Alyson Deussen is the mother of a gay son, Stockton, who came out at age 13 and died by suicide in 2016 at age 17. Alyson serves her community by supporting LGBT teens and young adults coming out, who may be estranged from their family, as well as focusing on suicide prevention. She and her husband created a scholarship fund to memorialize their son and support LGBT young adults in their educations. They are also the founders of Peculiar, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering families to show unconditional love to their LGBT children, and empowering LGBT youth and young adults to live authentically.
Could you please start by sharing your experience with your son’s sexual orientation?
My son Stockton came out as gay at age 13 and in seventh grade. He wrote a letter to his sister who then shared it with us. We were not prepared with any kind of a decent response; we were probably not great with our reaction. In a lot of ways, we just weren’t fully believing that it was really true. It sounds like forever ago, in 2012, but there really weren’t a lot of resources then. And certainly, there wasn’t as much discussion as there is now. We didn’t know many young kids who were coming out. So it seemed a little bit fresh, and maybe he was just young and a little confused at the time.
He was going into the teenage phase and he was in counseling at that time. We were told even by the therapist, “It’s a phase, kids don’t know that they’re gay.” We just kind of played it off. We weren’t going to say that he wasn’t, but we weren’t going to jump on board and say he was.
I started to look into things and see what I could find. There was very little. Mormons Building Bridges was the group I found. I found another mom talking about her teenage son who had come out. I connected with her through Facebook and she’s the one who said, “You really ought to try Affirmation.” I think he was 14, about a year after he had come out, when we went to the Affirmation conference in Salt Lake City. We met maybe six other kids, teenagers, participating in the youth track. They were kids from all over the U.S. who had come with their parents, trying to find and get support.
That was the first connector we had with the LDS LGBT space, with other LDS families that had kids who were LGBT, whether adult kids, young adults, or teenagers.
What was the benefit of the support groups? How did this change things for Stockton and your family?
The thing that was really great about Affirmation was he finally found his people – people who understood him. When we went to church, it felt a little foreign to him. But when he was among the parents of other LGBT people, it was what I envision a ward could be like – all the parents were talking to the young adults and the kids, asking them about their interests. That wasn’t necessarily the experience we had in our own ward and neighborhood. Being LGBT was a newer topic and our church culture made it uncomfortable to talk about. Back then, we made a lot of assumptions that if someone identified as gay, they were maybe “acting on it,” and those things don’t come together well in a church environment. There were a lot of misunderstandings and assumptions based on things that we just didn’t know.
For him, there was a big monkey on his back in a lot of ways, even though he had support from us, support from his siblings, and he had these new friends. But they didn’t live next door, or the next city over. They lived one or two states away, so those connections were not what any teenager looks for and wants. Parents are good but friends are better. We were in a conservative area so it made things a little difficult.
I was definitely operating under a fear mentality. I immediately started to play things out in my head, which wasn’t good. “What am I going to do when he turns 16, what if he wants to date boys? What are we going to do? What if he wants to marry a boy, and be with a boy?” You heard stories about other family members not wanting them around them or their kids, or families not allowing their partner to be in family pictures. I started to play all those scenarios out in my head, and it overwhelmed me. I couldn’t control any of them but I was super fearful of what that would look like.
When I did get to those things, when he told me he kissed a boy for the first time – the way he was so excited and happy about it, the fears went away because I saw that it was so real. It was like any other teenager would be, having their first kiss. I had seen the sadness and loneliness that he’d felt, and he got a light when he was with other people who understood him.
I hope that everyone’s reaction to a teen or young adult coming out is a lot different now than it would have been ten years ago.
I hate to even say this, but sometimes I look at parents upset about a child coming out and think, “You guys, everything is going to be okay. Enjoy what you have and don’t get too worked up.” I was, to some degree, worked up over things I probably shouldn’t have been. Now in hindsight, I think, “Why did I let that get in the way?” It’s a silly example, and I’ll probably die when I say it, but we were freaked out when Stockton started smoking pot. Freaked out. I was dying. I know now he was probably doing that as a way to cope with things, which, granted, is not the healthiest thing, and I’ll stand by that. However, if I had to go back, I’d probably be better at not overreacting. It scared me to death.
You’re going to laugh – Stockton and I had one of the biggest fights over buying a pair of red jeans. I was adamant that he was not going to have those red jeans. I look back now and go, “What were you thinking?” Red jeans. It was me. It was all me. That was a little extreme.
If you were a ministering sister and had someone come to you and say, “My kid just came out as gay, what do I do?” What would you tell them?
I used to say, by my own admission, if my son had cancer, I would easily sit down with my ministering sisters and say, “I need help, I’m struggling.” But there was no way I was going to say, “My son just came out as gay and I don’t know what I’m doing or how to do this.” I was mortified about what everybody else thought. That’s my bad. I know now I wouldn’t be that way. But seven years ago, I was certainly in that space. It wasn’t because I didn’t know LGBT people – I did, and I had great relationships. But that dynamic changes when it’s now in your home.
If I had someone ask that question, the very first thing I would say is, “Tell them you love them and thank them for trusting you with such personal information. Then ask them if they’re suicidal, or have been suicidal.” The next thing is to ask their child to tell them more. Give them that space to share what they’re feeling, ask what they need to be supported, what that looks like. What resources can we find together to help you be healthy and support you? Those would be the very first things I would say.
I find that a lot of parents who think that their kids haven’t been suicidal are shocked when they ask that question, that their kids have said that that’s been on their radar. I don’t have a real statistic, but I would be willing to say that over 75% of the kids I talk to have been in that place one time or another.
It’s really tough, and I think parents are really surprised, because even when their kids are coming out – when it’s “easy” for them to come out and the parents react positively – the kid seems to be doing well, having come out. But I think that they’ve found that there have been some dark moments or ongoing moments where internally they are still battling that demon, that struggle of how it’s going to fit.
One of the things that was very triggering for Stockton was the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. When he turned 12, it said something to the effect of, “Same-sex attraction, if you’re experiencing it, it’s a sin and you need to talk to your Bishop.” To him, it was like, “What have I done that’s sinful?” Immediately, he felt labeled, like he had done something wrong when in reality it was purely just the way he was made but hadn’t done anything.
I’ve heard multiple times that people think they’re somehow condoning behaviors just by associating with LGBT people. “How can I allow it around me and be accepting of it?” Truth be told, from my perspective – if we knew a lot of what people were doing, not just LGBT kids, it would be that same scenario. You just don’t see it. I don’t know how people have time for that, personally. It takes a lot of brain space. And maybe because I’ve lost a lot of brain cells that I just don’t have room.
I use the motto: I’d rather be excluded for the people I include, as opposed to excluding those and be included. That’s my motto. I’d rather be inclusive. I don’t think that anyone else’s choices – that’s what free agency is all about – are going to reflect any degree on my love and support for them.
Stockton passed away in June 2016. How did you choose an education scholarship as the way to memorialize him?
It came about organically. We started with Christmas. Because I had money set aside for Stockton, so we found LGBT kids that we thought might need an extra Christmas boost that year. I was on the board of the Homeless Youth Shelter here in Utah – at that time, 50% of homeless youth in Utah (we had about 5000 homeless youth in the state) were LGBT and LDS. They were homeless for multiple reasons – some because their parents had rejected them, some left because it was a hostile environment, or they were kicked out. We found that was a great way to honor Stockton during a very difficult holiday.
When Stockton passed, he had been working and had saved up some money. We felt it was important to donate his money to something that was meaningful to him. Because I knew of a lot of youth that were in crisis at Christmas, I felt like I had more to give. What I would have done for Stockton in a lot of ways. So it came naturally for us. We would have done that for Stockton if he had been here.
It kept evolving. When Stockton would have been 18, it was natural that we would have been helping him with college. I also wanted his two sisters to have a way to carry on his legacy that would be meaningful to them. It could help them work through their grief and carry on that memory. It was also a round-about way for them to gain a bit more perspective and compassion for others.
We have a lot of stories from the scholarship recipients. One young man named Jackson shared that the weekend of Stockton’s funeral, he had plans to take his own life. In his scholarship application, he shared that. I just got a postcard from Jackson today in California – he’s at Berkeley, and said, “I couldn’t have done this without that scholarship.” It’s given my kids the opportunity to see real people and the impact that Stockton has had.
I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for me and my kids to be outside ourselves. Not just in the LGBT space, but in a lot of scenarios. I felt that would give them some purpose and things that they can do to help make change.
How do you choose the recipients?
Stockton’s sisters choose, for the most part. There’s an application process to answer a few questions and share their goals. It asks how they are going to “Stand for Stockton” among their peers and in their sphere of influence – what does that look like to them.
Because it is so new, I think the first year, we had only four applicants. This year, we had thirty. I do have one donor who has contributed a significant amount of money that asked to review some of the applicants. I know a lot of these kids but not all of them, so I want it to be unbiased.
Can you please introduce Peculiar?
My husband and I started a nonprofit called Peculiar – it’s an organization that is working with Harvard Medical School to develop an educational platform through better support and education to faith leaders, therapists, educators, and families to improve engagement with, and love and support for LGBT youth and the community. The research and education is truly a prevention model that will create a better beginning so outcomes like depression and suicide become significantly reduced.
The mission and vision statement is “To inspire and empower parents and families to unconditionally love and embrace their LGBTQ+ children. We see a world where there is no prejudice or bias against the LGBTQ+ community and all of our precious youth are treated with respect, dignity, and equality.”
We currently have a program called Allies and Appetizers, where we invite people to gather and hear a speaker share their personal and vulnerable story. Our desire to help people understand the power of a story and help people understand the value and benefit of being an ally.
How have you maintained your relationship with the Church through all of these experiences?
I haven’t very well. Up until Covid, my husband and I traveled quite a bit. In a lot of ways, I didn’t have to go because we were out of town. I had been struggling. Shortly after Stockton died, we moved into a new ward. It was really hard to go to church because we had to repeat everything we were going through. Ultimately, we shared with our new leaders and neighbors about the situation. The ward is awesome, and it’s been very refreshing.
In our previous area, the stake president was adamant that we weren’t going to anything outside the books. When I tried to get him to do some support for parents with LGBT kids: nope. When I tried to get him to talk about it, and educate the young men and young women leaders: no, we’re not going to do that. It was all very pushed back.
As an entire church, we still don’t support our LGBT kids in a way that’s inclusive, in my perspective. If I were asked, I would tell a parent to take their child to an affirming church where they can realize that their relationship with the Savior is their relationship with the Savior. If you can do that while staying in the LDS faith, more power to you, but does your kid really feel that? My son related God to an LDS God – if these people don’t love me, then God must not love me. He did not have that bigger picture.
My son got to a point where he wanted no religion – he didn’t want any spirituality. Religion can be what it is, but even spirituality – he wanted nothing to do with it. Shame on me, because I honestly put all of my eggs in my church basket and I shouldn’t have. Maybe it was lazy, but I did okay with my first two. They learned all the right things in church and it worked out pretty darn good, right? I was thinking, “Well, I’ll just keep all my eggs in that basket.” But really, as I was putting them in, other people were taking them out and dropping them, as it went with my son.
That’s a really interesting analogy – it’s a good mental picture.
I was in there saying, “Hey guys, I know this is awkward. I’ll sit down with you and let’s talk to the young men leaders. You can ask me any questions on how to handle this.” I asked the bishop to ask Stockton to play his guitar in sacrament meeting to keep him involved. He was a swimmer – could he teach the young men how to do flip turns for Young Men one night? I was trying to do all these things to help keep my son active, and I felt like all they were doing was throwing it out the back door. A lot of it was fear-based, but there was no desire to sit down and talk about what it could look like to keep Stockton in the Church.
I can see how that would make things difficult to maintain a relationship with the Church.
It’s been tough. Our current bishopric has received Affirmation information and they’ve been very responsive. We have a very young ward, young bishopric, a lot of transplants working in Salt Lake. It’s a totally different vibe when talking about LGBT. There have been some issues in Relief Society when it’s been brought up negatively, but the leaders have been nothing but awesome.
I’ve been more active since Covid than I’d been in a while. We do a Sunday School every week online with LGBT Young Adults. We do a spiritual gathering with them every other week, now in person with masks. We used to do a dinner once a month but not right now because of Covid.
I suggested, “I’ll come back to church if you call me to be a missionary in the homeless shelter in Salt Lake. I’ll go there on Sundays.” I feel like in a lot of ways, it’s constraining – the way I want to live and the way things actually are. It’s very superficial for me. It’s not very deep. Some of that can be from losing Stockton. I feel that in a lot of relationships too, even in my family.
How did you get involved with the homeless work?
Because of the LGBT piece of it. There were so many LGBT kids being kicked out, that I connected in. I felt strongly that these kids needed to be supported. I wanted to be part of that change and part of that conversation about how that was going to look. That statistic has dropped significantly. You won’t see 50% anymore. The last time I asked, it was below 30%. There are changes being made. People are seeing that rejection is not the way to handle this.
Since your work has been primarily with youth and young adults, can you share some thoughts specifically for them?
If a friend comes out to them, the best thing anyone can say is, “How can I support you? What does that look like?” I would ask them to check on their emotional and mental wellbeing. That’s key. We talk about “being your brother’s keeper” but our climate is so volatile that so many people are masking what they truly are experiencing. That can be LGBT or others. I think we need to get good at this.
It’s a key to suicide prevention – being more open and honest and vocal about where we’re at. You don’t have to say, “Are you thinking of suicide?” When I’m with LGBT youth or young adults, I have them give me a scale of one to ten, ten being it’s a really bad day and they’re thinking things aren’t looking so good. I just can say, “What number are you today?” I can get a barometer. “Tell me more about that – you’re a 5 today, what does that look like for you?” So then I have an idea. Maybe a 5 is a really good day for them. “What made it a good day?” And they can tell you. Or, “What made it awful?” We have a friend, whenever we have dinner with him, he says, “What’s your high and low today?”
We’re so hooked on the highs – “What was good about today? Give me all your positives.” Right? Especially with younger kids and even young adults. We always want them to think positively. But we need to give them permission to just say, “Ya know, today was kind of a crummy day.” And they also need to hear us say when we have a crummy day. It normalizes that. Not every day is rainbows and unicorns. Life can be hard. My husband came in today and had been up all night – it’s one of his grief moments and he’s been a mess all day. There’s not a thing I can do, but he’ll say it.
We’re four years into this, and some days, Stockton’s passing will hit you like it was yesterday. And you have to just acknowledge it, and we have to get good at helping our kids acknowledge those things too. We push at these kids when they post, “Oh, it’s an awful, terrible day.” Part of you wants to be empathetic and part of you thinks, “Yep, those days come.” That’s kind of the sadness of social media, that we don’t talk about the hard things so people think they’re the only one experiencing something. Life rollercoasters do come, so what tools are you going to put in your toolbox to help you when they show up.
And young adults who are LGBT?
My advice to them always is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially if they’ve grown up in the Church. There are very good and valuable lessons that they’ve learned that will always be good and valuable. Find a spirituality that works for them, that is healthy, that brings them connection and joy, and affirms to them that they are loved A lot of kids do not believe and are agnostic, so I encourage them to find a higher power or something that is a connector for them.
Good is still really good, whether you’re in the LDS faith, or any other faith, or not going to church anywhere at all. There’s still goodness in the things that we learned growing up, and there’s goodness in things we can continue to do to make a connection with other people and with our Creator. You don’t have to have all the answers.
At A Glance
Location: North Salt Lake, Utah
Martital History: Married
Occupation: Retired Operations/Risk Management Director, non-profit fundraising (volunteer)
Education: BS, Health Care Admin & Gerontology
Language Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Because I Have Been Given Much
Website: thepeculiar.org & standingforstockton.com
Interview Produced By: Trina Caudle