By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Gay rights activists in Utah are calling for action to halt bullying in the conservative state after the suicide of a small-town gay Mormon teenager who friends and activists said was tormented at school because of his sexual orientation.
Utah has the nation's 12th highest rate of youth suicide, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, two teens a day are treated in Utah emergency rooms after suicide attempts, state health department data from 2008 to 2010 showed.
The recent teen suicide in the small town of Mountain Green has roiled Utah's gay community and drawn national media attention mostly because of its timing - the suicide came just as gay rights activists were trying to help youth in the area overcome bullying so as to prevent such tragedies.
An obituary said Jack Denton Reese, 17, died April 22, and the Morgan County sheriff's office confirmed it responded to the suicide of a juvenile at his mother's home in their town, about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City.
Alex Smith, who described himself as Reese's boyfriend, said the teen suffered severe physical and verbal bullying by classmates. Smith shared Reese's story during an April 23 panel discussion of gay bullying in nearby Ogden, saying they had discussed the problem but Reese had not sought help.
"I want to be a voice for people that can't speak, or who are afraid to speak," said Smith, who like Reese was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah, where about 60 percent of the population is Mormon.
"I want to be that voice that says, you know, it's OK to be gay," said Smith, who said he met Reese last autumn at the high school they attended.
At the time he spoke out, Smith said he did not know that Reese had already taken his life. He said Reese complained of being shoved around and subjected to anti-gay slurs.
It is not clear how many of Utah's youth suicides occur in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community because there is no mechanism for collecting the data, according to Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.
"What we know is that in line with national statistics, LGBT youth are at already at an increased risk for suicide and attempted suicide," she said.
In another high-profile suicide involving a gay youth, an 18-year-old Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey to New York, in a case that drew national attention to issues of gay-bashing and bullying.
Through an attorney, Reese's parents declined comment on the circumstances of their son's death, saying they considered it a private family matter.
"The death of their son is tragic and they are still going through the grieving process," the lawyer's statement said.
PUSH FOR CHANGE
Reese's death has jump-started a push for change by activists who had already been working to combat bullying in the community. The panel discussion Smith attended followed a screening of the Southern Poverty Law Center film "Bullied."
Days after Reese's death, about 200 people gathered for a candlelight vigil at an Ogden park to honor him and struggling gay youth. Speakers called for school and community leaders, particularly leaders of the Mormon church, to address bullying and foster more cultural and community acceptance of gay youth.
Marian Edmonds, director of Ogden's OUTreach center for LGBT youth, said she believed there was a "culture of silence and non-acceptance" of homosexuality in her part of the state, citing in part the conservative religious views of many residents. She said Reese had come once to her center with Smith, but had not sought support and never returned.
A spokesman for the Mormon church said faith leaders have spoken out against bullying in the past, and that Mormons should act with compassion. He did not directly address Reese's death.
"We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of cruelty or attempts to mock others because of their differences, and doctrinal positions should never be used as justification for unkindness," church spokesman Michael Purdy said.
San Francisco State University researcher Caitlin Ryan, who studies suicide and other health risks for LGBT teens, said the struggles of LGBT youth weren't unique to Mormon-dominated Utah.
"Silence, family rejection and religious condemnation are risk factors for suicide and other serious health risks for LGBT young people. Many conservative religions have beliefs that range from negative to condemning," she said.
Mormonism teaches that gay sex is a sin, and for decades church leaders denounced homosexuality as unnatural, although attitudes have shifted in the past two decades. The church now says the origins of sexual orientation are not fully understood.
Church leaders now differentiate between feelings and actions and limit disciplinary actions or excommunication to those who engage in homosexual relationships.
Since the 1990s, the church has publicly backed campaigns to block legalized gay marriage. But it has also endorsed Utah laws to protect LGBT people from job and housing discrimination.
In 2010, after a spate of suicides by young gay men nationwide, church leaders condemned any acts of cruelty against people who were different and urged church members to speak out against bullying or intimidation "including unkindness towards those who are attracted to others of the same sex."
Yet gay activists and their allies say it remained difficult for gay Mormon youth to find acceptance.
"The barriers for a youth entrenched in a family that has strict religious overtones are greater, because the tendency is for the religion to trump human needs," Larabee said.
Among the gay youth Smith said he counts as friends, many have support. Others, he said, are struggling and "feel like they're outcasts, feel rejected and like they are bullied."
Some classes at Smith's high school have addressed bullying, but not as it relates to the LGBT community, Smith said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Barbara Goldberg and)