2015 policy has also rewarded a culture of bigotry and fear in the broader, diverse Latter-day Saint community which extends the devastation of LGBTQ members’ lives outside of church meeting houses. Singling out this community reinforces a sense of otherness and distance toward LGBTQ people. It also creates greater opportunity for abuse. A former BYU student anonymously shared their experience on the Honor Code Stories Instagram page which read in part, “I’m gay … I was raped and blackmailed; I was told if I didn’t have sex I would be reported to the Honor Code Office and outed … the language [in the Honor Code] around sexuality is still really ambiguous … I thought that I would be kicked out.” Sadly, this story is not unique to BYU or the larger community, and many similar, painful stories have been featured on social media. By raising the consequences of being gay and “acting on it” for members, this policy has allowed predators to weaponize individuals’ sexuality to abuse them.
Mark Naugle is a Utah attorney who has helped over 10,000 members of the church resign their membership since 2009. Prior to November 2015, Naugle had only filed 375 resignations. In the week following the new publicly announced anti-LGBTQ policy, Naugle says he received about one resignation request per minute from members around the world — believers who could not reconcile the new policy with their own faith. One woman who submitted her resignation commented on the mass exodus of faithful members, “I think there’s a real misconception on the part of [still] active members that those who are leaving … weren’t believers anyway. The opposite is the truth.” Church membership numbers similarly decreased as married gay members faced church discipline and excommunication based on their sexuality regardless of their spirituality.
Dan Reynolds, frontman of Imagine Dragons and founder of Utah’s LoveLoud music festival for LGBTQ youth, tweeted in response to the announcement of the policy change: “Progress doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in small steps. Today we are one step closer.” However, calling this reversal “progress” seems too generous. While it is important that this policy was reversed, the three and a half years the policy was enforced will have lasting impacts. The fact that it was enacted in the first place, seemingly in response to increasing equality for the LGBTQ community, sends a message. Tyler Glenn, an openly gay former member of the church, pleaded with people in the wake of the reversal: “Don’t forget the lives that were lost to suicide, the pain this policy caused in so many families.” An independent study found more than 70% of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints suffer from PTSD from attending church where their sexuality was regularly demonized.
And as of yet, there has been no announcement on if and how the church plans to reinstate the membership of LGBTQ members excommunicated under the policy. Church leaders need to be held accountable for the grief caused by this incomplete revelation, but if the men responsible do not face any consequences, perhaps there is comfort in knowing “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”