HEADS IN THE SAND

Utah Blames the Weather, Not Homophobia, for Teen Suicide Epidemic

The LDS Church has ramped up hate against LGBT people as the suicide rate explodes. Are the two connected? We don’t know, because the state isn’t looking.

07.29.16 5:00 AM ET

Utah’s suicide rate is nearly twice the national average and the rate of youth suicide rate has tripled in the last 10 years. And last year, the state’s Department of Health revealed that suicide is now the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds in Utah.

Overall, the state’s youth suicide rate has increased from 3.0 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 8.5 per 100,000 in 2014.

Why?

A coalition of Mormon parents of LGBT children is laying the blame at the doors of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which, beginning in 2008, intensified its anti-gay rhetoric, funding California’s Proposition 8 and, in 2015, excommunicating the children of same-sex couples.

“I know of four suicides of LGBT Mormon youth in the last week alone,” said Kimberly Anderson, director of the Mama Dragon Story Project, which profiles Mormon parents who have lost LGBT children to suicide. “The situation is staring us in the face. The correlations are obvious.”

The trouble is, there’s no data to back that up, because so far, Utah’s Department of Health hasn’t even said the word “gay” in their official reports. On the contrary, earlier this year, one spokesperson theorized that lower oxygen levels at Utah’s high altitudes might be a contributing factor.

In response to an inquiry from The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the DOH says that new reports will indeed focus on pressures on LGBT youth. So far, however, DOH documents have been oddly silent. For example, in their 2015 report, the DOH noted that students who had been bullied at school were 5.8 times more likely to have considered suicide—but didn’t address the causes of the bullying.

That same report noted higher rates of suicidal ideation among girls, 10th graders, “heavy electronics users”—but nowhere are the words gay, lesbian, or even homosexual used, this despite the well-established data that LGBT youth nationwide are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids.

Only in response to this story has the Department of Health even said the word “gay.” In a statement, a spokesperson confirmed that “a group that has higher risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) persons. According to the Family Acceptance Project research, LGBT young adults are 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide if they felt they were highly rejected by their parents. Their website has free resources for LDS and general populations to help families support and protect their LGBT children.”

DOH added that “comprehensive data are not available for the number of suicide deaths among LGBT persons because it is not generally collected during a police investigation of a death. We are seeking out additional methods of collecting data for LGBT suicide risk, but at this time we cannot confirm whether LGBT persons in Utah have a higher prevalence of suicide deaths or that LGBT suicide rates have increased.”

Anderson acknowledges that “suicide is completely beyond the scope of one single issue—the causes are incredibly complex.” But, she notes, “the health department data shifted after 2007, and 2008 is when the really ugly, bitter rhetoric ramped up from the church. The data shows an increase from 2008 onward. It’s an interesting parallel.” The LDS Church has lately ratcheted up its anti-gay policies. In November 2015, it effectively excommunicated the children of same-sex couples, declaring that they may not be baptized, blessed, officially named, or sent on missionary work. To be accepted into the church, these children must officially renounce their own parents. The Church also ruled that gay or lesbian Mormons must remain celibate, or else be deemed to have committed apostasy.

For Debra Coe, a devout Mormon and a member of the Utah Commission on LGBT Suicide Awareness and Prevention, the lack of acknowledgment of LGBT experience is itself a cause of the crisis.

“In the past, I didn’t think I was bigoted,” Coe told the Daily Beast. “I also didn’t think I knew anyone that was gay and I certainly believed our family was not affected by this issue. I said many things that I thought were harmless that I now deeply regret. We found out after reaching out to the LGBTQ students at BYU that our own son was gay. He had been suicidal and thought we would reject him in part because of inappropriate things I had said over many years.”

Contrast Coe’s sense of accountability with the LDS Church’s lack of it.

A few months ago, Elder Dallin Oaks—probably the Church’s leading spokesman on LGBT issues—was asked if he felt any responsibility for the increase in Mormon suicides. His answer infuriated LGBT Mormons and allies.

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“I think that’s a question that will be answered on Judgment Day. I can’t answer that beyond what has already been said. I know that those tragic events happen. And it’s not unique simply to the question of sexual preference. There are other cases where people have taken their own lives and blamed a church—my church—or a government, or somebody else for their taking their own lives, and I think those things have to be judged by a higher authority than exists on this earth.”

Anderson said that this type of rhetoric is typical.

“Members of the church go out of their way to point out dozens of reasons why the church is saying we love them… but then ignore all the things they do that incriminate and belittle and Other and dehumanize and shun the LGBT community.”

Anderson also blamed the LDS Church’s power in the state for the state’s relative silence. “The conversation in Utah dances around the Church,” she said.

Coe agreed, adding that if the problem were admitted, finding a solution would not be difficult. “The number of youth suicides could be reduced with education on LGBTQ issues and helping people understanding the importance of honoring all humanity regardless of differences,” she said.

For Coe, that doesn’t mean compromising on beliefs. On the contrary, she said, “charity, reaching out, kindness, love, and empathy are all at the core of our LDS gospel and the foundation of our doctrine.”

Perhaps one day the church will practice what it preaches.