“What would it be like to be ‘normal?’” is something I asked myself a lot growing up.
It’s a question many LGBTQ+ youth in Utah are likely asking, with the news The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes a ban on conversion therapy, and one candidate for Salt Lake City mayor placing blame for teen suicide on altitude, and suggesting Utah’s suicide predicament is not unique.
My youth was like others in my neighborhood. I was raised in a close Latter-day Saint community. Nearly every neighbor was in my congregation. Obedience was expected in the religion, but with it came acceptance and support within the fold.
Privately, I felt “abnormal.” I had “bro crushes” for as long as I could remember, but kept my feelings hidden.
As I grew, they grew stronger. I told my bishop and was relieved when he said I wasn’t gay, but experiencing “same gender attraction.” Therapy would help and, if they found the root cause, it could be diminished or cured.
I began conversion therapy for the sake of my salvation. It was wonderful talking to people in my situation. I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
The therapists decided my upbringing wasn’t the issue – I had attentive parents and male role models. Instead, they said I had repressed memories of been sexually molested as a child. I got medication for PTSD, anxiety and to diminish my desires. I came out to family as being molested as opposed to being gay.
But that was a lie.
I wanted desperately to conform to an ideal, and handed over my dignity, integrity and identity. Instead of being cured, I learned unhealthy coping strategies and medication numbed my emotions.
After two years and nothing working, I wanted to try something else: pursue my true feelings. I began dating a trainer from the gym. We weren’t out, and too afraid to classify our relationship, but it was clear we had growing feelings. At around seven months, an email from his brother arrived, telling me he was found dead. They ruled it a heart attack. But I knew differently. He struggled with the same demons I did.
My world was shattered, and there was no one to turn to. For all anyone knew, he was my friend from the gym.
I revisited my bishop wanting help. Instead I was rebuked. I was told he was taken from me because I wasn’t supposed to be homosexual. I wouldn’t be forgiven until I had sorrow for pursuing a relationship almost as sinful as murder, sorrow for meeting him, and took responsibility for his sins because I knew better.
Life became extremely dark. I felt more isolated than ever, and I wouldn’t ever be enough, or worth loving, since I felt so broken.
The idea of ending the pain became real. I planned it out and needed to decide on when.
A friend’s realization over text saved me. He called the police, and I agreed to meet them at St. Marks Hospital. I arrived to flares, an ambulance, and firetrucks — and my mother being taken to the ER. She had gotten into an accident while following the police.
She was bruised, bandaged and on crutches, but she held my hand and said, “If this is what it takes for you to know you are loved, I’ll do it again.”
That night changed everything. I started seeing an unbiased and evidence-based therapist who put me on a path to healing.
I was lucky. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah for kids, teens and young adults, and we aren’t addressing the real causes.
Focusing on statistics that avoid religious factors puts people at risk. My boyfriend’s suicide and my attempt had nothing to do with altitude. Avoiding the role of conversion therapy and religion in LGBTQ+ suicide in Utah allows our epidemic to continue.
We need people in office who stand up and are brave enough to push back against a system that is doing harm.
To those considering suicide, I know that the darkness looks real because it is. But it’s not permanent. It may be hard to see now, but the darker and longer the shadow, the brighter the light is that casts it.
Justin Utley is a musician who lives in Salt Lake City.