Ryannah Quigley grew up in a modest home in Kaysville, Utah, with 22 siblings. Her father was a bishop, the head of a congregation, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The family was staunchly Mormon.
By age 7, Quigley — who was assigned male at birth — began to wear women’s clothing, at times taking down the curtains to make dresses. On many occasions, her parents attempted to quash the problem — as they saw it — but to little avail. Worried that this behavior not only would induce their other children into perversion, but might hinder the entire family’s chances of meeting God in the hereafter, the Quigleys relinquished custody of their child to the state foster care system, where she bounced around from foster homes to treatment centers to hospitals around the state.
At 15, Quigley was living at the Mill Creek Youth Center, in Ogden, where over the next 18 months she would be raped four times by four different men residing at the state custody facility. When she nearly became victim to a fifth rape, Quigley fought back and injured the assailant. The police were called. Although Quigley had acted in self-defense, she was arrested for assault. Standing before an orthodox Mormon judge, she was tried as an adult with a fourth-degree felony and sentenced to two years at the Weber County Jail, where she would be placed in solitary confinement (called “protective custody,” due to her gender identity), raped an additional 11 times, and assaulted many more times, once ending up in the hospital to get 27 stitches after being stabbed. She attempted suicide by hanging and was in a coma for three days.
In Utah, the covert theocracy behind policy-making, the insular and unquestioning faith of Mormon families, and vague, often contradictory statements and actions from LDS church leadership combine to form a unique and particularly dire crisis for LGBT and gender-nonconforming kids. There are, by most estimates, 5,000 kids experiencing homelessness in Utah at any given time. Roughly 42 percent of them identify as LGBT, and most come from Mormon households. This means, of the 450,000 people in Utah between the ages of 15 and 24, a projected 22,000 to 35,000 of them will experience homelessness at some point, according to data provided by outreach workers.
The LDS church has a well-documented anti-LGBT agenda. By 2008, it had funneled more than $20 million to support Proposition 8, California’s anti–marriage-equality initiative. The church had been aggressively battling same-sex marriage since 1994 (when it stepped into Hawaii’s court battle), but as the national tide turned to favor marriage equality, church leadership appeared to back off. The faithful lawmakers in Utah, however, did not.
In early 2015, attempting to bridge the gap between so-called religious freedom and LGBT rights, Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert, a Mormon, with the support of the LDS church and the ACLU, signed an antidiscrimination bill into law, referred to as the “Utah compromise,” that protects LGBT citizens in housing and employment. It was soon revealed that the law had provisions that would not fly in other states or under federal law, allowing religious groups and religiously affiliated nonprofits — such as schools and hospitals — to be exempt from the antidiscrimination laws protecting LGBT people, just as they are exempt from many women’s equal rights laws. LGBT people are also not protected in Utah from discrimination in public accommodations like restaurants, hotels, or restrooms.
Following the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision last year, Utah lawmakers pushed at least three bills through the legislature that targeted the rights of LGBT people, all sponsored by Representative LaVar Christensen, a member of the LDS church. Another bill which was presented earlier that year but did not become law, would have given heterosexual couples preferential treatment over gay couples when adopting children.
Then, on November 5, 2015, in response to the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage nationwide, the church leadership secretly issued an edict to the leaders of its 30,000 congregations worldwide. The order instructed them that children being raised in same-sex headed households cannot be blessed, baptized, or ordained, nor can they serve as missionaries — regardless of that child’s sexual orientation or gender identity — and that church members in “same-gender” relationships — married or unmarried — are apostates subject to excommunication. The policy, which was issued as an update to a confidential handbook, was leaked to the press. There were mass resignations by former church members partial to the gay rights cause or embarrassed by the punish-the-child policy. Within a month of the policy being made public, suicides of LGBT kids in Utah reportedly soared to 32 deaths in a span of four weeks — a figure that would typically have accounted for half the yearly average for the state.
The number-one cause of death for people under the age of 24 in Utah is suicide. Nationally, Utah ranks among the top five states for youth suicides, and by some estimates it has the highest rate of LGBT youth suicides in the country.
Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, a United Church of Christ minister who acts as a liaison between LGBT youth and the Mormon church, is heading a state-funded suicide-prevention program. She used to run a youth center in Ogden that served about 700 individuals a month.
“Every single youth I spoke to had a friend or acquaintance who died of suicide. And over 60 percent had attempted suicide themselves,” she tells The Advocate. “The culture of the church has to change. It’s a culture of fear. It’s a culture where if you break the ranks, you can be shunned. There’s a real disconnect between the leaders of the church that I deal with — who say, ‘We tell families to not throw their children out, we tell families to love your children no matter what’ — and the rank-and-file members and the bishops who say, ‘You need to kick your child out if they don’t straighten up.’”
Edmonds-Allen also says there’s a rampant culture of homespun reparative or "ex-gay" therapy, of Mormon parents isolating their children and trying their own brands of pray-the-gay-away.
“The approach here is, ‘We are going to scare you straight.’ They don’t have the sort of mental-health access here as they do in other places where I’ve lived. [Families] just refer to their bishops,” she says.
Activists say the November 5 policy may have caused a spike in homeless numbers as well. In the entire state, there is one LGBT youth homeless shelter, in Ogden, 40 miles north of Salt Lake City. And it has a mere 14 beds.
“There are more services for animals in this state than there are for homeless youth,” one activist says. Because many kids fear entering the foster care system, which is dominated by orthodox Mormon homes — similar to the ones many youth have fled — these homeless kids in Utah have established roving tent cities in the parks and canyons outside Salt Lake City and Provo, 45 miles to the south, and elsewhere.
For the runaways living in these canyons and riverbeds — they call it being “off-grid” — it is perhaps the best of many bad options. The shelter system, like in many cities, is saturated with drugs, alcohol, violence, and prostitution. Mormon children grow up notoriously sheltered and naive and are particularly ill-prepared for life on the streets, outreach workers say. Scores of them become funneled into the sex trade and trafficked out of state. Outreach activists say nearly 100 percent of unaccompanied youth in Utah are approached by sex traffickers within the first 48 hours of hitting the streets, and many of them are shipped off to major cities on the East Coast.
The LDS church entered mainstream politics in the 1970s; the church’s massive lobbying effort was one of the reasons for the demise of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1993, LDS apostle Boyd Packer, who was second in line for the presidency of the church, proclaimed that the three greatest threats to Mormonism were the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, and intellectuals. The church’s attitude toward LGBT people has not improved.
Openly supporting gay rights is an excommunicable offense; excommunication means the loss of a place to worship, and also the loss of one’s entire culture, community, and often family. As many told this publication, the tightly knit nature of Mormon communities is wonderful and supportive — until it turns brutal.
Starting in 1989, the LDS church referred gay members to a Salt Lake City–based nonprofit called Evergreen, a reparative therapy program that attempted to diminish same-sex attraction through widely discredited, borderline-abusive therapy techniques. In January 2014, fearing potential litigation as governments cracked down on such programs, Evergreen disbanded and reformed as North Star. Literature, personal essays, and confessional videos found on North Star’s website, which has a separate resource section for youths, encourage gay Mormons to enter into opposite-sex marriages and continue onto the heteronormative family path. Same-sex attractions are not a sin, North Star reassures, but acting on them is a very different story.
On whether to tell parents and bishops about same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, the literature is discouragingly vague, telling young people to pray on it and come to their own conclusions. It goes without saying that there are zero referrals outside of family or church recommended to young people through North Star, and kids are also told they may experience a backlash from the gay community if they don’t dive headfirst into the gay lifestyle.
Berta Marquez was born in Guatemala. Her parents were members of the LDS church, which deploys a massive proselytizing effort in Central and South America. Mormons believe the native inhabitants of the Americas are descended from the tribes of Israel, that they arrived here on a boat, and that they need to be brought back to their ancestral faith.
Marquez’s religious upbringing differed from the Mormonism most people imagine. She says many Hispanic Mormons grow up with a variegated religion that is more similar to socialism than it is to the neo-con, pro-capitalist, American-exceptionalism version of Utah Mormonism (see: Mitt Romney). Though Utah is the uber-Mormon environment, many Mormons across the United States, and around the world, often raise their eyebrows at what happens in Utah, she says.
When she went to Brigham Young University, the Mormon-owned and operated private university in Provo, in 2005, she was shocked by the ultraconservative atmosphere.
“It’s a very heavy courtship culture. You’re expected to seek out marriage as a part of the plan of salvation,” she says, sitting in her living room in a small town near Provo.
The pressures on family members and congregations to keep one another in line is intense, cultish, and debilitating for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. Before she came out as gay, Marquez had a very specific suicide plan to make it look like a hiking accident, to avoid casting shame on her loved ones.
“It can be a beautiful way to grow up. You are cradled in this culture where there is a network of support and a whole community is rooting for you,” Marquez says. “As an LDS kid, you’re raised to want a family very acutely. From the time you are tiny, you learn about being [married] in the temple. At BYU, all of your friends are dating actively, all seeking out their eternal companion, and you’re raised to want that, to want companionship.
“There’s a lot of shame, secrecy, and terror if you have an LGBT child. ‘My child no longer fits this narrative; what’s going to happen to us? We’re not going to be together forever.’ It’s not necessarily spite or malice, but parents are not prepared with the skill sets for inclusive thinking,” she says.
Since the November policy, Marquez and her wife Cathy, a fellow Mormon who is also a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre, stopped going to church.
In Mormonism, there is a mantra that goes something like, “When the prophet has spoken, the thinking is done.” The prophet, or the president of the church, is believed to have a direct line of communication with God.
“You’re expected to fall in line,” Marquez says. “So you never have to examine if what you’re doing is ethically correct.”
Slight rain washes through City Creek Canyon just outside downtown Salt Lake City as I make my way off the tidy jogging path and up the muddy and wooded eastern slope. The Utah State Capitol building looms marbled and elephantine atop the opposing western ridge, nearly casting a shadow on this landscape littered with hundreds of sleeping bags nestled between the trees. For any kids who might still be living here, they would be gone during daylight hours to avoid drawing attention to themselves, or risk having the police confiscate or destroy their few belongings. Some trees have been rudimentarily hacked down and bushes twisted into makeshift shelters, and there are backpacks and scant belongings hidden among the rocks. I come across one sleeping bag with dozens of discarded snail shells surrounding it, as though someone had been eating them. Along another site, with three makeshift beds, someone had adorned a leafless tree in several pairs of ballet slippers tied at the laces and looped over the branches. It is a virtual city unto itself here. Alongside a brook, there’s a scrubby pine tree with tattered silver garland and a few Christmas ornaments still clinging to it. Yesterday was Easter, and next to one sleeping bag I find a pink plastic egg, where inside, the words “Love yourself enough to love all beings” are scribbled on a scrap of paper.
Before the November 5 policy was made public, the LDS church made a donation of an undisclosed amount of money to the Utah Pride Center, a Salt Lake City LGBT nonprofit. It was reported that the money was meant for homeless youth services. It seemed to be a strange, almost guilty gesture. Or perhaps it was meant to buy influence and suppress discontent. According to multiple sources with intimate knowledge of the Pride Center who wished to remain anonymous, the nonprofit routinely, almost as policy, turns away homeless youth who enter its doors, whether they’re seeking a shower, a meal, social services, a respite from the elements, or just someone to talk to.
Once upon a time weekly breakfasts were held there to feed homeless LGBT youth, some days attracting more than 50 kids, but as the Pride Center came under new leadership, the breakfasts stopped. One of the most popular programs at the Pride Center was free HIV testing provided by the state health department. This year, that service stopped as well.
“They continue to solicit and accept donations for homeless youth services and they’ve discontinued services for homeless youth. They turn youth away,” one source said. “Kids come in there, and maybe they smell and maybe they’re dirty and the Pride Center doesn’t want that image, so they kick them out,” another source said. The Pride Center was unable to be reached for comment.
Cai Noble spent her entire 20s being homeless in Utah. She’s since helped found Operation Shine America, a youth homelessness advocacy group, after she walked across the United States a few years ago to visit homeless camps and raise awareness. She grew up in a trailer in Cheyenne, Wyo. Her mother was married 12 times, and Noble lived through persistent trauma and abuse. After ending up in the hospital, at age 14, she was put into foster care and sent to live with a Mormon family in Utah. Her adoptive father was a bishop. She went from failing her classes to getting straight A’s in school, but as she began to express her queer identity, her adoptive siblings abused her, physically and verbally. When she came out to her adoptive father, he, naive but well-intentioned, plunged himself into learning everything he could about the Mormon church’s beliefs on homosexuality.
“He came home with a stack of books,” Noble says. “He says, ‘You’ve been hurt. All you’ve known is brutality. You’ve been sexually abused, so of course you’re gay.’ What he found in the literature was that gay men are pedophiles and sex addicts and beyond salvation. But for women, it appears they’re merely sick and they can be cured.”
Noble and I drive to an encampment site along the Jordan River outside Salt Lake City that looks to have been recently cleared by law enforcement. In a clearing, a mound of belongings appears to have been bulldozed to the center, but some settlements remain, many of them impressive structures built from plywood and tree limbs. Some even have doors. Some are dug into the muddy slopes along the river, like pueblo homes. There’s evidence of children being reared here: diapers and bibs and cans of formula are littered about.
When Noble left home, after being expelled from a homeless shelter in suburban Sandy, Utah, she was approached by a sex trafficker. “The predators go out and look for certain kinds of kids. They know exactly what they’re looking for,” she says. She ended up in the guy’s car, almost robotically, and as he drove her out of town, the car overheated; when he pulled over, she snapped to and fled.
“The Mormon ones don’t have the street smarts, and they are more trusting. They get sold and shipped all over the country. They just disappear,” Marian Edmonds-Allen says.
Laurin Crosson runs a safe house in Utah, called Rockstarr Ministries, for the victims of sex trafficking. She was trafficked for 20 years and says the average age of children who are picked up by pimps on the street is 13; they end up in the “West Coast circuit” — Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland — and many of them will be murdered before they reach 21.
“We have this horrific culture of throwing away kids here in Utah,” she says. “These pimps are waiting for these people. They are exactly what they are looking for. They don’t care about your sexuality or your gender identity. You’re flesh, and you’ll bring in a paycheck of about $150,000–200,000 a year.”
It was many years into Crosson’s forced prostitution before she heard the terms “human trafficking” or “sex trafficking,” and she sees the situation in Utah as clandestine and grim. For those kids who may be on the verge of homelessness, because of Utah’s conservative policies, people like her are forbidden to address public-school students about human trafficking.
“The church is the state here,” she says. “In Provo, there’s even an image of the Mormon temple on the metal badges that police officers wear. What else do I need to say?”