Sunday, October 13, 2013

BYU Students Deliver LGBT Peers a Message of Hope--and Love

Last week members of BYU’s USGA (Understanding Same Gender Attraction) organization produced a video featuring LGBT BYU students talking openly about the struggle they face as gay Mormons. What’s profound here is the honesty with which these students talk about issues that we as Mormons don’t normally approach: depression and suicidal thoughts.

One vital way to keep LGBT Mormon youth from reaching this critical point is to help parents and extended communities recognize how their behavior affects LGBT youth. The Family Acceptance Project has produced the first LDS-based materials to help families and communities understand what helps gay kids, and what increases their risk for depression and suicide. These materials—which you can download free online—are the first faith-based suicide prevention resources to be named as a Best Practice by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They artfully blend rigorous scientific research with the best parts of Mormon faith—the part that teaches us to love unconditionally, like our Savior loves.

It’s no secret that the LGBT youth suicide rate in Utah is well above the norm, and while talking openly about the isolation and other factors that contribute to those numbers is becoming a bit more common, what I like is the students have done a remarkable job of overshadowing the bleak times with a powerful message of hope. To hear this message from our peers is a big step, and an encouraging one.

I spoke with Adam White of USGA at BYU this weekend, and we talked in depth about the video. With his permission, I’m reposting part of that conversation.

Mitch: I think your video is a good one—and I admire the honesty of those who spoke. One of the most striking moments is one student’s candor about a disturbing lesson we’re all taught as gay Mormons: that being gay is a mortal experience and upon leaving this life, each of us is released from the bondage of being gay and is made straight. Like the student in the clip, many gay Mormons (including me) don’t find this to be comforting. In fact, I’ve heard from many who look at as the opposite: it’s almost an incentive to want to take their own lives.

Adam: I had never thought about that teaching in that way before, and I remember the first time I heard it, it perplexed me. It still does. I don’t know of any Mormon precedent or scriptural basis about our orientation disappearing in the afterlife—for gay people or straight. What’s troubling to me is we’re sending our youth that message often in the very moments they’re most vulnerable. I think it warps the way we see ourselves as gay Mormons to believe we’ll be someone else when we leave here. At its worst, it could very well leave depressed and suicidal gay Mormons with the message that is best to die.

Mitch: But the video also stresses something I’ve said for a long time: the importance of our own individual relationship with our Savior. I know from experience that our Savior is our constant companion—he know us personally and walks right beside us in this life, if we let Him. Your video sends a great message to gay Mormons to remind them of that fact. And I’d take it a step further and remind them that despite messages about our worth here or eternally, or any other message that damages our understanding of ourselves in the eyes of our Savior, that relationship belongs solely to us. It is as deep and meaningful as we choose to make it. We have not only the personal power to build that relationship, but the right to do so—whether or not we’re active inside the Mormon faith.

Adam: I agree! At the center of our Gospel is Christ—and our personal relationship with Him. This is one of the most powerful messages for me personally—if we think about the atonement and that Christ knows what it’s like to be LGBT—the stigma, the isolation, the rejection. This message alone brings hope to many who feel like no one understands what they’re going through. But our Savior does—he’s lived it personally. Knowing that our older brother has walked this before us, so he can not only empathize but help, I think there is so much hope here. When we remember what our Savior has experienced, we find healing, we find compassion—sometimes when it feels impossible to find that from any human. The hope of our Savior was at the center of our minds as we made this video.

Mitch: One of the questions I always get is people wondering how I reconcile standing for the LGBT community and still being Mormon. What do you say when you hear that question?

Adam: Well, I know from personal experience it’s difficult to be in that space between two communities that have been at odds for very powerful reasons on both sides. And at the same time, I recognize and respect my identity, and I also love my faith. I believe in the potential we have as Mormons to do good in this world, to be compassionate, and to be examples of our Savior. Being a gay Mormon and seeing the other side of our faith—those who have been cast out for simply being who they are—that’s hard to watch. To see Mormonism, which has been so good to me, actually do harm to people that I know and love has deeply affected me. Because I recognize our potential as a religion to do better, I don’t think I’ll ever walk away. But I also fully recognize the gifts our Father has given to us as LGBT people, and I firmly believe once we embrace our gay brothers and sisters their strength will add to our own, and as a whole we’ll be much closer to Zion.

Mitch: One of the things I grapple with is gay Mormon youth who live outside the country. It seems in the past few months alone I’ve gotten dozens of emails and messages from gay Mormons in their teens or early twenties, and they feel especially isolated. It hurts my heart to hear their stories—and quite frankly, I fear for some of them. When they’re in the states, it’s easier for me to help find others near them, but when they’re in the Philippines, China, or South and Central America our options are so much more limited in terms of the kind of support we can offer them. What would you say to them?

Adam: Wow…the first thing I would do is to let them know I recognize how difficult it is to be in that situation. My heart goes out to them—and I fully understand how hopeless it might seem. I’ve been blessed personally; even at BYU I have a community of support. But I would remind my gay Mormon brothers and sisters outside the country that our Savior loves them, exactly as they are—despite what others might say. And I would say to them that these videos were made for them. Your brothers and sisters here in America and at BYU—we know you’re out there. We love you. We want you to stay with us—we need you. So does your Savior.

Mitch: I’ve gone on record to say that historically we haven’t done a very good job in the way we treat and understand the LGBT community as Mormons. The same is true of LGBT people within our own ranks. I think we fall far short of where our Savior wants us to be. That’s one of the things I’ve worked to change over the past few years—kind of holding up a mirror to my Mormon fellows, and allowed them to see the reality of some of their behavior. Some of them haven’t really liked what they’ve seen. What would be your ultimate dream when it comes to LGBT people inside the Church?

Adam: I’m still kind of forming that dream, I think. But a good place to start would be complete open-door inclusivity for gay Mormons—the kind of inclusivity that Christ stood for and taught. I think it would be great to one day have gay couples at church with their own families, in our meetings and our activities, and have no one even think twice about it. I think we need to recognize that the way LGBT people struggle within their faith comes from a place of love. Meaning, they aren’t just upstarts who are trying to be inconvenient. These are children of our Father who deeply love this religion and want to stay precisely because of their profound love of our Savior, and of the gospel.

Mitch: I couldn’t agree more. And I think that’s why gay Mormons belong most of all.

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