Saturday, March 28, 2009

Coming home in a pine box

My jaw dropped open when I read this post written by Kurt, a young gay Mormon man:

I have asked Bishops if it was better for me to kill myself or live my life with a husband and they told me they didn't have the answer.

I don't know quite how to respond to this. It's a level of pastoral malpractice that borders on abuse. It renders me speechless.

It would be one thing if this were merely one isolated case of a well-meaning member of the lay clergy with no training in pastoral counseling providing harmful advice. However, it is not isolated. Kurt asked this question to more than one bishop and got the same answer.

Then there's the case of John G-W, whose near suicide was averted only with the intervention of a kindhearted Episcopalian priest. John says:

[A]t that point in my life when I was getting ready to end it all, my LDS leaders were more or less AWOL. In fact, given where I was, some of the things that were said and done by certain leaders crossed the line from being missing in action to being callous and irresponsible.
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John is a diplomatic guy. I'm not. Where do these bishops get the idea that the sobbing 18-year-old in their office should be led to believe that ending his young life by violent means is more honorable than entering into a stable and loving partnership with a life companion of the same sex?

It turns out that there is a source for this malignant idea, and the source might surprise you. Apostle Marion G. Romney reported that his father said the following to him just as he was boarding the train to go on a mission:
My son, you are going a long way from home. Your mother and I, and your brothers and sisters, will be with you constantly in our thoughts and prayers; we shall rejoice with you in your successes, and we shall sorrow with you in your disappointments. When you are released and return, we shall be glad to greet you and welcome you back into the family circle. But remember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue. (Conference Report, October 1952, pg. 34.)

Isolated quotes by General Authorities have little power on their own, unless they resonate with the underlying culture of Mormonism. This one, apparently, resonates because it has taken on a life of its own. It gets circulated frequently around LDS culture and is adapted to various new situations. At best you can consider it a dangerous, undisciplined use of hyperbole intended to provide shock value for a moral lesson; at worst, it's fully canonized theological support for honor suicides.

I recall being shocked as a young missionary when I heard a General Authority repeat Romney's anecdote in an all-hands meeting of the Missionary Training Center in Provo. A feeling of coldness that I will never forget rushed over me in that moment. I knew in my heart, although I couldn't have articulated it at that time, that they wanted me dead. My only sin at that time was homosexual orientation. I had never touched another person, of either sex, in my entire life. (Back then same-sex attraction was a sin; you would be excommunicated and shunned just for admitting the inclination.)

One of the more recent and troubling applications of this principle was when the mother of Stuart Matis, who tragically took his own life on the steps of his local LDS chapel, used it to console herself:

Although losing our son was difficult, it has been comforting to know that he was faithful to his temple covenants." (In Quiet Desperation, pg. 20).


I'm sorry, but WTF.

I should add a postscript. A little over ten years ago one of my nephews, the son of my sister, ended his life with a .22 caliber handgun he had been given as a Christmas present the year before. He was 19 and just two weeks away from starting his LDS mission. I do not know for sure that my nephew was gay. He and I never talked about it. There were enough signs (for example, no dating experiences even though he was handsome and an all-state track star) that I'm reasonably confident that gay issues were involved.

I was one of the pallbearers at the funeral, and I felt the weight of his lifeless body as we carried the casket from the hearse to the snowy, desolate grave site. I saw the look of devastation on my sister's face as she buried her son. The loss of my nephew's life has echoed through my family from that day forward. (FYI, this is not the same sister I wrote about here.)

I reject the LDS doctrine of suicide as remedy for shame. Until the Church eradicates this by public and repeated teaching to the contrary it will have blood on its hands.

Kurt, I only know you through your blog, but I am very proud that you have rejected shame and have started to walk with your head held high. I wish you well in your journey.

12 comments:

Mr. Fob said...

I'm sorry, but WTF.

That was exactly my reaction when I read that line in In Quiet Desperation. "He may be dead, but at least he didn't have sex with men." I cannot imagine thinking something like that about my children--I'd much rather they abandon every principle I believe in than feel there's no option left but to take their own life.

Kurt said...

Good post. I believe I have mentioned this to two bishops, at least to some extent. One I addressed it directly and he completely dodged the church aspect of it. He said that he doesnt think I should end my life. He avoided the church part of it. The church can oppose gay marriage, but to sit and watch homosexuals kill themselves... their hands are not clean.

Alan said...

Add me to the list of WTF opinions, that was my instant reaction when I heard this statement by Sister Matis. I'm sure she is a wonderful person in many ways, and I can think so while still disagreeing completely with her on this.

J G-W said...

That statement in In Quiet Desperation has shocked a lot of people, including my mother. I've met the Matises in person... (In a great personal irony I've commented on elsewhere, my grandfather converted Stuart's grandfather to the Church.) In Sis. Matis' defense, my impression from my conversation with her about her son's suicide was not that she felt he was better off dead. There were some who suggested that Stuart's depression was a consequence of sin, and Sis. Matis believes that Stuart never violated any covenants. I think it was that point she intended to emphasize here.

Mohohawaii -- Do you know where we can document the old policy of excommunicating gay men merely for same-sex orientation and not behavior? That was my impression of the policy too. In fact, I had a priesthood leader who explicitly stated that homosexuality was such a vile sin, that even admission of the tendency merited excommunication. My acceptance of that statement at face value was certainly a factor in my own near suicide.

But I'm trying to figure out if that was an actual, documentable policy, or if it was just a common perception among Church members.

Lisa said...

WTF indeed.

I don't think nearly enough members understand the desolation one feels. I don't think they have tried to empathize enough to understand that for many young gay men and women, suicide is the only way out. To have a general authority basically tell them this is so is disgusting.

As I see it, there would be no "struggle" without the Church's stubborn and religiously PC position. This "struggle with SSA" is all of the Church's making.

Would it be difficult outside the church? Yes, but the Church HAS to be a place where one can actually feel like a son or daughter of God and be safe and accepted.

And last I checked, taking ones own life is akin to murder which is right up there with sexual impurity.

Hmmm.

So much I wish my friends and family would read blogs like yours and others.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Mr. Fob,

Sometimes there's no other response. :- )

Hi Kurt,

I'm glad that your bishops may not have been as egregious in their counsel as I thought. However, I have heard this counsel before, for example, there was a General Authority who counseled a young gay man that it would be "better for you to have a millstone around your neck and be dropped in the Great Salt Lake" than to live as an openly gay person.

A lot of work needs to be done to eliminate this kind of language from the discourse of the Church. Good luck to you.

Hi Alan,

The choir thanks you for your comment!

Hi J G-W,

In the 1950s and 1960s excommunication was not used as a penalty for homosexual acts. This changed in the late 1960s when the General Handbook of Instructions was updated to include homosexual acts.

In 1976 the handbook changed again to become more general-- "homosexual acts" was replaced with "homosexuality", which was interpreted to include orientation as well as sex acts. This is documented, but I don't have the reference for you. The general history section of Affirmation is a good starting point.

Later (the 1980s?) the policy switched back to give amnesty to sexual orientation.

The Church's track record on gay issues, and the resulting suicide rate in gay youth, are shameful. You almost ended your life at one point over this. My personal history is similar. My nephew and countless others died needlessly.

Hi Lisa,

The doctrinal prohibition against suicide is very selectively applied, as evidenced by Kurt's experience with his bishops.

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

drakames said...

Add me to the WTF opinions too.

I think the Church can be so messed up when it comes to stuff like this. I attempted suicide twice as a teenager (which I now no longer see as an option). If I was still in that frame of mind and I went to my bishop seeking the comfort through council, and that was his answer...there's no doubt what my outcome would be.

Thank you for this post. I wish more people would read it. I wish more people could see this issue like you do.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Drakames,

Thanks for dropping by.

It's absolutely shocking how many folks report suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts when they were young gay Mormons. I'm glad you survived.

Good luck to you!

CLARK JOHNSEN said...

This is the absolute crux of the most important message I think a young gay mormon person should have: if you have a choice between leaving life or leaving the church, LEAVE THE CHURCH. I am SO infuriated that Kurt had these experiences. I CANNOT believe that these bishops don't have the foresight to understand what they are doing. It makes me boil inside with frustration and anger when I think of that part of In Quiet Desperation that you guys referred to. I felt like throwing that book out the window when I read that. Its so SKREWED UP. What can we do you guys?? How can we help to move forward the collective consciousness that doesn't see that these gay brothers and sisters who are killing themselves cannot be collateral damage?!?!!? Im so sad for those who are in that utter despair and who feel like its a better choice to end their lives. I wish there was something more I could do.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Clark,

I know you are passionate about this issue, and I am too.

Keep speaking out!

Too Hard Headed to Give Up said...

I haven't read In Quiet Desperation, but I contrast that quote with the mother in Prayers for Bobby.

In that book, Mary realized her son was dead, because of the things SHE said. (She wasn't LDS, but fundamental Christian...) She is now very involved in providing support to GLBT youth. (I strongly recommend the book and the movie.)

Original Mohomie said...

I second John's assertion that this common interpretation of Marilyn's statement is not what she intended at all. That statement in IQD is (quite understandably) misinterpreted. I hesitate to speak for her, but I've seen that she has been pained by public conjecture that her implication was that suicide was preferable to homosexual behavior.

Depressed youth have come to her, and she and Fred absolutely, unequivocally tell them that whatever they decide, suicide is simply not an option. If they used the expression "WTF", I'm confident they'd use it in response to bishops indicating suicide is better than having a same-sex partner. I have no doubt of it, and you know me: that means something. :-)