Suicide Prevention & Awareness
Suicidal Behavior in Gay and Lesbian Mormons
by Christopher J. Alexander
This article originally appeared in Affinity, November 1989. It later appeared in Ron
Schow, Wayne Schow, & Marybeth Raynes, eds., Peculiar People:
Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books 1991, pp.
257-263). Dr. Alexander holds a Ph.D. in clinical counseling from the Professional School of
Psychology, San Francisco.
During the last few years I have been a member
of Affirmation, an organization of gay and lesbian Mormons who seek to build bridges between
homosexuality and Mormonism. In 1987 I served as general coordinator and in this capacity
maintained regular contact with chapter leaders and other members. Often I was the first
person to be contacted by someone who was just learning of Affirmation. I answered their
questions, provided emotional support, and referred them to the nearest chapter.
From this vantage point I came in contact with many men and women from around the country.
I talked with people who had never before disclosed to anyone their feelings of being gay,
lesbian, or bisexual. I talked with those who were active in the LDS church in varying
degrees, and I met with church authorities to discuss issues surrounding homosexuality.
I shared in the excitement of some who learned they were not alone as homosexuals
in the Mormon community. I also saw the pain, sorrow, and struggle that many of these men
and women were experiencing. One of the most alarming insights that came to me before
and during my tenure in office was the frequency of suicidal fantasies, attempts, or deaths
occurring among homosexual Mormons.
Rofes (1983) points out that assessing the rate of suicide in any population is difficult
given the shame, inadequacy, and failure felt by survivors and their families. The stigma is
great enough that many families succeed in having coroners list the death as something other
than suicide, and some coroners only list the death as suicide if a suicide note is present.
Less than 40 percent of people who kill themselves leave notes. These facts notwithstanding,
there are 35,000 suicides reported each year in the U.S., and it is the tenth leading cause
Several research studies have gleaned the following information about gays and suicide:
40 percent of men and 39 percent of women among a sample of 5,000 had attempted or seriously contemplated suicide (Jay and Young 1977).
53 percent of the suicidal men and 33 percent of the suicidal women in this same study said that their homosexuality was a factor in their suicidal impulses and actions.
37 percent of white homosexual males had attempted or seriously considered suicide compared to 13 percent of white heterosexual males in a research study of 575 gay men and 284 heterosexual men (Bell and Weinberg 1978).
41 percent of white lesbians versus 26 percent of white heterosexual women contemplated or attempted suicide in the Bell and Weinberg study of 229 lesbians and 101 heterosexual women.
50 percent of the gay men and lesbian women in the Bell and Weinberg study reported that their attempts were related to their homosexuality.
over 50 percent of the gays and lesbians in the Bell and Weinberg study who had attempted suicide did so before the age of twenty.
12 percent of lesbians and 7 percent of gay men had attempted suicide in a study of 146 homosexual persons (Saghir and Robins 1973).
It is important to acknowledge that these are statistics of survivors. We have no reliable data on actual suicides among gay men or lesbian women.
My interest in the incidence of suicide among gay Mormons grew as I read the research and talked to others. In the spring of 1985 I began a research project to examine the frequency of suicidal fantasies, attempts, and completions among gay and lesbian Mormons. I solicited biographies and autobiographies from participants at local and national Affirmation gatherings. I hoped that I would be able to gather enough data to warrant a dissertation project for my doctorate in clinical psychology.
Unfortunately several requests yielded only a handful of written narratives. The content of these letters spoke to the magnitude of the problem and provided some chilling insights. All of the letters sent to me were from men who spoke about their own suicidal ideas or told me about the completed suicide of another man. My correspondents were from all regions of the country. All but one person gave me a return address, although some chose not to use their real names. Perhaps the most striking thing was the obvious apprehension most writers had about putting their stories into words-for many it was the first time. Yet there was an increasing tone of relief toward the end of each letter.
A few of the suicidal men described to me were married. In some cases the wife knew about her husband's sexuality struggles, but for the most part the topic was not discussed in the relationship. One wife became nervous whenever her husband was around gay people for fear he would leave her. Her husband overdosed on prescription medications and drowned himself. One man who wrote to me about his suicidal feelings is still married. He feels that he goes through life with the feeling of "holding my breath, leading a life of introversion and morbid self-analysis." He writes, "The act or completion of suicide is when you can't hold your breath any longer." Reflecting on his fear of divorce, excommunication, and rejection, he said, "With such losses there would be no choice for me but the ultimate choice--death."
For a few men who wrote, the biggest struggle occurred as they were expected to go on a mission. Some felt that they were not "worthy" enough, and others felt that it would be a lie to go on a mission. As family influence mounted, the thoughts of suicide increased. One writer reported, "The pressure started from my family every time I saw them, adding to my own guilty conviction that what I felt was totally wrong. I was terrified of the possibility of excommunication. I couldn't stay concentrated on anything. I couldn't hold a job. Nothing in my life worked. Depression was always just around the corner. At eighteen it looked like the end of the world to me. I went home one weekend and spent the time with my family. Before I left I borrowed my father's .22 automatic. I thought about it for one entire week. I put it off and finally ended up at a bar.... I met a girl who told me that God didn't hate homosexuals. I began to realize that there was more thinking to do."
One of the major factors contributing to the suicides of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals is estrangement from the traditional support systems within our culture that people turn to in times of crisis: family, church, and school. As is clear from the above examples, these men did not see family or church as a support. Some of the men who wrote me harbor considerable anger and blame the church. One lamented, "The biggest agony I went through was my attempt to understand the suffering, my own and that of my friends. During a one week period I was able to count thirty friends who had seriously contemplated suicide because of their feelings about being gay. The Mormon church was the biggest factor, so I thought, in the origins of these suicidal feelings and fantasies."
Nineteenth-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, "If religion protects one from the desire for self-destruction, it is not because it preaches to him, with elements of religious origin; it is because it forms a social group." Durkheim was talking not only of social integration within the church as a community but also of personal identification with the church. The church is part of the self. I believe we should not underestimate the power of being raised Mormon. It is as potent to identity as being raised Jewish, Catholic, Irish, or Chinese. For gays, lesbians or bisexuals, this upbringing increases the feelings of isolation when they think they cannot turn to anyone for help. Motto (1975) notes that the second most common reason why someone commits suicide is that the person, who normally displays strength and ability in many areas of life, experiences a gradual, relentless shrinkage in his or her sources of emotional support.
Some of the respondents who are still alive continue to struggle with fleeting thoughts of suicide. Others have overcome their impulses and are living well-adjusted lives. One person wrote: "I am honest, hardworking, loving, happy, and gay. My family loves me. I am living life for me. I have never thought of suicide since that time. I have also never been back to church."
Of particular concern to me is the incidence of suicidal urges, attempts, and completions among teenagers, gay and straight, Mormon and non-Mormon. Current statistics indicate that the incidence of suicide among our nation's adolescent population is soaring. In the past thirty-five years the suicide rate for those aged fifteen to twenty-four years has risen from 4.5 per 100,000 to 12.8 per 100,000. This is a 284 percent increase. These figures include gay teenagers, and as Bell and Weinberg discovered, more than half of gays who attempt suicide do so while under twenty years of age.
The struggles of adolescents in today's world are well known. In addition to normal challenges, drugs and world conditions make growing up more difficult. For many Mormon youths high expectations add to the developmental challenges. When in addition to all of this, a youth struggles with homosexual urges that occur to him or her without bidding but are anathema to the church, the pressure becomes extreme.
Ann Landers writes of letters received from teenage homosexuals: "Most of the boys who write are tortured with guilt and self-hatred. Most live on the razor's edge, terrified that someone might learn they aren't like everybody else. Many who write are so ashamed of their physical desires for members of their own sex that they speak of suicide. One seventeen-year old Chicago boy wrote, 'If I can't get cured I would rather kill myself than be a pansy all my life.'"
A 1978 article in The Advocate contained the following by a gay Mormon, "In almost every case, the church overwhelms the young man with guilt. In some cases the guilt produces panic, desperate unpredictability, and even suicide. I have been rather close to several such individuals and know of other young returned missionaries who were unable to accept their sexuality and took their lives."
We need to understand the magnitude of guilt, shame, difference, and isolation that many men and women still feel today about their sexuality. We are each responsible to learn the signs of suicidal feelings and behavior and to know how to respond when we see those signs. Leaders should learn some suicide prevention and intervention skills. I vividly remember as an officer in Affirmation receiving calls from members struggling with suicide. These people need a place to come, someone to turn to for support and guidance.
I expect the church to perceive a responsibility concerning the number of suicides among gay and lesbian Mormons. Church officials and church members who work for LDS Social Services need to become more sensitive to the impact of their recommendations and treatment. Recently Affirmation was contacted by a bishop in northern California shocked by the suicides of two gay men in his ward. He was seeking advice on how to deal with this issue. This kind of openness is needed churchwide to help curb the numbers of men and women who are killing themselves because of sexual identity struggles. AIDS is more a part of our lives now, and there are those who know of "AIDS suicides" committed while the person is ill. Based on my conversations with church authorities, I believe many see this as a minor issue. It is not.
My concern extends to how therapists treat Mormon gay persons. Lovinger (1984) advises about religious issues in therapy, "There are some churches or synagogues that will accept homosexual members, and some, in larger cities that will welcome them. Perhaps all that is needed is to point this out." I wish this simple advice were sufficient in Mormon culture. As it is not, Mormon therapists need to explore thoroughly the cultural, personal, and spiritual impact of being Mormon on the gay person who is struggling with whatever issues are brought into therapy, particularly if depression or suicidal ideation is present.
Finally, whether church member, family member, church authority, friend, or therapist, we should all work toward loving and accepting each other. We must provide an atmosphere where people can discuss their struggles openly and perhaps finally start to reverse the high number of suicides in our communities.
Bell, Alan, and Martin Weinberg. Homosexualities. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Jay, Karla and Allen Young. The Gay Report: Lesbians and Gay Men Speak Out About Sexual Experiences and Lifestyles. New York: Summit Books, 1979.
Lovinger, Robert. Working with Religious Issues in Therapy. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1984.
Motto, J. A. Personal communication, 1975.
Rofes, Eric. I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves: Lesbians, Gay Men and Suicide. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1983.
Saghir, Marcel and Ell Robins. Male and Female Homosexuality: A Comprehensive Investigation. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1973.