Mama Dragon, Chris Schaefer questions licensed clinical social worker, Sean Camp, about various LGBTQ issues, including the LDS Church’s new policy, the reported 34 LGBTQ suicides since the policy change, conversion therapy, and advice for loved ones of LGBTQ youth.
CHRIS SCHAEFER: Sean, thank you for making the time to answer some questions for Zelph readers. Many people have been in turmoil since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s new LGBTQ policy was made public. Was your clinical practice affected by this?
SEAN CAMP: I am a practicing Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and have been working as a psychotherapist for over 24 years now. Our practice was absolutely affected by this policy release by the LDS Church. The weekend this news broke we had three calls from clients and former clients who were feeling suicidal, and wanted to know how they could integrate this new status into their beliefs and their sexual orientation. These particular clients (and many others since) had worked very hard to find a balance in the spaces between church doctrine and their lived reality, and had done so successfully – only to have the rug yanked out from under them, with no foreseeable hope of resolution.
Since November 5th we have seen an increase in the number of clients being affected by the conflict between their LDS faith and their sexual orientation, a phenomenon which I know to be mirrored by professional colleagues in other settings and practices. I work with many LGBTQ youth from LDS families, and perhaps the most insidious ripple from this new policy has been with the parents and families of these youth – progress was being made on finding a way to accept their gay/lesbian/transgendered child within the confines of their faith, and while difficult things were nevertheless moving forward.
With the release of this policy many of these same parents and family members have felt empowered to stand fast in their belief system, and months and months of painful clinical work simply vanished with the stroke of a revelatory pen.
SCHAEFER: There is a current figure of 34 policy-related suicides that has been compiled by Wendy Montgomery of the Mama Dragons support group, which is comprised of family members of LGBTQ children who are or were members of the LDS church. The information on the suicides was provided to Wendy — in confidence — by family members of the deceased. From your experience, have suicides and suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth changed since 5 November?
CAMP: Within my direct experience there have not been any suicides since the policy release, although there have been multiple suicidal thoughts and gestures among our client population that have been tied directly to the LDS Church. Vicariously, I am aware of several successful suicides, but again these have not been my clients nor clients with whom I am directly involved.
On a related note, I have read and seen many people questioning and attacking these numbers, which appalls me to my core – as if 26 suicides is somehow more preferable than 34. These people protesting these numbers expect us to say, “Oh, well it was 10 less than they said, so that’s okay then?!” Any clinician will tell you that it is virtually impossible to obtain accurate numbers regarding suicide, as many family members are ashamed of the person who passed and will often go to great lengths to conceal this information; and there is no federal law that mandates reporting for suicide risk. Thus each state has their own laws with regard to whether reporting is required, who is required to report, and what the process is for reporting.
This reminds me of the high number of deaths among people with AIDS during the 1980s (I was not working as a therapist then, but as a bachelor’s level social worker in an AIDS service organization). During the early and middle part of the AIDS crisis it was impossible to collect accurate numbers of AIDS-related deaths, as there was so much shame and fear that people would do anything to keep others from knowing the actual cause of death. A gruesome comparison, perhaps, but I think the parallels are clear.
Many LDS children who are LGBTQ are experiencing self-loathing and suicidal ideation. How can their families best support them?
I think the most important thing family members need to communicate to their LGBTQ youth is that (1) there are no clear or easy answers, and (2) they are with the struggling youth in this dilemma and will not choose their religion over their family member. There are so many media stories and very real examples of family casting out their youth over this issue that I have found it is one of the single greatest fears of youth who have or are considering coming out.
I think the worst thing an LDS family can do is drag their youth off to see the Bishop when their child discloses they are struggling. I do not mean this to attack bishops (I have worked with some truly marvelous bishops in my time here in Utah), but the LDS church does not remotely prepare them to deal with issues of this intensity. I have experienced well-meaning, good-hearted church leaders push youth into serious crisis with statements that essentially boil down to “if you tried/prayed/worshipped harder you could conquer this”.
When a person is right in the middle of their struggle this is possibly the worst thing they could hear. They already feel they are a failure; this is like rubbing salt into a wound. My best advice is to love, and to proceed very slowly. Statements such as “I’m confused and I don’t understand how to help you, but I am never going to stop trying and I am never going to abandon you, no matter what happens” and “we are in this together, all the way” can mean the difference between a struggling youth who stays present, and a youth who simply checks out.
SCHAEFER: Is suicide contagion real?
CAMP: Absolutely. Not only has this been empirically studied, but most clinicians are vicariously or experientially aware of the phenomenon of suicide contagion (when one successful suicide sparks others). Some of this is in the way such things are handled socially. When a youth dies, suicide or no, the focus is on remembering all of the wonderful things about the deceased, and how much they meant to the survivors, and so on.
What struggling youth who feels broken/diseased/evil/apostate doesn’t want to change the way everyone thinks, feels, and talks about them? In this context, suicide seems a reasonable solution. In addition, surviving youth see that their friend (real or imagined) is no longer struggling – and don’t we always talk about the deceases as being “at peace?” Many individuals grappling with the intersection of faith and sexual identity are desperate for peace, at any cost.
SCHAEFER: Siblings of LDS children who are LGBTQ have found themselves placed in situations where they have to decide whether to support their brother or sister, or forgo certain aspects of church activity, such as receiving a limited use temple recommend. Do you have any counsel for parents in this situation?
CAMP: This is a difficult issue, and I have many friends who have families struggling with this exact issue. With regard to siblings of LGBTQ youth, I can only suggest that parents allow the siblings to follow their own hearts, and support whatever decisions the youth feel their hearts suggest. Whatever the case, the messages being spoken/expressed by all family members should mirror those I mentioned above, the “we’re in this together”pronouncements.
SCHAEFER: Is the LDS church a safe place for any age group who are LGBTQ?
CAMP: Although I think there are a few folks who are able to find the balance, my personal position is that no, it is not a safe place for LGBTQ individuals. No matter how kind the words and comforting the gestures, the essential message is one of ‘less than’, of not being as ‘worthy’. Even in the best of situations and the most accepting of wards, the official message is still that the only way to ‘live correctly’ is to remain celibate and deny yourself that most basic of human needs – intimacy and connection. An individual’s sense of self can only handle so much barrage before it begins to weaken and crack. I consider it a very dangerous rope to try and walk.
SCHAEFER: During a local priesthood training in Arizona, Elders Anderson (an Apostle) and Clayton (a Seventy) instructed local leaders that LGBTQ children are not allowed to attend church meetings outside their birth gender or present in church other than their birth gender. Do you feel this targets transgender children and youth, and what potential effect could this have upon them?
CAMP: I had not heard this before, and I had to contain my anger before I could answer this question appropriately. I don’t know how this can NOT target transgender youth, with the subsequent effect that I mentioned above – the ‘”less than,” “not as worthy,” etc. If such messages are being received in the very place that youth look for love, peace, spiritual growth, and acceptance, the harm is incalculable. And families wonder why their children will reject God and religion completely? I am genuinely horrified (but sadly, not surprised) to learn of this.
SCHAEFER: I have seen people who are coming to terms with this situation use the words and phrases othering, cult mentality, and cognitive dissonance. I’m not a psychotherapist. Are these valid characterizations?
CAMP: Well, I would separate the terms “othering” and “cognitive dissonance” from the term “cult mentality.” With regard to the latter, I feel it is a counterproductive label that accomplishes absolutely nothing (except to piss people off), and thus I tend to avoid it and suggest that others do as well.
Othering refers to any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in someone else’s worldview as “not one of us.” In the context of the LDS church and LGBTQ individuals, this is clearly a legitimate factor. By its very definition the new policy/revelation is “othering,” creating different classes of individuals, some of whom are more worthy than others, to receive certain privileges within the church. Such tactics are effective at maintaining the status quo, but catastrophic to those who are “othered” in terms of self-esteem, self-worth, and spiritual connection.
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation wherein an individual holds involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors and cannot find resolution between the competing factors. The concept comes from cognitive theory, which suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony, and when we are unable to do so we experience anxiety, depression, and (at the extreme) self-hatred.
The connections between believing deeply in a system of belief that tells you your innate sense of self is antithetical to God should be clear – how can one hold a positive sense of self when experiencing such inner turmoil?
SCHAEFER: In Utah, what are the best crisis resources for parents and teens?
CAMP: Equality Utah has a website dedicated to resources for LGBTQ individuals and families, and can be found at: http://www.equalityutah.org/resources/lgbt-resource-guide.
For those seeking therapeutic counseling, I highly recommend they search for a clinician within the LGBTQ-Affirmative Therapist Guild of Utah (http://www.lgbtqtherapists.com/).
The Guild is a listing of therapists who are either LGBTQ themselves or are experienced in helping those dealing with related issues. The Guild has an excellent reputation, and members have established experience in working with LDS issues in a respectful manner.
Although I have enormous respect for their clinical work in many areas, I do not recommend families seek assistance from LDS Family Services when dealing with LGBTQ-related issues. I believe clients are better served by seeking a clinician who is able to balance multiple perspectives without assigning favor, which by definition is a much more complicated task for an LDS therapist nested within an LDS-run enterprise.
SCHAEFER: Have you observed any change in the number of homeless LGBTQ teens?
CAMP: I have several colleagues who work directly with the homeless population, and we have had numerous conversations regarding this matter. So while I cannot speak from personal authority to this issue, I am aware of a steady increase in the population of LGBTQ teens that are accessing homeless shelters, food banks, and medical services geared toward the homeless population.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL):
-One in seven young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away Youth age 12 to 17 are more at risk of homelessness than adults
-Between 20 – 40% of homeless youth identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning (LGBTQ)
-46% of runaway and homeless youth reported being physically abused, 38% reported being emotionally abused , and 17% reported being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member
To further complicate the problem, in 2009 Utah passed a bill requiring a person who harbors a minor who is a runaway to provide notice to the parent or legal guardian of the minor, the Division of Child and Family Services, or, under certain circumstances, a peace officer or a detention center, within eight hours from the time that the person begins providing the shelter or the time that the person becomes aware that the minor is a runaway. Thus many youth will NOT seek services or sanctuary out of fear of being reported and forcibly returned to their families.
SCHAEFER: If you are willing to offer your home as a safe haven for teens, what do you need to do?
CAMP: This is a really challenging question, one for which I don’t have a clear answer. Being out of the parental home without consent is considered a status offense in Utah, and the youth is designated runaway status. According to Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-112 (2011) once made aware of the runaway status of a youth the police are required to notify the guardian. If the youth’s guardian cannot be located or if the youth’s welfare is in danger, the police are required to deliver the youth to a shelter for care and assessment.
Further, by Utah Code Ann. § 62A-4a-501 (2011) any person who knowingly and intentionally harbors a runaway minor who is away from home without consent of the minor’s parent is guilty of a crime. A person may not be guilty of harboring a runaway if he/she notifies the guardian of the minor’s location or reports the minor’s location to Child and Family Services within 8 hours after the person knows the minor is away from home.
Thus, if you open your home to a teen who is designated runaway status, you are also opening yourself to potential legal charges. If this is a route a family in Utah chooses to pursue, I would strongly recommend consulting with a family law attorney either in a proactive fashion or immediately upon becoming involved with a runaway youth.
SCHAEFER: Is it necessary to reconcile sexual orientation with faith?
CAMP: This is a question of personal context. Some people find the division difficult to live with, while others are able to keep the disparate aspects of themselves compartmentalized. I would suggest that in many systems of faith this is a somewhat easier task than in the LDS faith, as there are often not prescriptions against full participation even when being gay or lesbian is frowned upon or socially constructed as a “sin.” The recent policy changes that prompted these questions has disallowed the ability of LGBTQ Mormons to find a workable balance between their faith and their sexual orientation – and thus the social/political/spiritual turmoil.
SCHAEFER: What is the psychological impact of prejudice and discrimination?
CAMP: Well, discrimination is almost always harmful, the real question is one of degree and the nature of discrimination/prejudice (overt or covert). Discrimination can take the form of obvious acts of prejudice and discrimination (e.g. someone who is open about being transgender being refused employment or promotion) or be more subtle acts/statements that reinforce negative stereotypes and feelings of “other-ness” (e.g. use of the word ‘gay’ as a derogatory term). Being a target of discrimination – however benign the source – often results in anxiety, depression, guilt, feelings of emptiness, and so on.
These often translate into depression, anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), eating disorders and stress-related ailments, substance abuse, and of course suicidal or self-harmful behavior.
There are also legal aspects to discrimination, such as loss of employment, denial of housing, refused promotions, and so on. The effects are often insidious and cumulative, with sometimes disastrous consequences.
SCHAEFER: How do you feel about the so-called practice of conversion therapy?
CAMP: Conversion therapy are techniques used by some mental health “professionals” to change a person’s sexual orientation. These have often involved extreme measures such as institutionalization, castration, and electroconvulsive shock therapy (BYU was infamously involved in controversial experiments of this nature). Today, while some charlatans still use physical treatments like aversive conditioning, the techniques most commonly used include a variety of behavioral, cognitive, psychoanalytic, and other practices that try to change or reduce same-sex attraction or alter a person’s gender identity. The common thread in all of these techniques is that they are devoid of scientific validity and pose serious dangers to patients, especially to minors, who are often forced to undergo them by their parents or legal guardians, and who are at especially high risk of being harmed.
All of the nation’s leading professional medical and mental health associations have rejected conversion therapy as unnecessary, dangerous, and ridiculously ineffective. These groups have cautioned that the practices do not work and have warned patients that they may be harmful. Professional groups/organizations that have taken a formal stance against conversion therapy include the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pan-American Health Organization (an office of the World Health Organization), the United Nations Human Rights Council, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Nursing, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.
In short, conversion therapy is an absolute crock, and is actually illegal to use with minors in California, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. Similar measures are currently being debated in state legislatures in Florida, Georgia, and Massachusetts. In my personal and professional opinion practitioners of conversion therapy should be charged with abuse, and I look forward to this practice being illegal in all 50 states.
SCHAEFER: What question do you wish parents of LGBTQ children would ask you?
CAMP: Two questions really: (1) how can I help my child feel loved and supported with this difficult issue? And (2) how can I separate my “stuff” and my personal beliefs/feelings/fears about LGBTQ issues from my need to be fully present in my child’s struggle with no judgments or condemnation?
Simply being willing to ask oneself these questions could very literally save the life of an LGBTQ youth.
SCHAEFER: From a mom with a transgendered youth: “How do you balance supporting your child to make their own decisions and at the same time wanting them to see the truth without pushing them away.”
CAMP: I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier question: My best advice is to love, and to proceed very slowly. Statements such as “I’m confused and I don’t understand how to help you, but I am never going to stop trying and I am never going to abandon you, no matter what happens” and “we are in this together, all the way” can mean the difference between a struggling youth who stays present, and a youth who simply checks out.
Further, I would respectfully and with compassion suggest this parent examine their construction of the word “truth.” Truth is not a universal concept, wherein one truth exists to answer all questions and all situations. “Truth” is contextual, and it is possible for multiple truths to exist simultaneously. LGBTQ individuals often have to find/construct their own “truth” about life. Are their truths any less valid than yours? I would suggest not. Your truth is not diminished by someone holding a truth that varies from your own.
I genuinely think it comes down to would you rather your child live in a way that you find frightening and confusing, or would you rather your child die by his/her own hand?
This is not a melodramatic statement; the reason these questions were initiated in the first place is because of the many LGBTQ youth suicides that have occurred as a result of institutions, caregivers, and parents being unwilling to set aside their own agendas (be they religious, social, or otherwise) and attempt to assist their struggling child with finding the path that best suits the child.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to these challenging but necessary questions. I hope I have given them due justice, and please know that I spent significant time considering my responses. My intention is to be helpful, not to create further division.
Sean Camp is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who has been in practice as a child and family therapist for over 24 years. Sean currently works as a private practitioner as well as the Clinical Director for a community-based treatment agency focusing primarily on adolescent and young adult clients and their families.
Sean is also a Clinical Professor of Social Work with Utah State University, where he teaches in the Master of Social Work program. Sean teaches courses primarily related to diversity, policy and advocacy with marginalized populations, and those related to the provision of individual, family, and group therapy.
Sean moved to Utah from Atlanta, Georgia where he grew up and lived for 40 years. After visiting Utah on a backpacking trip, Sean was hooked on the unbelievable Utah wilderness and left his position at the University of Georgia. Sean and his partner of 10 years live in Salt Lake City and are active in the gay community.
Christina Schaefer is the author of several books, including The Hidden Half of the Family, and is an LGBTQ activist. Chris and her spouse live in Virginia.