The alarming influx of suicides in Utah has caught some attention. Some of these recent deaths have been attributed to Dallin H. Oaks’s hardline toward the LGBTQ community in his last General Conference address, causing many to feel ousted with no purpose or value in the eyes of the Church. Regardless of the whys, the increase of suicides cries for attention for those of us left behind–especially when the hit comes close to home.
As human experience will teach, an intentional death is perhaps the hardest of deaths to accept. No one would ever fathom calling such an incidence a mere offense. It is not a small sting a simple bandaid can cure. Suicide is trauma beyond measure. When someone takes their own life, we are yielded in our tracks. We stop and demand: “What happened?” Usually, or may I say “always,” trauma has been a prevalent part of the victim’s life.
Indeed, when a suicide hits, a death had already occurred within the person who chose to officially call the game “over.” I would like to share how this event slowly occurred for a recent church trauma victim. I hate that one more victim of church trauma is down, yet it is disastrously so. I share with permission, using the words of my dear friend, Christine Burton, who is the mother of the wounded: Michael Burton.
I must start at the beginning: Michael’s birth. He was my last child. I was told prior to his birth not to get pregnant again because I did not have the Rh factor, something my husband and I did not realize until the birth of his brother just before him. Briefly this means that when the fetus is Rh positive, a mother often produces antibodies that can go across the placenta and damage the baby’s red blood cells. If this condition isn’t prevented after the first pregnancy (which it is now with treatment shots), the baby could have severe anemia and very likely die. This chance becomes more possible with each additional pregnancy….’Being careful’ was not a fail-safe method, and I did find myself an expectant mother once again! I ended up having two sets of intrauterine blood exchanges (each three weeks apart), to keep this baby alive. There was a specialist from out of state (who happened to be a Stake President) who came to perform these very risky procedures. I found out later that these were only the fifth ones he had performed and three of the babies had died! These transfusions were touch and go as the extremely long needle had to go through my belly and into the baby at the exact spot for the blood to do its work (the baby had to be anesthetized so he wouldn’t move and dislodge the needle!) There is mounting evidence today that the brain during pregnancy and the first few months of a baby’s life is affected more by environment than at any other time in its development! Whether or not this shocking disruption caused his homosexualty or not, we will never know for certain. What we do know is that this type of invasion into his calm environment must have caused a dramatic shift in his hormonal development.
Similar to his brother before him (who had to go through several blood transfusions after he was born), Michael was born by Cesarean section nearly 8 weeks early. As with his older sibling, an apostle, (this time my uncle) and my husband gave him a name and a blessing through the incubator, each putting a single finger through the hole and very gently touching his tiny head! The blessing calmed my troubled heart and thankfully, our son took a turn for the better and we were able to bring him home a month later. What a jubilant day that was!!
When Michael was a young boy, it was my privilege to be the recipient of his sensitivity and generous spirit. He was always very aware of my needs and seemed to be unduly concerned about my daily welfare. This touched me deeply, as children most often are very egocentric and somewhat selfish. This is all to be expected with their developing brains and personality. He and I were very close, as he would much rather be with me (shopping, running errands, etc.) than with children of his own age. I thought this was cute, and I cherished the time and attention he showered upon me, never thinking that this might be a little bit ‘different.’ (I later learned he was homosexual, as I mentioned, which I will get to later.) Because of the Church’s teachings about homosexuality and its sinfulness, my husband and I would talk about this ‘gross and despicable’ behavior in the presence of our children. This was also discussed in Church meetings, and as I am a daily journal keeper, and have been for decades, I can readily access my personal feelings regarding this ‘abhorrent sin’! My stomach churns as I read now what I wrote then, and realize just how much I had been ‘brainwashed’ over the years about so many things. I totally followed the ‘party line’ and never really gave anything a second thought (let alone a first one!) It was so easy to point my finger at someone else and think, “Those poor people that they have to deal with thus and so.” I remember clearly going to San Francisco (we lived in the bay area at the time) with friends of ours from our ward. He was bishop at the time. We were eating dinner at an upscale restaurant before attending a concert. I noticed two young men sitting at the table next to us, holding hands. I was horrified! I turned to my friend and said, “Look at that! Aren’t we so blessed that we don’t have to deal with something so depraved!”
Michael served a mission in Finland (in the middle of the winter, I might add!) I never knew he was suffering with depression until about a month after his arrival in the field, I received a call from the Mission President asking me if I knew where my son was! Really? I strongly stated, “Of course not. He is under your care and thousands of miles away.” As the young missionaries were only supposed to write about “faith promoting” experiences, we had no idea that anything was wrong. It turned out that my son was so depressed and discouraged that he decided to take a walk through the streets of Helsinki by himself….a definite no no! It was freezing cold, the missionaries were being taunted and almost hit on their bicycles, the language was incredibly difficult, the people were rude and many were drunk, and the sky was forever dark (up there in the north country). These were all in addition to his homosexuality, which he could not possibly accept at this time. What occurred next was, to me, reprehensible! My son finally ended up at the mission home where he was abruptly met by the President who proceeded to chide him by telling him that he was a disgrace to God, to the Church, and to his parents! Michael was shocked, and meekly asked the President if he could go to another mission, where English was spoken and the climate not so stark. The President exclaimed matter of factly, “If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere! I am going to send you home!” As my father had been a Mission President in England, I knew as a fact that he often welcomed missionaries from other missions that were, for some reason or another, too challenged in their former location.
This, I believe, caused a dramatic shift in my son’s feelings about himself, which tragically deteriorated into self-hatred! He was already struggling mightily to repress and deny his homosexuality, knowing that it was abhorrent and unacceptable, having read and reread Spencer W. Kimball’s book “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” As he had been taught since he was a young child that prophets are inspired and even the mouthpieces of God, he didn’t doubt the book’s truthfulness and validity. He had especially paid close attention to the words in Chapter Six: Crimes against Nature. As a way to quell his anxiety and calm himself, he engaged in masturbation. (I know as a trauma survivor and a hypnotherapist that masturbation is a way of self-soothing and gaining some control in an otherwise altered universe, where black is indeed white, and the other way around.) My son was vehemently reminded of this particular chapter, that his act was condemned by modern-day, as well as ancient, prophets, as it produced “guilt and shame.” He also read that it could lead to homosexuality, which is a “most grievous, repugnant, reprehensible and revolting practice, and a deep, dark sin. It is a diabolical lie told by Satan and also considered blasphemy!” Those committing this ‘sin’ are considered “perverts.” In addition to these most graphic shame-based contentions, masturbation could lead to “bestiality” and used to carry the death penalty under the Mosaic Law! No wonder my son was on the front line of a most horrific daily battle within himself! To add to this ‘weakness’ of not being able to ‘rise above this,’ he now, further was told he was an utter failure! The combination of both these rebukes caused a complete unraveling of his tender young psyche. This truly was the beginning of the end (although years later) for him.
I definitely hold the teachings of the Church responsible for their not only negating, minimizing, condemning, and yes, even destroying the personhood of an individual, but also for placing a man in an authority position like his Mission President, who was clearly unable or unwilling to validate, listen, or compassionately connect with a young man! What a dastardly and despicable deed, as well as a travesty of the most gigantic proportions!! To top this all off, when Michael did come back, with his hands visibly shaking, we were told to not let him come home, but to pick him up at the airport and drive to a hotel in another town as he had not yet been formally released from his mission. Still being ‘under the thumb’ of these people, I followed and did what I was told, without even wondering how this behavior would affect my son! I didn’t even think to ask him much about what was going on…so outlandish, as I never ever would do anything even close to this now! We eventually came home and the bishop at the time told us to bring our son to the back door of his house and we would meet him there. Again, I just followed authority, as I was not yet in touch with my own story of church trauma and was living in blind obedience and was disconnected from my own reality and life experiences. This was the beginning of many counseling sessions for our son. Most of these people were part of the Church’s Social Service Department. Of course, they seemed to exacerbate and not help what was going on in his heart.
Michael eventually ‘tried again,’ by going on another mission, this one in the states. We were all still unaware, as was he, at a cognitive level, what was really going on inside of him! He was again ‘sent home’ due to different circumstances. He had engaged in sex with his friend (a girl) and didn’t tell his Bishop about it. This ate at him so he confessed to his Mission President. The Mission President said he’d pray about it and several days later, Michael was called back in and the Mission President said that after considerable thought and prayer, he knew that my son should leave the mission and return home. My concern here is that similar situations had occurred in other missions where the missionary was congratulated for having the courage to tell and was then told he could stay. The lack of uniformity is, to me, appalling! I know that people are people, and we are all different, but when it comes to Church policy, it should be across the board, the same for everyone and every mission! I also know, by experience, there are errant bishops, some of whom hurt others either through their words or actions, and are ‘heady’ because of their calling and tend to be too invasive or evasive. They take on more than they should, often counseling individuals when they need to recommend the parishioner to a professional counselor. There are those who have been irreparably damaged by bishops who have made wrong decisions in advising people. There are many members who believe their ward leaders are inspired and proceed to do what they’re told without gaining insight and following their own hearts and minds. My son went on to marry this same “best friend” even though he told me it lacked “fireworks.” I advised him that maybe he should wait until he found a young woman for whom he could feel those undeniable feelings. (Again, I was oblivious!) However, they did marry and had two beautiful sons. Michael went on to get a master’s degree in Educational Psychology. He began an illustrious teaching career, ending up concentrating on younger children in elementary school. Each school was honored to have a male teacher, and he was beloved by administrators, other teachers, parents, and most especially his young students! When my husband and I were back in Bend, OR (where he and his family lived) one winter, we went to pick him up before Christmas break. There in the snow, children had shoveled, the following, “We love you Mr. Burton.”
One day I received a panicky call from Michael, informing me that he just couldn’t go on anymore. I frantically begged him to please tell me what had happened! I went through the litany of things that it might be: a car accident, something serious had happened to one of the boys, he had hit something or someone while he was driving, etc? For some unknown reason that I cannot even get my head around today, I muttered at the end, “Well, at least you’re not gay!” Why oh why these words escaped my lips, I do not have a clue! I do know he was silent, while I waited anxiously on the other end of the phone for him to tell me what was wrong. Finally, he said quietly, “It’s the last thing you just said.” I remember just being frozen in time and unable to speak. I think I muttered something inaudible, as he asked me if I had heard him. I recall saying in a raspy voice, “No, No! That can’t possibly be true! You are married and have two children!” To me, at the time, what he had just told me was impossible to process, let alone accept. It just couldn’t be true!! It was almost as if the other possibilities I had put out there at the beginning were less egregious than what I had just found out! It was so unbelievable to me, at the time, as I was so indoctrinated into the Church and had digested and totally accepted the ‘fact’ that homosexuality was an abomination and could be punished by death, as I had read in the Old Testament! That my own flesh and blood could possibly be this ‘sinful’ was beyond comprehension!
This began a saga of self-discovery for me, which climaxed into feelings of unconditional love, validation, the deepest compassion, and empathy. Many difficult and extreme challenging times were on the horizon. Michael eventually e-mailed his father telling him he had ‘same sex attraction’ (the term the Church used.) This knowledge was shocking and trying for my husband to accept, but he definitely was able to ‘soften his heart’ while, at the same time, still holding onto the Church’s beliefs.
My son suffered acutely through a heart wrenching divorce, which culminated in the loss of his children for a lengthy period of time. As he had been a stay at home dad for the first several years of their lives, he had a strong connection to his two boys so this caused him tremendous sorrow. Because of his desperation to see his boys, he made some unwise choices because of his hurt, that resulted in more trauma and trial. Tragically, he also lost his second passion, teaching. During this period, he truly was a ship without a rudder and was floating closer and closer to a swirling undertow. He began drinking to quell the negative and destructive voices in his head, and to subdue the ‘tiger within’.
Gratefully, he soon met (after many false starts) an incredible man who had endured similar circumstances. They bonded instantly, sharing their mutual feelings of despair and anger. They went on to marry in Washington D.C. in 2011. His husband’s name was also Michael and we fondly thereafter called them ‘The Mike’s’. The other Mike’s parents struggled with their only son’s homosexualty. They were active Church members and believed President Kimball’s stance when he strongly refuted the idea that homosexuals might actually be born that way! He, President Kimball, (again in his book, The Miracle of Forgiveness) considered that “misguided thought basically was a cop-out and excuse for loathsome behavior.” The person was too ‘weak’ to ‘overcome’ these predilections, and not committed enough to repentance and full Church fellowship. Although Spencer W. Kimball quietly apologized and some of the most offensive words he had written were redacted, many of the rank and file members of the Church were not privy to this withdrawal, and that Chapter still stayed intact and was read and believed by many.
The Mike’s love for one another was a beautiful thing to behold. Their complete dedication and loyalty was exemplary. When one of them was in the hospital the other would sit by his side holding his hand all day and throughout the night. I would often go in the hospital for a visit only to see the other Michael sound asleep wrapped in a blanket in a chair next to his beloved spouse. They could read each other’s minds and always knew instinctively what the other needed at any given time. Just being in their presence was a memorable experience. Yes, they had disagreements like all married couples, but they made up, readily took responsibility for their actions, and went forward stronger than before.
The Mike’s were beaten up twice on North Temple. One beating resulted in hospitalizations for both of them causing broken ribs, collar bones and deep lacerations. These crimes were not reported as the job situations were tenuous and they were concerned the word would get out that they were gay! When they lived in an apartment complex in American Fork, young families used to walk on the other side of the street to avoid being within their proximity. One time when my son was talking to a little child at the playground, a young mother grabbed her daughter’s arm, jerking her away. “Do not talk to that man,” she hissed. “He is evil!”
Tragically, my son’s husband died suddenly in July 2018 of a brain hemorrhage in the University of Utah Medical Center. This caught all of us off guard, and was the beginning of a downward spiral for my Michael. There was no way he could get his head around this, or even begin to process it. His husband was the love of his life, and his “go to person”, as he would always say. They had so much in common, even the depression and despondency related to their life experiences and resultant self-loathing. Having someone to share that with who really understood was a saving grace for both of them. Being bereft of his husband’s presence caused an even deeper depression and more drinking to numb the horror of it all. Michael and I have always been extremely close, as I’ve said, but even the hours, moments, and days I spent with him trying to help give him purpose in living (his beloved sons as well as myself and all the gifts and talents he possessed that could help others) he truly felt that he did not want to go on in this life any longer. His suffering had been exquisite, and his self-hatred at not being able to change who he was (hearing the words written by Spencer W. Kimball often bombarding him in his thoughts and dreams) finally won out…On September 20, 2018 my beloved and cherished son took his life in a hotel in St George, Utah. This will alter my life and change me forever…There will always be a deep and dark abyss inside my shattered heart. I feel like the better half of me is gone and fully comprehending that fact is unfathomable! My anger is bordering on rage when I let myself think upon how his life could have been, if he had been raised in an openly loving and accepting home where each child was an individual and treated as such, and had a right to his or her own destiny no matter what that might be (Michael had said as much to me on many occasions.) That is the true tragedy!!!
… Another warrior is down, a mother’s heart has been broken, lives have been shattered–and all so unncessarily! How many more tragedies are we going to see in the name of the Church??
It is my hope that those suffering within the walls of these teachings can somehow find a way to realize–before their lives are beyond repair–that they are not the problem, the teachings of the Church are! It is the Church that has taught them that they are not okay!
We need to stand up and effect change because these teachings are destroying lives and that needs to stop!!