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Activist Maxwell Poth is Doing Something About LGBTQ Teen Suicide

Activist Maxwell Poth is Doing Something About LGBTQ Teen Suicide

Maxwell Poth

Suicide is the number one cause of death for people ages 10-17 in Utah. 

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

Utah's dominant religion, Mormonism, strongly impacts the state's LGBTQ community. The Utahan people are not taking responsibility to better safeguard the minds of their struggling queer youth, largely because the word "queer" is seen through the lens of sin. The condemnation of queer, however, does not justify the neglect of Utah's high rates of teen suicide. Regardless of whether the prevalence of teen suicide is due to religion or one of the many reasons the state hides behind, Utah needs change now.

Project Contrast, which will be released July 28, is a series of 19 portraits and stories to benefit Encircle, the first LGBTQ+ Pride Center in Utah County, which has the most densely Mormon population in the entire world. In the book, you can see the subjects' beautiful queer faces, read their stories and share them with those who struggle. No matter how old or young they may be, their stories are here to save others' lives.

So let me introduce you to Micah, Michael and Wylliam:

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Micah, 16

Growing up Mormon is one of the hardest things I've dealt with. I grew up in a town called Payson City. I still live there, and I swear it is like 80 percent Mormon. If you are not Mormon, you are in the minority. I am a minority in more than one way as a half-Samoan, half-Caucasian gay. This has always been inconvenient because I have always wanted to fit in. I never wanted to be a black sheep, so I always tried my hardest to be the funniest, most popular kid everybody knows. This worked out for my years in elementary school, but it was unsuccessful in junior high. Surprisingly, twelve-year-olds can be some of the cruelest human beings on planet Earth. No matter how hard I tried to dress nice, be funny, or make friends it would never cover the fact that I was a girly fag.

It was so hard to fit in everywhere. At church I was a sinner, and at school I was the weird kid who was no more than effeminate. My biggest fear had come true: I was a black sheep. I was no longer part of the herd. The herd continued to move, and I was pushed along with a crowd of sheep I did not fit in with. Junior high pushed me to never come out, and church pushed me to be as miserable as possible. I felt so alone.

By my freshman year I was more than okay with being gay. I wanted to come out, but I was so young and vulnerable that I felt like I wouldn't ever be able to be happy again. I was growing older and so I was stepping up in religious roles. I was the deacons' quorum president and then the first counselor of the teachers' quorum. I felt as though I had crossed the point of no return. I was too far into Mormonism that I couldn't step out of those roles and come out. I felt so stuck. Where was I going to go? I wanted to be happy in this life but that would mean I would have to be miserable in the "afterlife."

During that year as a freshman, my mom became pregnant with my youngest brother, Kainoa. Within those nine months, I started to gain a lot of weight. I weighed 230 pounds by the time my brother was born. I was very happy to have a new sibling, but I also felt very depressed because of my body. I started to ask myself, Why? Why did I allow myself to get to this state of obesity? It was thoughts like these that inspired me to lose weight.

My weight loss started by eating less food and going outside more. It started out very harmless, but soon it wasn't so miniscule. My restricted eating habits got me into a lot of trouble emotionally and mentally. I became very depressed due to my obsession with food. I became so absorbed with food that soon every day of my life became a battle with body dysmorphia. It would bother me the moment I woke up and saw my feet at the edge of my bed. I hated seeing any part of my body. It haunted me everywhere I went and stopped me from doing things I loved. I was miserable.

Misery moved with me to my sophomore year. By the time I started school that year I was already down to 170 pounds. It was kind of embarrassing because those who hadn't seen me over the summer noticed that I had lost a lot of weight. People would ask me what I was doing to lose weight, if I was eating, and if I was okay. It was so humiliating. All I wanted was to be thin and I took it too far. My eating habits had made it almost impossible for me to live normally.

Church was still not a supportive environment for a closeted gay. People at church felt the need to ask me about my weight every five seconds. It irked me because I hated dressing up in church clothes. I thought they made me look so fat. I know that all they wanted to do was help, but I was too embarrassed to let anyone get that close to me.

Church was getting even more uncomfortable to attend. The members were making it impossible to enjoy every week. Once gay marriage was legalized, all my ward would talk about was how to protect ourselves. I had teachers tell me that gay marriage was bad because it made it easier for people to sin and because it threatened God's way of marriage. They taught us that gay marriage had no worth, and in turn that planted in me that I had no worth.

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I couldn't stand it any longer. Every week just before church started, I would just sit and cry with my mom. She told me that I didn't have to go and that she would stay home with me. I never felt more at peace than when I was away from that toxic environment. I was taught to stand in holy places, and at church I did not feel whole so I was going to find my own holy places outside of the church.

One of those holy places was a youth activity called Rainbow Mutual. There I found so many kids like me: kids that didn't fit in at school, church, or sometimes with their families. It was so nice to have a community that shared the same experiences as me. Everything seemed to be going right for once.

Last August I decided that it was my time to come out. I posted on Facebook and waited. I was so afraid that my extended families would reject me and that I would lose so many friends, but boy was I wrong. Every one of my friends and family rallied around me and brought me so much love. Everyone at school was perfectly fine with me being who I was. That still is one of the most beautiful moments in my life.

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I felt so loved and welcomed by everyone, but something was still missing. I was still so depressed. My restrictive eating habits were still with me, I still hated the way I looked, and I still believed that I was a bad person. Everyone else loved me, but I did not love myself. I felt myself falling fast into a spiral of negativity. I thought that once I had come out and left the church, all of my self-hate and problems would dissipate. I was scared. I had no other plan in place to cure me of my depression.

Life had become so miserable, and I had become so sick. Suicide ideation started occurring more and more often. I wanted to die so badly, but I was so afraid of being gone. This last January, I was hospitalized. I was not keeping myself safe, so I was in inpatient for a week. How did my life end up at this point, so close to death and so close to insanity? Was this what I wanted? No.

I decided that I didn't want to nip my life in the bud. I had worked too hard to get myself into a healthy environment to just give it all up. With this passion in my heart, I worked throughout that week and the weeks to come to tell myself that I am worth it. Straight out of the hospital, I went right back to school full time. It was very difficult, but it helped to have the people at school as a support system throughout my treatment.

Nowadays, I am working on being confident with my body. I want to love it as much as others do, so this summer I will be attending intensive outpatient therapy. My hope is that by my seventeenth birthday, I will be able leave this chapter behind and grow past my old, dark behaviors. Until then, Micah will be working as hard as he can to accept and love his mind, heart, and body.

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I know I will make it. I feel myself coming closer to my goal every day I wake. I am so proud of how far I have come. Two years ago, I thought I would never be accepted or loved, and now I feel love everywhere I go and I wish the same for others. My advice to those struggling is to never wait. If there is fear in your heart and mind, then release it. Never let anything come in the way of your own happiness because you are important, you are beautiful, and you are loved. Life has so much more to offer you than it is offering you right now.

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Michael, 17

I'm a guy, so obviously I'll date a girl, go on a mission, get married in the temple a month after my mission, then start popping out babies, right? I was so excited to have a passive wife and cute little ginger babies, work for the LDS church, and live in a quaint Mormon neighborhood in Provo, Utah. My life was all planned out and it couldn't be better! There was just one little issue...

I was like every other heterosexual boy in middle school -- I wore blue jeans, knock-off converse, and a plain T-shirt every day. I was fairly well known in middle school, so everyone was interested in my love life. I was supposed to like this girl, and everyone said I did, so I suppose I did. It wasn't everything everyone made it out to be, love. I didn't think about her at night, I didn't want to make out with her, and I most definitely didn't want to bang. I mean after all, that is for my wife and her alone. Soon after everyone at school decided I liked her, and she liked me, she started dating another dude. I wasn't jealous; I didn't really care. Apparently love was pretty easy.

In seventh grade I realized I was trying to keep my eyes down in the locker room, but couldn't help but look at the other boys with their shirts off. But why? I liked girls, right? Once I realized that I liked guys, I was terrified. I was taught from birth that homosexuality was a sin, so I told myself I would still marry a woman and stay in the LDS church. I wrote a letter to my parents telling them: "I'm attracted to guys, but not in that way.... I never want you to talk to me about this." I was "struggling" with same-sex attraction and I was going to get over it and of course I was going to marry a woman.

Fast forward to tenth grade. Life was great, mostly. It had taken me years to realize I was only attracted to guys (the "G" word still scared me). I had yet to talk to my parents about my sexuality because they were happily oblivious. In their minds I had just gone through a gay phase like my older brother and I was simply confused.

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I had tried for years to be different, to be like everyone else. To be what I was expected to be. While watching general conference one year as a family, a leader of the LDS church was talking about same-sex attraction and how it doesn't just go away, and I started crying. That was when my mom and dad realized I was really, truly, gay. Everything they had ever planned for me changed in an instant. I was my family's last chance of having a kid stay in the church and marry in the temple and do all the "good Mormon kid" things. All my parents' hopes and dreams for me involved the LDS religion. All of those dreams suddenly came crashing down.

For months after my parents understood I was truly a homo, I was told to keep it a secret. This was something that could be fixed and hidden -- I just had to have faith. I had tried for years to be different, but I decided to try for a little longer. I continued to go to the temple, pray to be"normal," go to church, and read The Book of Mormon. I continued to do all the things my religion told me would make me happy and at peace, but all it did was make me feel helpless, worthless and even more like a sinner. It drove me to the point where I wanted to be gone.

In June 2015 I realized that this is who I am and I should be proud of who I am. I am Michael and I am gay. My sexuality is an important part of me and it has shaped me into who I am. It had taken me years to be comfortable with this part of myself.
After years of inner struggle and denial, I started telling family and friends that I was gay. For the longest time it seemed to be something to be ashamed of and something to keep hidden, but I finally realized I needed to be proud, and to be an example to others who might be struggling through the same things.

I was expecting people to disown me, bully me, or simply look down on me or judge me when I came out. I was the first openly gay guy at my high school that I know of. I had no example to look to. I had no idea how people would react. To my pleasant surprise, it wasn't that bad. I wasn't pushed down in the hallway or called a fag or anything like that. There will always be those people that will treat you with disrespect, but through all their mean words I haven't become ashamed of who I am, but more proud. I did lose some friends, which was so hard. I just had to remember if they didn't want to be my friend because I was gay, they were not true friends.

I received tons of different reactions to coming out. When I told my brother David I was a flaming homosexual, he told me he would be disappointed in me if I married a woman. My brother Nathan was making homophobic comments when I yelled at him, "Ya know what Nathan? I'm gay!" He paused for a solid 15 seconds, eyebrows turned down as he looked at the ground. Then he looked me in the eyes and said, "Well, at least you're not lactose intolerant."

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Support will come from the most unlikely of places. I felt like I was alone for so long, that no one understood what I was going through. When I came out of the closet everything changed. Gays started popping up left and right. I found my people. I found a place where I could be myself with no judgment. Sometimes being openly gay in such a concentrated Mormon community sucked, but I would never change who I am. If God doesn't love me for being gay, fuck that. I'd rather burn in hell and be myself than be in heaven for being someone I'm not.

Although my parents had a hard time when they first realized I was gay, they have become my biggest supporters. I love my family and I love who I am. Nothing will ever change that.

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Wylliam, 17

From a young age, the idea that gay equalled bad was put into my mind. People would use "gay" as a synonym for lousy or imperfect. Even my brothers, who love me, would tease me about my sexuality when I didn't even know what the word meant yet. I wasn't aware of my attraction to either sex, or of my sexual desires. Soon I started to believe this idea that gay was synonymous with bad, and I started to suppress my feelings toward other boys. When asked, I would always deny liking them, although I did.

I made daily efforts to try and cover up my queerness; I dated girls and joined some sports teams. In elementary school I was already afraid of sexual orientation without really knowing what it meant. Trying to hide behind a straight persona didn't last very long and it wasn't effective. It was a harmful way to live, and I decided to let go of some of that facade. I just did what I liked doing, and hung out with whomever I wanted. This opened up so many opportunities for me, because now I allowed myself to do all these different activities. I made a ton more friends, boys and girls; I joined sports teams but I also joined dancing, painting, and singing classes. Previously, I had deprived myself of these amazing creative outlets, but I realized they allowed me to express who I was.

In fifth grade, I got the news that I was moving away, and saw this as my chance to come out to certain people at school. I came out as bisexual to a few friends and it was a breeze. I had a lot more trouble coming out to my three closest friends. I was terrified of losing them, and afraid they would think differently of me. I didn't want to get my heart broken. Once I mustered up the courage, they told me they had always known and that they would always love me. My coming out to them wasn't necessary but I believe it made us closer, and now I can truly be my authentic self with them. I was extremely lucky to have such amazing friends who were so accepting, loving, and open-minded.

I would love to say it was all easy from there on, but it really wasn't. I moved around a lot when I lived in Canada, and every new town challenged me with the same problems. I was always the new kid and I always stood apart. A couple of months into the school year, the gay rumors would start to spread. I wasn't as mentally strong as I would've liked back then, and I let all this negativity affect me. Making friends was hard, but I never gave up, and eventually I found the right people, the ones who accept me as I am. Unfortunately, this cycle repeated itself three times. I spent so many nights crying myself to sleep because I was afraid of what people thought of me.

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Then, at age 15, I came to Utah with a brand new mindset. I was going to be my most authentic self and live my life. Instead of pretending to be something I'm not, I told myself I would simply be me. I didn't come into my new school waving around a rainbow flag announcing that I am queer but I also didn't deny it if someone asked. I think that's what really helped me fully embrace my sexuality and made me realize none of it really mattered.

For once, I was unapologetically me. I felt much better mentally and I was in a happier place. My sexuality was welcomed so positively. I started getting involved in the LGBTQ+ community of Salt Lake by going to dances and events. These events made me feel confident and normal and I enjoyed that they were places where everyone fits in. It's so amazing to see a community be so inclusive. I started meeting wonderful people, all from very unique backgrounds. It took some time to find them, but I've made some very close friends who are so open-minded, genuine, accepting, and loving. I don't think I would've had the opportunity to be surrounded with these amazing people if it hadn't been for my sexuality and involvement in the LGBTQ+ community.

Still, I was somewhat afraid of telling everyone else. "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind" - I heard this saying and it gave me the courage I needed. I finally felt ready to let the rest of the world know. I made a public statement on National Coming Out Day, letting everyone know I wasn't straight. The Facebook post received so much support from family members and friends. It made me feel truly loved and all I had to do was be myself. When my parents saw, they said they had always known and that they would always love me, no matter what. I am eternally grateful to have such a loving and supportive family. I can honestly say I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

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Although I still face many struggles, I will always keep fighting. We are faced with stigma, stereotypes, and misconceptions, and I hope we can put an end to all of it. I know that life will continue to challenge me, but I also know that I will continue to grow and learn from my experiences. I will create the best version of myself and discover my purpose in the world. The road ahead may be rough, but it sure is worth it. We all have our path to follow and we must stay true to ourselves. Some will have it easier than others, but you have to remember everything happens for a reason and it gets better. There's no point in living a life filled with fear. We are our biggest enemies, we hold ourselves back. We often let other people project their fears onto us, but we need to take a stand. Do not let other people dictate how you should live. I hope that anyone struggling realizes there's so much to life, so much to live for. It might be hard and you might lose some people along your journey; instead of thinking about who you lost, think of all the people you will gain and the ones who stuck with you. Those are the people you want to focus on. It's almost like we get to create a second family for ourselves. I am immensely thankful for all the people I have met so far on my journey. I cannot wait to see where life takes me from here.

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