When Alex Cooper was fifteen, she told her Mormon parents that she was gay, and they drove her from their home in Southern California to Utah, handing her over to fellow Mormons who promised they could cure her of her homosexuality. The excerpt below starts as she is living with this family who is running an unlicensed “rehabilitation center” out of their home.
After the plates were cleared, Johnny asked the family to join him in the living room.
All the older kids—Sifa, Calvin, Victor, Joseph, Sione, and Olivia—sat down on the floor. I sat down with them. Johnny and Tiana took their seats on the couch, and four-year-old Grace curled up in her mother’s lap.
Johnny straightened himself up, leaned forward, and put his hands on his knees. “Do you know why Alex is here?” he asked the kids.
Joseph, Victor, Sione, and Olivia raised their hands.
“Because she has a bad life.”
“Yeah, but why?”
Joseph shot his hand in the air. “Because she likes girls when she is supposed to like guys.”
My heartbeat quickened and my face flushed. I felt like I couldn’t move. It was the first time it had been stated so boldly.
“Yeah.” Johnny nodded. “That’s right, and that’s why we’re going to help her.”
The tone in his voice reminded me of the worst Sunday school teachers I had ever had: sweetness on top, but underneath it was grim, almost punishing certainty.
“She can stay here for as long as she needs,” he continued, smiling. “It could be three months. It could be three years.”
There it was again. Three years. Could they really keep me that long? Would my parents really let them?
Johnny fixed his eyes on me. “Alex,” he asked, “do you understand the plan of salvation?”
Yes, I did. After all, I had grown up in church, and I had paid attention. The plan of salvation meant that we had all lived with God in heaven before this life, that this life was supposed to be a place where we learned by experience, making our choices and experiencing their consequences. That idea—that we learned by experience—had always meant something to me, strong willed as I was. In church, they also taught that Jesus had died to make a way for us to repent of our mistakes, and that if we lived righteously enough we could be together with our families in the celestial kingdom—the
highest levels of heaven, where God lived—if our parents had been married in the temple. And families being together forever in the celestial kingdom was supposed to be the whole point. Temple marriages kept our families safe and connected into the eternities. Except when it didn’t, as I had discovered when I realized that technically, due to my mom’s first marriage, I was sealed to no one, and no one could tell me who I would belong to in heaven.
I understand the plan of salvation, I thought. I don’t need to hear it from you.
But I didn’t talk back. “Yes,” I said.
Johnny smiled. “You know it doesn’t apply to gay people.”
My face flushed hot again.
“You can’t get married in the temple, and you can’t have kids,” he continued. “In God’s plan you’re sinning if you don’t get married, or have kids.”
It was no accident that Mormonism made a big deal about marriage and families. For Mormons, heaven was all about families. I remembered the painted wooden tree that had been on the entryway table at my house back in Apple Valley, with all the names of my brothers and sisters on the branches and my parents at the root. I had never really thought about where gay people fit in all of this. Homosexuality was considered a serious sin, and the church was totally opposed to gay marriage—anywhere, by anyone, but most especially in the Mormon temple.
“How you gonna be with your family in the celestial kingdom if you’re not married in the temple?” Johnny asked. “You’ll be in the telestial kingdom.” The telestial kingdom is the Mormon version of hell.
I could feel Joseph, Victor, Sione, and Olivia staring at me. I was tempted to look up at Sifa, to see if he was willing to offer some support, but I kept my eyes down.
“You’ve made some bad choices, and you think you’re gay,” Johnny pressed ahead, “but that is not how God made you. You are confused. We are going to help you change. That’s why your parents sent you here.”
I said nothing. I kept my eyes on the floor, waiting for the lecture to end. Anger burned inside me.
“We’re going to help you want to live by the rules and get ready to have your own family. Here’s how it’s going to work. Every day you’re going to get up, help the kids get ready for school, do the chores, and cook the meals,” he explained. “In the mornings, we will do group meetings with Sifa and Calvin. Us four, we will study the scriptures together and talk about making good choices. At night, there will be family prayer. You’ll do personal prayer and scripture study too. And church on Sunday.”
Sitting there on the living room floor, I tried to wrap my mind around what Johnny and Tiana wanted from me: to do chores around the house, to attend their group scripture study sessions, to be more religious. And this was supposed to change me? This was supposed to “cure” me from being gay? How? By being stuck in a house in Utah far away from Yvette and my friends? Cut off from my family? Not allowed to attend school? Not allowed to have my own clothes? My cello? Humiliated? Beaten? It didn’t make sense. My parents could not have signed on to this. None of it made sense to me.
Another wave of hunger-driven dizziness came, cresting as hot anger. Again, I felt the strength rise in me.
I’ve got to find a way out of here. I’ve got to find a way out. I’ll figure out something. I always figure out something. I am smarter than these people. I will find a way.
Later, when I was allowed to attend school, my friend Jason would tell me that what had made him so anxious to get me out were the stories he had heard from other gay people who had been to reparative therapy in Utah. In every single one of their stories the “treatment” tactics had escalated until the kids finally ran or quit, or even worse. At a booth at the Pride Festival in Salt Lake City, he had heard stories from survivors who had been put in “treatment” by Evergreen, a conversion therapy group supported by the church. At Brigham Young University there were even psychologists who had run electroshock therapy experiments on gay students in the 1970s.6 Other “therapists” had gay people look at pornographic pictures and then hurt themselves or make themselves throw up, thinking this would create a mental association between being gay and being sick.
Those were especially bad years for gay people in Mormon Utah. Over the decades, Mormon leaders had slowly been changing elements of the way they talked about homosexuality. No one advocated physical violence against gay people anymore, and no one compared homosexuality to bestiality—not from the pulpit at General Conference, at least. But the underlying message was the same: Homosexuality was a choice, a terrible sin, a sign of deep spiritual problems, and it could be changed. In fact, it had to be changed in order for gay people to fit into the plan of salvation and maintain any hope of having families of their own, being with their families in the eternities, or being with God in heaven.
Mormon religious leaders, such as bishops, routinely counseled gay people to pray and read the scriptures until they stopped feeling same-sex attraction, and some suggested marriage to straight people as the best cure of all. To this day, some still do. To this day, there is still no support within the Mormon Church for a gay person who wants to fall in love, be married, and have a family.
This is the bigger picture that might help explain why families kick out kids when they come out of the closet or why families send their kids for counseling to change them, even why these families believe homosexuality is something that can be cured. Jason came to see this bigger picture very clearly during his own coming out, as he talked with other gay Utahns, Mormons especially. He understood what I was just beginning to see: I was not alone. I was not the only one. Thousands of gay Mormon kids had been through something like what I was going through.
I want my story to help those kids. I want them and anyone else who feels trapped in an impossible situation to know that it does get better.
I want my story to encourage and celebrate people like Jason, Delsy, Paul, and Sandra, the thousands upon thousands of good-hearted people who go out of their way to reach out to help young LGBT people.
But I also want my story to help parents and families like mine, families for whom faith and tradition feel familiar and safe and the reality of having LGBT kids feels terrifyingly foreign.
LGBT teenagers and our families have an important story to tell the world. We know that when the traditional plan falls apart or does not seem to have room for us, we have to find a way of making our own home in this world. We have to expand our definition of family to make space for all the differences of belief and levels of discomfort that still come with the terrain of being gay. Family means simply choosing one another every day: choosing to see one another and acknowledging that what each of us feels is absolutely real. Even when the plan falls apart, we can take a deep breath, stand still, and be with one another. And things will get better for all of us—parents and children—as my story shows.
6. Max Ford McBride, “Effects of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1976), https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1u3K43P-3JoY2Q5NDY3ZjYtNWUyMi00YWJiLWFhM2EtYTE4MjViNWVjOGEz/view?num=50&sort=name&layout=list&pli=1.