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Maxwell Poth Is Doing Something About LGBT Teen Suicide

Maxwell Poth Is Doing Something About LGBT Teen Suicide

Maxwell Poth Is Doing Something About LGBT Teen Suicide

Suicide is the number one cause of death for people aged 10-17 in Utah. Activist Maxwell Poth is doing something about that.

Seven months ago I began a project that I believe will be the beginning to the end of an epidemic—teen suicide. Teen suicide is the number 1 cause of death for people aged 10-17 in my home state of Utah. Most of these kids are LGBTQ+, and it is the state's homophobic and heteronormative cultural and social dynamics (not the weather or the altitude) that embed themselves in our youths’ developing minds and cause internal damage. Damages that some do not deem fit to redirect or avoid. 

While I was filming for a documentary in my hometown of Bountiful, Utah, I ran into three girls I went to high school with. When I walked up to say hello, I was happy to see they remembered me. While we were catching up, the host of the documentary joined in our conversation. She asked if they were familiar with my project as well as the epidemic. All three mentioned that they read the articles and were aware of Utah’s problem. Following the question, one of the girls said two people we went to high school with just committed suicide last week. Eye contact is all we needed after that. All of us knew why these suicides happen. Yet, just like the rest of the state, they were afraid to say it aloud. 

If you were not aware, the dominant religion in the state of Utah is Mormonism. 

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Above: Maxwell Poth by Luke Fontana

I am not implying that the majority’s religious, cultural mind-set is the driving force of this epidemic. Someone's faith should never be attacked. However, it's my opinion that the dominant influence of Mormonism does have an effect. The people of Utah are not taking responsibility as a community to better safeguard the minds of their struggling queer youth because the word queer is seen through the lens of sin. The condemnation of queer does not justify the neglect of Utah’s teen suicide epidemic. Regardless of whether the prevalence of teen suicide is due to religion or one of the unimaginative reasons the state hides behind, Utah needs change. 

[RELATED: When a Mormon Teen Comes Out]

On Valentine's Day, 2017, I was working on set for a photo shoot when I saw my first articles had been released. The articles were written by myself and three openly gay teenage Utah boys. The four of us told our stories of overcoming the struggles we faced in our religion and finding acceptance. We offered advice from our stories to all the struggling youth, not only in Utah but also around the world. 

The reaction we received was phenomenal. Emails and messages from Utah and around the world flooded our inboxes. Other kids in the boys’ high schools began coming out of the closet. Their stories saved lives. It is funny to think that four small articles in an online magazine could create such power. My project was picked up and shared, eventually being filmed and talked about in two documentaries. One will be released this year, and the other will be being released in 2018, focusing on the LGBTQ+ community and suicides in the state of Utah. 

[RELATED: When a Mormon Teen Comes Out: Holden, Carter, and Nathan]

When I saw the impact, I realized I had to keep going. On March 31, I was invited to fly back to Utah and speak at what they call a “Mid Year Queer Retreat” where kids from all over the West Coast spent a weekend together as a community. I was asked to speak to them on their first night. This is where I began my second series. 

Project Contrast will be released July 28 via an art gallery/charity event. I will be partnering with my good friend Jacob Dunford , and we will be benefiting Encircle, the first LGBTQ+ pride center in Utah County, which has the most dense Mormon population in the entire world. Please take some time and visit Encircle's website to receive more information on its services" EncircleTogether.org. Recently Encircle was cut from Provo, Utah’s Fourth of July parade. Encircle is still fighting for love and support from its community. 

This series we will be sharing 19 new stories. A few you will see today in this article that The Advocate was kind enough to share. 

So let me introduce you to Savannah, Eduardo, and Faye. 

See their beautiful queer faces. Read their beautiful queer stories and share them with those who struggle, no matter how old or young they may be. Their stories are here to save the lives of others. 

You can also visit Project Contrast's website at ProjectContrast.org. There you will find the first series, the trailer to the project, and more information on what Project Contrast is about. You can also purchase Project Contrast magazine, which contains all 19 portraits and stories. All proceeds go to Encircle. We are also taking donations, which can be made on the website. All proceeds go toward funding the event as well as Encircle. 

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Above: Maxwell and his lesbian twin sister.

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or other problems that may be affecting your mental health there are places that can help you, one being the Utah Department of Health; it provides a 24/7 hotline, (801) 587-3000. If you do not live in Utah, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255). Utah also is home to the Utah Pride Center, which offers specialized counseling, therapy, support groups, and much more. You can call the center or make an appointment at (801) 539-8800 or email [email protected]. Again, if you are in other locations, please look up your nearest LGBTQ center for help and support.

 

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Savannah, 13

“Being gay isn’t easy. It feels like I have more responsibilities on my shoulders than straight people do. It’s hard being afraid of what will happen if people won’t accept me.”

These thoughts occurred to me in elementary school but really started to overcome me in sixth grade. I think I dealt with them poorly, by trying to keep them secret or pretending they weren’t real. I felt left out when my friends would talk about the cute boys they had crushes on. I never felt that way.

I started making friends about three months into sixth grade. One of them was the most amazing girl; I loved her personality. I was confused about my feelings for her. Was it jealousy? Was it deep friendship? I finally realized that deep down inside, I was attracted to her. Our friendship bloomed into something beautiful: best-friendship. My attraction to her grew, but I kept telling myself that what I wanted was impure and wrong. When I finally accepted my feelings for what they were, it was too late. The school year was over, and I moved to a different school. My best friend was gone. 

Over the summer between elementary school and junior high, I built up the courage not only to accept myself but also to tell my mom. I was terrified that she wouldn’t accept me, and so I started feeling depressed. My mom asked what was going on. Everything changed in the moment she said, “I will love you no matter what.” Those words pulled me out of my sorrow; my mother, in tears, changed my perspective of myself. I built a newer and stronger courage. 

Soon after, on a daddy-daughter date to the water park, I came out to my biological dad. He told me he accepted me and that he had known since I was little. This again helped me gain courage and grow stronger. I waited many weeks to tell my stepdad, and when I finally did, it was one of the hardest days of my life. We talked and he told me he loved me no matter what. It was a deep breath of fresh air. 

Starting junior high was hard, having just lost a best friend, but not even a month into school I had met many new friends and even a new crush. I came out to a few friends; some were accepting, others not so much. One in particular was really hurtful. Many of my friends were both classmates and members of my ward, or congregation. I had the idea to come out to my whole ward. Maybe if I showed them all that I was the same person, that I wasn’t weird, they might be more accepting. 

Recently my church adopted a policy that doesn’t allow gays to participate in certain church activities and ordinances if they are in a homosexual relationship. It also excludes the children of gays. I had been struggling myself and had only been going to church off and on because I felt like maybe God didn’t want me there. I prayed a lot and finally felt like I got an answer that I am good and that there is nothing wrong with me.

In January I asked my mom and dad if I could bear my testimony at church. My answer was a simple no, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I started writing and begged my parents to let me do this. I asked many times, and finally, they said yes. I went through many rough drafts until I had my perfect testimony. I went over it with my mom and dad, and they made sure it was respectful and appropriate. When it was done I waited until the next fast and testimony meeting to get up in front of the congregation. I was finally going to say what I needed to say after four months of waiting! 

[RELATED: This 12-Year-Old's Coming-Out Video Is Dividing the Mormon Community ]

I had many feelings that were all mixed together during the experience. I felt overjoyed that I was able to share my words with my ward and eventually the world. I also felt a great sadness that some people felt like my words shouldn’t be heard. I wanted to be a voice for anyone who needed one. I wanted to talk to the kid in the congregation that might still be in the closet and let them know I’m a friend. I wanted to help them be brave. I wish that everyone would have wanted to hear my testimony, but I also know that people all have their own opinions, and they have the right not to want to listen. 

Overall, I feel love. So many people have shown support and love to me and the LGBTQ community, and that is what is important. From now on I will be a voice of change for those in my new community that might be suffering.  

 

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Eduardo, 18

I was born in Salt Lake City and lived with my birth parents until the age of 3 before I was introduced to the foster care system. I was placed in a group home and was in and out of different foster homes until I was adopted at the age of 5; after that I was raised in the Mormon Church.

By the time I was in fourth grade, I knew something about me was different. I developed a crush on my male best friend. At that point I didn’t know what gay was or that people could be gay; I just thought that this was what you felt for your best friend. This confused me because these feelings were what all the other boys talked about when talking about their girl crushes. I never talked to anyone about it. I knew it was something that I would have to hide. Concealing it was difficult because I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to conceal and for what reasons. 

Hiding my feelings was especially difficult because of how different my interests were compared to my brother or cousins. They would go outside and chase each other around while I would go to my other cousin’s room and play Polly Pocket dolls with her. I’d also spend my days inside making bracelets and wake up extra early on Saturday mornings before anyone else to watch Totally Spies and other shows which were typically meant for girls.

It wasn’t until sixth grade when a girl came out as bisexual that I thought, Maybe I’m not as different or alone as I originally thought I was. This gave me hope that eventually I could come out once I figured everything out. 

It was in eighth grade when I came out as bi and had my first boyfriend. When I was with him, I felt at peace and I was so happy; I liked him more than I liked anyone else. This was also when the bullying started. People said all sorts of things to me, calling me a “faggot,” telling me that it would be better if I killed myself, and that I should do myself a favor before someone really hurt me. During this time of struggle, I couldn’t turn to my family or people in the church because I was taught that I chose this just like every other gay person. 

What I internalized from all of this was that this was somehow my fault, and I ended up self-harming and doing drugs, which only hurt me more. 

Ninth grade was when I accepted that I was gay. And yet I continued to struggle. I knew who I was, and I knew who the church wanted me to be. And I knew that these two versions of me couldn’t exist at the same time. 

I came out to my parents and told them I no longer believed that the church was true at the beginning of 11th grade. My dad told me that I was “confused” and brought the bishop over. I got the same reaction from him. He told me that it was just a temptation with which Satan was trying to take me away from the church, and if I acted on these feelings it would be a sin. 

Then everything died down and nothing was said for over a year. Eventually, my mom came around and was able to fully accept that being gay is just another part of who I am. I was able to be more open with her and our relationship grew stronger because of that. But my dad wouldn’t do the same.

At the beginning of March 2017, my dad decided to bring it up again. He asked me if I was still “confused” and if I was still unbelieving in the church. When I said yes, my dad told me that I was disrupting the “spirit” in our home and that I could change or I could leave. Thinking about it, I had only received negativity toward the LGBT+ community from the church up until this point, which only assured me that I had to stop living this double life of concealing who I was. I knew at that point that I could no longer lie about who I am. I immediately started looking for a place to go, and a few weeks later I left to stay with a friend and his family. 

I did have to let go of the church and leave my home. It is difficult. But I no longer have to lie about who I am. And although things aren’t perfect, I’ve never felt more happy or free.

 

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Faye, 15

I always had a disjointed sense of self. What I felt was comfortable or right was something I repressed and hid. Every Boy Scouts or Young Men meeting was uncomfortable. I thought that it was somewhat typical, something like “Satan is tempting you” when it was my own oblivious moral compass. I faked a testimony as best I could, and siphoned, stitched together my faith from others. I guess it was pretty convincing. I attended church weekly and did whatever the men holding the “keys” required. I had never felt this “still, small voice.” The thought of someone creating and recording a setup for an eternity of paradise or pain with my every step was daunting. 

Not being able to think things without fear of divine judgment was even worse. The thought that someone with "the Spirit" could know what I was feeling without me letting them know was constant and overwhelming. I tried to come to terms with it.

My darkest depressive phase started before eighth grade. The only semblance of a friend I had moved away that summer, and I had a lot of time to be alone. I tried making friends, at the same time not knowing how to talk to people whatsoever. I reached for help and tried to form connections with people, but my constant self doubt and confusion made it difficult to keep them. I self-harmed and underslept to try to keep my feelings at bay, in turn making things worse. 

I couldn't reach out to people I knew for fear of judgement, and doubts of them knowing how to help. I resorted to anonymity. I found a place online where I could vent about my feelings and actually feel wanted. I made friends with an individual who I could relate to and who could confirm my feelings. We messaged back and forth about whatever came up; it was pretty neat. My parents, worried that I spent too much time on the internet, restricted my use. This made it difficult to talk with the person I needed at the time. 

I went to the first day of high school, only to never return after several breakdowns. I stayed home for the next few weeks; I couldn't leave the house due to my anxiety. My parents enrolled me in online school, which never got finished as I instead spent the nights thinking about if I belonged on this earth. I opened up to a few friends about my feelings, but they texted me less and less and I was lonelier more and more. I continued spiraling downward in self-hate, anxiety, delusions, paranoid thoughts, and suicidal ideation. 

I was admitted to a behavioral mental health hospital, but not much changed. During my five-month stay, I met a wonderful boy who I could be around, and he understood most of the big words I knew. I felt like I saw eye-to-eye with him. In the therapy group that I was sorted into, I was open (like actually open, not like “Oh, gender is weird anyway; here’s a bad pun”). I talked to people about how fluid identity is, but I didn’t yet delve into gender expression. The skills I learned there have made me confident in some ways I didn’t recognize at first. 

Up until then, I thought of myself as introverted and shy. I didn’t like being out and around people, and it was too loud. Yet I found that I had been around the wrong people, the wrong beliefs, people who couldn’t understand me or my perspective. Having something in common with people, having friends, is fricking fantastic. I used to (still do, ah) get frustrated with myself for not being original at all, from mannerisms to how I dress to general existence. This is something that everyone does or should do, because honestly, I love being in control of myself. I want to be content with myself. 

Perhaps it is a phase! Maybe there is no way to know what will or won’t happen in the future, and I’m just making myself content in the present. But I’m pretty hecking content with myself right now and it’s lovely and it’s the first time I remember feeling it. The more I’m here, the more things are less solid and black and white, and I see the gray area and the fluidity of it all.

Find something that makes you happy. Explore and use your resources; test the waters. Live for the now — what else is there?

I dunno, man, I’m a girl. Fuck the birth certificate. What do I say?

 

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