Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Stuart Matis: A Friend, An Example

At the end of February 2000, I received a phone call from a long time childhood friend, Eric Webb.   His call was unexpected.  I had not talked to him in a very long time.   I was now living in Indiana, thousands of miles away from where we grew up together in Sunnyvale, California.  

His voice was somber as he broke the news to me.  Stuart was dead.   I took the phone and ran outside the house into the cold winter air.   WHAT?  He calmly explained to me the news that Stuart had taken his own life.   He had driven to the Los Altos Stake Center, pinned a “Do Not Resuscitate” sign to his chest and shot himself.   I was thunderstruck. My knees buckled out from under me and I stumbled to the ground.   WHY?   Eric offered only three words: “He was gay.”  I was stunned.   I had no idea.    

I stayed on the ground in my front yard.   I was bawling.   The tears and the shock watered the frozen grass around me. My world changed that day, although I had no idea by how much it would eventually change.   I called Stuart’s parents, but I was so filled with grief that I did not know what to say.  I wanted to offer comfort, I wanted to say I’m sorry, I wanted to let them know how much I respected and admired Stuart, but I just blubbered.   His parents were the ones who ended up comforting me.   Little did I know that I would find myself in their shoes just two years later when my own daughter would die at the tender age of six.

Up until the moment of his death, I held all of the stereotypical images of gays that I grew up with in the 70s and 80s.   I thought that gays dressed flamboyantly going out of their way to make a statement with outlandish clothes and outrageous displays of affection.   Those displays played into my views that gays were promiscuous and sexual deviants.    Those gays that weren’t trying to be as outlandish were then men who were effeminate, weak, with high pitched voices and odd physical mannerisms.    And yes, I believed that being gay made them more disposed to be pedophiles.   To my shame, I held all of those views.    

Stuart’s death made me confront all of those stereotypes.   Stuart was not flamboyant.   He was not outlandish.   He was not effeminate.  He was not promiscuous.  He was not a pedophile. Most certainly Stuart was never weak.   In short, Stuart was NONE of the stereotypes that I held.   He was a devout Latter Day Saint. He had a testimony.  He was as clean cut as they come. He was a leader.  He was one of those kids that did everything right.  He was popular at school and a leader there as well.   He went on to serve a mission in Italy, graduate from BYU and land a job at one of the big six consulting firms right out of college.   He was an accomplished professional.  I viewed him as an example of righteousness personified.          

His death stirred a lot of introspection.   I asked myself.   Now that I knew that Stuart was gay, would I allow my sons to be in a scout troop led by him?  The answer was yes.   Would I entrust my children to be raised by Stuart?  The answer was yes.   The simple fact was that Stuart was one of those guys in whom I felt I could trust my life.  My stereotypes about gays crumbled.   I felt ashamed of how I talked about gays for so many years.  

I grew up in the Sunnyvale 4th Ward in the Santa Clara Stake in California.   That ward and stake now no longer exist.   Stuart and I were in that same ward.   His mother was my seminary teacher.   His father was my Bishop and my YM leader. I revered them both.   Stuart and I went to the same High School although I was a year ahead of him.   He left for a mission to Italy, I left for a mission to France.   He went to BYU and I went to Stanford.  Our contact essentially ended then.  

For those who do not know Stuart it is hard to explain how amazing he was.   I was never part of his close circle of friends, which was made up of an amazing group of guys and girls that were leaders at the school.   But he always welcomed me.  He was always kind to me.   I could go on and on with positive adjectives about Stuart, but so many others have already outlined the greatness of his character.  Instead, I’ll share a more endearing part of who he was.  In our youth, many of us used to tease Stuart about how fast he spoke.   Boy, Stuart could pack more words into one minute than anyone else I knew and that was without even trying.  We would joke about how many words per minute he spoke and sometimes told him that he needed a speed limit.       

I’ll just share two brief memories of Stuart that impacted me directly.  

During my time as youth, I was fortunate enough to go to EFY at BYU twice.   The first time I went, I was 15 years old.   There was a girl that I liked, but didn’t really know what to do or say.   I was really awkward socially.   It was obvious to my friends, especially to guys from my ward, that I liked her.  They teased me pushing me to hold her hand or put my arm around her.   Stuart was the one who defended me.  These were guys who were typically in Stuart’s circle of friends but he defended me to them.   Told them to leave me alone and told me to ignore them.   I never forgot his kindness. 

Two years later, we were back at EFY at BYU.  I was in a group that included Stuart.  It was the last day of EFY and the many different groups were headed off to testimony meeting.   I got back to my dorm late and my group had already left for our testimony meeting location. I couldn’t get into the dorm, so I was unable to get changed into Sunday clothes for testimony meeting.  Apparently my dorm leader was upset that I was missing testimony meeting.  I have no idea what else he said or thought, but I do know this.   Stuart defended me.  

 I was very devout and the thought of missing testimony meeting filled me with guilt.   But I was in jeans and had arrived very late to the testimony meeting.  I stayed outside in the hallway, listening from there, but not going in because I felt inappropriately dressed. No one from my group knew I was there.  I finally decided to bear my testimony. During a pause, I walked into the room in my jeans walked up to the podium and bore my testimony.  I then walked straight back out to the hallway.   My group leader followed me out to the hallway.   He apologized to me.  He told me that he was upset with me because he thought that I was avoiding testimony meeting.   But he also told me that Stuart had stood up for me.  Stuart had told him that not only would I show up, but that I would bear my testimony as well.  He apologized again for thinking poorly of me and thanked me for proving him wrong and Stuart right.  He then had me join the group even though I was dressed in jeans.   I thanked Stuart for sticking up for me..again.           

Knowing that as a youth, I held many of the vicious and incorrect stereotypes of gays common to my time, to this day, I still wonder if I said anything or did anything that hurt him.  It kills me to think that I may have been one of those who contributed to the pain he suffered that ultimately led to his decision to take his life.  

My views about gays were wrong.  It was not Stuart’s death that changed my mind about that.  It was his life, it was who he was. It was his personal character that changed my mind.   Unfortunately, it took his death to make me challenge those long held beliefs.   I wish I had known Stuart was gay.  Those beliefs would have been challenged much sooner.   I wish I had known he was gay.  He would have found in me one more friend to defend him from the taunts he suffered even as he defended me when we were kids.   But I didn’t, neither did many others that knew him in his youth.  For years he suffered alone, silently, in pain and I had no idea of his own personal torment.     

Let me be clear about something.  Stuart never acted on his homosexuality and he tried for decades to overcome it.  He was stuck between two worlds: the world of a devout Latter Saint and the world of someone who is gay.   Those worlds were incompatible.  He could not be fully one or the other in good conscience and he was both.  That incongruity tore him apart.  So he decided to return to God whom he knew would not reject him.  

These are a few of the words he wrote to his family the day before he died    

I was convinced that my desire to change my identity was a divinely inspired desire. As it turns out, God never intended that I become straight. I had engaged my mind in a false dilemma: Either one is gay or one is Christian. As I believed that I was a Christian, I believed that I could never be gay

As you know, I have been suicidal for years, and in the past year, I have been vocal about my feelings. After a year of expressing my grief to you, I've realized that there is nothing that any of you could do to attenuate my pain. ... I simply could not live another day choking on my own feelings of inferiority.

Throughout my life, despite all the pain that I endured, I always trusted in God and hoped for the best. This hope fed my desire to live. However, I now have become convinced that my anxieties will never be resolved. ... As I am incapable of resolving them myself, I have decided to end them in the only way I know will work. I must remove the chains of my mortality

Perhaps my death ... might become the catalyst for much good. I'm sure that you will now be strengthened in your resolve to teach the members and the leaders regarding the true nature of homosexuality. My life was actually killed many years ago. Your actions might help to save many young people's lives.”

 I am convinced that his life and his death has saved lives.  He has changed minds and opened hearts.   His death helped raise awareness for thousands.  He changed me personally.  His life and his death humbled me, making me realize how wrong I could be about some things.  His death made me realize how important it is to take the time to listen and understand our fellow man rather than to rush in on my moral high horse to judge and condemn.   How many tragedies can we avoid if we take the time to understand? How many more people who are suffering terribly in silence would be willing to speak up and seek help or support  about whatever it is that is tormenting them if they knew they would not be condemned and rejected?  How many lives would be saved if we as a people in general were more Christlike, loving ALL his children and extending his love and mercy?

I am eternally grateful to Stuart for his courage and for his life and for his example.   I am grateful to be counted as one who knew him, maybe not as well as others, but he impacted my life nonetheless.  

That same dynamic that worked in Stuart’s life worked in the lives of some of the 158 people that I studied who left the church.   Many of them did not speak up for years for fear of rejection and condemnation by fellow members of the church.   They suffered alone silently.  They were afraid of losing all that they loved, their spouses, their children, their friends, their religion.  Some of them went into deep depression and others were suicidal.  Some of them, when they did speak out, found their worst fears confirmed.   “Coming out” as someone who has serious doubts in the church after being devout for many years shares a lot of dynamics with the gay person who “comes out.”   Both are terrified of doing it.   For some their plight led to depression and even to consider suicide.   Let us live our lives so that our friends and loved ones can feel safe coming to us with their fears and struggles, no matter how challenging they might be.  Let us live so we might never have to say, “I wish I had known.”  

~ Bruce Fey


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