Forced Out of School and Church, Watching Friends Commit Suicide: What It's Like Growing Up Gay and Mormon
By the age of 18, Ryan Shattuck had crossed several key moments of being a young Mormon man off of his checklist. He had attended seminary classes throughout high school, was enrolled in Brigham Young University for college and was going to Mexico for a two-year mission. But one of the most important -- and probably most life-changing -- things on the list was one Ryan did not think he would ever be able to do: marry a Mormon woman.
A fourth-generation Mormon, Ryan knew he was gay by the time he was 16 years old. A homosexual lifestyle is not approved by the Mormon Church, which resulted in great internal conflict for Ryan. This conflict would affect much of his life going forward: he lost several people to suicide; he organized a support group for gay Mormons that would result in him leaving college; and eventually, he left the church.
Growing up Mormon, according to Ryan, is like growing up in a bubble. When talking about his upbringing, he is often asked why he did certain things or followed specific protocol, and his answer is that he didn’t consider different alternatives because there were none. The path of a Mormon child is a straight and narrow one, and it wasn’t until he went to college that Ryan began to stray from that path.
An all-star student in high school, Ryan participated in the swim team and the drama club, and was voted vice-president of his senior class. While he dated a few girls casually, no relationship lasted more than a month or two. It felt awkward to be with girls, and Ryan knew he was dating them because he was supposed to, not because he felt attracted to them.
“I knew I was different, but I couldn’t really figure out how or why,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t until high school that I started to feel depressed. I knew something about me was different, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I easily chalked it up to teenage emotion. It’s funny because at the same time I knew I was attracted to men, but it didn’t occur to me that these feelings of anxiety and depression were tied to being attracted to men.”
In July 1999 Ryan wrote in his journal that he was gay. Admitting this brought relief but also confusion, because he thought he was going through a phase and would outgrow it. Seeking guidance, he read magazines and books distributed by the church which promoted the idea that homosexuality was a temporary phase and people should pray their way through the situation. He also thought he just hadn’t met the right woman yet, and he would meet her when he went to college at Brigham Young University.
The last woman Ryan dated was a student he met during his first year at BYU. While attending the opera together, sitting in the back row and holding hands, Ryan noticed an attractive man walk by and immediately dropped the woman’s hand. She asked him what was wrong, but he couldn’t answer the question. The truth was that he felt guilty, but he knew he couldn’t tell her that.
After that experience, Ryan accepted that he would not date women. He is grateful he realized this early in his life, saying, “I feel kind of fortunate that I never had the desire to experiment with women or use them to cure me... I know that it’s very common for gay Mormons. I’m kind of surprised how many gay men I’ve met who have slept with just one woman, more often than not because they were curious or wanted to know or had to prove to themselves.”
Ryan soon learned he was not alone in being conflicted about his sexuality and his faith. Stuart, a cousin who was also Mormon, had recently come out to his family. When Ryan went to him for advice about whether to go on his two-year mission, which was customary for Mormon teenagers, Stuart told him to go. He said Ryan should experience the mission and make a decision about his lifestyle when he returned to Utah.
Shortly after that conversation, Ryan came out to his family. On February 1, he called his parents’ house. He had felt sick to his stomach the entire night before, afraid of what they would say or do. When his mother answered the phone, she asked how he was feeling and he told her he felt sick. She asked if it was his head or his stomach, and he responded with, “Mom, I’m gay.”
“They were good about it, but they were somewhat clinical,” Ryan said, remembering the conversation. “They told me to go on my mission and that we would take care of it when I came back.”
Two months after that conversation Ryan’s mother called him to tell him Stuart had shot himself. He left a note saying that his conflict about being gay had led to his decision to commit suicide. Despite his feelings of sadness and fear resulting from his cousin’s death, Ryan left for his mission trip to Mexico as planned, and, while on his mission, he felt his faith growing, despite his conflict and fears.
“My faith definitely was strengthened, and I feel like my relationship with God and that intensity certainly grew, but at the same time, paradoxically, my doubts about the Mormon Church specifically did grow.”
Currently, gay Mormons have three options regarding their lifestyles. A gay Mormon can enter into a heterosexual marriage, remain celibate or leave the church. Gay Mormons are considered in good standing with the church “if they do not act upon these inclinations. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the church, then they are subject to the discipline of the church, just as others are,” according to one Web site. Being an active homosexual is not a choice, and the church has long publicly opposed gay marriage, playing a vital role in opposing Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Thomas S. Monson, the church president, wrote in a July 2010 letter, "The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is absolutely clear: Marriage is between one man and woman and is ordained of God."
After returning from his mission, Ryan attempted to pursue the third option of celibacy. “I was going to try to sit in that rare overlap in the Venn Diagram of being gay, celibate and Mormon,” he said. “A small percentage of gay, celibate Mormons are out and everyone in their ward knows that they’re gay. They’ve made this conscious decision of how they’re going to live their lives. It’s not realistic.”
That same year, Ryan almost lost his friend Chad, a gay Mormon, to suicide. When visiting Chad in the hospital, Ryan brought Stuart’s parents to talk to him. As they were leaving the hospital, his aunt began crying and said, “I don’t want any more people to turn out the way my son did.”
Ryan thought, “This is ridiculous. BYU is doing nothing. I just happen to know Chad, but I know there are others. They [gay students] didn’t know where to go, where to turn. They’d turn to the Mormon church and the Mormon church didn’t give them any answers. I was going to change things.”
Ryan began a support group for gay Mormons at BYU. The group met at the home of a professor who was friendly to their cause, and the first meeting had about 20 people attending. Ironically, the meeting was run similarly to a church group meeting, opening with a hymn and a prayer and invocation. It was also their last meeting, because shortly after it was held, Ryan was called into the Honor Code and asked to shut the group down. He was also accused of dating men, even though the Honor Code had no specific evidence to support that claim.
“They said they’d received an anonymous accusation that I did something with someone. There were no specifics at all,” Ryan said. “They were trying to pin something on me, so they went for the easiest thing...BYU has a real problem with students who are out. They can’t kick them out, but they want to, because they make the school look bad. BYU prides itself on having a squeaky clean image. And a gay activist who is a BYU student doesn’t look very well.”
Ryan was placed on Honor Code Probation, and he chose to leave BYU permanently. He lived in Boston for a short period of time and was amazed that he could be himself, and affectionate with a man, in public and no one cared. Seven years after leaving BYU, he lives in Utah with his boyfriend of several years, whom he has registered as a partner in Salt Lake City. Ryan’s partner was also raised Mormon, and his parents love and accept Ryan as a member of their family. But the two had to keep their relationship a secret for the first few months, because when they met, his partner was enrolled in his last semester at BYU and could not publicly date someone until he graduated. That kind of situation is not unusual at BYU, according to Ryan, who says the underground gay network there is well-known, with many gay Mormons looking for someone like themselves.
Ryan once identified himself as a gay Mormon, but he no longer considers himself a Mormon. He disagrees with numerous theological and political aspects of the church and says he likely would have left the LDS Church, regardless of his sexual orientation.
“I disagree with it theologically speaking, and I also disagree with it as an organization,” he said. “I’ve disassociated myself in every single way. I kind of waver between atheism and agnosticism. I believe there’s something, but I don’t know what exactly that is. But the Mormon Church still counts me as one of their members.”
Ryan cited the business and financial aspects of the church, which are quite conservative, as one of the larger issues he does not support. Two-thirds of Mormons describe themselves as “politically conservative” according to a 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Three in four “identify with or lean toward” the Republican party, making them “the most conservative group among America’s largest religions,” according to Time magazine’s Swampland blog.
The Mormon Church has received a great deal of attention recently, partly due to the Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon and Mitt Romney’s high-profile presidential campaign. Romney, whose faith has been widely discussed throughout his presidential run, has received a great deal of support from the Mormon community. But Ryan says he will not vote for Romney, not because he is Mormon but because he doesn’t agree with Romney’s political stance.
“I really think it should not matter that he’s a Mormon,” Ryan said. “I have no problem with a Mormon president; I have a problem with Mitt Romney thinking he’s a righteous person.”
The Mormon Church has not always been such a powerful right-wing organization. Its evolution regarding minority rights can be chronicled throughout recent history: the church did not give priesthood to African Americans until 1978, long after the Civil Rights movement. It did not support interracial marriages until 1978. And while women are "endowed" with priesthood power, they are not ordained to priesthood office. Based on this history, Ryan predicts that as public support for gay marriage increases, the Mormon church will eventually accept gay marriage as well.
The Mormon Church has evolved from what can be described as a socialist organization that practiced the Law of Concentration, sharing everything as a community, into a much more conservative, businesslike model. And, even though the Bible’s scripture is interpreted as outlawing homosexuality, nowhere in the Book of Mormon is anything said about same-sex couples. The church never took a stance on homosexuality until the 1950s and some theories exist about Joseph Smith ordaining and giving out priesthood to gay people in the early days of the church.
“It's fascinating to trace the evolution of the free-wheeling, socialist, open-minded LDS Church of the 1830s, to the strictly controlled, business-centered, Republican-leaning, conservative LDS Church of 2012." Ryan said. “Everything has a place -- unless you’re gay.”
With no place in the Mormon Church, Ryan has witnessed more and more places open for homosexuals in society, with gay marriage legalized by eight states and endorsed by President Obama. He credits his ability to accept his lifestyle and let go of the Mormon Church to the fact that he does not interpret scripture literally. And even though he does not identify himself as a Mormon, Ryan said he still has strong cultural and familial ties to the church.
“It’s part of my heritage. Growing up Mormon -- that’s not something you easily let go of,” he said. “I disagree with their theology, how they run their organization, and I fundamentally disagree with how they treat gay members. But you don’t just stop being Mormon... it’s so ingrained in who you are. When you grow up Mormon, all of your friends are Mormon. It influences where you go to school, your relationships, your career. You don’t just stop going to church on Sundays. You lose your social fabric. You have your community torn away from you.”
Withdrawing from that community was initially difficult to Ryan, but he said he makes an effort to not wallow in self-pity. While he has witnessed tragedy and experienced depression, he said he thinks some gay Mormons are doing themselves a disservice by feeling sorry for themselves in a public way.
“I think, at what point do you let go?” he asked. “You have to let go if you wish to progress in life. I know several gay Mormons who are so wrapped up in the tragedy of their lives, that trying to live as a gay Mormon consumes their lives. Trying to be both gay and Mormon becomes a full-time job for them. Shouldn't you eventually get to the point where your internal challenge of religion vs. sexuality is only part of your identity, only part of your history? At what point do you move on?"
But some say the church is relaxing its views and some Mormons have spoken publicly in support of equal rights, saying the teachings of the church tell them to love everybody. In June, 300 Mormons marched in Utah’s Gay Pride Parade. The organization Mormons for Marriage Equality’s mission statement says that “we affirm an individual’s right to marry the consenting adult partner of their choice regardless of gender or orientation.” The group Mormons Building Bridges says on its Facebook page that the group hopes “fellow Mormons across the country will see the march as an invitation to express the same message of love and acceptance to their LGBT brothers and sisters in concrete ways in their own homes and congregations.”
Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormonsrepresents former and non-members of the Mormon Church as well as gay and allied active Mormon church members, saying on its Web site, “We believe that our lives and relationships can be compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation, and that LGBT individuals are a special part of God’s creation.”
And in April, a group of students in an unofficial LGBT group at BYU released an “It Gets Better” video. The honor code at BYU code states that "homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the honor code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” However, Carri Jenkins, an assistant to the president of BYU, was quoted on CNN as saying the video would not result in disciplinary action against the students, because the honor code "based on conduct, not on feeling, and if same-gender attraction is only stated, that is not an honor code issue."
Although Ryan’s support group at BYU did not last, his aunt and uncle, the parents of his cousin Stuart, started their own support group in their home a few years after their son’s death. As word spread throughout Utah that every Sunday night gay men and women could get together at their home, more and more people showed up for the meetings.
“There was a huge desire, a huge need, for gay Mormons to get together and talk about what to do with their lives,” Ryan said. “That’s what I was trying to do. It obviously wasn’t going to happen at BYU.”
But Ryan hopes that what didn’t happen at BYU might happen in the near future. He says, “There will come a point in time, probably in our lifetime, where gay marriage will be accepted, and we will look back in regret at how long it took us.”