Conjecture, caveats and gay Mormons

Amid a barrage of recent headlines concerning religion and gay suicides, the Mormon church’s position on homosexuality has received its share of scrutiny, from Politics Daily to the Salt Lake Tribune.

An Associated Press story out of Salt Lake City this week makes the case — or at least attempts to — that gay Mormons are killing themselves because of the church’s treatment of homosexuals.

Here’s the top of the story:

SALT LAKE CITY — Ben Jarvis has heard a lot of coming out stories.

For the past 15 years, the southern California-based urban planner has been answering a hotline number for Mormons struggling with their sexual identity. Jarvis, a volunteer for Affirmation, a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, estimates he’s talked to as many as 3,000 people.

Many of them are “deathly afraid,” their secret will be discovered by friends, family, or members of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations, he said.

In a faith where the traditional family is deeply woven into theology and where there is seemingly no line between religion and culture, the potential losses for LGBT Mormons who come out can be devastating, Jarvis and others say.

“There are so many great things about Mormon culture and the LDS church, but it is not a safe place for gay and lesbian people,” said Jarvis, 42, a seventh-generation Mormon who came out in 1993 and has since left the church.

Did you catch that big number (is it a guess-timate?) in the second paragraph? As many as 3,000 people.

Guess how many of that number are quoted in this story? Zero.

The entire story relies on talking heads. Readers hear from gay rights activists, church spokespeople and a few other “experts.” But no real people — no real cases to back up the claims of Mormon suicides — ever make an appearance.

In fact, the story seems to contain more caveats than concrete facts.

For example, there’s this:

The (Rutgers student who killed himself) was not Mormon, but Utah’s gay rights activists, some with roots in Mormonism, were quick to draw a connection to their own situation. They say the painful isolation that some LGBT individuals experience can lead to suicide. Anecdotes about the suicides of gay Mormons from Affirmation’s website, posts on the PrideinUtah blog and other sites seem to support the contention.

“It’s an enormous problem, especially in Utah,”said Eric Ethington, who runs the PrideinUtah blog.

OK, the story claims anecdotal evidence concerning the suicides of gay Mormons. But guess how many specific cases of gay Mormons killing themselves are cited?

Zero.

“Evidence” such as this is provided:

Although there’s no hard data directly linking faith and suicide, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted with the Religion News Service found that 65 percent of 1,010 respondents believe messages from the pulpits of American churches contribute.

The survey, conducted Oct. 14-17, has margin of error of 3 percentage points. Survey data posted on the institute website did not specify denominations, nor indicate whether Mormons were polled.

The Massachusetts based Suicide Prevention Resource Center cites suicide as the leading cause of death for LBGT youth. Utah’s suicide rates — 34.5 suicide deaths for every 100,000 persons in 2008 — are among the highest in the nation, particularly among young men between the ages of 18 and 24.

No hard data. A survey in which Mormons may or may not have been polled. A vague reference to Utah suicide rates as “among the highest in the nation,” but with no specific link to gay Mormons. That’s all interesting, but guess how much concrete evidence the story provides to back up its thesis?

Zero.

I don’t know if gay Mormons are killing themselves or not. If they are — and are doing so at a rate higher than other segments of society — then that’s certainly a newsworthy story.

But all this story provides is conjecture. And caveats.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.com/ Mike Crowl

    A prime example of how not to use stats…or rather, how to avoid using them! Thanks for this.

  • Chris

    The Suicide Prevention Center actually does not cite suicide as the leading cause of death among LBGT youth. A 2008 SPC review indicates that this contention is incorrect, although often quoted. Suicide attempts do appear to be more frequent in this population, however. I suspect accidents are still the most likely cause of death for LGBT youth age 15-24.
    http://www.sprc.org/library/SPRC_LGBT_Youth.pdf

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blospot.com John Pack Lambert

    The “people believe this” survey just shows that people believe the articles that the papers spew. They were spewing articles like this before the survey. This is using meaningless data to support an idea and a self-supporting information feed.

    OK, I am really fighting total synicism since I have been reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately where one of the main characters writes a news report of a riot before it even happens, and then finds later that his lies in the papers have been drunk up by even the working man.

    The Utah suicide rate is now “among the highest in the nation”. This means there are higher. Utah is by far the most Mormon state (70% to less than 30% in Idaho) so if other states have a higher suicide rate linking it to Mormon beliefs that only sexual relations between a man and a woman legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife is out of line with evidence.

    The one story they site is a non-Mormon who was bullied by people who as far as anyone has said were not religious in one of the least Mormon states in the country, at a huge campus that nevertheless has so few Mormons that there is not a ward specifically for Rutgers Students.

    This means that there are probably less than 50 Mormons at Rutgers who go to Church even irregularly. There are over 38,000 undergraduates at Rutgers. It is quite possible that less than 0.2% of the student body are Mormons.

    Still, the citing of Utah’s suicide rate is a meaningless fact. It has no context. If we had a comparison to Massachusetts, California, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan or any other state it would have some meaning, although even then it would be open to question.

    Of course, the most knowledgeable people on why they committed suicides are the people who did so. Obviously they can not be interviewed, and although suicide notes may be informative, they do not stand on the level of an interview. Beyond this, in many cases family members may seek to exclude certain suicide notes from coming out and such.

    The accounts of family members on the reasons for suicide need to be treated with a grain of salt. People often try to advance a specific ideology with their telling of such stories, so they need to be taken with a type of objectivity few journalists now days apply to stories that advance their liberal goals.

  • Robbie

    Instead of bellyaching about the dearth of stats in this area, why not go out and fix the problem?

    The fact is, it seems reasonable that LGBT teens, who among the most at-risk groups for suicide regardless of religion anyway would remain high-risk when looking only at Mormon LGBT teens. The religion’s stance being the only variable, it seems even more logical that the teens would be MORE at-risk because of the religion’s dim view on gender and sexual identity. I’m all for debunking the misuse of statistics, but I can’t help but ask: if these stats are so misleading, where are the ones that prove them wrong? Oh, there aren’t any either way? Well go out and find some, then!

  • Chris Vogel

    Another omission is the motivations of the bullies and bashers whose actions result in these suicides. In the 1980′s we (the Council on Homosexuality and Religion) collected, mostly directly, accounts of being bullied and bashed, as well as a survey of the literature, such as it was, on this topic. One aspect stood out: most bullies and bashers, at least when it came to victims who were, or were perceived by their attackers to be, homosexual, had authoritarian personalities. That is, the perpetrators did not consider that what they were doing was wrong, because they were doing what the authorities, or some of them at least, wanted. Religious authorities figured very strongly in the justifications offered by bullies and bashers. We published and distributed this study in 1986 with the title Homophobic Assault.

  • HiveRadical

    The claims the Mormon culture causes suicide is as well established as saying that parents that advocate higher education are guilty of any suicides that happen in their families because their children might have killed themselves because they didn’t feel they were living up the their parents expectations.

    But I don’t see the picketing of Universities or groups that advocate children aspiring to a University education.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Robbie, you do realize that this is a journalism site, right? We’re concerned about quality news reporting on religion. “Seems logical” isn’t proper attribution for a news story. Journalism demands (or should) higher standards than that.

    A reminder to everyone to keep the comments focused on journalism and media coverage of this topic. This is not the forum to debate the issue itself.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I suppose it may be only indirectly related to the actual coverage, but the pattern I’m seeing reminds me of the Jewish conspiracy theories that were “common knowledge” around the turn of the last century. The idea is to pick out a small, easily-distinguished group and make them a scapegoat for the problems of the people you’re trying to incite. Mormons are perfect for the purpose; they’re insular and tend not to fight back.

    Journalists may not be doing this intentionally (or at most, to varying degrees), but they’re reporting the news in a way that accomplishes this.

  • dalea

    The LDS Church runs a group called Evergreen that claims to help people overcome or deal with same sex attraction:

    http://www.evergreeninternational.org/

    A statement from Evergreen on suicide:

    Many men are tortured by their homosexual problems that can be difficult to understand and at times seem hopeless to overcome. This despair leads many to entertain thoughts of suicide. If your friend has considered suicide, get professional help immediately. The Church’s booklet Identification and Prevention of Suicidal Behavior (item number 32253) gives good insight. You can help your friend by your continued focus on the eternal plan of salvation. When he understands his eternal nature and God’s love for him, he will realize that suicide is no solution at all. The very fact that he is disturbed by his problems marks him as a spiritually sensitive soul for whom there is great hope.

    Found at:

    http://www.evergreeninternational.org/how_to_respond.htm

    The Evergreen site contains a scattering of personal stories, most of which include attempted suicide. There is no central testimony page, that I could find.

    Affirmation is the site for LDS exexgays, the one mentioned in the AP story:

    http://www.affirmation.org/

    Many members of Affirmation have left the LDS Church, but some still have a relationship with it. There are numerous stories here dealing with the suicide issue:

    http://www.affirmation.org/suicide_info/

    From one of the documents:

    Allison Bingham spoke on behalf of Affirmation Youth Services, and I gave a brief eulogy for my friend DJ Thompson. About a year later, Scott MacKay asked me to help put together a memorial page on the Affirmation website. I accepted the challenge in part as a tribute to DJ. I spent the next few weeks reading and documenting some of the saddest stories you can imagine. A 25-year-old Washington lobbyist jumps off a freeway bridge. A BYU professor leaves his wife and children as if going to work, but instead pulls off the freeway and shoots himself in the heart. A 33-year-old active Mormon burns all the letters from his lover and hangs himself in his own home. My goal was to document every single instance to the best of my abilities, to be as thorough and accurate as one possibly could, and yet once and again my task was hindered by the politics of silence. Sometimes the families of gay Mormon suicides refuse to publish an obituary notice. Sometimes they lie about the cause of death and, in some cases, they don’t even know that their sons and brothers were gay. “We can use the first name,” I was told by a young gay Mormon from Las Vegas who helped me with a story, “but not the last name. To this day his family doesn’t know that he committed suicide because he was gay.”

    It does appear that there is information on the topic of Mormons and GL suicides.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The whole article seems to involve “We do not know if any Mormons were involved in this survey, but we will throw it at you”.

    Why did the survey only ask about pulpits of Churches? Why not also include possible negative preaching in Synagogues, Mosques or other religious buildings?

  • Ben

    Around the time of Prop 8 I reported on some of the anti-8 demonstrations and I wound up bumping into a surprising number of Mormon and former Mormon gays.

    As a reporter, some interviews stick with you because the other person is clearly speaking from the heart about trauma. Well, some of these interviews with (ex)-Mormon gays remain very memorable for me for this reason. They spoke of how interwoven Mormonism tends to be with family and community and how the shunning that resulted from coming out meant a shunning by their families, their communities, and their faith. Mostly these people had no other issues with the religion and were hurt still at some level to be outside of it.

    I’ve got no data to add to this discussion. But I would argue that because Mormonism remains one of the “strongest” faiths in America — by which I mean a close-knit subculture where the church still sits at the center of daily life and there is less space for luke-warm adherents and dissidents — the experience for gay Mormons is necessarily more difficult.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Why did the survey only ask about pulpits of Churches? Why not also include possible negative preaching in Synagogues, Mosques or other religious buildings?

    I suspect it’s partly because the reporters have some idea what goes on in a church, and a mosque would be much more unfamiliar territory. Not to mention the possible language barrier. (Okay, here’s where I show my ignorance. Is it common to use the local language for preaching in mosques, or is it all in Arabic? Or does it vary according to the ethnic makeup of the community?)

    The other is that, as I say, Prop 8 triggered a desire to place the Mormon church in the crosshairs as the enemy of all things gay.

  • http://millennialstar.org Ivan Wolfe

    #9 – @ dalea

    Evergreen is not an official arm of the Church. Their website states:

    “Evergreen is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but we sustain the doctrines and standards of the Church without reservation or exception.”

  • Shash Nahalin

    The Suicide Prevention Resource Center noted some of the same concerns expressed by Bobbie, namely that the existence of small scale, subjective and non-random studies have lead to the acceptance and proliferation of “factoids” that are not supported by sound research. Moreover they call for large scale studies using rendom samples and sophisicated measures to settle some of these issues.

    http://www.sprc.org/library/SPRC_LGBT_Youth.pdf

  • http:kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Our friends at the CDC have this map of rates by county. There are obvious statistical anomalies–this is that much better to live in So. Cal.?–but it’s pretty obvious that Utah is just part of a band of rural suicide running up and down the mountain and plains states; urbanized Utah around SLC is actually a pocket of a somewhat lower rate. The rate given for Utah, BTW, is certainly wrong: different sources list different states as the worst, but the highest rate I’ve seen ranges from 22-24/100,000, for either Alaska or Nevada. The statistics vary considerably from year to year, BTW.

    The statistics of suicide are widely misperceived; the rates for white males far exceed any other group (73% of all suicides), with the highest rate found among older men (though this is shifting). Suicide for younger people is far outstripped by motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in all age groups, even those too young to drive. One can find hard data that shows that suicide attempts are 2-3 times higher among homosexual teens, but whether this translates into high rates of suicide itself is unknown; there are profound differences in the demographic makeup of attempters and successful suicides (starting from the fact that they tend to use different methods). There is an overall trend downward in suicides among almost all groups.

    Putting it altogether, and considering the predominance of Mormons in Utah, it’s hard to justify that religion is causing a spike of suicides in Utah. It might also be pointed out, if we are tossing anecdotes around, that the iconic suicide behind all this reporting happened in New Jersey, which consistently ranks as having one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation.

  • Linda

    While it is true that the suicide rate of men between 18 and 24 in Utah is among the highest in the nation, it is not THE highest in the nation. In fact, among the western states, where the suicide rate IS the highest in the nation (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, are the states referred to I think) among those states, Utah has the LOWEST suicide rate.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The map also has some noticable flaws. It covers the 2000-2006 “age adjusted” rates (I do not even understand that) based on the 2000 population. This means that in theory you could have a suicide rate of more than 10 for every ten people by 2006.

    While this larger population does not actually explain everything, the fact that Utah county’s population expanded 25% and tooelle counties population expanded 28%, means that the amont their suicide rate is over Wayne Count, Michigan where Detroit is and a place loosing population during this time is instructive. At that both Tooelle and Utah counties are not in the highest tier of counties, while they are both among the most heavily Mormon, shows the attempt to link suicide rates to Mormonism is based on ignoring the available statistics.

    The fact that there is a county by county map available that was totally ignored for this article, one that would show that the percetage of Mormons in a county in Utah and its suicide rate do not correlate, and that if you go to Idaho to correlation exists even less, leads me to say this was an article written to advance a point, with total disregard for what actual sources said.

    ****

    The 3 south-east most counties in Idaho which are in the tier 3 suicide rate category according to the map, are very heavily Mormon. Two of them are quite probably majority Mormon.

    The 3 south-east most counties in Idaho which are in the tier 3 suicide rate category according to the map, are very heavily Mormon. Two of them are quite probably majority Mormon.

    ****

    I think California has a much lower suicide rate that Utah, but it is also not a “western” state. In California one must go east to get to the “West”.
    Linda, I think California has a much lower suicide rate that Utah, but it is also not a “western” state. In California one must go east to get to the “West”.

    ****

    That County map is very interesting. The most heavily Mormon County in Utah, Utah County, where BYU is, has the second tier rate of suicide. The the two least Mormon Counties in Utah, San Juan County in the South-east corner of the state and Summitt County where Park City is, both are in the top tier. The difference may be slight and may not be statistically significant, but if you look at the county map, the correlations of Mormons to highest rates of suicide does not work.

    That County map is very interesting. The most heavily Mormon County in Utah, Utah County, where BYU is, has the second tier rate of suicide. The the two least Mormon Counties in Utah, San Juan County in the South-east corner of the state and Summitt County where Park City is, both are in the top tier. The difference may be slight and may not be statistically significant, but if you look at the county map, the correlations of Mormons to highest rates of suicide does not work.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Mr. Lambert:

    Stop.

    Stop writing 20 or so comments on this kind of post. You are asking to be banned from the site.

    Also, stop debating others who make comments. Respond to the facts of the post. Period. Provide URLs for what you claim are facts, whenever possible.

    You are not being paid by the word, at least not by us.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Here is the link to Gallaghers article where she mentions among other things the higher rates of pregnancy and causing pregnancy in LGBT teens.

    http://townhall.com/columnists/MaggieGallagher/2010/10/20/does_gay_marriage_prevent_gay_teen_suicide/page/2

  • http://latterdaymainstreet.com/ Chino Blanco

    There ought to be some award for snarkiest gay suicide post, ‘cuz Bobby here would win it.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Chino, not sure if you intend that as a compliment or not. :-) In any case, feel free to comment on the contents of the post itself.

  • John D

    John Pack Lambert actually hits on an interesting religion ghost when he asked,

    Why did the survey only ask about pulpits of Churches? Why not also include possible negative preaching in Synagogues, Mosques or other religious buildings?

    I can think of two possible reasons and the actual reasons should have been included in the article (“Jews and Moslems were omitted from the study because….”).

    So, I’m left wondering. Is it because Christianity is overwhelmingly the majority religion in this country?

    Or is it that the views of imans tend to be more homogeneous than among Christian clergy (and ditto for rabbis)?

    I can offer a Jewish perspective here. In 2010, most Jews would be astonished to hear an anti-gay message coming from the bimah. With the exception of the Orthodox movement (about 15% of affiliated Jews), the other other streams of Judaism have positive views of gay people. Things have not always been that way, but for the last 20 years, the Reform and Reconstructionist movement have called for full participation for LGBT Jews.

    Recently, the Conservative movement started ordaining openly gay clergy (it made the papers) and Conservative rabbis may perform same-sex weddings under civil law (where allowed) and Jewish law (should the rabbi and congregation be in favor of this).

    Happily, for a change the ghost is not that Jewish views are being subsumed into a more politically conservative mix of clergy or those who attend services.


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