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Utah’s Gay Community Reels from Recent Suicides

A series of young gay men committing suicide in recent weeks has members of Utah’s gay community reeling and wondering what, if anything, they could have done to possibly have stopped them.

A series of young gay men committing suicide in recent weeks has members of Utah’s gay community reeling and wondering what, if anything, they could have done to possibly have stopped them.

David Standley, 21 of Ogden, took his life on June 30.

Weber State University student Tim Tilley, 20, killed himself on July 11.

Todd Ransom, of Salt Lake, killed himself in Battle Creek Canyon on July 19, a week after his 28th birthday.

Reactions from the community were raw and harsh, blaming everyone from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the gay community to the suicide victims and their families.

On July 15, gay Ogden activist and frequent QSaltLake contributor Turner Bitton wrote an OpEd piece, calling Standley and Tilley “leaders” and “beautiful individuals.”

“The assassination of these beautiful souls was not carried out by one man but at their own hand. With one final act of self expression these two individuals charged forward with dignity and gave their life for the cause that they so nobly fought for,” he wrote.

He called upon members of the community to “raise your voice loudly by stating that you are who you are and that ‘I am equal.’”

Within hours of Ransom’s body being found, Salt Lake activist Eric Ethington wrote on his blog, “Another life has been lost to the hatred, bigotry and prejudice of the Mormon Church.”

“I don’t want to elaborate here much, dear readers. Let me simply say that I place full blame on the Mormon Church and their intense bigotry and persecution of people like Todd,” he continued.

The next day, Ethington called for a candlelight vigil on the Utah State Capitol grounds. Over 200 people attended, including Ransom’s friends and family.

This writer’s reaction was a bit more personal.

“I just want to scream and cry and rant and soapbox and tell people how hateful they are to their friends and family for being so damned selfish to do this. But I don’t. And I just did,” I wrote in my “First Person” editorial. “I’m angry, I’m hurt. I feel guilty. I hate myself; I hate my communities; I hate my god.”

“Another Prince in Zion died recently of the disease of self-pity and victimization,” wrote Confessions of a Mormon Boy actor Stephen Fales. “But I’m angry at the reaction. What did they do here in Utah? They held a candlelight vigil in his honor up at the Utah State Capital [sic]. His death is being used as a political weapon. An opportunity to create an enemy. Rubbish.”

The suicides caught the attention of 8: The Mormon Proposition director Reed Cowan, for which Ransom had signed up to be interviewed but left before it was his turn before the camera.

“In Mormon culture, when one of these kids commits suicide, you never know at first if he’s gay because his sexual orientation won’t be in the obituary and families will sweep it under the rug,” he said. “But you hear from friends that he is gay and that’s why he killed himself.”

Cowan urged gay Mormons, “until the message changes, people should stop going to the church. It’s not healthy for them, so stop going … It’s time for the exodus. Get out. It’s a deadly message.”

“There is a body count to the bigotry. It’s real,” he finished.

Depression

Family members of Ransom and Standley tell the gay community not to jump so quickly to the causes of their deaths.
“David was loved and accepted by everyone who knew him, regardless of his sexuality,” wrote Standley’s mother DeAnn Gallegos-Standley in a letter to QSaltLake and a post on Salty Gossip. “David had a very severe mental illness his entire life where he experienced depression that he was unable to overcome. His biological father also committed suicide, which increased his chances to 90 percent that he would also do the same. David had the same mental illness as his biological father and his biological father’s father.”

“Some people have said that Todd ended his life because he was gay or felt persecuted by the LDS Church and his family, but this is not true,” a family member wrote on a tribute web site dedicated to him. “We loved him unconditionally. We were always there for him. Todd attempted suicide previously and we know from that experience that his manic depression was a constant thorn in his side and that there were other factors that influenced his suicide. Todd didn’t always agree with us or want to share his life with us, but he was loved by us. That is the undeniable truth.

Ransom’s tribute site did shed some light at the conflict the family had with his sexuality.

“Our lives changed when Todd announced to his family in 2001 that he was gay. Thus began the difficult dance that takes place between a faithful Mormon family and a much-loved son and brother who chooses to live a gay lifestyle.

“It was difficult for his parents to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, and this hurt Todd in ways that his parents did not intend. On the other hand, in spite of his upbringing in the LDS Church, Todd insisted that family members affirm his sexuality in ways that put them at odds with their conscience and beliefs.

“Todd was very hurt when his parents felt that they could not attend his commitment ceremony with Jake Jacquez, his partner of eight years, however he and Jake were both welcome in our home.”

Statistics

Statistics are often thrown around about the issue of suicide in Utah.  Often they are hyperbole, though the issue is recognized by the state government, which organized the Utah Suicide Prevention Plan, on which Utah Pride Center Executive Director Valerie Larabee sits.

No statistics exist that show the problem of suicide among gay and lesbian Utahns because no such data is collected. But the numbers do show that there is a severe problem especially among Utah males. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the leading cause of death in Utah men aged 35–44.

But some activists throw out statistics saying that Utah has the highest suicide rate in the nation, which is untrue. Utah actually ranks 10th in suicide. Others have said that Utah has the highest teenage suicide rate. Numbers from the CDC show Utah has a large problem with teenage suicide, but not the highest in the nation. Alaska is actually the state that leads on both of those statistics, followed by Nevada.

Where Utah does rate very high  – in fact the highest – is depression and the prescribing of anti-depressants. In fact, Utahns are prescribed twice the national average of anti-depressant drugs.

Perhaps this can help explain the higher suicide rates than the rest of the nation.

Regardless, the issue of gay suicides is a high priority of leaders of Utah’s gay community. The topic will be addressed by a monthly meeting of many of those leaders on August 11.

In the meantime, friends and family of Standley, Tilley and Ransom are searching their hearts and minds for answers.

“I know it’s a little late, but I wish you would’ve given me another chance to change your mind,” wrote Ransom’s partner of eight years, Jake Jacquez. “I didn’t think I had to worry about you any more — I thought you were managing. Instead you were hiding — everything. I’m sorry you didn’t trust me to call that night or any night for the past several months.”

About the author

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

3 Comments

  • Hello, I’m a grad student in photojournalist doing a summer internship at the Daily Herald in Provo. I am hoping to do a photo essay this coming week on an individual located in Utah County who is LGBT and who continues to, or struggles to follow the Mormon teachings. I believe it’s important to take a viewer from a point of knowledge to a point of understanding, and I hope to publish a story on such an individual in the Daily Herald.

    Originally from Chicago, there are a few systems of belief that I have discovered in Utah that concern me, namely it’s the politics of silence that surround the LGBT community. I have learned that Utah has “one of the highest suicide rates in the United states,” many of which are gay Mormons, stated by Micah Bisson, youth services director of Affirmation in a 2008 Deseret News article. Obviously this is not the only reference to this.

    Through photos and text, I’m looking to capture interpersonal relationships, bonds that have grown stronger since making known their sexual identity and those alliances that they have lost. I hope someone can put me in contact with someone who will want to share their story.

    To get a sense of my work you can go to http://www.kristinheinichen.com

    Thanks for your time.
    Kristin

  • Timothy Tilley was my nephew. Although he wasn't raised Mormon, he was raised in a Catholic/Bible thumping home by my brother and sister-in-law. He was subjected to constant scrutiny about how his Aunt Jolene would go to hell and lives a life of sin. Tim didn't hear 'Jolene", because all the while he heard the gay bashing, he only heard himself as the object of such hatred. I never saw this piece until now. Thanks for mentioning him and for being a voice for him even after he had lost his. My nephew was the smartest kid I knew. He excelled at everything he attempted. I can only imagine where he'd be now if he hadn't lost hope. I'm still sad to have lost him, because his potential to do great things in this world were very obvious. Condolences to the other families mentioned in this article as well others who have lost their loved ones to suicide. Peace and love!

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