Utah Is Finally Addressing Its Epidemic of Youth Suicide

Saving Queer Youth in Utah

We are facing a dire situation in Utah. Since 2011, youth suicide rates have increased four times faster than the national average — a staggering 140 percent spike within our state.

While we tirelessly work to push our movement forward, there is no doubt that the culture war is taking a toll. When young people are bullied in school, exiled from their homes, and targeted for discrimination by government and church leaders, they are at risk. They become children without a tribe.

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Research has shown that isolation and exclusion drive suicide, so the answer is clear. We must cultivate enduring bonds of inclusion and belonging in every sphere of our children’s lives: family, church, government, and school.

At Equality Utah, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

In 2016, we partnered with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and filed a lawsuit against the Utah State Board of Education to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s so-called “No Promo Homo” law. This discriminatory statute prohibited public school teachers from discussing “homosexuality” in the classroom. The very existence of this law effectively silenced Utah’s LGBTQ teachers and students, instructing them that “homosexuality” was too shameful and immoral to be mentioned.

In 2017, the legislature responded to our lawsuit by striking down the law with a nearly unanimous vote. It’s not everyday that a Republican legislature votes to support LGBTQ youth. But to their credit, Utah lawmakers chose to treat these students with fairness and equality.

However, striking down the law did not immediately resolve our lawsuit. We wouldn’t stop until we had clear guarantees from the State Board of Education that they would transform their policies to include and protect LGBTQ students. Our settlement mandated a new directive sent to every school district that declared:

“The Utah State Board of Education desires each student in Utah public schools to receive a high quality education free from all manner of discrimination, which can take the form of bullying, based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”

This April, the State Board went one step further: They unanimously adopted a rule requiring all Utah schools to train students and staff on how to identify and prevent bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These are the first explicit protections for LGBTQ students in Utah law.

The connection between suicide and bullying is clear. The Utah Department of Health reported in 2014 that youth who were picked on or bullied at school were four times more likely to have seriously considered or attempted suicide compared with their peers.

The unanimous vote of the Utah State Board of Education sends a powerful message to school districts, teachers, administrators and counselors that the bullying of LGBTQ students will no longer be tolerated.

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Earlier this year, the governor of Utah invited Equality Utah to join a Youth Suicide Task Force to address the issue. At the table are legislative leaders, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the State Board of Education, and senior leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The recommendations from the first phase of the Task Force included expanding state funding for 24/7 suicide prevention crisis centers and mobile crisis outreach teams. The measures had overwhelming support from the legislature. We also recommended that the state begin to collect youth data specifically on sexual orientation and gender identity through the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveys. Presently, we have not collected that information due to resistance from conservative school districts and right-wing organizations like Eagle Forum. Our goal is to begin collecting this data in 2019.

But we are not stopping there. During a press conference on Feb. 20, Governor Gary Herbert, standing alongside Senator Orrin Hatch, announced that phase two of the Task Force would focus on the high risk populations of veterans, Native Americans and, yes, LGBTQ youth.

Many have asked about the LDS Church’s role on the Task Force. While I applaud them for being at the table to engage the conversation, we must also challenge them to reflect on how their own rhetoric and actions have exiled LGBTQ youth. In November 2015, the Church adopted a new policy declaring that legally married same-sex couples were apostates to the faith, and their children could not receive baptism until they turned 18 and disavowed their parents’ marriage.

This exclusionary policy sent a devastating message to young LGBTQ Mormons that following the human impulse to love will ultimately expel them from their faith and family. Such a policy exacerbates the risk factors that endanger vulnerable youth. It is the very opposite of Jesus Christ’s admonition to “suffer the little children to come unto me.”

A new study on “The Association of Religiosity with Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt” from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine confirms what we have all known for many years. While it is well documented that religious affiliation is a protective factor against suicide ideation, affiliation with a non-affirming faith can actually increase suicidal thoughts and attempts for LGBTQ individuals. Alarmingly, the study concluded that:

“Lesbian/gay students who viewed religion as very important had greater odds for recent suicidal ideation and lifetime suicide attempt compared with heterosexual individuals.”

This is a dark reality with which leaders of conservative faiths must grapple. Their rhetoric and policies are literally harming LGBTQ kids.

But regardless of the seemingly irectractable rhetoric of LDS Church leaders, there is an irresistible movement amongst everyday Mormons to reverse course and respond with unconditional love. On July 28, Equality Utah will be partnering again with Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons for the second LOVELOUD Festival to celebrate and elevate LGBTQ youth in our state. The massive concert in Salt Lake City will feature phenomenal artists like DJ Zedd and Tyler Glenn from Neon Trees. We are sending an affirming message to all young people in our state — we see you, we recognize, and we love you — just as you are.

Last summer, the inaugural concert brought together 20,000 Utahns in Orem, Utah, which near Brigham Young University, is one of the most conservative towns in the state, if not country. It was a joyous occasion to sing, dance, and celebrate LGBTQ youth. Even the most ardent Mormon couldn’t resist the spirit of love and inclusion that was present. Ultimately, we will continue winning people over with love. The concert is documented in the forthcoming HBO film, “Believer.”

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There is no one solution to reducing youth suicide. It takes all of us working together on multiple fronts. We must continue to engage government, schools, churches, and most importantly, families.

Only together can we create a culture of inclusion and belonging for every aspect of queer youth lives.

TROY WILLIAMS is the executive director of Equality Utah. Follow him on Twitter @TroyWilliamsUT.

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