A Las Vegas man has embarked on a mission to raise awareness about the deeply entrenched homophobia permeating the Mormon Church after his 14-year-old son’s suicide, which the father attributes to the institution’s anti-LGBTQ teachings and culture.
Brian Bresee, who was a sixth-generation Mormon but ditched the Church after the death of his son Samuel, told Gay City News during a phone interview that he did not initially draw conclusions about why his child committed suicide. But after speaking with Samuel’s friends from church and hiring a private investigator to pore through his son’s computer, it started to make more sense.
The first warning sign that something had gone awry with Samuel came when the boy was 12 years old. He participated in a “worthiness interview,” a typical rite of passage during which Mormon Church bishops meet alone with children and ask a series of deeply personal questions about sexuality, sexual identity, and masturbation.
Children who answer such questions in a manner consistent with Mormon teachings are able to proceed with Church activities, but those who fail are deemed “unworthy.”
“Before the first interview took place, Samuel had been fairly comfortable talking about sex,” Brian explained in a blog post he wrote for the Child-Friendly Faith Project, an organization that raises awareness about child abuse in the religious realm. “But afterward, he became unusually troubled and grew increasingly evasive when the subject of sex arose. Looking back on it, it’s hard to believe that I and so many other parents allowed our children to take part in such an inappropriate and creepy ritual. But, at the time, I was unable to see that the worthiness interviews could have been harmful.”
Two years later, in 2014, Brian said he noticed a “dramatic and disturbing change in Samuel’s behavior.” In January of that year, the Bresee family moved to a different Las Vegas neighborhood and joined the local Mormon congregation. Samuel, at his dad’s urging, joined boys down the street who were playing hockey and became friends with them.
As it turned out, some of those boys were being subjected to anti-LGBTQ abuse to the point that one of them was suicidal. The same bullies targeting those boys then turned on Samuel and accused him of being gay. That abuse carried over into school, which consisted of many other Mormon students.
Samuel, then, became more withdrawn and showed resistance to attending Boy Scouts and church. He increasingly started engaging with both friends and strangers in online chats — and it was there that he suffered even more anti-LGBTQ abuse, despite telling people he was attracted to girls. In those chats, Samuel once said, “My church tore me down [so] much to [where] it is a lot easier for me to give up on the church.”
Those patterns continued. The day before he died, Samuel wrote, “Most of the Mormon youth treat you like crap unless you read the Scriptures every day and night, pray every day and night, be like them every day and night.”
The nature of Samuel’s online chats and much of the bullying he faced from his peers was not revealed until after he died — that due to the work of the private investigator and discussions with the dead boy’s peers who shed insight on the specifics of the abuse he suffered. Those revelations became the catalyst that made Samuel’s parents leave the Church and begin their fight against its homophobic nature.
“When you grow up Mormon, you realize there is only one path to salvation,” Brian told Gay City News as he stressed the immense power of Church leadership in controlling the lives of Mormon believers. “When you find out that who you are is not in line with Church teachings, you can’t just get up and leave and find another Church.”
In his suicide note, Samuel directly targeted the Church, saying, “You ruined my life. I no longer believe in the Church. You ruined me. You forced me to do things. I am called whicked [sic] for not singing or saying a prayer.”
Since Brian started his campaign to raise awareness about anti-LGBTQ teachings in the Mormon Church, he has heard from numerous families who have endured the same experience as the Bresee family and from children who have contemplated suicide.
Samuel’s story is not necessarily unique. In Utah, which boasts the largest Mormon population in the US, the state reported a 141 percent increase in suicides from 2011 to 2015 among those between the ages of 10 and 17. In the Bresee family’s home state of Nevada — which also has a significant Mormon population — state officials noted that 27 youth suicides were recorded in 2018 compared to 15 in 2017. But those statistics sometimes fly under the radar because the issue is rarely discussed.
“Brian is one of the few dads who has lost a child to suicide in the Mormon Church and is willing to talk about it,” said Janet Heimlich, who founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project. “You will not find many parents in the Church who have gone through what Brian has and is willing to say this is what happened.”
The Mormon Church on April 4 announced that it would begin allowing children of LGBTQ couples to be baptized and that same-sex couples would no longer be deemed “apostates,” or someone who deviates from Church teachings. But the Mormon Church’s longstanding opposition to LGBTQ rights continues: it still maintains that same-sex marriage is a “serious transgression” and that sexual activity between same-sex individuals is sinful and “undermines” the institution of the family.
Those teachings spilled into the Bresee family. Brian recalled that as a child he was taught that being gay was a choice and “that homosexuals were Sodomites whose sins were so great God destroyed their city.” After his son’s death, his views on LGBTQ rights completely shifted for the better — but the Church’s culture of intolerance continues.
“Church policy is not changing,” Brian said. “They’re still condemning LGBTQ children. They’re still being excommunicated.”
Brian noted that there is much work to do in eradicating the culture of homophobia in the Mormon Church, but he summed up a simple starting point: acceptance.
“That is the first task,” he said. “I want what happened to my son to never happen again.”