By: Steven Cuevas
Cary Crall was like the perfect Mormon kid: popular, good in school and active in his church.
“Yes, I mean in high school I was in church every single day except Saturday and sometimes even on Saturday as well,” says Crall who spoke via Skype from his home in Cambridge where he’s attending college.
Cary grew up in Temecula, a semi-rural town north of San Diego. His mom, Shari Crall, says Cary was also a deeply spiritual kid. The family can trace its bloodline to Hyrum Smith, the older brother of Church founder Joseph Smith. It seemed like a given; if he wanted too, Cary could grow up to be a church leader -- except for one thing.
“From when Cary was very little I thought he was probably gay,” says Shari.
“Yeah,” laughs Cary.
“My family was first alerted to the fact that something might be different with Cary by our computer Internet history when I was 13 years old,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the best way to start the conversation.”
“The main concern I had for him growing up was,” says Shari trying to hold back tears. “Was (thinking about) growing up in a religious tradition and kids who would kill themselves. So we needed to find a way for him to deal with the cognitive dissonance of his religion and his identity.”
Courtesy Cary Crall
Cary Crall as a young boy, far right, with his mother Shari (in back) and siblings.
So Cary’s parents took him to a Mormon counselor.
“It wasn’t my parent’s worst nightmare to have a gay son,” remembers Cary. “It was just something they knew nothing about and they felt they needed to get me professional help. Unfortunately some of that process was damaging.”
The counselor wanted to introduce “conversion” therapy, which proponents claim can make a person go “straight.” Cary refused to return after one visit. Shari Crall says her son continued his religious studies, even dated a few girls. In truth, he was still coming to terms with his sexual identity.
“I felt very good that he had a very strong relationship with God, heavenly Father, so I felt he had a spiritual foundation that would help him navigate (that),” says Shari.
In his late teens, Cary headed to South Carolina for his missionary service -- a tradition for young men in the Mormon Church. Shari Crall hoped it would be a healthy diversion from the issues her son was wrestling with.
“And he comes home from his mission and just, wham! Right into Prop. 8,” says Shari.
Cary returned home just as debate and protests were raging over Proposition 8, the law that would eventually ban gay marriage in California. The Mormon Church mobilized its membership to campaign for its passage. Shari Crall agreed to pitch in, doing some backroom data entry work for the campaign.
Cary says all the talk about Prop. 8 in church irritated him. But he didn’t make a big deal of it, thinking the measure would be defeated and gay marriage would stand.
Shari was conflicted over volunteering for the campaign. But she told herself the church needed her help. She says her Mormon ancestors had made much greater sacrifices. And besides, she reasoned, Cary’s sexuality still seemed an open question. He still wasn’t out.
That would change.
“Prop. 8 inspired me to be vocal, to come out of the closet,” says Cary.
After his mission, Cary enrolled at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City -- the college founded by the Mormon Church. After Prop. 8’s passage he wrote an impassioned editorial for the campus newspaper condemning the law.
Courtesy Cary Crall
Cary Crall is now studying medicine at Harvard.
It was a risky move. BYU has a strict code of ethics when it comes to church doctrine and sexuality. The editorial went viral. Then it was pulled from the BYU newspaper’s website. But Cary managed to stay out of trouble.
“(Prop 8) was a catalyst to say; I’m not doing any good sitting in the closet, going to church and feeling miserable. I need to have the authenticity to come out of the closet and be seen, and hopefully try and make change happen,” says Cary.
Cary Crall is now enrolled at Harvard med school. He’s also become an advocate for gay, lesbian and transgender youth.
Last year, he was awarded a scholarship for his work in the LGBT community. At his acceptance speech in San Francisco he thanked his mom Shari, accepting who he was. Now Shari Crall hopes the Mormon Church can do the same.
“This is truly illusion I know this, it’s like; well if the church knows Cary is gay, certainly they’ll change their policy,” she laughs. “I mean c’mon it’s Cary!”
The backlash over the Mormon Church’s multi-million dollar campaign to ban gay marriage in California led the church to re-affirm its message that gay people are welcome. But there are limits. You can’t date someone of the same sex -- and you would of course be barred from temple marriage, the crowning ordinance in the Mormon Church.
Cary Crall stopped attending services. But he’s hopeful he can one day find his place again. It’s his birthright, his mom tells him.
“I don’t feel like I should let the Mormon Church decide whether or not I’m good enough to be a part of it,” says Cary. “There is a place where you can just say; no, I belong. And my behavior and belief can follow.”
Shari Crall says she doesn’t worry about her son’s eternal salvation.
But she does worry that if the church fails to become a more welcoming place for gays and lesbians, it will lose many more of its best and brightest young disciples.
"A Church Divided" was reported in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.