Ed Smart — father of Elizabeth Smart — speaks publicly about coming out as gay, calling it the ‘second miracle’ in his life

(Michael Magnum | Special to The Tribune) Ed Smart speaks at an Encircle event in Lehi on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

Lehi • Ed Smart believes he has experienced two miracles in his life.

The first, he said, was when his daughter Elizabeth Smart was found alive nine months after she was kidnapped in Utah in 2002. He had always held out hope that she would return home and feels unbelievably blessed that she did.

The second miracle, he said, is less obvious — though still powerful — and something he never thought would happen. He sometimes worries that he doesn’t deserve it after the first one. But it came earlier this year when, at 64, Smart decided to come out as gay and was warmly accepted by his neighbors, friends and family.

“This was something I could no longer keep back,” he said Saturday at a conference in Lehi hosted by Encircle, a nonprofit organization that helps LGBTQ youths find support. “And I’m grateful for the love and support I’ve felt.”

It was the first time Smart has spoken publicly since coming out.

He first told friends that he was gay in August through a Facebook message intended only for them — but which quickly went public. In it he mentioned that he planned to separate from his wife, Lois — who filed for divorce in July — and that because of his orientation he no longer felt comfortable in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — of which he has been a lifelong member.

The Encircle event on Saturday focused on identity, acceptance and “those tensions between Mormonism and the LGBTQ community," as one speaker put it, where gay members are instructed not to act on their attractions. Smart was the keynote speaker.

“The church had taught me to love the sinner and hate the sin,” he said. “Well, how can you divide the two?”

Hundreds of people sat in the audience as he spoke, filling the aisles and crowding into an overflow room to watch him on the stage illuminated by rainbow spotlights. Near the front, too, was Nathan Ivie, a Utah County commissioner who also recently came out as gay publicly in a video posted to Facebook. Everyone cheered when Smart walked up.

He focused mostly on how he came out, the love he received and what people can do to welcome others, too.

“Hopefully the rhetoric calms down and, as a society, we get to the point where we can accept our brothers and sisters," he said.

(Michael Magnum | Special to The Tribune) Ed Smart speaks at an Encircle event in Lehi on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.

During both his speech and at a workshop discussion earlier in the day — titled “Coming out. Coming clean.” — Smart said he first felt different when he was 12 years old and his family moved from California to Utah. They had always been devout Latter-day Saints, but the faith and culture seemed stronger here.

When he went to Sunday meetings, he said, he remembered hearing people talk about those who were gay. They called them derogatory names, including “f----ts” and “queers.”

“I was told it was being a deviant, being abnormal, being mentally sick,” he said. “To me, when I thought about that, that was something that kept me in check or kept me closeted.”

Smart told the audience that growing up he tried to “stomp out” any gay thoughts and his attraction to men. He thought that was the only way to be “good.” He wanted to fit in.

For years, he tried therapy, going to the temple, talking to church leaders. He thought he was “broken.” It got to the point where, he said, he became homophobic and wouldn’t associate with anyone who was LGBTQ. He even questioned why he was alive. But, Smart suggested, it “resurfaces no matter how many times you try to get out of it”

Almost a year ago — on Dec. 10, 2018 — Smart said that, unprompted, his wife asked him if he was gay. He said, “Yes.” And that was the first time he told anyone.

“I guess I didn’t choose to come out,” he explained. “After years and years, I finally said, ‘Yes.’ I don’t know how much longer it would have gone on.”

He still doesn’t quite know why she asked that day and, he said, she hasn’t really accepted his answer. But a few days later, she told him to tell their six children. So at 5 a.m., he dialed each one and said: “Your mother and I are getting a divorce. And I’m gay.”

“Boom, boom, boom. Six times — boom,” Smart said, moving his hands like a bomb was going off. “Some of them said, ‘You’re what? What? What did you say?’ But eventually, all of them said something like, ‘Dad, if that’s the way you are, that’s the way you are and I still love you.’”

After that, he told his siblings, too, and his mother. It’s been a hard process, Smart said, but he’s appreciated their kind responses. It’s something he never expected — and is incredibly grateful for.

“To have Elizabeth come back was huge. To have our family be able to move forward from that was huge,” he said. “And I was at a crossroads where I was going to be causing difficulty in my family.”

He got emotional several times, choking back tears as he tugged at his black coat jacket.

“I thought Elizabeth’s ordeal was very difficult,” he added after a pause. “But this was more difficult.”

Smart said he talked to three local leaders in the church before deciding to come out. He remembers one, in particular, telling him: “You are giving up so much for so little. You know how God feels about homosexuality and gays.”

After that, Smart recalled that he decided that he had to accept himself the way he was and that he was born gay. His faith changed and the church, he noted in his original letter, is no longer “a place where I find solace.” He still believes in God, Christ and miracles. And he appreciates the steps church leaders have made to be more accepting.

On Saturday, though, he said that he could “no longer hate myself or hate that part of me.”

“I could never deny that,” Smart added. “I have witnessed God’s hand in my life. … I don’t believe that I’m going to hell. I don’t believe that God hates me, that he’s going to crucify me. I believe that he has great love for all of his children.”

Smart said he now wants to help others coming out find the resources that he couldn’t find when he made his decision. That work, he believes, will mirror in some ways what he’s done in being an advocate for child safety after his daughter’s kidnapping.

Smart and his family have frequently been in the public eye since Elizabeth Smart, then 14, was taken from their Salt Lake City home on June 5, 2002. She was held captive and repeatedly sexually assaulted before she was rescued nine months later while walking along a street in Sandy with her kidnappers Brian David Mitchell and Mitchell’s wife, Wanda Barzee.

When she came back home, Smart said, he “didn’t want her to endure any second of anyone thinking any less of her.” He said being there and showing her how much she was loved made the difference. And now his family and friends have done that for him.

“How often do you get to have a second miracle in your life?” he asked. “Because accepting myself for who I am really has been another miracle.”