This month TLC will air a program featuring Mormon men who are attracted to men but don't identify as gay.
(As a side note, science tells us that a man who is attracted to men but is still capable of having an emotionally and physically satisfying relationship with a woman is actually bisexual. If that indeed describes these men, then a more accurate title for the program might be My Husband Is Bisexual and Therefore Among the Few Inside the LGBT Community Capable of Living a Heterosexual Mormon Life.)
While this might seem like an accurate portrayal of the lives of gay Mormons, it's not. It's actually a symptom of a serious problem inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and our Mormon community when it comes to understanding LGBT individuals as a whole, and it proliferates a damaging -- and even deadly -- message, especially for LGBT Mormon youth.
In 2011 I was called to serve as executive secretary to the bishop in San Francisco as my authentic self: an openly gay man. When I took that calling, the floodgates opened, and I began to hear excruciating stories from men much like the ones portrayed in this program. Today my inbox reads like a "who's who" of gay Mormons whose lives are full of suffering because of their years of denial about who they are, and whose families and children are devastated by the wreckage caused when our Mormon community encourages gay individuals to live someone else's version of their lives.
"Stan"* is one such gay Mormon. Stan knew in adolescence that he was gay, but he also believed what he was taught inside Mormonism about homosexuality: that it is a sin and an affliction to be overcome, like alcoholism or drug addiction. If he were righteous and prayed hard enough, he was taught, God would change his orientation. With encouragement from the handful of Mormons (including his local leadership) who were aware of his situation, Stan decided to serve a mission for the LDS Church.
When Stan returned from his mission -- his orientation unchanged but successfully denied up to this point -- he was encouraged to marry a young woman from his area and start a family and was told this was the next step toward overcoming his affliction. He did so. Basking in the glow of being newly married and euphoric from the fanfare and attention given to his new marriage and family by his Mormon community, he was able to successfully live as a heterosexual man for a few years.
But not for long.
Despite heartfelt prayers, fasting, and temple attendance -- all those things that he was told would lift this "burden" -- Stan was still attracted to men. The longing went well beyond sex, of course. It was a desire as emotionally deep and meaningful as the desire heterosexual Mormons feel for love from their partners of the opposite sex. Left unable to fulfill that need in a healthy way, Stan broke.
It began by meeting with other men like him in his community. But it soon escalated to anonymous encounters with men he was meeting online. Eventually Stan began renting hotel rooms near Salt Lake City, embarking on long weekends of unsafe sex with anonymous partners and ultimately adding drugs (including methamphetamine) to his binge cycle.
Once the high had ended and Stan reentered real life, the regret and remorse would ensue, his self-reproach and shame often compounded by unsympathetic and sometimes punitive church leaders and a select group of friends when he reached out for support. Told never to share his secret with anyone else, especially his wife, Stan eventually stopped reaching out altogether and suffered in silence. He'd have some success for a while, distracting himself with his duties as both husband and father (which he deeply loved), but he was unable to mute his orientation permanently. So the pattern continued, each binge bringing escalating risk to both Stan and his family.
Then the almost-inevitable happened: Stan contracted HIV. And because of the stigma he'd been taught to attach to being gay, he refused to be tested. Stan then unknowingly passed the virus to his wife, who discovered it herself some months later, and his life and the lives of his family members crumbled.
The once-enthusiastic messages from his Mormon fellows insisting he could overcome this affliction changed from optimistic love to rejection and shunning. While he was still grappling with the fear of understanding what his life would look like as an HIV-positive man, Stan's wife divorced him, his children turned their backs on him, and he was excommunicated from the church. His life, and the lives of those around him, changed forever.
Now in his late 50s, Stan spends much of his time alone, still struggling to change his orientation through efforts similar to 12-step programs. But he has little success, because, like many men in his situation, he fails to understand that being gay isn't what we do. It's who we are.
Without question, Stan should be accountable for his actions. Not even he denies that. But he's not the only one to blame. Stan and the thousands of other gay Mormons who struggle to suppress their identity are also victims of a church culture that leaves them unable to integrate their religion with their orientation in a healthy way. It's a community that fails to grasp that homosexuality is a normative part of human development, not an affliction to be overcome. Those who choose to deny their orientation often end up like Stan: little more than shells of what they could have been with proper support and accurate information.
But that's not likely the story we'll see on the TLC program. What we'll probably see is the naïve optimism spawned by a morass of inaccurate information swirling inside the Mormon culture. And while Stan's story provides one of a thousand examples of why such naïve optimism is a perilous path, even more frightening is the possibility that the lives of these men will be held up as the exemplar by well-intentioned but woefully uninformed Mormon parents of gay youth.
But there is a way out. The Family Acceptance Project's evidence-based approach teaches Mormon families and communities to respond to LGBT individuals (especially youth) in a way that keeps them safe from significant health risks, including depression and suicide, and helps keep tragedies like Stan's from repeating. But while the LDS Church has had access to the nondenominational materials since 2008, and the Mormon version since 2012, we've failed to integrate them into our formal church curriculum and equip our parents and community with information that can save lives.
With the release of the TLC show, it's more critical than ever that the Mormon materials from the Family Acceptance Project get into the hands of families with LGBT youth and our larger Mormon community as a whole. The research clearly links denial of a child's sexual orientation (exactly what Stan was taught to do) or gender identity with significant health and mental-health risks for that child. In fact, denial of an LGBT youth's sexual orientation or gender identity ranks as one of the highest risk factors when it comes to negative outcomes like drug and alcohol abuse, STI infection, depression, and even suicide.
Will the TLC program be entertaining? Maybe. Will it be dangerous? Absolutely. But it's no more a depiction of what really happens to gay Mormon men who stuff their identity away than The Real Housewives of Orange County is an accurate portrayal of the lives of stay-at-home moms in Southern California.
Until our Mormon community stops living in denial, begins to teach (and practice) accurate science about being LGBT, and couples that with unconditional love and inclusion, we'll continue to have sensational programs like this one, and we'll continue to shatter the lives of LGBT Mormons and their families. That means we need to stop sending the message, overtly or implicitly, that LGBT Mormons need to change who they are to be included in our community, our families, or our Savior's kingdom.
We learn about our Savior's simple message in church every Sunday: "Love one another." There is no asterisk on that statement. There is no orientation test to take to be included in His circle.
Now that we have access to accurate information, it's time we stopped simply talking about what our Savior would do and roll up our sleeves and actually do it.
*"Stan" is a pseudonym to protect this individual's safety. His story is shared here with his permission.