Brett Mathews, a Utah man who fought the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that targeted gay service members and allowed his conflict with his conservative Latter-day Saint family to be chronicled in an acclaimed documentary, has died.
Mathews died Aug. 24 at his home in Tooele “suddenly and accidentally,” according to an obituary written by his family. He was 49.
“He was such a good man and would give you the shirt off his back if you needed help,” Tom Carpenter, a friend of Mathews’, wrote in a Facebook post.
Mathews, who grew up in Tooele County, said in a 2002 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that his life was full and rich in June of 1996. He was a week from graduating from Utah State University, where he was in the Air Force ROTC, and about to go on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. He also was the president of the Elder’s Quorum in his campus ward, which served 280 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he felt responsible for “the spiritual welfare of all of them.”
That week, though, Mathews said, he “quit fighting the feelings I was having” and admitted to himself that he was gay.
Carpenter, in his Facebook post, described what happened when Mathews was a 1st Lieutenant stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. One night in 1998, he ran a stop sign off the base, and the police officer who pulled him over noticed a local LGBT magazine in the back seat. The officer, who was in the Air Force Reserve, reported Mathews to his superiors. Mathews was given a dishonorable discharge under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred LGBT service members who didn’t keep their sexual identity a secret.
“This broke Brett’s heart because all he ever wanted was to be an Air Force officer,” Carpenter wrote.
Mathews went to court and ultimately won back an honorable discharge, Carpenter said. Mathews also fought the Department of Veterans Affairs for a decade, eventually receiving the benefits that were denied him because of his discharge. Carpenter said Mathews suffered from depression and PTSD for years as a result of his discharge.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” enacted under the Clinton administration in 1993, was repealed in 2010 by an act of Congress signed by President Barack Obama.
Mathews came out to his mother in April 1999. His father, then a bishop in a Latter-day Saint ward in Erda, sent him a barrage of letters, urging him to renounce his homosexuality.
“They all said I was being influenced by the devil, and he had control over me,” Mathews told The Tribune in 2002. “I had to be saved and cured, or I was going to go to hell.”
Mathews agreed to appear in a documentary directed by Arthur Dong, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who had previously told the stories of LGBT service members in World War II (“Coming Out Under Fire,” 1994) and of people convicted of murdering gay men and women (“Licensed to Kill,” 1997).
Mathews was one of three people featured in the film, “Family Fundamentals,” which profiled LGBT people from conservative Christian families. The movie premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and then played at festivals around the world.
“Brett’s bravery to tell his private story spoke to people in similar turmoil and provided them comfort in knowing they were not alone,” Dong said in a statement issued in reaction to Mathews’ death. “When we made ‘Family Fundamentals’ — and even today — many LGBTQ people from conservative religious backgrounds, including Mormons, were struggling to accept their full identities, and Brett’s rifts with his family helped crystallize the pain that came from reconciling personal sexuality with deep-rooted doctrines.”
For the documentary, Dong and his crew followed Mathews on a visit home to Tooele County in Feb. 2001 for his grandmother’s wedding. The family tentatively gave Dong permission to film — but later refused to sign release forms because they didn’t want to be involved in a film that did not denounce homosexuality. In the end, the family was not shown directly in the film, and scenes from Mathews’ grandmother’s wedding were blurred to avoid identification.
Dong recently oversaw the remastering of “Family Fundamentals” and his other films, for a retrospective that will stream on the Criterion Channel starting Oct. 1.
Mathews said that many of his relatives did not know he was gay before the movie debuted at Sundance. “The consequences are going to be severe for me, and it scares the hell out of me,” he told The Tribune at the time.
Mathews was living in Los Angeles when the movie came out. He later moved back to Tooele, and reconciled with his family, Carpenter said.
Carpenter recalled a recent conversation with Mathews, who told him, “I am happier than I have ever been since I was discharged. I’m going to be 50 soon and keep thinking I would have been a general if they hadn’t thrown me out.”
Brett Justin Mathews was born in Salt Lake City on Sept. 27, 1971, to Terry and Sally Mathews — the third of five sons. He grew up on the family farm in Erda, raising sheep along with his brothers in 4H and FFA, the family said.
He delivered the valedictory speech at his graduation from Tooele High School in 1990 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in statistics from Utah State. He served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Columbus, Ohio.
Recently, Mathews started work as a substitute teacher in the Tooele County School District.
Mathews is survived by his parents, Terry and Sallie; his grandmother, Erma; his brothers Wade, Travis, Kyle and Coby; a niece and seven nephews. Three other grandparents — Willard Mathews, and August and Florence Killip — died previously.
Funeral services were held last weekend. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests people donate to a veteran’s charity; Carpenter recommended the American Military Partner Association, a support network for the loved ones of LGBTQ service members and veterans.