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Suicide Prevention & Awareness    Award-Winning Essays   

A Witness Sealed with Blood: Gay Mormon Suicides and the Politics of Silence

Hugo Salinas
October 2001

This paper includes some personal reflections about the gay Mormon suicides that I have recently researched for Affirmation. Even though I struggle much with this issue, I believe it is crucial that we talk about it. The expression "the politics of silence" comes from an essay by Paul Monette in which he talks about the importance of coming out and fighting censorship. "Some of the people who hate us so much think we're out to indoctrinate their children," writes Monette in his essay. "Frankly, we're trying to save their children from suicide." I'm not sure if Monette realized then how prophetic his words are for the Mormon community.

It seems to me that all of us are caught between our fears of talking about this horrific crisis and our desperation to do something about it. The current epidemic of gay Mormon suicides is a terrible act of injustice. And yet I feel that suicide is an extremely complex issue, and that I am in no condition to assess how different factors may have influenced the decisions these gay Mormons made. Moreover, even though I realize that there is a potential to claim these people as martyrs--victims of homophobia who have "sealed their witness with their blood," I don't feel comfortable calling them martyrs or playing up the sad circumstances of their deaths.

Most of all, this paper is about my own struggle with the politics of silence. I struggle with the politics of silence because on the one hand I believe that individuals should have the right to privacy, and yet I am outraged when I see how institutions use privacy as their excuse to avoid accountability or to distort the truth. Perhaps I can illustrate this point with a story that I recently researched in the news. In 1988, Gordon Ray Church, a gay Mormon who was a student at Southern Utah State College, was tortured and killed by two ex-convicts. It was the most heinous homicide in Utah's history, a hate crime similar to the murdering of Matthew Shepard, and yet no one at that time dared to divulge the true nature of the crime. "The killing was at least partly sex-related," vaguely hinted The Salt Lake Tribune. A Millard County judge placed a gag order and sealed all the court documents, in part because of the brutality of the crime and the fact that it involved a prominent family from Delta. When the trial finally opened and Gordon Church's gayness became a matter of public record, no one characterized the homicide as a hate crime. It wasn't till 1994 that a Salt Lake Tribune reader finally dared to tell the truth in a letter to the editor. "I wondered why The Tribune suggested that [Archuleta's] motive for torturing and killing Gordon Church was because Church was a Southern Utah University student who frequented a Cedar City convenience store," he wrote. "So much for accuracy in the media... [Michel Archuleta and Lance Wood] didn't [kill Church] because Church was a student or because he was at a quick stop. They did this because they perceived him to be gay. It's too bad that The Tribune can't bring itself to print the truth about one of the most heinous homophobic murders in U.S. history." It took The Salt Lake Tribune twelve years to debunk the politics of silence.

I also struggle with the politics of silence because on the one hand I am committed to truth and knowledge, and yet I recognize that I don't always live up to my lofty ideals. In March 2000, when four gay Mormons killed themselves in four weeks, I sent a nervous message to the webmaster of the Affirmation site. "Is it wise to talk about gay Mormon suicides in the Affirmation website?" I asked him. "Isn't there a danger of inspiring more copycats?" My concern about copycats was well-intentioned, and yet my message was condescending. The politics of silence are based upon this very idea-the idea that I can handle the truth, but you cannot. No matter how well-intentioned, today I feel that there is a far greater danger when we side with the politics of silence.

There is also a profound irony in connection with all these gay Mormon suicides and the politics of silence. By ending their lives, all these gay Mormons chose silence, and yet at the same time they sent a compelling message about the overwhelming challenges they were facing. Some of them even made explicit statements about their personal turmoil. "I implore the students at BYU to re-assess their homophobic feelings," wrote Stuart Matis in The Daily Universe shortly before committing suicide. "Seek to understand first before you make comments. We have the same needs as you. We desire to love and be loved. We desire to live our lives with happiness. We are not a threat to you or your families." My friend DJ Thompson was even more explicit in his suicide note: ""It is unfortunate that the lives of good people such as Stuart Matis, Matthew Shephard, and many others go unnoticed," he wrote. "I see Proposition 22 as the last straw in my life-long battle to see peace in the world I live in."

Last May, when we started to hear stories about gay Mormon suicides, the Wasatch Chapter of Affirmation helped organize a memorial service at St. Mark's Cathedral, and Duane Jennings started to use the slogan, "No more deaths, no more silence." Many of the same people who had helped put together a memorial service when Matthew Shepard died were also involved in this service. Allison Bingham spoke on behalf of Affirmation Youth Services, and I gave a brief eulogy for my friend DJ Thompson. About a year later, Scott MacKay asked me to help put together a memorial page on the Affirmation website. I accepted the challenge in part as a tribute to DJ. I spent the next few weeks reading and documenting some of the saddest stories you can imagine. A 25-year-old Washington lobbyist jumps off a freeway bridge. A BYU professor leaves his wife and children as if going to work, but instead pulls off the freeway and shoots himself in the heart. A 33-year-old active Mormon burns all the letters from his lover and hangs himself in his own home. My goal was to document every single instance to the best of my abilities, to be as thorough and accurate as one possibly could, and yet once and again my task was hindered by the politics of silence. Sometimes the families of gay Mormon suicides refuse to publish an obituary notice. Sometimes they lie about the cause of death and, in some cases, they don't even know that their sons and brothers were gay. "We can use the first name," I was told by a young gay Mormon from Las Vegas who helped me with a story, "but not the last name. To this day his family doesn't know that he committed suicide because he was gay."

And in the process of finding out these stories, I too became an accomplice in the politics of silence. For one thing, I never directly contacted any of the families. Instead I spent endless hours at the Marriott Library, reading thousands of obituary notices. I visited many cemeteries along the Wasatch Front, taking pictures of every gay Mormon suicide grave I could find. I researched the records of the LDS Church. I searched high school yearbooks. And I used a network of gay-friendly people whom I contacted by email, by phone, and in person.

I also became an accomplice in the politics of silence because I learned to introduce myself according to the audience. "I'm writing a biographical sketch on so-and-so, and I was wondering if I could get a copy of his picture from one of your yearbooks," I told some. "I'm doing family history," I told others. "I'm doing research on Utah suicides," I told yet others, carefully avoiding the words gay and Mormon. I learned that lesson as I tried to contact the owner of a gay bar in Salt Lake City. "My boss hates religion," one of his employees told me when I explained to him my association with Affirmation. "You can leave a message, but I doubt he'll reply." The employee was right-the man never called me back.

In the end, I came up with information about more than 20 people who took their lives. They were all Mormons, and they were all struggling to reconcile their beliefs with their sexuality. I don't claim to understand all the circumstances that lead them to suicide, but I think that Robert McQueen was right in his analysis of the deaths of 1965. "My friends from 1965 were good people," he wrote in The Advocate. "They wanted to be better people, but they believed in their church more than they believed in themselves. When their church rejected them because they were gay, it destroyed them. I doubt the Mormon Church will ever accept even a portion of the blame."

Today I'm more convinced than ever that we need to debunk forever the politics of silence. It's not shameful to take one's own life, but it is shameful to ignore the fact that these suicides are occurring. It is shameful that we are endorsing these suicides with our silence, or fueling more with further messages of hate and intolerance.

"If you destroy the record, you destroy the truth," says Paul Monette. We need to preserve and tell the stories of all these gay Mormon suicides, not because they are exemplary, but because they are compelling. They are indicative of a health crisis in our midst. This crisis is not triggered by a virus, but it is certainly fueled by messages of hate and bigotry. We need to preserve and tell these stories, because just like many other diseases, this crisis thrives in ignorance. For every case of a gay Mormon suicide that we have documented, there are many whose names we may never know, because the details have been hidden by the politics of silence. And for every Mormon who has taken his or her life, there are many who already feel dead, because they can't reconcile their lives with the messages they hear at home, at school, and in church. We need to preserve and tell these stories to show what should never have happened. We need to preserve and tell these stories because admitting that they occurred is the first step toward changing reality. We need to preserve and tell these stories because if we don't do it, nobody will.

For those of you who feel depressed, bitter, or overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety, my message is simple: Don't be an accomplice in the politics of silence. Speak up. There is help available. You are not alone. Thousands of gay and lesbian Mormons have been through the same turmoil, and most of them have survived and prospered. This can also happen to you. Accept yourself as you are and find the courage to talk with someone you trust.

For those of you who are youth advisors or teachers in schools and in the church, my message is simple: Never ridicule a young girl who cannot follow your model of femininity. Never make fun of a boy who doesn't fit your expectations of masculinity. Never teach the youth that a heterosexual marriage in the temple is the royal road to happiness. Never teach that homosexuals would be better off dead. Never teach that God sends AIDS upon gay men to punish them as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

For bishops and other stakes leaders, my message is simple: Do not believe that you understand what it means to be gay or lesbian. Never threat a troubled soul with discipline or with excommunication. More importantly, never recommend to anyone a "treatment" that is unethical, unscientific, or unrealistic. Many of the gay Mormons who have taken their lives did so after being the victims of these "treatments."

For the general authorities of the Church, my message is simple: Stop doing politics in the name of heterosexual morality. Stop dividing families in the name of decency. Stop excommunicating homosexuals in the name of theology. The Mormon promotion of anti-gay laws has not decreased the rates of divorce and infidelity--it has increased the rate of Mormon suicides. These are not smart moves for a Church that claims to be embarked on the mission of promoting religious and cultural tolerance. I do not believe in blaming the deaths of my friends and brothers solely on the Church's intolerance, but every time Church leaders call homosexuality a perversion, every time they promote anti-gay laws, ever time they call our gay youth to repentance, they contribute to the self-hate and anxiety that are leading so many of our people to take their own lives.

Some extraordinary things take place every time a parent or a sibling has the courage to resist the politics of silence. My first example of this comes from the Matis family. In March 2000, after the suicide of Stuart, his brother Bill sent a letter to The Daily Universe. Part of the letter reads, "To those who feel that my brother was no better than a murderer or an adulterer, I would like to say that the murderer and adulterer choose to be what they are. My brother didn't choose to be homosexual any more than you or I chose the color of our skin. Many who knew him say that he was one of the most Christ-like people they had ever met. He was a son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin and true friend."

My second example comes from David and Carlie Hardy, who are the parents of a gay son. One evening in 1997, while their son agonized over a Seminary lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah, their stake president reassured the mother, "If we just keep it quiet... it will all be just fine, trust me . . ." That same evening this son slit his wrists in his room at home. Fortunately the son survived. And even though their stake president wanted them to "keep it quiet," the Hardys refused to be accomplices in the politics of silence. They went public with their son's story and, in the process, they became powerful advocates against intolerance and homophobia, touching the lives of many people.

We all must find something to do, some way to resist and debunk the politics of silence. For some of us, resistance will mean coming out to our friends, to our family, or to ourselves. For others, it will mean raising our hand in Sunday School every time we hear the rhetoric of intolerance and homophobia. For others, it will mean going public with our stories, participating in public forums, and sending letters to the editor.

After having read the stories of all these people, after having documented their lives and visited their graves, I still don't know if all these gay Mormon suicides are martyrs or even heroes, but I do know that they are witnesses. Their lives testify to a pain and sorrow that we cannot comprehend. Their deaths speak of a health crisis that we must stop.

"I've learned in my adult life that the will to silence the truth is always and everywhere as strong as the truth itself," writes Paul Monette. "So it is a necessary fight we will always be in: those of us who struggle to understand our common truths, and those who try to erase them." The task that our Mormon community faces is daunting, but a single step will start moving us in the right direction. Let's move from denial to acceptance, from ignorance to tolerance, from fear to dialogue. No more deaths, no more silence.