Thursday is the 10 year anniversary of the tragic death of Stuart Matis, who shot himself on the steps of his stake center in Palo Alto, CA. Though I never knew Stuart, his death has had an emotional impact on my life. Many people, including myself, want to honor his memory and search for meaning in this tragedy this Thursday. His parents have asked that we not memorialize his death with a rally or any public event or statement meant to promote a political or social agenda. (read the statement at Northern Lights)
Their request, to be honest, bothers me. The statement acknowledges that they are motivated, among other things, by a desire to prevent the LDS Church from being viewed in a negative light. I love Fred and Marilyn Matis. They are sweet people who have been kind to me personally and who have probably done more to encourage compassion for gay people from within the LDS Church than any other, with the possible exception of Carol Lynn Pearson. Their statement is consistent with the position they have taken since the tragedy happened, and I believe their position has actually made them more effective advocates for gay people to a Church that is extremely sensitive to bad press and public rallies.
But I believe that their desires are not the same as Stuart’s desires, based on letters that he wrote before he took his life and based on the drama of the tragedy. In a letter to his family, Stuart wrote, “Perhaps my death … might become the catalyst for much good. I’m sure that you will now be strengthened in your resolve to teach the members and the leaders [of the Church] regarding the true nature of homosexuality.” (Los Altos Town Crier) If Stuart had wanted his death private, he would have taken his life in his bedroom. Shooting himself on the steps of his LDS Stake Center was a cry for change, and I believe his blood stains the steps of the LDS Church which has not adequately responded to his cry.
Suicide is a complicated issue. There is never one single contributing factor or set of events that makes death seem more bearable than life. I don’t want to pretend that I have any authority to speak for Stuart or the motives behind his tragic decision. I do know, though, that the events leading to that decision included the horrific proposition 22 campaign, a campaign that was almost play by play repeated in 2008. Why didn’t the Church make efforts to reach out to gay members and to prevent suicide during the prop 8 campaign, knowing what had happened in 2000?
In a letter Stuart wrote to a cousin weeks before his death, he stated, “The church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their calloused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their finger pointed to their head in the form of a gun. The church’s involvement in the Knight initiative [prop 22] will only add to the great pain suffered by these young gay Mormons.”
This statement resonates me to the point of tears almost every time I read it, because it is true. I was once that boy, still with scars on my knees from that pain–pain that was repeated to an even larger degree with proposition 8. Though the Church has made great changes in the past several years and has become more compassionate in responding to its gay members, it still sanctions spiritually abusive preaching and practices. I’m not talking about the politics of proposition 8 or any bill or law. I’m talking about the things that come from Mormon pulpits and publications that reinforce the cruel notion in a child’s heart that he is wrong, damaged, messed up, even evil, because of attractions he didn’t choose and doesn’t understand.
Stuart took his life when I was in eighth grade and was just discovering my own confusing attractions towards the same gender. I didn’t hear about his death at the time, and the lessons learned from his suicide weren’t able to stop me from years of horrible self abuse because I was gay, including a time in my life when I contemplated suicide. I did unspeakable things because I didn’t understand homosexuality and because I had been taught lies about it. Those lies haven’t stopped. As a whole, Latter-day Saints still don’t know about Stuart Matis, and they need to.
I can’t honor the memory of Stuart Matis by keeping his story–or my story–quiet. With all due respect towards those closest to Stuart Matis, I want to voice support for those who are remembering this tragedy on Thursday. I am not in California, but if I was I would be attending the rally in Palo Alto. I encourage any of you who can attend to attend. Instead, I will be honoring Stuart in my own way by lighting a candle for him early that morning and by writing both his story and my story, and sharing it with whomever I can that day.