Conjecture, caveats and gay Mormons

Amid a barrage of recent headlines concerning religion and gay suicides, the Mormon church's position on homosexuality has received its share of scrutiny, from Politics Daily to the Salt Lake Tribune.

An Associated Press story out of Salt Lake City this week makes the case -- or at least attempts to -- that gay Mormons are killing themselves because of the church's treatment of homosexuals.

Here's the top of the story:

SALT LAKE CITY -- Ben Jarvis has heard a lot of coming out stories.

For the past 15 years, the southern California-based urban planner has been answering a hotline number for Mormons struggling with their sexual identity. Jarvis, a volunteer for Affirmation, a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, estimates he's talked to as many as 3,000 people.

Many of them are "deathly afraid," their secret will be discovered by friends, family, or members of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations, he said.

In a faith where the traditional family is deeply woven into theology and where there is seemingly no line between religion and culture, the potential losses for LGBT Mormons who come out can be devastating, Jarvis and others say.

"There are so many great things about Mormon culture and the LDS church, but it is not a safe place for gay and lesbian people," said Jarvis, 42, a seventh-generation Mormon who came out in 1993 and has since left the church.

Did you catch that big number (is it a guess-timate?) in the second paragraph? As many as 3,000 people.

Guess how many of that number are quoted in this story? Zero.

The entire story relies on talking heads. Readers hear from gay rights activists, church spokespeople and a few other "experts." But no real people -- no real cases to back up the claims of Mormon suicides -- ever make an appearance.

In fact, the story seems to contain more caveats than concrete facts.

For example, there's this:

The (Rutgers student who killed himself) was not Mormon, but Utah's gay rights activists, some with roots in Mormonism, were quick to draw a connection to their own situation. They say the painful isolation that some LGBT individuals experience can lead to suicide. Anecdotes about the suicides of gay Mormons from Affirmation's website, posts on the PrideinUtah blog and other sites seem to support the contention.

"It's an enormous problem, especially in Utah,"said Eric Ethington, who runs the PrideinUtah blog.

OK, the story claims anecdotal evidence concerning the suicides of gay Mormons. But guess how many specific cases of gay Mormons killing themselves are cited?


"Evidence" such as this is provided:

Although there's no hard data directly linking faith and suicide, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted with the Religion News Service found that 65 percent of 1,010 respondents believe messages from the pulpits of American churches contribute.

The survey, conducted Oct. 14-17, has margin of error of 3 percentage points. Survey data posted on the institute website did not specify denominations, nor indicate whether Mormons were polled.

The Massachusetts based Suicide Prevention Resource Center cites suicide as the leading cause of death for LBGT youth. Utah's suicide rates -- 34.5 suicide deaths for every 100,000 persons in 2008 -- are among the highest in the nation, particularly among young men between the ages of 18 and 24.

No hard data. A survey in which Mormons may or may not have been polled. A vague reference to Utah suicide rates as "among the highest in the nation," but with no specific link to gay Mormons. That's all interesting, but guess how much concrete evidence the story provides to back up its thesis?


I don't know if gay Mormons are killing themselves or not. If they are -- and are doing so at a rate higher than other segments of society -- then that's certainly a newsworthy story.

But all this story provides is conjecture. And caveats.

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