“As a gay man, that's what makes you different: Your sexuality. It just so happens that Mormons teach that our type of sexuality is bad.”
Levi Jackman Foster, an Insta-famous gay man and artist who grew up immersed in the Mormon community, hits this point in our conversation almost immediately.
Though he didn't grow up in Utah, home to the Latter-day Saints church and largest form of Mormonism, Levi feared immediate criticism and rejection from his family and friends the moment he'd concluded he was "different."
Levi was taught early on that being homosexual was a sin. It was considered to be more of a shameful disability instead of just another way of life or sexual orientation.
As a teenager, he acknowledged that the only lifestyle he'd ever been exposed to was one that he wouldn't be able to live for much longer.
When men tell their coming out stories and life thereafter, you expect to hear a stressful tale that is eventually brightened up by joy and acceptance. I was unsure if that would be the case for someone who was seemingly forced to escape one life and start another.
My knowledge of Mormonism is scarce, but a recent trip to Park City, Utah sparked my interest enough to learn about this global American religion that seemingly disapproves of the LGBT community and everything it stands for — even in 2017.
Luckily for me, Levi, currently residing in New York, was eager to tell me anything and everything there is to know.
And there was a lot more to his story of growing up gay and Mormon than I'd ever imagined:
Sean Abrams: So when did you really start to understand that you were a part of the Mormon culture?
Levi Jackman Foster: Because I didn't grow up in Utah, I was aware that we lived differently. There's a bit of an elitism that's not like we are of a better class than you, but we understand something that you don't.
Where I was raised in Alaska, like other Mormons, we were raised to think you shouldn't associate with people that are not Mormon, and it's better to avoid those people and cluster together and support each other and support your own beliefs. I was aware that that was going on, but I was also, in a way, rewarded for it. It gives you better standing in the community.
SA: At what point did you realize you were gay and that Mormonism just wouldn't work anymore?
LJF: It wasn't until I was 15 that I knew I was gay. I was a wrestler and had a crush on someone on the team who was not Mormon. He also wasn't gay, but at the same time, we had a flirtatious relationship, and I think he knew I was gay. I think he was OK with it. Even though I knew I was living a certain way, I just didn't know what it was like outside of [that lifestyle].
SA: Is your entire family Mormon?
LJF: Everyone's Mormon ... It's all my parents ever knew and how to raise me in that way. I was sixteen when I came out to my family. I was preparing to leave everything. I thought me coming out would be an end deal and I'd be ostracized.
SA: Is that because of the rules of the religion?
LJF: Yes and no. When I was 15, I remember going to these youth groups after Sunday school and one of my leaders teaching a lesson about the greatest sins, saying it's better to be dead than to commit a homosexual sin.
The only other people I'd heard of being gay and in the church were excommunicated. I was sure that's what was going to happen to me. I had my bags packed when I told my parents.
SA: And how did they end up reacting to the news?
LJF: My dad had this surprising reaction when I told them. He said, “I know you'd never choose this. I believe you when you say you were born this way.”
I found out he had a gay uncle and a gay aunt. There's this whole other side he never talked about, not because it was embarrassing or shameful. He just never completely subscribed to the groupthink of it.
My mom, on the other hand, never being exposed to anything like that before, is probably why my dad didn't talk about it. She thought it was horrible. She thought it was like me giving the news was Satan ripping her baby from her arms.
For months, she was bawling every time she saw me. It was really hard, and I ended up leaving home because of it.
SA: Where did you end up going after that?
LJF: I moved to Utah, oddly enough. I tried a few things first to humor my mother and partially my father, even though he didn't necessarily believe it, but he wanted to help my mom.
I tried doing “Evergreen,” which is a Latter-day Saints-sponsored conversion therapy clinic. I met with counselors, kind of like AA a little bit, but it doesn't work.
SA: So you did it more for your parents? Not for yourself?
LJF: I knew nothing was going to change. When I first discovered I was gay at 15, there were a good six months that it was dark. I had suicidal thoughts, tried to pray the gay away.
I didn't sit in turmoil for years like a lot of other people. I don't know if I'm too selfish or too loud to do that. I did that for a few months. I tried really hard — I tried the Mormon way with everything it says in the scripture.
Dealing with my family and community was something different. I had already left the ideology of the faith behind by the time I'd told my parents. Going to a religious counseling was just bogus and to be honest, I kind of toyed with them a little bit.
Nothing of them had degrees in what they were doing. In Mormonism, you have "a calling." Every single person in the congregation had a job to do. For those people, that was their calling. Someone called them and said, "You're going to counsel gays," when a lot of them were gay themselves. I had one of those counselors slip me his number.
SA: What was your plan after therapy "failed"?
LJF: I have an aunt in Utah, who's not Mormon and who I knew accepted me for being gay. So I lived with her and finished school for a while before moving to L.A.
Being in Utah was a little crazy — the Mormon culture is so bizarre there. There's a park in Salt Lake City where, if someone had their car pulled in forward or backward, it signaled different [sexual] things. All of these Mormon guys are married men with families and kids. It was such a weird thing to me.
SA: What was "weird" to you, the hook-up culture in Utah?
LJF: [Yeah.] It's just seemed dangerous to me. HIV is present everywhere in the world, and their wives aren't asking to be involved in this. It's not fair to these women. They're subscribing to a religion where a man holds all the power, but it's still not fair. I think that's abuse.
SA: What do the wives have to say about their husband's activities?
LJF: They don't know, or they just don't care ... They want the white-picket-fence scenario, and they don't care what goes on behind the scenes, as long as they appear good.
I feel like a lot of people who stay in Utah have attachments to their family or just feel safer in Mormon culture because that's what they grew up in. The people who don't have those attachments leave, so you're left with an oddball box — a lot of loose ends.
I don't want to diss those people, but if they have reasons to be attached to the culture, they probably have some issues with being gay.
SA: What kind of relationships do you think these closeted gay Mormon men tend to have?
LJF: Men are raised to believe they're going to have multiple wives and that monogamy is not really a forever thought. I think that does something to Mormon men. There's an entitlement to multiple sexual partners. It's actually very much part of their upbringing. Monogamy isn't really hardwired into your brain. To find gay men that are a monogamous couple is very rare.
In L.A., there were Mormon guys who would come and just go crazy. The floodgates opened, and they forever lived in a cycle of overindulgence and abstinence.
SA: Since leaving Los Angeles and establishing yourself in New York, how would you say your own relationship with your family changed?
LJF: When I moved to L.A., my dad had taken a job there, so my parents split time between Alaska and L.A. I saw them more and definitely rekindled my relationship with my mom.
She started reading books and worked hard to educate herself, and that opened her up more to where we could have a dialogue. She and my father completely shifted their views of being against gay marriage to [being supportive of me] and seeing me happy and in a relationship and wanting me to have the same rights as them.
Then, they began supporting gay marriage. Not every Mormon kid gets that opportunity.
SA: Now, do you think Mormon parents are more open to the idea of having a gay child?
LJF: I think it's more common for parents to no longer shun their children, but I think they still shove the doctrine down their throats. That's why there is still a high suicide rate amongst LGBT Mormons. There's also still a high percentage of LGBT homeless people living Utah.
It's still an issue within the religion, and the church has tried to address it, but they do it so backhanded that it never works.
If you want to be gay and remain Mormon, you're becoming a monk basically. You have to be celibate. You can never act on it. And the church still encourages you to pray, and maybe one day, you'll feel OK with having sex with someone of the opposite sex, and you can get married, and then have kids.
Then, you'll have all the good things you were taught. Until then, everything's on hold. It's really awful. It's like putting a carrot in front of a horse. It's not right.
SA: Despite the struggles, how do you feel looking back on your life as a Mormon?
LJF: Well, I don't desire for my family not to be Mormon. For them, it's good. They fit inside that box and understand it. They've also learned not to discriminate. That's not my issue.
My issue is the discrimination that harms other people that grow up in it and who don't really know they have a choice yet. As long as my family isn't like that, I don't have a problem with it.
I don't regret growing up Mormon. I think I had a tough time, but I like where I am with my life. That's how I got here.