by Noelle Johansen, photos by Candy Chiu
John Dehlin is an anomaly. He towers over most at more than six feet tall, but his voice, recognized by thousands from the “Mormon Stories” podcast, is unimposing. He maintains a quiet existence completing his doctorate in psychology as an intern for Counseling and Psychological Services at Utah State. His research on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, however, speaks volumes on a hushed topic.
Multiple factors guided Dehlin into the career he pursues today. While working in Washington at Microsoft Corp., he started teaching seminary — an education program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He delved into Church doctrine and history and was unsettled to learn things he’d never heard in more than three decades of Church membership. “I was shocked that I was 35 and just learning these things for the first time,” he said. However, his role as an instructor was not to reveal controversial subjects to his students, but to spiritually uplift them, he said. “I wasn’t comfortable ignoring the difficult things because then I felt like I would’ve been complicit in the deception. So, after a year and a half I had to step down from the position.”
Around the same time, the cousin of Margi, Dehlin’s wife, came out as gay and was contemplating suicide. Margi’s cousin is alive and well today, but the news shook her. “It broke my heart because he’s just someone that wouldn’t hurt anyone and is just so plugged into relieving the suffering of other people,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine him ever wanting to inflict harm on himself. It’s just not his way, so it really pointed to a level of despair that I would just not have fathomed.” For Dehlin, this was one more catalyst for action. “The faith crisis, plus all these concerns about LGBT Mormons just made me feel like I needed to be a part of the solution,” he said. He left his job, moved to Cache Valley and enrolled in the graduate program at Utah State University.
In 2005, Dehlin created “Mormon Stories” for his master’s thesis. The podcast features interviews with prominent Mormon and non-Mormon figures and is “dedicated to exploring, celebrating and challenging Mormon culture in constructive ways,” according to mormonstories.org. It’s a discussion space for issues such as “feminism, racism, homosexuality, Church history problems,” Dehlin said. “I picked issues that were hard-hitting and were important and basically that people were struggling with … all the topics you couldn’t discuss at Church.” Dehlin described a stifled need to openly discuss these issues, a need he saw through the podcast listeners. “As soon as I started ‘Mormon Stories’ podcast, people started coming out of the woodworks, all over the world really, to just want to meet me. … Listeners would be willing to meet me at the airport, let me stay in their homes, they would even say, ‘I’ll drive you to whatever appointments you have if I can just talk to you in between your appointments.’ I just saw through the podcasts this incredible pent-up need for support.”
Margi observed the effect these interactions had on Dehlin. “I think anytime you connect with suffering with people, it’s this sort of hallowed experience where you connect,” she said. “After a time I think it started to kind of wear John down.” She said it was difficult for him to help others while he was experiencing many of the same things for which they sought help and advice. “His studies have allowed for him to get very practical and get more scientific and to maybe assuage some of that — not a burden, necessarily — but that feeling of maybe offering something that is more substantial in the way of help — real, practical help,” she said. By 2009, Dehlin corresponded with thousands of people. It was in part these unofficial counseling sessions that inspired Dehlin to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
Having established the first consistent Mormon-themed podcast to reach 100 episodes, it isn’t surprising that Dehlin continued in a similar direction for his doctoral research. “We surveyed 1,612 current and former Mormons who have experienced same-sex attraction, or LGBTQ Mormons,” Dehlin said of his dissertation. Through more than 200 multiple-choice and open-ended questions, participants all over the nation described their decisions “that led to either health and happiness or unhealth and sadness,” Dehlin said. The reach and results of his study broke ground in the world of psychology and LGBT issues. “The next-largest sample that I’m aware of in the literature exploring these issues had about 200 participants,” he said.
Of those surveyed, around 1,000 participants reported personal attempts to change their sexual orientation. The overwhelming majority were unsuccessful. “In any study you’re going to find kind of a bell curve of responses,” Dehlin said. “We only found one person that said that they were able to eliminate their same-sex attraction; that’s less than one percent. That almost looks like you’re cooking the books when you get such a low number, but literally one out of a thousand said they were able to eliminate their same-sex attraction through efforts.”
Another surprising finding for Dehlin was that 80 percent of change efforts were not clinical or psychological in nature. Instead, they were religious — through prayer, scripture study, fasting and counseling from religious leaders. “All the attention in the media and the legal arena has been about going to a psychologist to change your sexual orientation,” he observed. “What we found is that religious attempts to change your sexual orientation were far more common than psychotherapy and far more harmful. … Trying to ‘pray the gay away,’ as they say, is devastatingly harmful,” resulting in reduced quality of life, depression and even suicide.
USU business professor Ronda Callister met Dehlin when he was developing his podcast and has maintained contact throughout the research process. She said she is “ extremely impressed with the quality and depth and the potential impact” of Dehlin’s research and its implication that “trying to change people who identify as part of the LGBT community is an inappropriate direction to go, a damaging direction, that helping them adjust to their identity would be more successful than trying to have them change.”
After listening to hundreds of hours of Dehlin’s podcast, Ben Child, a senior from Michigan, knows Dehlin’s voice. “He wraps himself up in the humanity and emotion of things more than the philosophical,” Child said of Dehlin’s approach. “He’s been clear about his mission from the start, … creating spaces for people who think differently.” Child said Dehlin’s work is unparalleled in the Mormon world. “Regardless of what his personal standing is going to be in the Church, I feel like he loves people,” Child said. “He talks about how there is a lot of pain in the Church and he’s doing his best to help alleviate as much pain as he can.”
USU Mormon studies professor Philip Barlow also noted the importance of Dehlin’s research. “John’s position vis-à-vis the Church is not my position in terms of his private life and my private life,” he said. “The research itself … is very important.” He said the struggles with the Church and LGBT issues connect to something larger: “the problems with which Mormonism will have to grapple — like all peoples and institutions will — is how to decide what is permanent and what is transient in their religion. What is doctrinal and eternal, if you will, within Mormon faith and what is cultural and changeable.”
Dehlin sees change defining the future of Mormonism. “Religions either adapt and thrive or they die,” he said. “Why has Judaism survived? Because it’s adapted. Why has Catholicism survived? Because it has adapted, and Mormonism will survive because it is very good at adapting. We tend to think of Mormonism as being a church that never changes; that’s absolutely false. …. The Church is actually changing quite fast relative to its own pace in the past, and so I think it’s going to keep changing, and I see that as being a good thing.”