From No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones
By Carol Lynn Pearson, reprinted with permission
I Would Really Rather Be Dead
“The scary truth of matters is that I would really rather be dead than living outside of the Church.”
So it was written and so it was done. The suicide of Stuart Matis, a life-long celibate gay Mormon man, is, I think, the most well-publicized of many similar stories. Stuart lived only miles from me here in Northern California, and I remember that when I heard of his death from a self-administered gunshot wound on the steps of the LDS stake center in Los Altos in the early morning hours of February 25, 2000, I felt that I had lost someone close to me. I had never met this man, but I knew him. I had come to know intimately the workings of the mind, the workings of the heart of the devout, gay Mormon man. As I read bits of his story–in the newspapers, in Newsweek, on the internet, in the very moving account written by his mother and published by Mormon Church-owned Deseret Book, In Quiet Desperation–I could only sigh and say, of course, of course.
He was thirty-two years old before he told his parents about the cross he had carried since age seven. He had been certain that with obedience and faith his attraction for the same gender would pass–at age twelve when he was ordained to the priesthood, as most Mormon boys are–then when he received his patriarchal blessing–then when he attended the temple for the first time–then when he went on a mission. Surely God would approve of his life now and work for him the miracle of becoming normal, taking away the torment of his homosexual feelings.
He fasted and prayed and he went to the temple every week. He wept as night after night he prayed until morning, begging and pleading with a God he knew could help him if he was only worthy enough. As a child he would deny himself a favorite television program as punishment for a homosexual thought, or he wouldn’t allow himself to attend a friend’s birthday party.
His mother wrote:
Stuart’s entire life was spent striving for perfection. He reasoned that if he were perfect, then he would find God’s approval. His efforts became a never-ending cycle: effort–perceived failure–effort–perceived failure. The harder Stuart strove for perfection, the more he hated himself….he believed that he not only could change, but should change. When no change in his feelings occurred, no matter how hard he worked at it, he came to the conclusion that he was not worthy and that God did not accept his efforts. His self-loathing became…intense….Once Stuart said to me, “Mother, all my life I have tried to do what is right. I just can’t pass the test.”
In the suicide note that Stuart left on his bed that morning, along with love and appreciation to his family, were the words “….I am free, I am no longer in pain, and I no longer hate myself…..my life was actually killed long ago.”
Stuart’s bishop, with whom he had been counseling for months, aware of his suicidal thoughts, had pled with him, “Stuart, if this is a choice between the Church and your life, choose your life!” How I wish Stuart had done that, had grabbed his soul and run for his life, out the chapel door never to look back. How I wish he had listened to the voice inside that surely witnessed to God’s unconditional love for him. But–of course–I know so well how that voice was silenced in childhood by the voices that came from outside, speaking with authority and spelling out the conditions under which God’s love would be available.
The final straw that drove Stuart to suicide was the intense distress he felt around the politics of California’s “Protection of Marriage” initiative, Proposition 22, for which the Mormon Church was perhaps the leading proponent. The time of his suicide–two weeks before the voters went to the polls–and the place of his suicide–the steps of a Mormon building in which he had worshiped for years–give a clear indication that he hoped his death would bring attention to the issues about which he felt so passionate and so helpless.
After all the reports of others, I was yearning to get a better glimpse into Stuart’s mind, and I found it on the website of Affirmation. Earlier in February, the month of his death, Stuart wrote a very long letter to a cousin who had asked Stuart to give him information and opinion for a paper he was writing on California’s “Protection of Marriage” proposal. There, along with a picture of this very handsome and endearing young man, were some impassioned personal and political statements, fragments of which I share here.
At the outset, I’ll tell you that the events surrounding this initiative have been painfully difficult for me to endure. Last July, I read online that the Church had instructed the Bishops to read a letter imploring the members to give of their time and money to support this initiative…I cried for hours in my room, and I could do very little to console the grief of hearing this news.
Furthermore, I read that the Church had supported similar measures in Hawaii and in Alaska. In Alaska, the supporters of the measure had raised $600,000. Of this, $500,000 came from the Church. Ads were aired on television describing the downfall of the Roman Empire and placing blame on Rome’s tolerance of homosexuality. Its message was that a similar fate would occur to those who supported equality for gay Americans. Not only was this historical analysis completely fallacious, but this was a prejudicial ad designed to invoke a visceral reaction of fear and hate among the Alaskan citizens.
Apparently, the Church has raised $1 million in support of this [California] initiative. This is so disheartening because I feel that my own peers are attacking me….In July, I realized that I was going to have to endure viewing millions of dollars of television ads designed with one intention in mind: raise fear against gay and lesbian Californians. What’s worse is that this fear campaign has been orchestrated by my own friends.
My mom is completely distraught over the issue. She told me that she is scared to read the papers or watch TV. When her bishop read another pro-Knight letter last Sunday, she wanted to cry…. I have met with my bishop to discuss the matter. He too disagrees with the Church’s involvement in anti-gay politics. It’s very disheartening for him as well, but his concurrence still does nothing to ease my pain….
….When anti-gay advocates use the term “traditional,” I always wonder what tradition and what time. Do we support early 19th century traditional marriages when married women had no legal standing, could not own property, sign contracts, or legally control any earned wages?…I also find it somewhat hypocritical for the Church to appeal to people’s emotions and use the “tradition” argument when it was on the receiving end of such abuse during its polygamy era. The Church more than anyone in this country should know how persecution feels.
….The false dilemma is that either one is pro-homosexuality or pro-family. This, of course, is false. I am gay. I hate to sound redundant, but whether I remain celibate or find a partner, the net effect on families is zero.
….Straight members have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up gay in this Church. It is a life of constant torment, self-hatred and internalized homophobia….The Church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their calloused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their finger pointed to their head in the form of a gun….They are afraid of their parents. They are afraid of their bishop. They are afraid of their friends. They have nowhere to go but to lay on their floors curled in a ball and weep themselves to sleep….On the night of March 7th, many California couples will retire to their beds thrilled that they helped pass the…initiative. What they don’t realize is that in the next room, their son or daughter is lying in bed crying and could very well one day be a victim of society’s homophobia.
…. Most of my gay friends (and I) were suicidal at one time in their lives. I have friends who have swallowed pills, cut their wrists, burned their arms, placed bags over their heads. I have friends who have taken anti-depressant pills as if they were candy. Years of internalized homophobia have deeply scared my friends and me. It is only after we began to accept our identity that we have been able to heal our minds.
….In the end, remember, Clay, that we gay people are your family. We are your brothers and sisters. We are your sons and daughters. In your case, I am your cousin….I wish that I could shout this message from the rooftops, but alas, I sit alone in my room typing wondering what will happen next.
Well, Clay, my fingers are blistered…. I apologize if my words were a bit strong….On a more upbeat note, good luck preparing for your mission. I’ll see you in the spring. Take care.
There is a tragic addendum that must be added here. Stuart had become close friends with Clay Whitmer, not the cousin Clay to whom he wrote the letter, but a man he met as both served Mormon missions in Italy. They later confessed to each other their homosexuality, remained best friends and tried to be a support to one another. Newsweek reported, “A few weeks [after Stuart’s suicide], anguished at his friend’s death and tormented by his own long-term depression, Whitmer put a gun to his own head.” Clay was a brilliant young man with both an MBA degree and a JD.
Another gay Mormon suicide created a triple tragedy. Brian (DJ) Thompson ended his life two weeks after Stuart did. He had served as a missionary in Seattle, had been president of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, and had once traveled to Paris as an artist’s assistant. In his suicide note, DJ wrote, “It is unfortunate that the lives of good people such as Stuart Matis, Mathew Shepherd [victim of a hate crime in Wyoming], and many others go unnoticed, unappreciated, and undervalued in this country. Therefore, I believe that the end of my life will simply be the same….I see Proposition 22 as a last straw in my lifelong battle to see peace in the world I live in.”
It is true that the consciousness of many has been raised by Stuart’s act, by the sharing of his story by his parents, and by the suicides of those that followed him. But, ah, Stuart, how I wish you had chosen life and taught us in a different way, taught us by bravely insisting that you too are that you might have joy, showing us how brightly a gay man can shine.