Journey Story

Mormon in Montana: My Experience Of LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

by Bentley Burdick

These days I am one of the first in any group to jump to defend someone’s religious beliefs, including their right to share them in a friendly, respectful manner. It wasn’t always this way.

At one point in my life, I found all religion, spirituality, or belief system harmful and hypocritical.

The second God was mentioned I either clammed up and lashed out or walked away all together. It’s a mindset that I feel ashamed about these days, but it was one that, at the time, I had to adopt in order to keep my own mind and heart fortified.

Sadly these same feelings linger though nowadays they just mean swiping left on a profile on Tinder where someone says ‘God is #1’ or something along those lines.

Being raised in a Latter Day Saint/Mormon household wasn’t easy, and even with four older siblings and a stay-at-home mom there was never a time that I didn’t feel completely alone. Alienated from what peers I had (not helped by being home schooled, living in the middle of nowhere, and those same peers only being other children I went to church with) and pushed aside from my family, I sought solace in my own mind and worlds I could build.

I was a writer before I even knew how to write, and it’s what has saved my life again and again. Through this pursuit of understanding myself when so little of the world around me made sense, I found my identity surprisingly young.

How my family’s Mormon values led them to react to my identity will shape the rest of my life.

Things started going downhill long before the summer of eighth grade, but it was one of the first in a series of cataclysmic occurrences that changed everything in my life. Back then I was still identifying as female, my birth sex, and I came out to my mother as liking girls (and though that was true, the greatest appeal to that particular sexuality was a cultural ticket to be more masculine in my dress and nature and have it easily explained).

Initially she took the news fairly well but, as all things between us, it was a slow erosion. By the middle of eighth grade I was sent packing to live with my father in Utah, threats of foster care and institutionalization hot on my heels. She learned to love only parts of me, and, following in her footsteps, I started to do the same. Even today I’m still working on loving EVERY piece of myself.

I lasted in Utah barely a year there before my father turned against me as well, the continuous derision of not being able to fit either of my parent’s molds for their “daughter” holding true still. With my mother it was mostly my sexuality, and with my father it was still, somehow, not being the instant, undamaged success he thought I should be in everything I did.

I liked girls so I had to be good at basketball, right? Right?

My year away had been just long enough for my mother to think that things could change—and, foolishly, overridden with shame and self-hatred, I hoped the same.

What followed was a year of denial so consuming that I refused to even acknowledge that I was smothering myself to death. I went cold, disconnected, going through the motions of church, makeup, dresses, and being a “good daughter.” The perfect automaton that the world seemed to want me to be.

All it took was a year, though, and during that year I met a transguy who was well into his own transition. This was over five years ago—before tumblr and the wave of coverage in the media about transgender identity even being a thing, let alone transitioning from female to male. Finally armed with the knowledge that what I was feeling had a name, I was able for the first time to make out a light in the fog covering my own identity, the core of who I am.

What I saw there gave me a reason to want to keep living.

And for me it really was a “come out or kill myself” situation. I knew I could not be happy if I couldn’t be who I was, and so, already knowing things would get worse but not caring a lick, I came out for a second time to my family.

That was sophomore year of high school. I was still in many ways a naive little punk that couldn’t see the full ramifications of my decisions, but I didn’t care and to this day do not regret a single moment of it. Come junior year I was removed from my mother and stepfather’s house. Though there was not enough physical evidence to charge either of them with abuse both myself and school officials knew things had escalated to the point it was no longer safe for me to stay with them.

I spent months sleeping on a few distant relative’s basement couches and eventually ended up back with my father, but even then, I was classified as homeless.

Youth homelessness: A minor/young adult caught in a situation over which they have zero to limited effect where their housing is nonexistent or volatile—where even their basic needs are not taken care of and any advanced needs are entirely ignored.

While this isn’t the “official definition” of youth homelessness, it’s my definition.

As someone who has experienced it and been asked by numerous people and organizations to share that experience, I feel it’s my right to decide how I want to define it, don’t you?

Circling back to the topic at hand—what does religion mean to me? How has it affected my life as a queer-identifying individual? What you have here is the briefest of summaries about what I’ve been through, less than even a snapshot really, yet you can already see the harm my family’s faith has done to me. You, dear readers, can understand a bit about why there was a time when I wasn’t just nonreligious so much as I was anti-religious.

So my religion? Nowadays my faith is in humanity. I believe in the power of people. That, with that energy they can be kind, generous, and understanding. Yes, I know that the same power to effect change on a local and global level can be used to hurt, use, and abuse, but I have faith that at the end of the day, there is more good in the world than bad. When all totaled up and weighed before the principalities of virtuous and evil, the scale tips heavily to the former, leaving the latter lightened with barely a feather’s drop.

Someday soon I know there will be more understanding than apathy or disdainful disinterest.

My hope is such that one day I’ll even be able to find the same decency and goodness I find in others…within myself.

Photo via flickr user Loren Kerns