(expanded and revised from an earlier publication)
A stranger I met at the Salt Lake City airport insisted her husband drive me to my hotel instead of my plan to hire a ride. 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 what was previously called 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, just Mormon-adjacent.
For all the good that the Mormon Church does, and they 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 the last census. 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 the Church.
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 people who are transgender and forbid gender-confirmation surgery. They also use the term “same-sex attracted”, or SSA to replace LGBTQ because they’re so antiquated, they don’t realize sexuality and gender are two separate issues.)
If the “LGB/SSA” person has already acted on that “feeling” by entering a committed queer relationship, their children will be denied baptism (membership with all the perks that come with it, such as eternal glory) until they in turn become adults and renounce their parents. For some folks, this became a non-issue. They simply wouldn’t be members. Note: they reversed the harsh edict on the children of queer couples in 2019. The rest stands.
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. 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 13 or 14, and you’re questioning either your sexuality or gender. Perhaps you have a “family computer” in the main room, a tactic the Mormon church and other religious or conservative groups recommend for morality-policing. You can’t just Google, “Am I gay?” At 13 or 14, you can’t drive, so you’re reliant on your parents or a family member to get you places. 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 they go to your same church and or knows your family? You’ve just outed yourself before you even started understanding who you are.
A few years ago, I attended the American Library Association’s convention on behalf of my publisher, Interlude Press, a publication house of queer-focused literature. I learned that this was a real issue for many librarians, people who are often the forerunners of connecting queer youth with materials to help educate. Add in religious control or hard-line conservative “values and you have a potentially dangerous situation.
In Utah and other conservative states, this is just what it’s become.
In Texas, my home state, it’s not much better. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Gen Z and Millennials, My god, the rate for children ages 5–14 even experienced an increase of 30 percent. Five. That’s kindergarten. There are many factors, of course, but it bears noting that sexual orientation bias represents the third-highest category of reported hate crimes. They’re connected.
At the convention, I settled into my seat on the dais and looked out on a large auditorium, roughly two-thirds filled. This is a Comic Con, so they’re rambunctious, packed to the gills, and a lot of people come in costumes. There were also folks there 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 remaining 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’m such a lucky mom.)
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 in public, 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 house that specializes in high-quality queer literature with queer protagonists.
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?”
Whew. After checking that it would be welcomed, I threw my arms around her as she started crying, hugging the stuffing out of her. “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 bisexuals 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 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 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 there are action-adventure stories that just happen to feature a bisexual Chinese-American (Not Your Sidekick). We have an historical western with a gay Mexican rancher written as an homage to Pride & Prejudice. We have romance, historical, science fiction, YA, high fantasy, and literary fiction, and they all have positive queer role models.
My third 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 wanted to write a story for those who believe fervently in a god yet are raised in religions that claim God doesn’t want them.
Initially I 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 the Texas GOP’s plan to ban around 850 books from schools, books that focus on gender and sexuality, race and social justice issues. The intent is clear: if you are not what conservative groups deem acceptable, if you are not white and straight and Christian (they of course went after anything connected to the Muslim faith) you don’t deserve to see yourself in print. They don’t want you to exist.
There is no doubt in my mind why suicide is on the rise.
The state representative who brought this legislation forward wanted to address books that make “students uncomfortable”. The hypocrisy of this individual heading up something called a “Freedom Caucus”… (Can someone check to see if the dictionary is on that list? If not, someone send him a copy.)
This, combined with the House Bill 3979, the “Critical Race Theory” bill, is the opposite direction we should take. It’s too much to bear, the cognitive dissonance of a group of people who butt in with “all lives matter” out of one side of their mouth, then spout with the other that a straight, white child is uncomfortable with a book on the shelf with Black, queer and/or Muslim characters (Running With Lions).
It’s posturing for either political points (Texas) or to prove “worthiness” (Utah) that has devastating real-life ramifications. While it doesn’t truly affect people for whom the books aren’t written, it absolutely affects those for whom they are intended.
Every day of that convention saw that same group come to our booth, to talk, visit, commune with like-minded folks. Plenty of families and other folks passed us by. They saw the rainbow flags, maybe smiled, and moved on. They found the books meant for them. If we hadn’t been there, where would our group of folks had gone? What would have existed for them? We sold a lot of books over those three days. One couple bought a copy of every single book we had, “just to support what you’re doing.”
And of my darling, special girl who, with lip trembling and gorgeous, tear-filled 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. 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 queer and other marginalized people are allowed to be protagonists, and not only the center of a story of trauma and suffering that allows straight, white, Christian or able-bodied people to empathize with us. We need the story where the detective solves the crime, and she happens to be a Mexican lesbian with a wife waiting for her at home. We need a story where the adventurer is Indian and trans and defeats the evil corporation robbing crypts of their spoils. We need a Black gay boxer and an Asian lesbian scientist and wheelchair-using bisexual grocery store clerk 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, teens, and disaffected adults matter. These stories matter. These books matter. Our presence in the world of literature matters. We can do better. We must. Lives are on the line.