- Kim Raff
- Kathy Carlston, left, embraces wife Berta Marquez, who worked as an advocate for the church and the LGBTQ community, before taking her life in 2018.
When I was a student at Brigham Young University, I thought it was a coincidence that I befriended suicidal students. Three of my close friends confided their suicidal intentions to me, and I spent evenings talking to them, trying to help them feel hope; trying to keep them safe. In each case, it took at least a year of friendship before they confided a further secret: Each of these three women was queer. I was still at BYU when I survived my own suicide attempt in the winter of 2012. I had realized I was queer myself and found my conflicting identities unbearable. In Utah, family and religion frequently tell queer folk that we're sinning, but that we won't have our sinful urges after we die. For a while, my life plan was to retain the Mormon beliefs I had loved since childhood, while remaining celibate and holding out for a straight afterlife, where God would "fix" my sexuality.
For decades, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has enforced policies that harm queer Mormons. This April, when one policy was repealed, it made headlines. The 2015 proclamation had called people in same-sex marriages apostates—people who renounce their faith—and banned our children from baptism. But the church's homophobia remains. Even the language around the repeal includes beliefs that contribute to queer suicides. Repealing this policy is a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough.
It falls short because it reinforces, rather than reverses, anti-queer rhetoric. In a news release, church leader President Dallin H. Oaks says that "while we cannot change the Lord's doctrine, we want our members and our policies to be considerate of those struggling with the challenges of mortality." Mormon theology believes a "challenge of mortality" is limited to earth life and ceases after death. Such rhetoric is dangerous for trans and queer Mormons, who are often taught that death will remove these "challenges" that alienate us from our families and communities. Until leaders stop calling our sexuality an aberration that will be cured after death, queer Mormons will need help seeing ourselves positively.
It is not enough to say that I, a woman married to another woman, am no longer an "apostate," as long as the church still teaches my family that my marriage is a "serious transgression," like murder, rape and abuse. Oaks claims that church leaders "want to reduce the hate and contention so common today," but at no point does he take responsibility for leaders' role in fostering "hate and contention"—both by creating the exclusionary policy, and by claiming it as revelation from God.
A queer Mormon friend I met after college, Berta Marquez, took her own life last year. Near the end, she intensely feared the church was correct in labeling her and her wife as apostates—that she had actually turned away from God. Berta was an immensely compassionate woman who spent much of her time working to heal the rifts between the church and queer folk. She was an advocate for queer Mormons and for Utah's homeless youth, working with Operation Shine America, Mormons Building Bridges, Affirmation, Equality Utah, and the ACLU, among many others. This policy reversal makes her death more heart-rending, both because it might have given Berta some peace if she were still alive, and because it fails to acknowledge the harm the church caused and continues to cause for queer Mormons like her.
Although the government does not track victims' sexuality, researchers have linked Mormon culture and rhetoric with queer suicides. Utah's suicide rate has increased by nearly 50% since 1999. Queer folk, including youth made homeless by devout parents, are particularly vulnerable.
Let me suggest a path forward, based on my experience after my suicide attempt. A chaplain visited me in the psych ward. (I don't think she was Mormon; the church apparently didn't allow female chaplains before 2014.) She was gentle and patient as I told her about my family, my friends, the woman who is now my wife, and my conflict with my devout father over my sexuality. She listened to me and cried with me, and before she left, she prayed for me. She remembered everything I told her and prayed for every person I mentioned, every problem I was struggling with. That prayer is something I carry with me. It was perhaps the most important therapy I received.
I am no longer a practicing Mormon. At this point, I am able to integrate the things I love about being Mormon with the person I am becoming. I remember that chaplain's prayer as affirmation that I can become the person I will be without destroying the person I was. This understanding has kept me on a path of recovery.
The church should apologize and make amends for its repealed exclusion policy, and members should change their approach to ministering. Family is a centerpiece of Mormon theology and culture. Accepting, listening to and connecting with queer Mormons—rather than excluding and denigrating us—would help celebrate our roles in the theology of the family and, I hope, save lives.
A version of this article originally appeared in High Country News. The author is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at UCLA, where she is conducting an interdisciplinary study of suicide notes, with the goal of suicide prevention. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.