“As I have loved you, love one another.”
A stranger I met at the airport insisted her husband drive me to my hotel instead of catching a cab. If this had happened anywhere but in Utah, that would be the start of a horror movie. But in Utah, smiles and help are freely given. These new friends were excited to hear about my purpose for traveling: I was a panelist at Salt Lake City Comic Con, the second largest of its kind in the country. They were particularly excited by the subject matter of my panel: On-the-page queer representation in literature.
Oh, I should probably mention they weren’t Mormon, or rather members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were Mormon-adjacent.
For all the good that the Mormon Church does, and they truly do some outstanding service work and foster a mindset of helping one another, for all those smiles and wholesome pictures of family togetherness that they love to put on billboards and into TV commercials, there’s a dark underbelly that’s of the Church’s own making.
The leading cause of death among Utah teens is suicide.
Not cancer, heart disease, car wrecks or anything else. In fact, Utah teens kill themselves at a rate of four times the national average as of this printing. It’s estimated that forty percent of them are known to be LGBTQ youth, but that number is likely much higher due to a real fear of “coming out” and parents erasing their child’s orientation post-mortem to save face.
In November of 2015, the Mormon Church delivered a Proclamation, an act akin to an Amendment of the Constitution in that the statement becomes Doctrinal Law. They stated that LGB members either cannot ever act on their orientation or they cannot be members. (They completely denounce transgender persons and forbid gender-confirmation surgery. They also use the term “same-sex attracted”, or SSA to replace LGBTQ.) If the LGB/SSA person has already acted on that “feeling” by entering into a committed queer relationship, their children will be denied baptism (membership) until they in turn become adults and renounce their parents. For some folks, this became a non-issue. They simply wouldn’t be members.
But Mormonism isn’t just about where you go on Sunday. Mormonism is a culture, particularly in Utah. Mormonism influences everything from who your children play with, who you do business with, and all of your social activities. It’s a 24/7 lifestyle. Sunday is the breather! There’s even a hymn taught to kids, “Saturday is a special day/it’s the day we get ready for Sunday” and then it lists all the tasks you must do to be prepared for Sunday’s three-hour meeting.
Everything about Mormonism centers on the family. You pray together, you play together, you live for ever and ever together. Well, unless you’re an active queer person; then you don’t get to be with your family for ever and ever. (For some of us, that might be a blessing!) But for a devout Mormon, queer or otherwise, that’s a terrifying, isolating thought. Your family is your world. And then they’re gone. And it’s all your fault.
After this Proclamation, there was a horrifying rash of suicide, both amongst teen Mormons and adults. The despair was real. The hurt and rejection palpable. Those numbers aren’t going down.
The world may have moved on to at least recognize same-sex marriage, but in Utah, time seems to stand still. It’s only been a few decades since there were electro-shock treatments at BYU to “cure” people of their “homosexual-tendencies”. The Church pressures its members to utilize Church-owned or Church-approved materials. They create their own magazines, publish books, create movies, and provide family entertainment, so why look elsewhere? And it’s not always easy to find materials outside these religion-sanctioned sources for “prayerful study” to understand why you might feel the way you do about yourself.
Imagine being a kid, around 14 or 15, and you’re questioning either your sexuality or gender. Perhaps you have a “family computer” in the main room, a tactic recommended for morality-policing, so it’s not like you can just Google, “Am I gay?” You can’t drive, so you’re reliant on your parents or a family member to get you places. If you’re in Salt Lake, maybe you go to the mall, but the good mall is owned by the LDS Church—a building where visible tattoos mean you’re escorted from the premises. The bookstores aren’t going to have anything that contradicts the Church’s teachings, so that’s out. Maybe you go to the library. Do you dare venture into the LGBTQ section (that is, if that library has such a thing) to look for information? Do you ask the librarian? What if she goes to your same church and knows your family? You’ve just outed yourself before you even started understanding who you are.
This past June I attended the American Library Association’s convention, and this was a real issue for many librarians, who are often the forerunners of connecting queer youth with materials to help educate. Add in religious control, be it direct or perceived, and you have a potentially dangerous situation.
In Utah, this is just what it’s become.
I settled into my seat on the dais at SLCC and looked out on a decently-sized room, roughly a third of the way filled. This is a Comic Con, so a lot of people were in costumes. There were also folks in work-day clothes, nervously taking seats in the back. As the panel began, more people slipped inside, forced to move closer to the front for available seats. Then it was time to introduce myself.
“Hi! I’m Laura Stone, I’m from Lehi with family all over the Valley, and I couldn’t come out as queer until my late 30s. I’m no longer an active Mormon, and all three of my kids are LGBT.” (I know. I’m really lucky.)
The gasp and delighted shock on people’s faces is something I’ll never forget. That was also the first time I’ve ever outed myself to a group of people, and it was the first time I felt safe to do so, which is ironic, given my living experiences up to that point kept me in the closet.
The panel was a huge success, very interactive, and later, I must have stood outside the room for a half hour just witnessing other people’s joy as they told me their stories. All weekend I manned my publisher’s booth, a publishing house that specializes in high-quality queer literature with queer protagonists. If I was still Mormon, I would have called this experience Testimony Meeting.
A darling girl, around twenty, came by nervously asking me what our books were about. After giving her the rundown on a few genres, she stopped me with tears welling up in her eyes. “You mean no one dies in these books?” I threw my arms around her as she started crying, rocking her side to side and rubbing her back. “No. No, everyone lives. They get to just live.”
She confessed to me in a broken whisper that she’d wanted to die. I held her tighter and made sure she knew that if she ever felt that way again, she better call me, that we’d talk on the phone until she didn’t feel that way anymore.
I met former missionaries, former temple workers, all who had either tentatively put a foot out of the closet, or had stomped out in a fabulous pair of shoes, daring anyone to challenge them. There was the gay couple who were married in spirit and the lesbian couple who had it legitimized in a court of law. There were lots of happy-faced lesbians and bi-sexuals who had their family’s support (or who didn’t care if they had it), and nervous gay and trans boys who couldn’t bring themselves to tell their parents. I heard all of these stories, and this was just on the first day of a three day convention.
Two other girls, dressed like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, stopped by several times throughout the Con for hugs and more book recommendations. One great kid with a camera and a manuscript stopped by every morning to be reassured that even though he was straight, it was okay for him to write books that feature queer people. One of our authors is a transman. A blue-haired boy I remembered from the panel’s audience visited him every day, eyes bright and happy to see someone who was just like him. They talked about top-surgery, coming out to parents, and life in general. This boy got to see that not only are there others just like him, but they’re living and thriving. They’re writing stories about characters who live and thrive, too.
Our booth became a safe space for a severely marginalized group of people. The teens and early twenty-somethings who visited us daily needed to see that there are books about them in the world, positive stories that aren’t necessarily about coming out or the trauma of being queer. With Interlude Press, my publisher, there are action-adventure stories that just happen to feature a bi-sexual Chinese-American. We have an historical western with a gay Mexican rancher. We have romance, historical, science fiction, high fantasy and literary fiction, and they all have positive queer role models.
My latest novel was titled specifically to signal to queer Mormons: And It Came To Pass. The cover features two obvious LDS missionaries with their hands surreptitiously linked. It follows Adam Young, a devout Mormon on his mission as he realizes that he’s gay. While there is a romantic element to the book, it’s more about a person discovering themselves and what they really believe and how that aligns with a faith that doesn’t accept them. Devout Mormons who happen to be queer have been left by the wayside. I wanted to write a story for them. For us, really, although I no longer actively participate in the Church.
I initially wrote the book for a beloved cousin, who did not get a happy ending and quite frankly, whose overbearing, devoutly Mormon father was quoted almost word-for-word in the book. I wrote the happy ending I wished for him. As I’m writing this, I’ve just learned of another suicide, another queer teen who felt hopeless and abandoned. It breaks my heart. I want all of these beautiful, loving, big-hearted people I met to have a happy, or least a hopeful story.
And of my darling, special girl who, with lip trembling and gorgeous, tear-filled doe-eyes whispered that she’d wanted to die? She came to see me every day, too, and got a hug from me every single time. By the third day, she was visibly stronger. She didn’t creep up to the booth, worried she’d interrupt us. I got an excited wave and a bone-squeezing hug, although that may have been from my end. I beamed as she told me about telling her Mormon dad she was a lesbian and how he took it in stride. More importantly, he told her he still loved her and would choose her, always.
One week out from the convention, she sent me a private message through social media. She came out to her whole family. In her words, she was having the most “queer and wonderful” week of her life, and it was just time. Emboldened by visibility and empowered by acceptance, she made the leap out of the closet. The sheer relief and joy she felt as a result came through her rapid-fire messages detailing the experience.
There has to be visibility. There has to be a point where the literary world embraces stories with queer protagonists, and not only the story of trauma and suffering that allows straight people to empathize with us. We need the story where the detective solves the crime, and she happens to be a lesbian with a wife waiting for her at home. We need a story where the adventurer is trans and defeats the evil corporation robbing crypts of their spoils. We need a gay boxer and lesbian scientist and bisexual grocery store clerks who can also see the supernatural. People need to see themselves in media or they buy into the idea that they’re disposable.
These kids, young adults, and disaffected adults matter. These stories matter. Our presence in the world of literature matters. We can do better. We must. Lives are on the line.