LEHI, Utah (Deseret News) — Ed Smart didn’t want to be gay.
The father of kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart spent most of his life conflicted over who he felt he was inside and who he thought his family, friends and church wanted him to be.
“I didn’t want to identify myself that way. I didn’t want to be that person. I stayed in the closet. I suppressed that. Out of shame, out of hate for myself, I just didn’t want that to be me,” he said at an LGBTQ conference Saturday.
Smart, 64, said that not only didn’t he want to be gay, but he was “homophobic” about it. He said he has since come to believe he was born gay. “It wasn’t something to learn because I did not want to learn it,” he said.
It wasn’t until he renounced his belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he no longer sees a place for himself, that he said he could acknowledge his sexual orientation.
“That change is what enabled me to be able to come forward and accept myself for who I was,” he said.
Smart, 64, was a featured speaker at the Encircle Summit, a conference offering workshops on LGBTQ issues and celebrity entertainment for adults, youth, parents, families and educators. More than 1,500 people attended the event held at Adobe and Podium in Lehi.
Stephanie Larsen, a Brigham Young University graduate and Provo resident, started Encircle in February 2017 in an effort to combat Utah’s high suicide rate among teens and young adults. It now has resource centers in Provo, Salt Lake City and St. George to provide support, therapy and a sense of community for LGBTQ people, parents, families and others.
Smart came into the public eye after his then-14-year-old daughter was abducted from their Federal Heights home in Salt Lake City in 2002. He remained in the spotlight as family spokesman throughout her nine months in captivity, during the trial of her kidnappers and as an advocate for missing children.
In his first public speech since revealing his sexual orientation in August, Smart talked candidly about his journey in a presentation titled “Coming Out. Coming Clean.”
“I thought Elizabeth’s ordeal was very difficult, but this one is more difficult,” he said, adding that’s because it not only affected Elizabeth but his family, extended family and friends.
Smart said he first realized there was something different about himself when his family moved from California to Utah when he was 12. He a hard time adjusting and people weren’t as accepting, he said. He didn’t necessarily like girls, but he wanted to be like other guys and tried to fit in.
The perceptions others might have about him, he said, were a big reason he kept his feelings in check.
“Why in the world would I want to have something in my life that would create conflict, that would be problematic, that would not make me acceptable to others?” he asked.
Smart said he always wanted to be the “good boy.”
“I wanted to do what is right, and what was right was something that was ingrained in me. I wanted be faithful and do all those things that would enable me to be in a place that was the best place that I could be, whether it was being the best person I could be here on Earth or whether it was being in the best place in the hereafter,” he said.
Smart said it was a year ago this month during a discussion about the church with his wife, Lois, that she asked him if he was gay. He said he had no intention of coming out that day and doesn’t know when he would have. That he “finally” told her, “Yes, this is me,” was a big relief, he said. The couple is now divorced.
“As broken as I had felt for years and years trying to deal with this struggle inside of me I found that no, I’m not broken. The situation is I’m gay and I’m trying to be straight. I’m trying to be the straightest I possibly can be,” he said.
That conflict, he said, pushed him to the point where he wondered if life was worth living.
Smart, a father of six children, said he talked to church leaders and a therapist who told him he wasn’t gay. But though he immersed himself in church work as a form of self-therapy, he knew otherwise.
“There are two people who know that I am gay. One of them is me and the other one is God,” he said, later adding that while he no longer believes in the Latter-day Saint faith, he believes in God and Jesus Christ. “I believe God has accepted me for who I am and I got to accept myself for who I am.”
Smart said he made early morning phone calls to each of his children the day after he came out to his wife, telling them he was gay and getting a divorce. Their reactions, he said, ranged from, “What did you say?” to “If that’s the way you are, that’s the way you are.”
While he agonized over telling his mother that he is gay, his wife beat him to it, “which blew me away,” Smart said. (His father died in 2006.) After a “very, very hard discussion for me,” he said his mother told him that she loves him and wants him to be happy.
As Elizabeth came home after her monthslong abduction, Smart said he couldn’t deny that he had been blessed.
“How often do you get to have a miracle happen in your life that is truly a miracle? To get to the point that I have at this point, accepting myself for who I am, really has been another miracle because my whole life was built on what I previously believed,” he said.
Smart said he found reason and fulfillment in his life with his wife and children. But that didn’t change the internal struggle that made him “sick inside” and that he could no longer deal with.
“We have to live our lives so that we can live with ourselves,” Smart said.
People, he said, thought he was a good guy before he came out, and that he’s still a good guy.
“Does my being gay mean that I’m going to be less of a person, that I’m not going to be that good person that I’ve tried to be all my life? No,” Smart said. “Yes, some things have changed in me, but I’m at this point where I feel like I can be completely honest with myself, and I can be honest with others about myself.”