Are gay youth committing suicide in 2010 more than they were in 1950? Weren’t the 1950s more homophobic than today? Thus, weren’t there more suicides back then — just unreported as gay ones? If not — if today sees more gay suicide — how is this explained?
While a statistical comparison is likely impossible, an historical narrative is not.
Historically, it was assumed that being gay meant you were more likely to commit suicide, that homosexuality (whether or not feelings were acted upon) was a disorder linked to a pathological drive to end one’s life. The basic premise was that homosexuality had no future, and if one embraced it, one internalized this “no future.” Fictional stories reflected this real world belief: characters would give in to “ephemeral,” “perverse” desires, and then die in the end, if not by suicide, then by some other means (such as an accident or murder by a lover). In the 1980s, real life seemed to reflect this “no future” storyline with the rise of AIDS. Conservatives figured nature or God brought AIDS to the world as a punishment for homosexuals, leading to a lack of government response until it was clear heterosexuals were also being infected.
No doubt, in many communities today, including Mormonism, this “no future” attitude persists. Fortunately, people have begun to disconnect homosexuality from making one more likely to commit suicide, per se. Gays in the 1970s sought to prove, and succeeded in proving (to a psychological establishment, at least), that being gay was non-pathological; the “no future” was actually a sign of societal homophobia that leads many homosexuals to believe they have no future (because of an “illness”) and to commit suicide.
People began to see homophobia, even conservative people. In the 1990s, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted studies on youth suicide, and queer activists learned of statistics concerning queer youth. It was at this point that activists decided to take activism into schools by educating teachers, setting up Gay-Straight Alliances, and making sure curriculum did not erase same-gender attraction and gender variance from history so that queer youth could see themselves as having a future based on a rich past. (I actually don’t know if curriculum has changed all that much in most places…there’s also the college-level philosophical conundrum of how to talk about “gayness” in times and places where the notion of sexual orientation is not in use). While conservatives had long linked homosexuality to pedophilia and/or child-recruitment (so that gays were the “abusers” with an “agenda” and children were the “victims”), this 1990s campaign asserted queer youth to be the victims and society was the abuser.
As a result, in the last 15 years or so, we’ve actually seen conservative communities acknowledge homophobia in some senses. In Mormonism, it’s come in the form of “helping” young people with same-gender attraction, and to “love the sinner, not the sin.” At the same time, though, these communities want their young people to still not be “gay” — to be, for all intents and purposes — heterosexual, if not in mind, then in spirit. The “no future” continues to rear its ugly head, and the suicides persist.
So what about the original question? In the 1950s in many places, people of the same gender could be rather intimate (not necessarily sexual, but intimate) and nobody thought much about it because all the talk about the “evils” of homosexuality had not yet permeated throughout American society. McCarthyism of the ’40s and ’50s put homosexuality under a spotlight; homophobia began to flare. Young men ceased bedding together in fear of being thought gay; increased gender policing lead many who actually were gay to be ousted from their communities. I have no idea how many gay people committed suicide during these years, but it is clear that rather giving into the “no future,” a vibrant community formed and mobilized.
Nowadays, conservative Christian communities aim to be inclusive so that no one feels alone — yet also so that people don’t “give in” to the “gay lifestyle” that is “more tempting” when one has no support structure. This has created a complex political terrain in which people actually believe that gay people choose to act on their attractions because they’re not loved enough and so are led astray. This “love” does not resolve the “no future”; it perpetuates it. The “love” is indicative of a kind of homophobia that is very difficult to unravel. In the meantime, folks continue to commit suicide or engage in futures fraught with unnecessary difficulty or unfairness, such as mixed-orientation marriages or lifelong celibacy. They often think of themselves as broken in some fundamental way over 35 years after the American Psychological Association said they weren’t.
Today, the LDS Church asserts that those with same-gender attraction (by which I mean Kinsey 5s and 6s) can have a future in the Church, receive blessings, etc. What does the Church mean by this? What is this “future?” I don’t think the Church knows because they’ve spent and continue to spend so much time and energy on making sure homosexuality has no future.