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Alone in the fold: Many LDS gays struggle to cling to faith despite their yearnings

Ty Mansfield and Stuart Matis never met, but they were brothers in church and in spirit. They held to the iron rod of their faith and successfully completed LDS missions. Both also clung to another core belief: If they just prayed hard enough, fasted often enough and read their scriptures long enough, God would change their strong physical attraction to other men.

Both sought professional counseling; both got blessings from their priesthood leaders; both tried hard and cried hard. But the feelings stayed put.

Mansfield almost lost his grip a time or two. Matis finally let go.

As active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, neither man could reconcile his feelings with his faith.

Both men wrote about their struggle: Matis in a suicide note to his parents and Mansfield in a book to fellow Latter-day Saints, explaining his struggle and his way of dealing with it.

"In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the Challenge of Same Gender Attraction," written at the request of publisher Deseret Book, was penned by Mansfield with Matis' parents, Fred and Marilyn Matis, to explain what life was like for Stuart and his family, and to provide hope for Latter-day Saints, their families and anyone else dealing with same-sex attraction.

"I knew I wasn't going to convince anyone the church is right," Mansfield said, noting he expects his readers are made up of active Latter-day Saints who already understand the church's position that homosexual activity is sinful, while acknowledging there are members who struggle to remain faithful to LDS teachings. Filled with scriptural metaphors, "The book doesn't tell them they are inherently evil or wrong or broken. I wanted to inspire hope," Mansfield said.

He doesn't pretend that life is easy. In fact, he doesn't pretend anymore. Yet he believes many Latter-day Saints are so uncomfortable with the topic that there's "a tendency just to dismiss it or believe that maybe it's just a phase that will eventually pass. "Then you reach a point where you have a spiritual crisis," whether personally or as a parent or sibling.

As a former student at Brigham Young University, Mansfield says he reached a point where "I felt I would go crazy if I didn't deal with it. I was bottled up for so long, feeling inherently evil and feeling my existence is evil. I wanted to believe that the church isn't true, but I knew that it is. I couldn't let go of that."

Stuart Matis couldn't either. But the despair of knowing "I'll never be right with God no matter what I do," as he told his parents in the suicide note, was pulling on him. No matter how much he polished it with abiding prayers, firm faith and regular temple attendance, his mother said recently, Stuart always saw rust on his armor.

"I am now free," he wrote in his note. "I am no longer in pain, and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might be the catalyst for some good."

His parents, now retired and living in a quiet neighborhood in northern Utah County, are doing their stalwart-LDS best to build a foundation of understanding from what so many regard their millstone.

"We just hope that his story — how he lived and what he lived with — will help people know who he was," his mother said recently looking at her son's picture. "And to understand — understand that we all have challenges, that we don't ask for them, and we don't choose what they'll be."

In February 2000, California voters were a month away from deciding whether to place a prohibition on recognizing same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. Despite agreeing with the LDS Church's organized support for Proposition 22, political heat was touching Fred and Marilyn Matis personally in a way not felt by most of their fellow ward members — particularly those who used Sunday meetings as a platform to promote more drastic measures: all homosexuals should be loaded onto a ship, sailed out to the Pacific Ocean and sunk, a member said one Sunday standing among the congregation.

The political rhetoric stung the Matis family, particularly 32-year-old Stuart. As they suffered in silence, another panic attack hit Stuart, and his mother returned home from another church meeting in tears.

She told her husband they needed a break, and the couple decided to visit their daughter in Colorado for a week. They invited Stuart, but he said he couldn't go. They returned home on a Monday, and the following day were preparing to go to the temple when Stuart told them he had a gun hidden away in a safe place. He knew about hiding, and after 20 years of hiding his feelings, and another year of talking with parents, church leaders and friends, Stuart's hope of changing his orientation through prayer and religious devotion had evaporated.

After a sacred experience Fred says he had in the temple in the hours following their conversation with Stuart, he and his wife prayed together there and "turned Stuart over to Heavenly Father." The details are too personal to recount, but a certain peace came to them, they said.

Three days later they found the note on Stuart's bed, recounting how "throughout my life, despite all the pain I endured, I always trusted in God and hoped for the best. This hope fed my desire to live. Now, however, I have become convinced that my anxieties will never be resolved. . . . As I am incapable of resolving them myself, I have decided to end them in the only way I know will work. I must remove the chains of my mortality."

Stuart's body was found outside an LDS stake center later that day, a gun lying next to him. Until Feb. 25, 2000, his secret had been kept. With a gunshot, his story became national news just days before the vote in California, spotlighting a subject that has been whispered about but not widely discussed among the ranks of ordinary Latter-day Saints.

In their living room, the Matises have hung a rendering of a young man who represents their son, dressed in a collared shirt with sleeves rolled up, moving up a stairway toward heaven and reaching back to other young men with outstretched arms. Other figures above him reach out as well, looking to draw the anguished to a place of peace.

The couple hopes their effort to reach out to the many who are as tormented as their son will be seen for what it is: a willing embrace of those who are shunned or are isolated by fear that they will be found out. In February, they invited Ty Mansfield and his friends to celebrate the book's publication at their home. More than half of the 65 young men who showed up were gay Latter-day Saints.

"We had dinner for them. Even after Ty left, they didn't want to go," Marilyn remembers. The group found the family piano and began singing LDS hymns "with the sweetest spirit."

"If people could just have been here seeing them sing together with tears in their eyes. I got e-mails and calls afterward saying they had felt loved. That's really all they want."

After the gathering, one young man approached Fred and asked, "Do you do this often? I would like to come here more."

"They felt relaxed, like people were not looking at them in any critical way," Fred remembers.

Following their son's death, they were contacted by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, who asked to meet with them. They spent two hours talking about Stuart's experience and what they have learned since. They have also talked at length with Elder Cecil Samuelson of the Quorums of the Seventy, who serves as president of BYU. "Several of these young men have gone to him and he has given them time," they said, adding they believe top church leaders have great compassion for those who struggle.

At a recent BYU Women's Conference workshop on same-sex attraction, presenter David Pruden, who serves as executive director of Evergreen International — an LDS-based program that helps clients with same-sex attraction — told the audience that LDS therapists estimate from 2 to 4 percent of LDS membership, or about 400,000 people, experience same-gender attraction.

The causes of homosexuality "aren't known," says Lee Beckstead, a local psychologist who recently studied the outcome of various forms of therapy among gay Latter-day Saints. Just as church members populate a diverse political spectrum, the beliefs and ideas about how to treat homosexuality among Latter-day Saints also vary widely.

A broad spectrum of opinion exists within the psychotherapeutic community — including LDS practitioners — on what is most helpful for those dealing with same-sex attraction.

"We don't know what causes heterosexuality, so we don't know what causes homosexuality. We have theories developed when clinicians asked clients about their past, and we're learning about family relationships," Beckstead said. "But I think it all depends on people's beliefs about what causes sexual orientation."

Cause underlies "reparative therapy," designed to teach men to be more masculine and women to be more feminine.

Within the LDS Church, he said, conversion or "reparative" therapists believe once they know the cause of homosexuality, they can find the cure. Based on assumptions about the cause, including "a deficit in someone's gender identity," the view maintains that people are all "basically heterosexual, and 'because my father didn't love me enough' " there was a disconnection or inferiority that developed in relationships with other men. Thus, it seeks to help men develop healthy heterosexual relationships with the goal of having them become heterosexual, he said.

The opposite clinical approach, called gay-affirmative therapy, also creates a challenge for LDS clients committed to living in accordance with the dictates of their faith, which eschews sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage and teaches that families will be "together forever." Such therapy supports and encourages a gay lifestyle.

Yet many LDS clients want to change the attraction rather than simply follow it, and opposing views on how to deal with the attraction complicate treatment for them, Beckstead said. "Just because you have same-sex attraction doesn't mean you have to be in a gay relationship."

Beckstead has concluded that "neither conversion therapies nor typical gay-affirmative therapies have met the needs of all conflicted clients" and that therapists need to explore new ways to meet their needs.

"God is a huge topic: Can God love them despite their attraction or because of the attraction? It's about approval from God and society and really needing that, while in the wider culture, it's more a focus on societal approval: I can't be gay because parents will hate me, my spouse will leave me, or it doesn't fit in with being black or being Chinese."

Now that his book has been published, Mansfield says he prefers to live outside Utah. "Here I just felt like it would be too much a part of my life. My whole life isn't this issue."

Though he works for a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., Mansfield says he's decided to pursue a degree in personal and family therapy, whether he actually ends up doing counseling or not. He learned while in therapy himself "how to understand my feelings and better respond to them. I can control my feelings rather than letting them control me."

He said he would never suggest marriage as a way of trying to banish same-sex attraction.

"I know some individuals who feel they have overcome the attraction, have married, and it's not a problem for them anymore. . . . I know many more who have the type of life they want — married with a family. They still experience the attraction, but that's all they see it as."

Though he understands his own dynamics, he says he's not sure if his attractions will ever leave him entirely. He has only a smile and a polite "no" for fellow Latter-day Saints who try to line him up with women, and no definitive answer for those who ask if he'll ever marry.

Some he knows have left the church and are living a homosexual lifestyle. When they ask why he doesn't just give in, he answers, "I feel I'm being true to my eternal self."