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This is one of those posts where I’m sure I’m walking into a minefield. Well you only live once, so lets do this…
When people want to talk about the harm caused to LGBT youth by the intolerance of the Church, the first place they go is to a discussion of suicide. This makes sense. When someone takes their own life it’s tragic. There’s no way to sugar coat a suicide. It’s obviously a bad thing.
This discussion has been going on for awhile, but it seemed to really explode earlier this year with the publication of a report which claimed that 32 young LGBT Mormons aged 14-20 have committed suicide since the Church changed its policies on same sex marriage (SSM), labeling people in a SSM as apostates and forbidding their children from being baptized.
The connection to be drawn was clear. Through their policy the Church had indirectly killed people. This shouldn’t be a surprise. I have all the sympathy in the world for the parents, family members and friends of those individuals, and if they’re mad at the Church that’s understandable. I’d be upset as well and as part of that I’d certainly want something and someone to blame. And connecting these suicides to the policies of the Church and the attitudes of its members seems obvious.
That said, the more emotional the subject, the more difficult it is too really look at things rationally. And yet in a situation as consequential as this one, understanding what is really going on becomes more important than ever. I agree that the explanation offered by the article seems the obvious one, but so many times the obvious explanation is not the correct one. And there have been thousands of times when people thought they were helping when in fact they were doing exactly the opposite. And unfortunately as much as it pains me to say this, that may in fact be what’s happening here.
I mentioned the article from the beginning of the year, and as you can probably imagine, the issue hasn’t gone away. At the first of this month a piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune once again talking about LGBT suicide and once again pushing the Church to do more about it. It should be noted that this op-ed was written by one of leaders of the organization who supplied the data on the 32 suicides featured in the initial article. I don’t think this undermines the claims or anything of that sort, but if you’re trying to get to the truth these sorts of details are important. But at this point I’m fine granting the LGBT Mormon Youth are committing suicide and that the numbers of youth committing suicide are in fact increasing. This idea is strengthened by an article linked to from the same page as the op-ed which reported that youth suicides have tripled since 2007.
Looking at the comments on the second article it appears that most people agree with the position of the op-ed, so the overall theory that the Church is causing suicides has considerable traction. But does it make sense? Is the connection really that clear? Let’s start by looking at the time line. First let’s look at the Church’s position on LGBT issues. Here are few milestones:
1995: LDS leaders issue the Proclamation on the Family which declares that “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan” and that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
2008: LDS Church campaigns heavily for Proposition 8. Which passes, reversing the California Supreme Court’s decision to legalize SSM.
2010: In a tearful meeting in Oakland Elder Marlin K. Jensen apologized to those affected by Proposition 8 for the Church’s part in passing it.
2012: The Church creates the website www.mormonsandgays.org in an attempt to reach out to members who experience same sex attraction (SSA).
2015, November: Church labels people in an SSM as apostates and forbids children of those couples from baptism.
I’m sure I’ve left out some milestones. But I think it’s clear that since 2007 the Church’s engagement with the LGBT community has not been a series of escalations, with each step worse than the last. There have been some real attempts to reach out to the LGBT community. And while you may disagree with the effectiveness or even the sincerity of these efforts, I have a hard time seeing how the Church’s treatment of LGBT individuals is getting worse. The outreach of the website, or the Proposition 8 apology would have been unthinkable during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And, while I was not alive for the decades before that I am reliably informed that attitudes towards LGBT individuals were even worse before then.
Taken together, the evidence strongly suggests that the Church and its leadership are making real attempts to be more loving and understanding. I can point you towards stories of transgender Mormons showing up in dresses to Church and being treated as women and gay bishops who publically talk about their struggle with same sex attraction. Yes, there are certainly lines that the Church has decided should not be crossed, but beyond that they’ve been unusually accommodating. But let’s set that aside for the moment. Perhaps the Mormon Church has become more draconian. Maybe there are elements, perhaps individual members, who are being horribly repressive and intolerant. Even if this is the case (and I don’t think it is) they are not the only factor in play. We also have to look at what things have been like outside of the Church with respect to LGBT acceptance. Some milestones there:
1999-2000: Domestic partnerships and civil unions become legal in California and Vermont respectively.
2003: SSM legal in Massachusetts.
2009: Numerous states make SSM legal (with lots of fights back and forth at the ballot box).
2011: Obama administration declares they will no longer defend DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act
2013: SSM made legal in Utah.
2015: SSM made legal everywhere in the US.
And this list doesn’t even include the increased acceptance of LGBT’s on TV and movies and in the media. For the last decade or more LGBT people have gone from one victory to another. By any conceivable measurement things are as good as they have ever been. If that’s the case why are so many of them committing suicide? Even if you want to claim that the LDS Church has been unusually repressive. It’s not that hard to leave the Church and reject its teachings. People do it all the time, and by all accounts there’s a large community willing to embrace them and celebrate their decision. Outside of the Church the argument that intolerance and bigotry are causing suicides just doesn’t hold any water. And even if you restrict your examination to what’s happening within the church, the evidence is weak to nonexistent.
To be clear, the suicide of anyone is tragic. And I would never want people to think I am minimizing the suffering of those involved. But given how tragic it is, isn’t it that much more important to make sure that we correctly understand the causes? It’s easy to point the finger at the Church and declare that it’s all being caused by Mormon bigotry. But being blinded by animosity towards the Church could easily lead someone to overlook other issues. Once again, Youth suicides have tripled! The consequences of incorrectly diagnosing the problem are huge. And blaming it all on the Church looks like it might just be an example of an incorrect diagnosis. Or at a minimum not the whole story.
If the LGBT community is objectively being treated with more tolerance than ever why are suicides increasing? As I have said, he conventional wisdom is that we just need to be even more tolerant. But it’s worth examining the causes of suicide, because they don’t always map to one’s expectations. Interestingly enough one of the latest episodes of the Freakonomics podcast was a rebroadcast of an episode they did on suicide from 2011. It brings up a lot of points that are worth considering.
Before I jump into the Freakonomics podcast I want to make it clear, that I’m not saying I know why the suicide rate has increased or why LGBT youth are committing suicide. It would be ridiculous of me to take a podcast and a couple of articles from the internet and use them to pass judgment about what should be done. Instead, rather than saying why it is happening, I’m
offering up the opinion that it might not be happening because of the Church and its members. I intend to offer some alternative theories, mostly to show that there are other potential explanations, not to advance any of the explanations as THE explanation.
The first thing we notice when we listen to the podcast is the title, “The Suicide Paradox.” It’s called that because a lot of things about suicide don’t make sense, and can be downright paradoxical. For example it turns out that blacks commit suicide at only half the rate of whites. If your theory is that oppression and intolerance causes suicide you would expect their rate to be higher than the white rate. Another example (not from the podcast) is Syria, which one year into its civil war was tied for the lowest national suicide rate (now there may be all kinds of problems with that number, but it’s borne out by other surveys conducted before the war.) One of the best statements about the difficulty of understanding suicide comes from David Lester who was interviewed as part of the podcast. Lester has written over 2,500 academic papers, more than half of which concern suicide. And his conclusion is:
First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea why people kill themselves.
Despite this statement there are some general things that can be said about suicide. For instance suicide is contagious. If someone hears about a suicide or sees a suicide, say on TV, particularly if the person committing the suicide bears some resemblance to the person hearing about it, it can trigger a copycat suicide. This is called the Werther Effect after a novel by Goethe where he described someone committing suicide in a sympathetic fashion. Thus it’s possible that in the process of publicizing the suicide of LGBT Mormon youth that the people trying to prevent it are actually contributing to the problem. If so it that would be terrible, and as I said, I take no stand on what is actually happening, I’m only urging that a problem this serious deserves all the knowledge and resources at our disposal.
It’s also worth mentioning that Utah is squarely inside the suicide belt, that area of the country with the highest suicide rates. Explanations for the high suicide rates in the Mountain West have ranged from residential instability, to access to guns, to the thin air. This is a great site for comparing suicide rates among states, and it’s worth noting that the site doesn’t show a 3x increase in the number of suicides in Utah since 2007. If you follow the link and select states to compare, Utah looks very similar to Colorado and New Mexico. States which are not known for having a huge population of Mormons. Of course the original article talked about youth, and it’s not my intention to dig into the numbers (at least not now) though they could very well be suspect. The point I want to bring up is that Utah is already has an above average suicide rate and it appears to have nothing to do with the Church.
Finally you would expect that suicide to be more rare among wealthy people, and to an extent that’s true, but less than you would think. There is no strong correlation between wealth and suicide. Having more money doesn’t do much to lower your risk of suicide and may in certain cases increase it. Additionally some of the very highest rates of suicide are among older white males. Hardly the group you think of when you think of an unhappy minority. And indeed rich and famous people commit suicide all the time. The effect is even more pronounced if you look at the difference in suicide rates between rich and poor countries. Not only is this another mark against the theory that bigotry and intolerance cause suicide, but it leads us to another alternate theory for suicide.
According to this theory, people who are impoverished, discriminated against, or otherwise dealing with difficult circumstances can always point to these circumstances as the reason why they’re unhappy. When those circumstances go away, if the person is still unhappy, then it must mean that they’re broken in some fundamental way, and their unhappiness is therefore a permanent condition. If everything you think is making you unhappy goes away and you’re still unhappy what’s left?
This could be what we’re seeing with the LGBT community. In the “bad old days” the reasons for their misery were obvious, the world didn’t accept them and never would. Now they’re accepted everywhere. They can join the military, they can get married, companies come to their aid. What’s left? And yet, the suicide rate remains tragically high.
Chelsea Manning, the transgender whistleblower formerly known as Bradley Manning before transitioning, attempted to commit suicide recently. And it is among transgendered that the evidence for this effect is strongest. If on the one hand we just need more tolerance to solve the problem, than those individuals who have successfully undergone gender reassignment surgery and can pass as the opposite sex should have the lowest suicide rate. Instead individuals who’ve undergone the surgery experience a suicide mortality rate 20 times greater than a comparable non-transgender population. Even transgender individuals have taken these numbers and used them to argue vigorously against surgery.
Sticking with just transgendered individuals there are still well-respected doctors who argue that transgendered individuals suffer from a version of body dysmorphic disorder. In other words being transgendered is similar to having anorexia or bulimia. Thus we should be treating them like people with a mental illness, not as people who have a different but completely valid lifestyle. Obviously this is a very unpopular theory, but that should not be a factor in determining what’s really going on.
I know that the current orthodoxy is that we just need to allow people to do whatever they want and happiness will follow, but at some point don’t we need to look at the data? Is it in fact possible that telling people to pursue personal gratification at the expense of everything else is contributing to the problem?
I know people are convinced that the intolerance of the church and it’s members are indirectly killing people. And I can understand the reasons why they think this, but it just doesn’t add up. At some point you have to admit the possibility that some people are more interested in finding a club to beat the Church with than they are in getting to the truth, and by extension really helping these kids.
I’ll tell you what I thought when I heard the announcement that the Church would not baptize the children of same sex couples and were declaring anyone in a same sex marriage as apostate. I was relieved and excited, and I’ll tell you why. The Church had backed down on a lot of things, as I mentioned above they had apologized, they had put up websites, and all of these were probably even good things, but we can be so accommodating that we lose sight of the doctrine. And as I have attempted to point out here, we can be so accommodating that we are no longer able to think deeply about a topic. Our dialogue becomes nothing but accusations and apologies. Obviously I’m just a bit player in all of this. The leaders of the church know what they’re doing and along those linesl think Dallin H. Oaks said it best when he was speaking about this very issue of LGBT suicide:
I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another…beyond that, the rightness the wrongness, I will be accountable to higher authority for that…
In all of this that’s what we have to remember. We are accountable to a higher authority. As much as we might want to bring our own strong sense of right and wrong and justice to things, there is a greater hand than ours guiding the affairs of the Church. And it’s our responsibility to be obedient and accountable to that authority, even if it’s difficult.