The Deadly Plague Of Homophobia

Religious convictions are not allowed as an excuse for violence.

I don't think we will ever know what put the hate in Omar Mateen.

Those who knew him say he was quick to anger, quick with a racial, religious or sexual slur, quick to lose a job or abuse a wife. Evidence now suggests that he may have led a double life, where he twice married women, but cruised for men at Pulse, the Orlando gay bar he would later soak in blood.

I can't pretend to know what was in his sick mind. But if Mateen was gay and was tormented by trying to reconcile that with his religion, culture, family and his own self-worth -- that I know something about. 

I was raised in Utah as a Mormon, in a strict, prescribed religion and culture that dominates the state. Like Islam and most religions, there is much good in Mormonism, including teachings of peace, free will and kindness. But there also exists self-righteousness, racial superiority, discrimination and sometimes hatred by people who claim to speak and act for the will of their God.

And there is also another doctrinal belief that many Muslims and Mormons share: That homosexuality is repugnant, a sin that deteriorates the family and is worthy of excommunication and exclusion from the one true path to God.

And if you "reject" that one true path, you are damned.

I know about self-hate. I know about this path of self-loathing, fear and despair that ultimately gets projected onto the people we couldn't allow ourselves to be accepted by or associated with.

Whatever his motive, Mateen chose to inflict violence on others.  I chose to inflict violence on myself.

Coming to terms with my own sexuality was a very real, very dark, internal conflict.  For two long years I went through weekly "reparative therapy" sessions through my church.   I was constantly told it was unacceptable to God to act on my "same gender attraction" disorder, which was likely caused by something I experienced in my youth, from a dysfunctional family, or a number of other debunked theories.  As far as my church's leadership were concerned, the words "gay" and "homosexual" only apply in describing those who "act" on their attractions, just like any other "temptation".

I read scores of books and hundreds of quotes by my religion's leaders stating how disgusting, abhorrent and apostate it is to accept homosexuality, and to fight every "unnatural" thought.  I attended conferences and meetings to hear "experts" speak about the evils of the "gay lifestyle" and how to avoid it.

While in a "worthiness" interview, my bishop pointed to a section in the church's official policy handbook and asked me to read it aloud -- a short paragraph that said God considers masturbation to be a "homosexual act", because it doesn't involve the opposite sex.  I was told to stay away from gays, R-rated movies and the like, and to continue paying my tithes to the church and attending weekly services in addition to my therapy.  I was told this would prove my devotion to God, and that through God's grace I would eventually overcome this "affliction" and be cured.

But homophobia is much more of an illness than my "same gender attraction" could ever be.  The plague of homophobia is everywhere, and the institutionalization of it has allowed it to spread rapidly.

Spotting the signs of this disease isn't always easy. Sometimes it's blatantly demonstrated as hate, discrimination, and bigotry.  Sometimes it's the silent gossip, judgement, and disapproval subtly disguised as "unconditional love."  Even worse, this condition is sometimes hidden, defended, and legislated as pious ideals of religious freedom.

In all cases, this highly communicable disease worms its way into the soul.  It slowly erodes your humanity, your compassion, kindness and empathy.  It blocks your heart from love, self-respect, and understanding.  If left untreated, homophobia can be fatal, as far too many families have experienced losing loved ones to suicide and hate crimes, and now mass shootings, as a result.

I speak from personal experience.  I have hated myself for my sexual orientation and I have resented others because of it.  But unlike Omar Mateen, I changed my course. I stepped out of the box I was put in and and I found people who gave me their wisdom, their love and their support.  Who walked beside me during the incredibly difficult journey of reconciliation, and the process of accepting who I truly am. This ultimately gave me the strength to leave the organization that was perpetuating my condition, and to reclaim my identity, my dignity, and self-respect.

In the United States and many other developed nations, religious convictions are not allowed as an excuse for violence.  I thank my country for having that crucial degree of separation.  For giving me the opportunities to utilize freedom of speech and press, and to vocalize our need to fight for equality, dignity, human rights, and against the pandemic of gun violence.

History has repeated itself, and it will do so again if we don't heed the lessons from it.  If we choose not to learn, then we face the prospect of more death in our churches, our schools, our restaurants, malls and nightclubs.

I grieve with you, Orlando.  I am sorry that ignorance, fear, and hate have again terrorized a nation and another generation.  It's up to you and me to change that.

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An acclaimed singer/songwriter, Justin Utley is also keynote speaker at colleges and universities across the nation about his experiences with conversion/reparative therapy, in addition to providing insight on issues of faith in the LGBT community. Follow Justin Utley on Facebook and Twitter.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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