David Archuleta’s mom left the LDS Church after her son came out. These parents stayed, but not without difficulty.

More and more Latter-day Saint parents say they no longer believe in a “sad heaven” without their LGBTQ children.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lupe Bartholomew, the mother of pop singer David Archuleta, at her home in South Jordan on Saturday, April 20, 2024.

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David Archuleta had broken off three engagements with women by the time he opened up to his mother and told her that he was queer.

A devout Latter-day Saint convert at the time, Lupe Bartholomew was “devastated” — and not just because she had been smitten by all three potential daughters-in-law.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that families can live together forever in God’s presence. But to unlock this eternal blessing, each person must obey God’s plan — a plan that does not include same-sex intimacy or marriage. All others, top leaders have taught, are relegated to second- and third-tier heavens.

Listening to her son explain that he was attracted to men, she said an image “immediately” formed in her mind of his soul “sinking” from the highest kingdom of heaven to the lowest and beyond her reach.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lupe Bartholomew, the mother of pop singer David Archuleta, holds a framed photo of Archuleta in her palm at her home in South Jordan on Saturday, April 20, 2024.

Her first response was to double down on her commitment to the faith, determined to be the example that would lead not just Archuleta but also his sisters, who had left the church for reasons of their own, back to the light.

“I was just thinking to myself, ‘OK, I will show them,’” the South Jordan-based voice teacher said. “I’m going to remain faithful. I’m going to show them that this is the way to do it.”

But the more she thought about it, the less convinced she became that her son was deserving of any kind of punishment.

“Here’s my perfect child, who has done nothing wrong except to be queer,” she said. “It just didn’t make sense.”

Then came the People magazine interview in which Archuleta described feeling so much self-hatred for himself as a gay Latter-day Saint that, for a time, he had wondered if he wasn’t better off dead.

Bartholomew cried for days, balled up in her bed.

“I was hurting because I love the church so much,” she said, “But at the same time, oh my gosh, my child is suffering. I had to make a decision.”

She told her bishop, the lay leader of her Latter-day Saint congregation, that she, like her son, was stepping away from the church. Soon after, she formally withdrew her membership.

“I told David,” she said, “we’ll go to hell together.”

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Don’t ask, don’t tell

Bartholomew’s account is a high-profile example of a story that Ben Schilaty, a gay Latter-day Saint podcaster, author and therapist, has seen play out repeatedly through his work and advocacy.

Schilaty, who until recently worked in the Honor Code Office at church-owned Brigham Young University, said he’s watched as devout mothers and fathers, believing they will not live with their LGBTQ children in the next life, respond to learning their child is queer by creating distance — either between themselves and the child or themselves and the church.

He and Lisa Diamond, a University of Utah psychology professor and an expert on gender issues, both agreed: Today’s Latter-day Saint parents are less likely to kick LGBTQ children out of their home or disown them than in times past.

(Lisa Diamond) Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, explained that for Latter-day Saint parents and families, a child's coming out is not a single event, but the catalyst for an ever-evolving journey.

Instead, what Schilaty sees is the development of “a don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy in some families that harms the connection between parents and their child.

One phenomenon Diamond has observed is parents leaning into their religious practices and beliefs in an effort to cope with what can rise to the level of trauma for some Latter-day Saints.

“One of the things that terrifies a human brain the most is uncertainty,” she explained. “And one way to cope is to cling to rules and doctrines that provide you with a sense of ‘if you do this, you will be OK.’”

All in all, Diamond said, this search for solace represents a “pretty human tendency in a time of crisis,” while stressing that’s not necessarily where the parents will remain.

“It’s a journey that a lot of these families are on,” she said. “The kid is growing and the parent is changing. These are not single events and trajectories.”

Pushing back against eternal separation

(Courtesy) Ben Schilaty. a gay Latter-day Saint podcaster, author and therapist, says more and more Latter-day Saint parents are rejecting the notion that their child’s LGBTQ identity may separate them in the next life.

But Schilaty said even this softer form of distancing is becoming less common.

More and more, he said, he has observed Latter-day Saint parents who reject the idea that their child’s LGBTQ identity equates to an empty seat at the family table in the afterlife.

Allison Dayton — the mother of a gay son and founder of Lift + Love, an organization that offers support for Latter-day Saint LGBTQ+ individuals and families — said she’s also seen this trend, which she chalks up primarily to a generational shift.

(Allison Dayton) Lift + Love founder Allison Dayton said she's seen a shift in Latter-day Saint parents, with more and more rejecting the idea that their LGBTQ children will spend eternity separated from them in a lower tier of heaven.

Schilaty agreed this was a factor, but not the only one.

Church leaders, and in turn members, increasingly have emphasized God’s love and grace in their rhetoric, he said. At the same time, parents today have greater access to a growing ecosystem of support — from books to podcasts to in-person conferences.

“That kind of communal processing and shared experience,” he said, “leads to more personal revelation and inspiration.”

Darice Auston, a mother of four, including one transgender child, recently polled 25 Latter-day Saint mothers, all in their 40s, of LGBTQ children.

“None of them,” the Denver resident said, “ever had any doubts their child would be with them in the eternities.”

(Darice Auston) Darice Auston is among those Latter-day Saint parents who reject the idea that she will spend the eternities without her LGBTQ child.

True, there remains “plenty of painful rhetoric surrounding the topic,” she said, but “at least in my generation, we haven’t bought into the ‘sad heaven’ idea. It just feels so out of step with the loving God we have come to know on this journey.”

Choosing to stay — for now

Jen and Josh Rollins live in Riverton and are the parents of five children, ranging from ages 13 to 24. Of those, three are part of the LGBTQ community.

“Prior to having queer kids, I would’ve thought, ‘Oh, they’ll just go to a lower kingdom, a form of heaven, and we’ll just come and visit them,’” Jen said. “Once I had queer kids, I couldn’t wrap my mind and my heart around that even being a possibility.”

She read books on the subject (particularly influential was Tom Christofferson’s “That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family”) and attended an Encircle conference with her gay son.

And she and her husband prayed — a lot.

Josh, who was serving as a bishop when all three of their children came out, said prayer has been his lifeline as he and his wife have sought to chart a course they never anticipated for their family.

“I described it as receiving an answer one time that, ‘They were my kids before they were yours,’” he said. “And so I just trust that they’re in his hands and our family will be together in some way, some form. It’s just different than what we knew before.”

In the meantime, the couple and their children are taking it one Sunday and one conversation at a time.

At one point, Josh thought he was “headed out” the door of the faith he loved — a feeling he never thought he’d have.

“But the more that I really search and seek to be in tune,” he said, “I feel the Spirit prompting me to stay and to share the love that I’m learning, which is much deeper and broader than I’ve ever known.”

‘I claim you’

That decision to remain in the fold isn’t easy, the couple agreed. Most days, Josh said, it feels a lot like having each foot in a different canoe, both moving at different speeds.

Schilaty has seen this struggle repeated in other Latter-day Saint families and believes there are steps the church could take — short of changing the doctrine on eternal marriage — to ease that tension and make staying a more sustainable option for more parents.

The biggest one is no longer framing LGBTQ children as a burden to their believing parents.

He cited a 2006 interview with senior apostle Dallin H. Oaks and now-emeritus general authority Seventy Lance B. Wickman.

In it, Wickman said “it’s hard to imagine a more difficult circumstance for a parent to face than” that of LGBTQ children asking if they can bring their partner home for the holidays.

“Can you imagine being a kid reading that and being like, ‘I am such a burden?’” Schilaty asked. “What the message that kid needs from their parents — again and again — is that you belong and I claim you. And you are not a burden; you are a gift.”

Doing so, Schilaty added, will “not only save lives, but increase mental health and also strengthen family relationships.”

Groups like Lift + Love strive to offer the on-the-ground support to families trying to figure out what being a supportive parent and a faithful Latter-day Saint looks like.

“Really the work has become helping families stay connected to the church and to God,” Dayton said. “That’s where parents really need help because most times they don’t want to have to give up either [their child or the church].”

‘Hell Together’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lupe Bartholomew, the mother of pop singer David Archuleta, is seen in the reflection on a framed poster of Archuleta in her home in South Jordan on Saturday, April 20, 2024.

These days, Bartholomew said she and her family are thriving, unburdened by the pressures to conform to a mold they could no longer fit.

Recently, Archuleta released a new song dedicated to his mother. The title: “Hell Together.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Archuleta performs at LoveLoud in the Delta Center in November 2023. His new song is "Hell Together."

In it, the once poster boy of a faithful Latter-day Saint sings: “If I have to live without you, I don’t want to live forever.”

The first time Bartholomew listened to it with the lyrics written out (“My English is not very good,” the native Honduran explained), she wept.

Only this time, they were tears of joy.

Editor’s note If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or chat at 988Lifeline.org. This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.