“We need to be able to hear and express [a question or idea] without the instant commencement of political warfare, without superimposing particular causes and constituencies over the narrative, as if every new development and every next death were a bludgeon to be wielded.” – Frank Bruni after Dallas shootings, “Divided by Race, United by Pain,” New York Times, July 8, 2016
The death of one person by suicide is a heart-breaking, shattering outcome – young or old, and no matter the details. On that, singer Tyler Glenn and apostle Russell Nelson (alongside most human beings living outside of terrorist cells) are in perfect alignment.
Where we colorful human beings diverge is where exactly these suicides are coming from – and what kind of a conversation will actually, practically, measurably reduce their heart-wrenching numbers.
Despite entreaties by academics, activists and mental health professionals to follow certain precautions in speaking of suicide…it has remained far too easy for every next death to become an occasion for venting our personal anguish and outrage.
There’s nothing wrong with indignation, of course – which can be a powerful teacher and indicator of what needs to change. And on that level, I certainly don’t fault anyone for speaking out with passion – Tyler included. Like me, they are simply trying to make the situation better.
On another level, though, I join those (including LGBT leaders I know) who are concerned that the current public conversation about youth suicide has inadvertently become an incubatorfor the very despair, angst and ideation we’re all hoping to alleviate.
For instance, one week ago, Tyler, your public message included a pointed warning to LDS Church leaders that “there is blood of your members on your hands” – insinuating that “how many more” suicides take place was largely dependent on these leaders themselves.
Your followers subsequently echoed and elaborated your sentiments in a thousand directions online:
- “Russell Nelson, there blood is on your hands”
- “These leaders are monsters. I am very upset for you!…I hope you left church! I feel ashamed because I was Mormon member too.”
- “The LDS church is responsible for creating a culture where…minorities are ‘welcome’ but action dictates that they are not. The LDS church kills.”
Nearly half a million views and thousands of comments later, my question for Tyler (and others making similar declarations) is simply this: Have your messages made LGBT-identifying teens within the LDS community better off? Farther from suicide? And clearly in a safer, more stable place?
I know you think you have done just that…otherwise you wouldn’t be so passionately sharing your thoughts.
But as I imagine the thousands (and tens of thousands) of youth listening in to your message, in particular, I can’t help but offer another perspective on what you said last week. Please understand that I share this for the same reason you and others have been sharing: in hopes of helping make the problem better.
Your concern about these youth feeling like they do not belong is, I think, a starting point that we all might be united on as a likely factor in the despair of LGBT-identifying Mormon youth. How exactly that feeling of not belonging arises is where we diverge.
For me, the most powerful part of your video, Tyler, was when you recounted teaching people about the plan of happiness as a missionary, before adding with pained emotion, “this plan has no space for me…”
My next question, Tyler, is: how did you reach that conclusion?
Did an LDS bishop sit you down and teach you that there is no space for you in this plan?
Have you ever heard this taught by your parents, or mission president or the prophets themselves?
I know that the LDS policy change has been interpreted as a clear signal of No Space by many, but let me ask again: Have you ever heard any Mormon leader teach this interpretation of the policy – namely, that it means there is no space in the plan for those who identify as LGBT/SSA?
We all know that none of these things are being taught anywhere in our faith community.
If you (or anyone else) have reached a conclusion of No Space, it cannot have been from the teaching of Church leaders. Anyone who knows these leaders appreciates how eager they would be to teach anyone exactly the reverse – namely, their conviction that the pathway to exaltation is open to all who are willing to give their hearts and lives to Christ.
That is the fundamental message we both shared on our missions – and the same message that (all) children and teenagers grow up hearing in the Church of Jesus Christ. For these youth, the divine possibilities associated with eternal identity as children of Heavenly Parents are a vivid and salient part of their lives – and a foundation for future hopes and dreams until…
Well, until they get convinced that it doesn’t apply to them, right? Until someone persuades them that, in fact, this plan of happiness being taught doesn’t actually work for them – and they don’t actually belong after all.
Last year, a youth in our world publicly declared that he was gay. That same weekend, after years of being loved, guided, taught and relished by our ward community…he stopped attending Church entirely.
He seemed to take for granted that he simply couldn’t be a part of our ward anymore. And couldn’t remain Mormon.
Once again, I have to ask: who is responsible for persuading LGBT-identifying Mormon youth that they don’t belong in their faith community any more? Who is convincing them that their experience of same-sex attraction is more fundamental to who they are than many other things they used to believe?
With all due respect, Tyler, from the place many of us stand, it is messages like yours (and thousands of similar messages) that are responsible. Indeed, by this point, we’ve seen tens of thousands of members persuaded that the doctrine and leaders they once relished are (in truth) disappointingly exclusive and merely “hetero-normative.”
Rest assured, I do not question your motives. I honestly don’t. I know too many others who feel the same way as you, and I can’t deny that they are are simply speaking in hopes of seeing improvement in a community they love. I also understand that from the place you stand, Church teaching and policy does not leave a open path to everyone (as many of us still believe), but instead, signals cruelly to LGBT-identifying youth that “gay children do not belong in the plan.”
If I believed that, I would be angry too. But my main point here is that thoughtful, good-hearted members (and former members) simply don’t see eye to eye on any of this – from identity, sexuality, and the body to mental health, happiness and God…and lots of other things too. [Including, in this case, simply what it means to have “space in the plan” or to feel “welcome in the Church” – e.g., does it mean expanding the covenant pathway to include loving, committed gay relationships or that someone with same-sex attraction can still follow the covenant pathway as currently taught? Thoughtful people really do see that differently. Thanks Megan Matthews Allen for helping me see that oversight!]
While those disagreements may seem obvious enough, I make a point of this because an acknowledgement of reasonable disagreement is hardly ever made in all these post-suicide calls to actions. With each new Facebook post and video, it’s extraordinarily rare to hear any sort of acknowledgement that, in fact, there are profoundly different ways of making sense of what is happening.
Instead, the conflict is more often presented as “sharp, painful dilemma” (FB-CH) that will remain so as long as Mormon leaders continue teaching what they do about sexuality, marriage and identity. THAT narrative, for virtually all same-sex attracted youth in the Church, has become the unquestioned REALITY in which they try to sort out their identity and their future.
And embedded within that narrative, everything becomes pretty hard to make sense of…After coming to identify as gay, one man spoke of the challenge of having “two conflicting identities.” He reflected, “I realized why people get depressed, and suicidal because you’re constantly trying to resolve something that’s irresolvable” (FB-TI). Another added, “It’s hard to even go day by day. Not knowing how you’re going to reconcile this about yourself, how you going to create a life that is happy in any way” (FB-H).
Back to my main question for you, Tyler: Is this conflict and confusion a direct result of teachings within the Church or teachings outside of the Church…or perhaps the result of a jarring interface between the two?! (in which case, both sides would hold a shared responsibility for action)
While disagreeing on the exact origins of the conflict, we can surely agree on how shattering it can feel for anyone to feel compelled to walk away from something they used to trust and love. As one person described the moment of concluding he was gay: “All [previous] teaching about my identity…was WRONG! I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was” (FB-KA, italics mine).
Whatever faith someone used to have, whatever joy or peace they used to feel, whatever security they may have known within their formerly beloved faith, these individuals conclude that they must walk away. Other accounts describe the “dream for me ever since before I was born” laid aside (FB-RU) or walking away from everything they had been taught to value such as a mission, marriage, the Church itself: “When that happened, the whole world sort of came crashing down” (FB-BE)
Another parent described what many feel in the process: “I had to re-examine everything I had previously thought…It upended my notions of truth, happiness, obedience, loyalty, and in fact all that I held dear, including my perception of the character of God….All of my beliefs have been upended and rearranged.”
What impact does this kind of wrenching upheaval play in potentially destabilizing individuals further – especially vulnerable young people?
I’ve had several grown, adult friends tell me of stepping away from the community they had always known as one of the most excruciating experiences of their lives. Even the harshest critics of Mormonism would agree that this distancing, separation and estrangement…well, it often hurts. A lot.
But once again, why does it hurt?
I’ve done more, I admit, than simply ask you that question a few times, Tyler. I’ve challenged you (and other allied voices), to re-think what your accusations might mean for the very vulnerable youth we’re all trying to help.
For their sake’s, if nothing more, we have to do more than trade accusations that insinuate ignorance, malevolence or hatred.
Those people do exist – but they’re few and far between compared to the masses.What if we acknowledged that – moving decidedly towards a more productive conversation about our actual disagreements, without the toxic baggage of personal attacks. What if we insisted on the kind of wide-ranging conversation of suicide that acknowledged its complexity – and paid careful attention to every relevant perspective?
If we can trust each other enough to make space for that conversation, I think we could make some real progress – including and especially in keeping kids safe.
In the absence of that conversation, however, it’s hard to deny that the angst and despair we are witnessing may spread even further – just like the forest fire we see enveloping our nation’s politics.
Let’s fight this fire together!
I can personally vouch that leaders like Kendall Wilcox, Erika Munson, Vicki Wimmer Johnson, Jen Blair, John Gustav-Wrathall, Jim Struve & Jerry Buie (and their posse), Jay Jacobsen, Sarah Langford, Tera Brown, Greg Harris & Ty Mansfield are all deeply committed to fostering a public conversation where the deepest, most vociferous of disagreements can exist alongside the truest of love and loyalty.
Sounds like a piece of Zion to me?
I trust this group of leaders, in particular, and believe we will be strongest if we chart the path forward together.Will you join your powerful, beautiful voice to theirs, Tyler?
I hope so. As we all know, lives are depending on what we all do next.