September 29, 2016

Packer’s Speech Alienates At-Risk Teens

Utah is currently experiencing a wave of teen suicide. One Utah activist says local Church leaders may not realize that they are a contributing factor.

Story and photos by Rich Winter

When 25-year-old Eric Ethington heard of LDS leader Boyd K. Packer’s comments condemning homosexuality at the most recent LDS General Conference, the memories of being a 14-year old Deacon in Utah came rushing back.

His teacher had compared homosexuality to murder.

“Sitting in that room as a fourteen-year-old is the first time I looked at the word ‘abomination’ and applied it to myself,” says Ethington.

Like many LBGT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) youth growing up along the Wasatch front, it took years for Ethington to understand that he was different, much to the dismay of his father, who was a bishop in the LDS church. “As a young person in Utah, you are so insulated, and you don’t know anything except stuff about the LDS church,” Ethington tells me. “I didn’t know there were places to go that would help with the experience of figuring out who I was.”

Gay Mormon Eric Ethington

Eric Ethington is the founder of Pride in Utah. “Everything in your life, every support system you ever built just crumbles, and you’re left with nothing.”

Ethington says he came out at the age of 17 and was immediately kicked out of the house. On the promise to his father that he wouldn’t talk about being gay or act gay, Ethington temporarily returned home, only to leave the day he graduated high school. After 18 months of carousing with friends involved in drugs and partying, Ethington returned to the only thing he knew: the Mormon Church.

“My church leader told me I couldn’t go on a mission, but he urged me to start working on marriage, because that will ‘fix’ this.”

Ethington started dating the first girl he met, married her eight months later, and divorced her after 18 months. During this tumultuous period, Ethington says he tried to kill himself, mainly because of his father’s blaming his sexuality on pornography, masturbation, and even something as mundane as watching too much television. Ethington reports many young people here in Utah fail to get the family support it takes to get through their coming-out phase.

“It’s almost indescribable when you go to your parents in a strong LDS family where the father is the patriarch, and you feel absolute rejection,” he says. “Everything in your life, every support system you ever built just crumbles, and you’re left with nothing.”

So when Elder Packer made his most recent comments, Ethington couldn’t help but feel compassion for the young men and women inside the LDS Church who are gay. “My first thought was what are the kids like me going to think when they hear the words ‘wickedness isn’t happiness,’ and ‘you have to change yourself,’” he says. “They claim that it wasn’t a message of hate, but it’s those exact words that sent me down the path to kill myself.”

Ethington says when someone claims to be speaking for God and then tells kids that something inside them is sick, it has incredibly destructive consequences.

“Church leaders and your parents view this as a personality trait, like laughing too loud,” he tells me. “Sexual orientations is something so deeply ingrained in you, it’s like the color of your skin.”

In the aftermath of Elder Packer’s Conference comments, Ethington joined 4,500 participants at Temple Square to protest the Mormon Elder’s speech. Ethington says change is slow, but the protest made a difference. “If nothing else, the protest proved that the church wants to have a better image, because one day after 4,500 people show up they go back and revise Packer’s speech, and that is unheard of with a Senior Apostle.”

Although he reports that he’s made amends with most of his family, he says his father has only recently contacted him—it was to chastise him once again.

This time, it was for attending the protest. §

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Eric Ethington is the founder of Pride in Utah, a website to provide information to local LGBT youth. His website is www.prideinutah.com