Fear of Being Gay Led Me to Be More Devout until I Couldn’t Anymore
by Lauren Neaves
Hey there! My name is Lauren Neaves and I was “born in the covenant” as they say to wonderful parents and I have two awesome sisters. My parents are both converts to the church and have been very active my entire life, serving in many different callings across the board. Growing up, the church was very much a central part of my life. I went to girls camp every year, was the president of all my Young Women classes, received my Young Women in Excellence award, graduated from seminary (early morning seminary at that!) and then graduated from Brigham Young University.
I definitely knew that I was gay in high school, but I was terrified of it. My fear pushed me into an even more hardcore Mormon phase. One year they had a mission-themed girls camp, so every level was supposedly a different mission. All the girls and leaders attending girls camp that year got their very own missionary name tag that looked super legit. I wasn’t old enough to go to girls camp yet, but I borrowed the name tag my mom got that year and I wore it on my backpack in high school. I got called “Sister Neaves” on a daily basis and I loved it. I loved that it was a way that everyone who met me to know that I was Mormon and I was proud of it. At least, I put on a show that I was proud of it. Inside, I was incredibly scared that someone might find out my deep, dark secret. The more scared I got, the more hardcore of a Mormon kid I became. I even walked out of my creative writing class as a senior when my teacher used a clip from Will & Grace. I said that it “promoted the homosexual agenda” and that I couldn’t support that. In reality, I was just afraid that, if I showed too much interest, everyone would know that I too was gay
Funnily enough, it took going to BYU to make me finally come out. I realized there that I wasn’t like everyone else, and not only that, I didn’t want to be. I came out to my best friend when I was home on a break and was so scared of her reaction. But she didn’t care. She loved me for me and just wanted to be happy. I looked up LGBT resources and there was the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake. At the time, I was still young enough to participate in their youth center and that place changed my life. I remember the first time I walked in and was asked if I was gay or straight. I said I wasn’t really ready to answer that question and no one blinked an eye. They got it. They got me. They understood the internal process I was going through and were there for me when I needed people who understood that the most.
But coming out was a long hard road. When I started at BYU in 2005, a portion of the honor code read as follows:
“Advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle (whether implied or explicit) or any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature, are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code.”
This meant that if you were a gay BYU student, you couldn’t even admit it out loud without fear of being kicked out of school. There were multiple instances where the Honor Code Office looked at my friends. Others and I would be called in to find out whether or not they were gay. When called in, we would deny that they were gay to help save our academic standing. It was a big gay witch-hunt.
I started getting politically involved when I joined the BYU Democrats and other left-leaning groups. A group called Soulforce was doing a seven-week national bus tour called “The Equality Ride.” The Equality Riders made 19 stops and visited 18 religious schools, and BYU was one of those 18 schools. At each of these institutions, there was a lot of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ population. The riders’ goal was to challenge homophobia and help the LGBTQ+ community achieve freedom from religious and political oppression.
At the time, Equality Ride co-director Haven Herrin said that BYU had one of the toughest, most stringent policies. The purpose was not to demand any change in policy, but to bring about an understanding of what it’s like to be LGBTQ+. There is a lot of shame and suffering brought on by religious-based discrimination.
A group of both Soulforce riders and BYU students marched around the edge of campus, as they were prohibited from actually entering campus by BYU police, and staged a “die-in” near the main entrance. They laid down and placed lilies on their chest representing LGBTQ+ Mormons who had died by suicide.
One of the high profile LGBTQ+ Mormon suicides at that time was Stuart Matis; a 32-year-old who committed suicide on the steps of a Mormon church. His note rings true for many LGBTQ+ Mormons.
“…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. Every waking moment of every day they must be on constant alert not to divulge any clues that will identify themselves to their peers. ‘Was my glance at that boy too long?’ ‘Does he think I’m gay?’ ‘Will he now publicize my secret and beat me up?’ 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 the floor curled in a ball and weep themselves to sleep…”
At the rally, a friend shared that he spent months in the hospital and rehab after a near-fatal car wreck. He said that during his recovery, his mother told him that it would have been better if he had died in the accident than lived as a gay man. Sadly, this is a common theme. My mother made a similar comment many years before I finally came out to my parents. She said that if she had a gay child, she’d kill herself. And while she doesn’t remember making that comment, it did push me further into the closet and made me afraid of being my authentic self.
After the rally, the BYU Police arrested 24 people, among them five students, who participated in the demonstration. I knew then that I, too, needed to be a voice for other LGBTQ+ Mormons.
In 2007, the Honor Code was updated to read
“Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards … One’s stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue.”
For a moment, it felt as if my friends and I could breathe. We could finally say “I’m gay” out loud without fear of losing our academic standing. Acting on one’s homosexual feelings was still prohibited at BYU; so that meant no dating. But being able to admit it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I started slowly coming out to more friends at school. I told my roommates my last year of school, and they were nothing but kind and accepting. Then California Proposition 8 happened.
Proposition 8 was a California ballot proposition and a state constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. The Mormon Church publicly supported and funded Prop 8. They set up door-to-door canvassing to encourage the vote for Prop 8 in California. and contributed over $20 million to “protect traditional marriage.”
Just when it was getting easier to be a gay BYU student, the university paper printed letters to the editor comparing gay individuals to rapists and murders. Tables encouraging California students to vote for Prop 8 were all over campus. Many guys said that, if they had a gay roommate, they would “beat his face in.”
People celebrated when Prop 8 passed; exclaiming that marriage had won. I was heartbroken. I was coming to realize that the church would never want someone like me. Some friends and I went to the protest and marched around Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The signs read “pulpit politics” and “we didn’t vote on your marriage.” It was a powerful experience to be around other gay Mormons and straight allies. Even though we felt as if we had lost the battle, we were becoming more vocal. We were rallying together and fighting for what we believed in
After graduating BYU, I wasn’t afraid to tell my friends that I was gay, and was actively dating; but, I was still afraid to tell my parents. Losing “friends” when I told them I was gay hurt, definitely; but, I knew that I was better off without them in my life. I didn’t need that kind of negativity in my life. But the idea of losing my parents was more than I could take
At one point, when I was 18 or so, my mom told me that if she had a gay kid she’d kill herself. In no way could I be the cause of that, and that definitely put me further back into the closet. I was nearly 30 before I told my parents. I was at an incredibly low point and felt that I either had to tell them or I wouldn’t make it anymore. When I did tell them, their reaction was basically, yeah, we kinda knew. They didn’t make a big deal of it and it was an incredible weight off of my shoulders
That’s when I really stopped going to church. Until that point, I still went every so often, but it was only for my family, not for me. I had started reading books like “No Man Knows My History” and “Rough Stone Rolling” and no longer believed in the LDS faith. I still have faith in some sort of higher being, and I think that some of the church’s teachings have good morals and there are nice stories, but I don’t believe them to be literal words of God
Today, I’m incredibly happy being me. Over the years I’ve heard so many stories of individuals who grew up LDS and were cut off by their families when they came out. But being out and having my parents not just tolerate but warmly embrace me is such an amazing feeling. I don’t really have a “faith” anymore. I have hope that there is a higher power and that I’ll see people like my grandparents who have passed on before me, but I’m also content with the idea that I think that just to make myself feel better. I know that I don’t “know” any church to be “the one true church”. I think that if there is a God, they want us to be decent human beings and help each other and lift one another up. That they’re more concerned with how we act than what we profess to “know.”
Technically, my name is still on the records of the church and, for now, that doesn’t bother me. Whether I like it or not, I’ll always be a “Mormon.” It’s a part of my history. It helped shape who I am. Those are still my people, for better or worse. I will say that I’m happily post-Mormonism though. And if I can help other people through it, I’m happy to do so.
Faces of Affirmation is a series of first-person autobiographical stories where those from the Affirmation community share their experience being LGBTQ+ Mormons or family or friends of LGBTQ+ Mormons. If you would like to share your story, please email [email protected] for more information.