One woman’s exit from the LDS Church plays out on ‘Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’

It’s been a painful journey for Heather Gay.

(Charles Sykes |Bravo) Heather Gay on "Watch What Happens Live."

“The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” often addresses Latter-day Saint issues, even though there are no fully active members of the faith in the cast.

There are three former members (Heather Gay, Whitney Rose and Jen Shah), and one (Lisa Barlow) who professes belief in the church without adhering to all of its standards. (She drinks alcohol and owns a tequila company.)

But amid all the yelling, screaming, fighting and feuding, Shah’s arrest on federal fraud charges, and Mary Cosby and Jennie Nguyen’s racism, “RHOSLC” includes a storyline viewers have never seen play out on a TV series — the journey of one woman as she struggles to leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Before the show premiered in November 2020, Gay described herself as a “good Mormon gone bad.” And she told The Salt Lake Tribune that one of the reasons she agreed to be part of “RHOSLC” was so that her exit from the church would be public.

“When it came down to it,” she said, “I thought if I’m going to leave the Mormon church, this is the way to do it. I was kind of sick of living in the shadows. I don’t want to say double life, but I was transitioning out of the faith very slowly — like a slow bleed.”

The end of a marriage

Gay told viewers that she grew up in a strong Latter-day Saint family, went on a church mission, and attended church-owned Brigham Young University. “When I was in college,” she said, “I just wanted to get an education and get married and have kids.”

She married her husband “not because he was the love of my life … but because he was Mormon.” She later said she married to have children and “an eternal family. … So losing my husband to me was like losing everything. At times, I’m thankful that Billy left me. But I’m still a divorcee, ostracized from my community and totally alone.”

(Bravo) Heather Gay, left, and Jen Shah try to repair their friendship in the Sept. 19 episode of "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City."

According to Gay, whose divorce was finalized in 2014, members of her ward, or congregation, began treating her and her three daughters differently after the divorce. Even though she was “still showing up to church every week,” her daughters were not invited “to the same birthday parties. …. Suddenly, we’re not part of the same circle of families. So because of all that, my daughters aren’t really that into being Mormon anymore.”

Ashley, 18, and Annabelle, 14, said they don’t want to go back after missing past meetings.

“They’re so judgy about that,” Annabelle said. “That’s why I don’t like going to church.”

In Season Two, Gay’s second oldest daughter, Georgia, 15, said she’s “worried” about going back to church “because we haven’t been in so long.” Annabelle said, “I want to go back now, but I feel like it’s too late.”

“It’s never too late,” Gay said, vowing to accompany Annabelle to church “not because I believe it and I’m going to do it again — [but] so I can support you.”

A big decision

Gay said that family members look at her divorce as “the consequence of [her] bad choices.”

“In my experience, if you get divorced in the Mormon church and you’re a man, it’s much easier,” she said. Her ex-husband can remarry and “still have full church status,” but she feels she has been marked as unworthy.

In Season One of “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” Gay told her daughters about the “double life” she had been living and made the decision to stop trying to “straddle the fence” between being in or out of the church.

“I have been wrestling with this for so long, and I should have just come out to them in the beginning,” she said. “… It feels like a huge weight is off my chest.”

(Nicole Weinagart | Bravo) Heather Gay and Lisa Barlow on "The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City" reunion.

Fractured family

Gay said that once she decided to leave the Utah-based faith, she realized she had been acting badly toward her younger sister, Nancy, who married outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and moved to Colorado.

“She broke away from the Mormon church about 30 years ago, and it was a huge fracture in our relationship and her relationship with our family,” Gay said. She was “mad at [Nancy] for leaving the faith. And part of that punishment is you don’t get to have your eternal family anymore. You choose differently, you live alone.”

Gay said she now feels “horrible guilt about the fact that I did not have a relationship with my sister for decades” and hopes for a reconciliation. “I’m sorry that I put my faith and my Mormonism above my sister.”

She has regrets

Gay is brash and outspoken, but she has expressed heartfelt regret about her split from the church. She was visibly shaken when her brother Tyler told her she helped inspire him and his family to leave the church, too. She said it was “confirmation of my biggest fears. … It’s really hard to be a role model and be a traitor at the same time.”

She went on to say she doesn’t think she’s “better off” since she left the denomination. “I grieve the life I wanted to have. ... I never once said, ‘Don’t be Mormon.’ I just said, ‘I can’t be me and be Mormon,’ and it’s making me messed up.”

Amid tears, she added, “I wish I could be who I am and still be a good Mormon.”

At the end of Season Two of “RHOSLC,” Gay organized a memorial for her father, who died in April 2020, and all but one of her family members who are still active Latter-day Saints refused to attend. Gay said her mother and most of her siblings were “taking a stand and refusing to participate because my mom [said] my dad was rolling over in his grave,” and because “they think it’d be a compromise of their values and a betrayal of their faith if they were to endorse me in any way.”

At the memorial, she said, she felt “compelled to make [her father] proud. ... I knew I could never fully be myself and be Mormon. I would rather be his daughter than be myself. I would rather be Mormon and be loved and make him proud than anything opposite. But here I am, a bad Mormon.”

At the Season Two reunion of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” however, Gay vents against her former church. “The Mormon church is questionable,” she says. “The Mormon church does not have equal rights for LGBTQIA or women. And they’re a cult, possibly, as well. Who knows?”