Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Gay Mormon teen chronicles nightmare of conversion therapy in “Saving Alex”

Alex Cooper today
Alex Cooper today

Alex Cooper today

Alex Cooper was fifteen years old when she came out to her parents as gay. Up to that point, much about her California childhood was typical. The youngest of six children in a staunch Mormon family, she had gotten into some trouble with her parents, but until she identified herself as a lesbian, they allowed her to continue living at home.

Not after that. “They flipped out,” she says now, six years and many tears later. “I mean, I expected them to flip out, but my dad couldn’t look at me, and my mom couldn’t even talk to me. I just felt I was such a huge disappointment. They cried a lot.”

Then they kicked her out of the house with no money and no plan.

That was, as she explains in her new memoir Saving Alex, releasing tomorrow from HarperOne, when her real nightmare began.

Alex’s parents stayed in contact through another family in the ward, and communicated that they were going to pick her up and take her to visit her grandparents in St. George, Utah, for a while until things calmed down. Fair enough, she thought. She went along with this and was surprised to find that when they arrived in St. George, they pulled up at another house entirely and her parents announced that this was where Alex was going to be staying.

“They were total strangers,” Alex says. “My parents just signed over custody to them in front of me. And I knew that my parents had never met these people before.”

This was to be “conversion therapy,” an ad hoc program intended to turn Alex into a heterosexual through shame and punishment. She had to surrender her phone and was forbidden to have contact with her family or anyone in the outside world. At first she thought she was going to be able to run away with little difficulty, but to no avail.

Instead, she was subjected to routine punishments like “the wall,” where she was forced to stand at attention for hours in full view of the other members of the household “so that I could concentrate and focus on what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to fix it.”

While she stood there, her captors would hurl insults at her like “dyke” and tell her she would never fit into the Plan of Salvation as a gay person.

SavingAlex cover-3D“They had this weird idea of the Plan of Salvation, which wasn’t what I learned growing up,” says Alex. (And which is not accepted Mormon belief.) “They said that if I didn’t get into the Celestial Kingdom with my family that a copy of me would be made so my parents wouldn’t have to suffer. My parents would just have a copy of me. I would be forgotten.”

Feeling despair and having no way out, Alex did the only thing she could think of: on her sixteenth birthday, as a present to herself, she attempted suicide. “I thought if I didn’t die, they would have to take me to the hospital,” she explains. “But they didn’t.” In fact, the Sialeses didn’t even tell Alex’s parents about the suicide attempt until much later.

They did take her to see the local Mormon bishop, who did not call the authorities. “He told me that he knew that they had a certain way of disciplining their kids, and it seemed to work.” Alex was held against her will for ten months.

Today, she is telling her story in the hopes that other people will understand that conversion therapy is incredibly damaging. “I want parents to read this, hopefully parents of LGBTQ youth, to understand that conversion therapy is not a helpful thing,” she says.

As for her own parents, they have had a 180-degree turnaround. “My parents are awesome right now,” she says. “They have apologized, and feel really guilty about it. They are super-supportive. They just want to help. I live with my girlfriend and we Facetime my parents probably twice a week.”

Now she lives in Portland and works at nonprofit where a lot of LGBT kids in crisis seek help.

“Luckily the resources in Portland for LGBT kids are a lot better than the resources in St. George, Utah. Some of these kids are able to find a place where they can be accepted and find jobs and housing.”

As for religion, Alex is taking a break right now. “I’ve completely removed myself from contact with the Mormon Church,” she says. “I had a lot of hope that the Church was progressing, but with [the LGBT policy change in November], I just want nothing to do with the Church. I know how unsafe it is for LGBTQ youth in Mormonism, but especially now since November. It’s not going to get any better, which is terrifying.”

These sentiments are echoed by her co-author and friend, Joanna Brooks, who helped Alex to write and publish her story. “I think it’s important to be clear that as a community, we are not making it better for LGBTQ youth who are LDS,” says Brooks. “There are very real costs to not making it better. And no Mormon youth is disposable. That’s not what the Plan of Salvation is about. No one should be subjected to what Alex was subjected to because they don’t fit our mold.”

“So it’s time for a difficult conversation within Mormonism, and it’s nerve-racking and brave for Alex to be willing to offer her story. I’ve told her, too, that as she tells her story she’s going to meet so many people along the way who will stand with her and will learn from her and benefit from her courage.”

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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • It’s unfortunate that some Mormon parents would treat their children this way. One of the best things I learned from reading Carol Lynn Pearson’s book “Goodbye, I Love You” is that many Mormon parents do not do this, but continue to love their children regardless of their sexual orientation.

  • Does the book go into what became of that place where she lives while attempting suicide? What a tragic story. It gets me so angry when I hear about mormon, or should I say “moron” parents who reject their LGBT children. How interesting that the book that was written for OUR day never once speaks on this topic. Instead, we get these elderly white guys who live in closed upscale communities who are supposed to declare the word of God on this topic.Jesus Christ Himself never once denounced gay people but he sure had a lot to say about religious leaders.

  • Hugs to you both, Alex and Joanna. If your book persuades even one LGBT person that killing themselves not a valid solution to living in a hell empowered by the homophobia of the religious and secular societies in which they live in, it will be a grand success. If your book persuades even one friend or family member of an LGBT person that love is stronger than the millenia-old sickness of homophobia, it will be a grand success.

    Your’s is a chilling tale, Alex. Priestcraft and ignorance are a toxic combination under the best of circumstances and you found yourself the victim of both. Priestcraft and ignorance are not of Christ but are symptoms of this toxic, bitter telestial world in which we live. Church leaders can say and claim whatever they like but until they turn from priestcraft and ignorance they are simply working out the folly of the gentiles that Christ warns us of in 3 Nephi. Consider forgiving those who have hurt you, for so did our Lord.

  • Despite what the LDS Church teaches, and many members say, the root thinking behind “reparative therapy” is still strong in Mormon culture and policy. The LDS Church, the leaders, and members can’t have it both ways. The cannot profess love, acceptance, and support while instituting policies aiming to break up same sex marriages, persecute children of same sex marriages, and drive out gay members. I’d like to see language like this disappear:

    Love the sinner, hate the sin.
    Pray away the gay.
    Gay lifestyle.
    Homosexuality has always been a sin; LDS doctrine never changes.
    The Bible says homosexuality is a sin.
    Homosexuals are sinners.
    You need to see a psychotherapist to overcome your same sex urges.
    The latest Handbook changes are doctrinal and were revealed to the Apostles.
    Homosexual marriage undermines the family and plan of salvation.
    Gays struggle with their condition.
    Gays are tempted by same sex attraction.
    And so on….

  • Apropos of nothing…. if I squint, that photo of Alex looks like Mona Lisa. And now I can’t get that Nat King Cole song out my head.

  • Elder Anderson: I agree with the second part of your comment generally, but do you think that

    (a) being forced to stand against a wall for hours by one’s family “so that I could concentrate and focus on what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do to fix it” and
    (b) being called a “dyke” by one’s family

    are authentic examples of “reparative therapy”?

    I don’t. They are certainly abusive, but please don’t exaggerate by calling them “reparative therapy”.

  • What you describe isn’t *any* kind of therapy, but apparently Alex’s parents were paying to have her subjected to it. Since the whole idea is bogus, you can do anything and call it reparative therapy.

    As far as conversion/reparative therapy, there is no such thing in my view. The concept is flawed from the start, is without any scientific validity, and subjecting anyone to it for any reason is abuse, pure and simple. That’s why more and more states are passing laws making it illegal.

  • Ah yes part of the gold standard of the church dealing with child abuse. Parents who kick their kids out for being gay or send them off to horrific abuse all church endorsed. It gets a thumbs up. I’d love to watch that press conference as it gets awkwardly skirted around. ‘Well it’s a sin so we have to make them want to kill themselves, we really have to push them that far so that there’s no hope left. That’s how it works, it’s at that point when they’re living on the streets or so thoroughly abused by these pray the gay away places that they’ll either kill themselves or turn to drugs. Oh what’s that? Not be gay anymore? Right! Yeah that too, that’s the point, right I forgot about that. Yeah we want that one too. ahem most of all but the other options are good too. That way our dead gay kid can be our test of faith and everyone can feel sorry for us. Thank you no further questions’.

  • Really? So you claim the LDS doesn’t teach that homosexuality is “curable” and is an affliction that can be overcome through prayer and persistence? The LDS Church repudiates conversion therapy for gay members? The LDS Church doesn’t encourage gay men to marry women?

  • The depths of evil that this church has sunk to, is frightening.
    This sect is supposed to be THE ONLY TRUE church of Jesus Christ, yet shames his name with this cruel anti lgbt policy.
    How can any decent human being treat fellow humans in this depraved and barbaric manner?
    This witch hunt by Mormon leaders which targets decent and law abiding lgbt members is the work of deeply disturbed minds who are fanatically obsessed with human sexuality.
    How can any parent reject and banish their own child from the family home, because of their unhealthy and dangerous obsession with sexuality, and endanger a human being who is unconditionally loved by god.
    Mormon leaders and compliant members who advocate and inflict this cruelty on our fellow humans, are the very enemies of Christ and his universal message of unjudgmental love.
    The Mormon church has engineered a vicious policy which is deliberately designed to stigmatise, demonise and alienate decent law abiding sections of our society.

  • I saw on Youtube today where Elder Bednar said there were no gay people in the church because basically no one is born gay but it is a trial that God gave them. The response struck me as a smug reply from the man.

  • It’s interesting that Elder Bednar said that and also that it is widely believed in Mormon culture. But the truth is, if you believe that, then you’re basically saying God gave you something “bad” (which it’s not). But the Mormon religion also teaches that all good things come from God and all bad things come from Satan. So Elder Bednar basically contradicted his own church’s doctrine.

  • I think it is sad that any parent, regardless of professed religious affiliation, but especially those with religious values, would ‘kick out’ a child from the home. My #LDS faith teaches me that to ‘kick out’, to descriminate or to ignore others based on SSA is the wrong decision.

  • I wish the LDS Church did teach that. But where is it written? What general authority has ever condemned kicking out a child for being SSA? They’ve used ambiguous statements like “we should love them,” but they’ve never specifically condemned or counseled against kicking kids out of homes. Some parents actually think that is love. Tough love. Why aren’t the brethren addressing that? This needs to stop!

  • Kyle: The LDS Church DOES teach that. Here’s one. “Just as we do not or should not shun family members with whom we disagree, we cannot and should not shun those who look or think or act differently than we do,” he said. “We demonstrate our best humanity when we show love and kindness to all of God’s children. We demonstrate our discipleship when we refuse strident tones, when we refuse derisive labels, and when we enter the public square seeking fair outcomes through understanding and mutual respect.” – M Russell Ballard

  • @kyle
    As Frank says, the LDS Church does teach acceptance of gay members and even devotes a website to the topic. I think there are deep-rooted messages that trump the Church’s teachings and create ambivalence.

    Family and persistence of family in eternity is at the core of LDS theology. Families are under severe social pressure to project an image of cohesion and perfection. Despite what the Church teaches about acceptance, some families see having a gay child as an aberration and source of shame.

    The gay child won’t be able to have an “acceptable” marriage and family won’t join the eternal family. If a child is gay, doesn’t attend church, doesn’t go on a mission, doesn’t make Eagle Scout, or returns early from a mission, etc., there will be whisperings in the ward.

    A family’s standing in the neighborhood and callings in the Church may suffer. Maybe persecuting a gay child says “Well, we did all we could. At least the *rest* of us are still good Mormons.”

  • Let me comment on the church’s website dedicated to the LGBT community. They put it up a few years ago and then did nothing with it and never updated it until they received backlash on the policy(oops I mean revelation). Then presto, they did a quick update. The church has a loud and consistent message against LGBT people and every once in awhile they whisper don’t be mean to your gay children. Clearly that message does not get through. The church knows they are committing hateful acts against this group and are afraid of a lawsuit. They want to keep their money.

  • Elder Anderson:

    Well said. Families DO PUT themselves under the severe pressure that you describe. This is unfortunate. Especially, in the context of this discussion, that they “see having a gay child as an aberration and source of shame”. It should never, I think, be seen in this way.

    You are correct, unfortunately, that there are a variety of reasons that members of the Church are looked down by a few other members as being ‘less than’. But I think it true as well that sometimes the perception of being looked down on is only that, a perception.

  • Standing facing a wall and being called a dyke is mild when compared to what many gay men, LDS and others, report regarding their experience with reparative therapy; having electrodes connected to their genitals while being shown homosexual & heterosexual erotic photos flashed on a screen. If they are aroused by the homoerotic photos their genitals are subjected to electric shocks. The whole idea behind reparative therapy is to convince the person that their natural sexual attraction is bad and drive them to change. It really messes people up and is why it is condemned by every legitimate major organization of counseling and therapy professionals. Fortunately some states are waking up and passing laws against the practice of reparative therapy.

  • Thank you Alex and Joanna for making sure this story is told! Alex, I’m glad to hear your parents have realized how lucky to have you as their daughter!

  • Makes me angry, too! I just finished book and they did not end up pursuing a criminal case against the family “treating” her, partly because Alex wanted to try and live a regular life and she already went through so much court stuff just to do that. Plus the family was denying a lot (of course). But the mom of the family that she was sent to live with did lose her job at the residential treatment facility. At the end of the book, Alex says she didn’t know if they’re taking more kids in,but they could be.

  • You are confusing two different groups when referring to Mormons and the closed upscale communities

  • Wow. Awesome, Joanna. Way to take one situation and paint the entire church as being abusive and cruel towards homosexuals. Alex’s story is the extreme exception, and not the rule and you know it.

    What could you possibly gain from publishing a book like this, except to add more fuel to the anti-Mormon fire? There are plenty of gays and lesbians in the church who are active, attend the temple, and live very normal lives. You don’t hear about them because they don’t feel the need to draw attention to themselves, but they are out there.

  • I hope no one reading this article seriously thinks the LDS church would condone something like this. This isn’t therapy, it’s illegal imprisonment and psychological torture. I’m Mormon and I’m completely appalled- and the leaders of the church would be too. What happened to this young woman is heartbreaking and wrong and in no way shape or form endorsed or promoted by the church.

  • You know that Elder Oaks was President of BYU when BYU provided electroshock therapy to gay students, right? Or that President Monson had ties to Evergreen (now NorthStar), another gay torture chamber?

  • “Way to take on situation and paint the entire church as being abusive and cruel.” Your church just put out a policy last year in November that made homosexual relationships a one-way ticket to Apostacy, and then banned any kid with a gay parent from baptism and just about every other mormon rite of passage until they turn eighteen. And then you have Bednar saying things like, “there are no homosexuals in the church.” If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, honey, you have one, big, giant, ugly duck.

  • Gay conversion therapy? Not one person in the history of mankind has changed his or her place on the LGBT spectrum. This crude spectacle of child abuse is shocking and should find a response in the criminal justice system. The parents, the Bishop, and the family that abuse this young girl should have spend time in prison.