Suicide Leads to Calls for Improved Treatment of LGBT Mormons

Bryan Egnew grew up in an observant LDS family in Arizona, the fourth of ten children. After graduating high school, he attended Brigham Young University, served a proselytizing mission in France, and then married in an LDS temple. He became the father of five children. He served in his local LDS congregation. He did everything that was asked of him.

And over the course of more than twenty years, Bryan slowly came to terms with the fact that he was attracted to men. Six years ago, Bryan confided his attraction with a friend he’d known since BYU days. Jahn Curran was a fellow Mormon, a father, and someone who’d also come to terms with his own homosexuality a few years earlier.

Jahn offered Bryan a listening ear, and some practical advice. When Bryan called a few months ago, saying he could keep his situation from his wife no longer, Jahn told him, “Be prepared to fight a legal battle. Get a lawyer. My wife was very upset with me. I was in the hallway of my house on my knees pleading with her for understanding. She yelled and screamed at me. She left the next day and never came back, and withheld the kids from me for months. She claimed that I was not a fit father unless I repented. I have spent thousands of dollars in court to preserve my relationship with my kids.”

The reaction, Jahn says, was much the same when Bryan sat down with his own wife to confide in her. She also became very upset. And she packed the five kids (ages 6 to 16), moved them across state lines from the family’s home in North Carolina to Tennessee, and initiated legal proceedings to prevent Bryan from seeing them. She also contacted the bishop in her local Mormon congregation and “confessed Bryan’s sins for him.”

Within two weeks, Bryan was excommunicated from the LDS Church. From the perspective of Mormon doctrine, his excommunication severed Bryan’s relationship to his children not only in this life, but also in the hereafter.

Alone in his home in North Carolina, Bryan was devastated. His parents flew out to be with him, then brought him back to Arizona for intensive treatment for depression.

After a few weeks of therapy, Bryan convinced his parents and his therapist that he was stable enough to return home to North Carolina, so he could look after the family home. Back in North Carolina, on Saturday, September 10, Bryan bought a gun at Wal-Mart. He fed the family’s animals, cleaned the house, handed the keys to a neighbor, sent a message to a family member that they needed to come to the house, and then went on the front lawn and shot himself.

News of Bryan’s suicide immediately circulated on the LGBT Mormon grapevine, where some voices expressed concern that publicizing the death would exacerbate strain on relationships within Bryan’s family as they tried to come to terms with the loss of son, husband, and father.

But the story became public. And now, advocacy groups are mobilizing around Bryan’s story to demand that LDS Church leaders do more for gay Church members.
Within gay Mormon communities, there is debate over whether focusing on gay suicides actually works to change Mormon hearts and minds.

But in the wake of Bryan’s death, many Mormons—LGBT and otherwise—are reflecting on the kind of support our communities are capable of offering gay Mormons who feel they can no longer hide their sexuality.

I’ve heard LDS Church members ask whether excommunication is the best institutional response to gay Mormons in acute spiritual struggle or crisis. I’ve also heard Mormons reflect on how despite some signs of increased awareness and outreach by top LDS leaders, messages of understanding and compassion are not getting down the line to local congregations.

Every time a gay Mormon interacts with a local pastoral leader, he or she faces what some Mormons describe as “priesthood leader roulette.” Mormonism has a lay clergy, and the administration of the Church depends almost entirely on local volunteers who vary widely in their knowledge, experience base, and dispositions. For every local leader who acts out of love and inspiration, there is a local leader who sometimes acts out of a lack of knowledge, repulsion, or fear.

Compounding the situation are the many stories Mormons have been told and told ourselves about what it means to be gay. We’ve been taught that it is an abomination—the choice of selfish individuals. We’ve believed that same-gender attraction is comparable to a disease like alcoholism, or to pornography addiction—an unhealthy compulsion to be battled and overcome. We’ve bought into the idea—and many Mormons still do—that it is possible to change one’s sexual orientation through various therapies, or marriage, or prayer and fasting. We’ve been led to believe that equal rights and protections for same-sex couples constitute a threat to our religious freedom.

But do any of these serve the thousands upon thousands of young Mormons who are coming to terms with their attraction to people of the same sex? Do any of these prepare non-gay Mormons to respond to gay sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, or fellow Latter-day Saints?

How does it feel to be the LDS parents of a gay child in a culture where unthinking people feel they have divine sanction to verbally abuse and discriminate against homosexuals?

How does it feel to be a volunteer pastoral leader with little training or understanding of LGBT issues facing a married Mormon man confessing that he is gay?

How does it feel to be a Mormon woman who has been taught from childhood that the primary achievement of her life will be a temple marriage to a worthy LDS man, and who is then confronted by the fact that her husband is gay?

How does it feel to be an LDS man who has done everything that has been asked of him by his religion, but who finds himself during the most difficult spiritual season of his life immediately cast out by excommunication and cut off from his family—his wife and children—now, and for the eternities?

Can any human being bear so much? Can this religion we love do any better?

As members of the LDS Church prepare for one of the Church’s worldwide General Conferences this weekend, Bryan’s friend Jahn hopes Church officials will offer stronger, more compassionate guidance and leadership on LGBT issues.

Jahn remembers that it was a year ago this weekend that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a controversial General Conference talk shaming homosexuality.

“I have a brother who said to me on the phone last Christmas, ‘Elder Packer says God does not make gays. This is your choice.’ And then he used some very hurtful language with me,” Jahn relates. “I had to hang up on him. But he feels he has been given permission to speak this way by the prophet.”

“Even a simple phrase uttered by a General Authority can give Church members broad permission to look down on, discriminate against, or not entertain more compassionate ways of thinking about homosexuality,” Jahn continues. “For many years, I’d sit in General Conference and plead with God that this would be the session that one of the General Authorities would get up and say that treating LGBT people without respect is not becoming of a Mormon.”

May this weekend’s Conference bring some kind of strength to all those who love and care about Bryan—including his family, LGBT Mormons, and the families of LGBT Mormons around the world.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.