Devotion and despair: The lonely struggle of a gay Mormon

06 Harry Fisher

(CNN)On the night of February 12, 2016, Harry Fisher spent a few hours online: He scrolled through Facebook, checked his email. He searched Google Maps for nearby canyons and read through the lesson plan for a Sunday school class he would not live to teach.

Fisher navigated to LDS.org, the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and clicked on a page he knew well: the church-issued "Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual."
From there, Fisher visited the webpage of the assigned lesson plan for the upcoming Sunday; it was titled "I Know in Whom I Have Trusted." The last section of the lesson suggested asking class members to analyze a chapter from the Book of Mormon and report on how the scriptural characters responded to discouragement.
    Perhaps Fisher was looking for answers himself.
    The 28-year-old Brigham Young University student was under stress in his final semester at school. He had fallen behind in his classes and failed a job screening that his mother said he had placed high hopes in. And in his last month of life, he publicly outed himself as gay on Facebook.
    The Sunday school manual's answers were meant to be a model for Latter-day Saints to follow. Some suggested answers included: "Read the scriptures," "Trust in the Lord and look to Him for support" and "Engage in mighty prayer."
    This was the last webpage Harry Fisher ever visited.
    A search and rescue team used Fisher's internet history to locate his body high above Israel Canyon, a scenic hiking destination south of Salt Lake City, Utah. That history also paints a portrait of a man in his last days, struggling to reconcile his faith with his sexual identity.
    Harry Fisher as a boy.
    Death in a digital era lacks a sense of finality. Social media profiles remain, frozen in time. Personal videos can be replayed, and for a moment, the dead are resurrected in pixelated form.
    For Fisher's father, Paul Fisher, Harry's internet search history and Facebook profile provide pieces of a puzzle -- an incomplete jigsaw of Harry's last thoughts and final feelings.
    Paul Fisher shared his son's final Facebook posts, corresponding comments from friends, and a 30-day internet search history with CNN in an effort to shed light on who Harry was, what he loved, and what he believed. Harry's mother, Claire, also spoke with CNN.
    The Fishers, who are divorced, agree that being gay was a source of loneliness for their son. They disagree to what extent the Mormon church played a role in fostering feelings of isolation.
    Claire Fisher is a Mormon; Paul Fisher, though married to Claire for a decade, never joined the church.
    But this much is clear: Their son's struggle to reconcile his faith with his identity was not his alone. Mormon leaders have been laboring to create a welcoming atmosphere for all members -- gay or not -- even as they hold fast to doctrines that regard homosexual acts as sinful.
    On February 12, Harry Fisher closed his computer, leaving one last virtual fingerprint on LDS.org. Paul Fisher said that sometime in the hours that followed, Harry left his apartment -- taking his Bible and Book of Mormon, but leaving behind an empty gun case and a typed note.
    With his Brigham Young University hoodie in his passenger seat, Fisher drove his 1995 Toyota 4Runner south from Draper to a final destination resonant with religious overtones: Israel Canyon.
    Fisher left his scriptures in the passenger seat, bookmarked on Matthew 16:25: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
    A search team found Fisher's body 11 days later, lying atop the canyon overlook with a gun at his side and three of his Mormon church membership cards in his pocket, Paul Fisher said.
    Israel Canyon, where Harry Fisher's body was found.

    Harry's identity

    Raised in the church, Mormonism constituted a foundational aspect of Fisher's identity -- but it was not his only identifier. He was a committed son and brother, a beloved bridge in a family split by divorce. He was a sci-fi junkie who avidly followed the Avengers, the Japanese anime show "Naruto Shippuden" and Star Wars.
    He watched Portuguese language tutorials online, listened to Dan Carlin's podcast "Hardcore History," and reverenced Dostoyevsky. He ignored emails about overdue books at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library. He supported Bernie Sanders. He was also gay.
    Fisher publicly identified himself as gay only after he left his job with Ancestry, a website for genealogical research staffed by many fellow Mormons and headquartered in Lehi, Utah. In a January Facebook post, he disclosed how being both a member of the LDS Church and gay had been particularly difficult.
    "Many of my friends and family already know this, but for those who don't, let me let you know I'm gay. It hasn't been a secret, but I wasn't completely public with it before now because I worried that while I was at Ancestry.com it might hurt my opportunities for promotion. Some of my closest friends at Ancestry were pretty openly anti-gay, so while I don't know if any of my bosses were, and don't think they were, it seemed safer not to risk finding out."
    Harry Fisher's came out as gay on Facebook last January.
    Ancestry spokesman Brandon Borrman said the company was "deeply saddened" upon hearing of Fisher's death.
    "We were also horrified when we read of the concerns he had while he worked here. We believe this is (and strive for it to be) a place where everyone feels welcome and can live their lives without any worry of self-identification, retribution or discomfort. That said, we do not operate in a cultural vacuum. ... We hope that we can honor Harry's memory by continuing to improve ourselves as a company and by fighting for equality in the communities where we operate."
    Fisher's post went on to share that "being gay in Utah while being a Latter-Day Saint can be hard. ... It seems like every couple of Sundays I have to go out to my car to keep from crying at church."
    He then thanked those who had said "positive things about gay people, even if you didn't know you were talking about me. It really means a lot."
    That post gave Paul Fisher relief. "I thought, 'He's come out, he's OK. He's taken that big burden off of himself and everything is going to be fine.'
    "I couldn't have been more wrong."

    'Looking for a bullet'

    In the hazy wake of Harry's death, the Fishers are grasping to answer the most pressing question raised by suicide: Why?
    The Fishers, like many families, are left to deconstruct last words, subtle intonations, prolonged sighs -- pegging the formerly inconsequential as missed opportunities for intervention. There is always another clue to analyze, more to try to make sense of.
    In Harry's suicide, as in many suicides, there is never one simple answer. Paul Fisher believes the circumstances leading up to his son's death were complicated.
    In early January, Fisher decided to take on 22 credits in his final semester at BYU, where he had a 3.98 GPA. The heavy course load was an attempt to graduate by summer and move to Washington, D.C., where he was applying to become part of the Metropolitan Police Department.
    Harry's father believes his son saw the nation's capital as an escape.
    "Harry was looking for a more socially progressive community. He viewed D.C. and a job with the police department as his way out of Utah," Paul said.
    The week before final exams, Harry skipped school to fly to Washington for the physical portion of the police department entrance exam, which included a timed obstacle course.
    He failed it by 2 seconds, his father said.
    On his way home, he searched online for the appeals process for the entrance exam. Then Harry called his mother to tell her he was going to take the rest of the week off school, saying he "needed a few days to reconsider his options."
    Several days later, he was dead.
    "It seems to me in retrospect that [his death] was really thoughtfully done and had been considered as a contingency," Claire said. "I believe there was a part of him that was looking for a bullet. He got to a point where he was just done."

    Latter-day labels

    On the day Fisher's body was found, Elder David A. Bednar, one of the church's top leaders and considered a "prophet, seer, and revelator," made media waves when he said, "There are no homosexual members of the church."
    Bednar was responding to a question posed by a member in Chile, who asked, "How can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel?"
    Bednar continued his response by encouraging Mormons to identify first as "children of God" instead of with a particular sexual identity. Nonetheless, Bednar's remarks incited a conversation among Mormons on the importance of language in sexual identification. It also ultimately pointed to another question: Is there room for gays in the Mormon church?
    The LDS church's labels for those on the LGBT spectrum have evolved over the past century. Before 1950, the church referred to homosexuality as "the sin that dare not speak its name," occasionally using the Biblical term "sodomy."
    In the 1960s, "homosexuality" entered the church's lexicon after leadership became concerned that the "practice" had begun to "infiltrate the church." The church began to use the term "same-sex attraction" in the mid-1990s, encouraging gay members to avoid "over identifying with [their] temporary mortal condition."
    Today, the church continues to use the term "same-sex attracted" when referring to gay members. One notable exception exists: the church's public-facing website mormonsandgays.org. The site was first released during Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign as an effort to address the church's stance on sexuality to the public. Targeted for a nonmember audience, the website is the first instance in which the church uses "gay" in an official publication.
    The church stresses that all, regardless of sexual or gender identity or marital status, are welcome to attend worship services weekly. But to be included in church records as an official member, congregants must abide by certain standards of conduct. Mormon members are taught that attraction to a member of the same sex is not a sin, but marrying someone of the same sex is.
    Still, senior church officials have admonished members to reach out to gay Mormons with love.
    "As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender," Elder Quentin L. Cook said in a video released in 2012 on mormonsandgays.org.
    The church's desire to reach out to gay members is coupled with a doctrinal imperative to take a protective stance in advocating for traditional marriage. Mormon theology is founded on a core doctrinal belief that marriage between a man and a woman is essential for salvation in the highest levels of heaven.
    Most publicly, the church organized significant support for California's Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned gay marriage statewide. In the years since, church leaders have expressed the view that all people deserve equal rights civilly. Top leadership has advocated for housing and employment protections for LGBT people.
    But recent policy changes to church disciplinary handbooks for local leaders requiring the excommunication of members in same-sex marriages affirm that the church's doctrinal stances remain the same.
    Meanwhile, LGBT advocates worry about the harm exclusionary messages could have on gay and lesbian Mormons.
    "You don't get much greater rejection than a top church leader telling you you do not exist," said Mitch Mayne, a Mormon from San Francisco and advocate for LGBT church members. Mayne was one of the first openly gay Mormon leaders. "I think it was a grave mistake to refer to LGBT identity not as an orientation but as a cross we must bear, a behavior," he said.
    Many LDS members, like Harry Fisher's mother, Claire, agree with the church's position that homosexuality is a challenge to be overcome by a lifetime of celibacy. Claire considers her son's sexuality to be a result of a "chemical effect" on his body, a "challenge" faced in his "imperfect human condition."
    "We spoke about these affinities a little over a year ago," Claire said, describing the time when Harry came out to her. "I asked him where he stood, and he said he had full intention to live within the bounds the Lord has set for these appetites and passions. He thought of himself as basically a Mormon monk."
    Still, Claire recognizes Harry's celibacy was a source of loneliness. "I think he may have seen this as an escape. It all came crashing in, he snapped. This was not an act of rebellion, of being angry at God, of being bullied at church, he just succumbed to the loneliness."
    Paul Fisher has a different perspective. He said he was not aware of his son's choice to remain celibate. "I just assumed one day he would show up with a guy at my door and I would meet his boyfriend."
    In January, unsubstantiated claims of an increase in suicide among gay Mormon youth prompted a public statement on gay suicide from the church-owned paper, Deseret News.
    "We mourn with their families and friends when they feel life no longer offers hope," church spokesman Dale Jones said. The article went on to outline how "constant love" from families and congregations can decrease risk factors for LGBT youth. However, church officials drew a line between "acceptance of a youth" and "embrac[ing] the individual's sexual identity."
    This is the difficult balance the church is weighing as it seeks to promote principles of inclusion while standing by its doctrinal positions.
    And now there are heightened consequences for gay members of the church: Choosing to live with a partner or marry a member of the same sex are grounds for excommunication.
    The church made that policy change last November. It also addressed the children of same-sex unions, rendering them ineligible for baptism until they are 18 years old and willing to denounce same-sex marriage.
    When the policy was leaked online by a whistleblower, the Mormon church found itself at the eye of a public relations hurricane. Thousands of members gathered in the church's Temple Square in Salt Lake City to resign from the church. Petitions circulated demanding disaffiliation with the Mormon church. College athletic teams across the country were encouraged to boycott games and matches with church-sponsored Brigham Young University.
    According to his father, Fisher followed the response to the policy change closely.
    "I don't know if [gay marriage] was something he considered," Paul says, "but he did express to me at a dinner after he came out publicly on Facebook that he hoped within 10 years the LDS church would allow gay marriage."
    Claire disagrees, saying, "Harry wasn't waiting for the brethren to come to their senses on anything."

    'Love is like a surgical knife'

    In the month before he died, Fisher renewed his "temple recommend" card -- identification used by the church's most faithful members to gain access to sacred LDS temples.
    He successfully passed a "recommend interview" with his bishop. His support of church leadership as "prophets, seers and revelators" was required to pass the interview and gain access to the church's most sacred places of worship. In Mormon doctrine, his eternal fate was contingent on the answer.
    In the interview, Fisher was not explicitly asked about his sexuality. The 10 questions required to receive a recommend are uniform in congregations across the world and none require members to state their sexual identity. He was, however, asked about his adherence to the church's Law of Chastity -- the standard prohibiting premarital sex and homosexual relations of any kind.
    Additionally, Fisher was asked about his support for any organizations whose activities were not in line with church teachings. Fisher posted publicly about his response to the question on Facebook.
    He said, "One of the questions asks, 'Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.' I answered no."
    According to his mother, Fisher put all three of his prior temple recommends in his wallet before he died. Yet in the last week of his life, he also spent time online exploring what it meant to "sustain" or support his leaders' edicts.
    In early February, Fisher accessed the page of a Terryl Givens' article, "What it Means to Sustain," on the LDS blog Times and Seasons eight different times. As a University of Richmond professor and active member, Givens speaks as a Mormon scholar closely affiliated with the church.
    The article was a published letter Givens had written to a friend who questioned how to support church leadership despite disagreeing with the recent policy regarding gay members.
    Givens' friend asked: "How can I sustain a leadership that I think has acted in error or unrighteously?"
    Givens answered that God required "faith and patience" from members who are led by fallible men and women. He said "the church is not a democracy" but insisted leadership was, overall, seeking to serve members with love. He believed Mormons could only exert influence on leadership "by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned."
    On January 28, Fisher changed his Facebook cover photo to a picture of an LDS temple. Overlaid on the image was a caption: "Love is like a surgical knife. Sharp and dangerous."

    Seeking

    While dozens of LGBT Mormon advocacy organizations have arisen with the advent of the internet, the church has been careful not to sanction any of these grassroots movements. And for devout members like Fisher, seeking answers from outside sources is often deemed subversive.
    According to his public search history, Fisher sought answers to his questions from the church. He never ventured into the large repository of anti-Mormon blogs and forums. Instead, he visited the church's website and typed the word "seek" into the scriptural search bar. He navigated to the page for Matthew 7:7: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you."
    But Fisher found few resources for gay Mormons in official church publications. He pursued the next best option: blogs of active members asking similar questions.
    Fisher visited the blogs Times and Seasons, By Common Consent and Feminist Mormon Housewives, reading articles titled, "How did you become aware of gender issues in the Church and world?"
    Fisher later posted his own "thoughts about transgenderism" to Facebook. On January 10, he wrote:
    "I feel very strongly, though, that people should have the right to look and act however they want, and to be called by whatever labels they want. So much that is evil in the world comes from categorizing people."
    He concluded the post with a hashtag: #thegospelisbigger.

    An emotional soul

    Fisher's mother says she first noticed a change in Harry after he returned from his two-year LDS mission to Rochester, New York. She believes his exposure to a world outside Utah unsettled her son.
    "Ever since he came home from his mission he had a deeper kind of sadness. He had an emotional soul, but he had never been exposed to prostitutes and drug dealers like he was in western Rochester," Claire said. "He came home with a bit of cynicism, a bit more jaded about the human condition."
    She remembered the first thing Fisher wanted to do upon return from his mission was read "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. For the characters in Dostoyevsky's novel, suffering is quasi-religious. Death and devastation are ways for the Karamazov brothers, like the biblical character Job, to draw closer to God.
    Fisher asked his mother to read the book with him -- seeking someone to share his feelings with.
    "He wanted me to understand the depth of suffering in the human condition," Claire said.
    For many LDS missionaries, who leave their homes for 18 months to two years to proselytize in an assigned region of the world, loneliness is pervasive. Missionaries, many of whom leave on their mission immediately after high school graduation, are only allowed to call home on Christmas and Mother's Day, though they can email once weekly.
    This loneliness can be exacerbated for gay missionaries bereft of resources from the church and cut off from the internet, where many find solidarity with other gay Mormons.
    "I don't think [Harry] knew he was attracted to men in high school. But the mission gives you the 'in your face' realization that you may be attracted to that guy," Claire said.
    Harry Fisher on his LDS mission in Rochester, New York.
    Paul believes his son returned home from his mission with some questions about the church. Harry disliked the church's emphasis on attending "young single adult wards" -- groups designed for unmarried adults ages 18-29. He believed the prioritization of marriage in these wards (the LDS term for congregation) detracted from the focus on worshiping Christ.
    Soon after his mission, Fisher began attending a "family ward" -- Mormon congregations open to all. Upon realizing he was not married, the bishop overseeing the ward asked him to leave.
    "A bishop ordered him out of the family ward and told him to join a singles ward," Claire Fisher said. "He moved every year for the last five years, not laying down any roots."

    A lack of resources

    Paul Fisher wishes he had encouraged his son to utilize more LGBT resources and communities that exist in Utah. "I wish I had walked him into an organization like the Utah Pride Center. I wish I had shown him that this community existed. It doesn't mean he would have responded positively, but I wish I had."
    Claire Fisher says she spoke with her son about existing resources, but he rejected them.
    "He had considered all the options that were open to him as someone who identified with same gender affinity. We had discussed the resources, namely North Star, but he rejected the idea and felt he would do it on his own."
    North Star is a "faith affirming" organization which seeks to provide resources for "Latter-day Saint individuals and families concerned with sexual orientation or gender identity."
    While the Mormon church has advocated publicly for equal rights for the LGBT community, it has left the provision of resources to the LGBT community to secular entities. To date, the church has not adopted any resources developed by advocates or researchers, including the Family Acceptance Project, training materials aimed at increasing support for LGBT youth within families and religious communities.
    The Family Acceptance Project is the only faith-based training program listed as best practice by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; it has been referenced in trainings by the Utah State Health Department since last September.
    Andrea Hood, suicide prevention coordinator with the department, said there has been a threefold increase in youth suicides in Utah since 2007. Hood added there is no statistical evidence that the increase in suicide is connected to the LDS church policy change, or to religion in general, but it is difficult to say for certain as data on sexuality and religion are not always included in police reports. She noted that religiously motivated discrimination is a risk factor -- along with mental illness, prior trauma and depression -- in teen suicides.
    "We want to show them examples of adults who are LGBT who, if they have faced faith discrimination in their life, they have been resilient and that they are happy, successful adults who are thriving members of our community."
    Mormon leaders have been pitched the Family Acceptance Project in meetings with advocates and researchers since 2008, but the materials have not been implemented. The church rarely adopts outside material for use in leadership training or member instruction, preferring to produce teaching manuals internally.
    In the eight years since the church was introduced to the concept of the Family Acceptance Project, no materials have been produced internally with the aim of helping church leadership respond to at-risk LGBT youth. The church declined to comment on the adoption of the materials.
    Mayne, the openly gay Mormon leader, said the church has "completely missed the boat" in terms of providing resources for LGBT members. "It is a dangerous time to be an LGBT Mormon right now."
    Other members of the advocacy community agree, pinpointing the problem on an empathy gap.
    Kendall Wilcox, an openly gay LDS member, filmmaker, and former BYU professor, said, "To overcome that empathy gap, leaders need to do the work of stepping out of their homes and their offices, to have many, many long conversations with LGBT members about their lived experiences."
    Erika Munson, co-founder of the LGBT advocacy group Mormons Building Bridges, said, "I would like to hear a little more compassion. I want to hear an acknowledgment of that pain -- that it is a pain that hits an identity. I want leaders to say, 'This is difficult, you are not alone, I am here for you.'"
    Claire says her son preferred to chart his course of reconciliation alone.
    Claire also is wary of how helpful the gay communities could have been for Harry. "In the support groups ... being in proximity to another gay man would exacerbate the issue if you're trying to get a hold on it."
    Claire laments the loneliness her son felt but underscores that his death is about more than just his sexual identity -- it was about the isolation he experienced in forming relationships.
    "Though his dad and his older sister are adamant that the Mormon church killed my son, it didn't. Loneliness did."

    'My work is finished'

    On the last night of his life, Fisher called his mother one final time. In the conversation, she asked him what "he had come up with in terms of his future plans."
    Fisher often sought his mother's opinion when making life decisions. Yet that night, he grew quiet. With a sigh, Fisher said, "Mom, Mom you know, I know you mean well."
    Later that night, Harry Fisher left a typed note in his apartment. It read, "I know God loves me and that my work is finished."