Devotion and despair: The lonely struggle of a gay Mormon

06 Harry Fisher

(CNN)On the night of February 12, 2016, Harry Fisher spent a few hours online: He scrolled through Facebook, checked his email. He searched Google Maps for nearby canyons and read through the lesson plan for a Sunday school class he would not live to teach.

Fisher navigated to, the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and clicked on a page he knew well: the church-issued "Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual."
From there, Fisher visited the webpage of the assigned lesson plan for the upcoming Sunday; it was titled "I Know in Whom I Have Trusted." The last section of the lesson suggested asking class members to analyze a chapter from the Book of Mormon and report on how the scriptural characters responded to discouragement.
    Perhaps Fisher was looking for answers himself.
    The 28-year-old Brigham Young University student was under stress in his final semester at school. He had fallen behind in his classes and failed a job screening that his mother said he had placed high hopes in. And in his last month of life, he publicly outed himself as gay on Facebook.
    The Sunday school manual's answers were meant to be a model for Latter-day Saints to follow. Some suggested answers included: "Read the scriptures," "Trust in the Lord and look to Him for support" and "Engage in mighty prayer."
    This was the last webpage Harry Fisher ever visited.
    A search and rescue team used Fisher's internet history to locate his body high above Israel Canyon, a scenic hiking destination south of Salt Lake City, Utah. That history also paints a portrait of a man in his last days, struggling to reconcile his faith with his sexual identity.
    Harry Fisher as a boy.
    Death in a digital era lacks a sense of finality. Social media profiles remain, frozen in time. Personal videos can be replayed, and for a moment, the dead are resurrected in pixelated form.
    For Fisher's father, Paul Fisher, Harry's internet search history and Facebook profile provide pieces of a puzzle -- an incomplete jigsaw of Harry's last thoughts and final feelings.
    Paul Fisher shared his son's final Facebook posts, corresponding comments from friends, and a 30-day internet search history with CNN in an effort to shed light on who Harry was, what he loved, and what he believed. Harry's mother, Claire, also spoke with CNN.
    The Fishers, who are divorced, agree that being gay was a source of loneliness for their son. They disagree to what extent the Mormon church played a role in fostering feelings of isolation.
    Claire Fisher is a Mormon; Paul Fisher, though married to Claire for a decade, never joined the church.
    But this much is clear: Their son's struggle to reconcile his faith with his identity was not his alone. Mormon leaders have been laboring to create a welcoming atmosphere for all members -- gay or not -- even as they hold fast to doctrines that regard homosexual acts as sinful.
    On February 12, Harry Fisher closed his computer, leaving one last virtual fingerprint on Paul Fisher said that sometime in the hours that followed, Harry left his apartment -- taking his Bible and Book of Mormon, but leaving behind an empty gun case and a typed note.
    With his Brigham Young University hoodie in his passenger seat, Fisher drove his 1995 Toyota 4Runner south from Draper to a final destination resonant with religious overtones: Israel Canyon.
    Fisher left his scriptures in the passenger seat, bookmarked on Matthew 16:25: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
    A search team found Fisher's body 11 days later, lying atop the canyon overlook with a gun at his side and three of his Mormon church membership cards in his pocket, Paul Fisher said.
    Israel Canyon, where Harry Fisher's body was found.

    Harry's identity

    Raised in the church, Mormonism constituted a foundational aspect of Fisher's identity -- but it was not his only identifier. He was a committed son and brother, a beloved bridge in a family split by divorce. He was a sci-fi junkie who avidly followed the Avengers, the Japanese anime show "Naruto Shippuden" and Star Wars.
    He watched Portuguese language tutorials online, listened to Dan Carlin's podcast "Hardcore History," and reverenced Dostoyevsky. He ignored emails about overdue books at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library. He supported Bernie Sanders. He was also gay.
    Fisher publicly identified himself as gay only after he left his job with Ancestry, a website for genealogical research staffed by many fellow Mormons and headquartered in Lehi, Utah. In a January Facebook post, he disclosed how being both a member of the LDS Church and gay had been particularly difficult.
    "Many of my friends and family already know this, but for those who don't, let me let you know I'm gay. It hasn't been a secret, but I wasn't completely public with it before now because I worried that while I was at it might hurt my opportunities for promotion. Some of my closest friends at Ancestry were pretty openly anti-gay, so while I don't know if any of my bosses were, and don't think they were, it seemed safer not to risk finding out."
    Harry Fisher's came out as gay on Facebook last January.
    Ancestry spokesman Brandon Borrman said the company was "deeply saddened" upon hearing of Fisher's death.
    "We were also horrified when we read of the concerns he had while he worked here. We believe this is (and strive for it to be) a place where everyone feels welcome and can live their lives without any worry of self-identification, retribution or discomfort. That said, we do not operate in a cultural vacuum. ... We hope that we can honor Harry's memory by continuing to improve ourselves as a company and by fighting for equality in the communities where we operate."
    Fisher's post went on to share that "being gay in Utah while being a Latter-Day Saint can be hard. ... It seems like every couple of Sundays I have to go out to my car to keep from crying at church."
    He then thanked those who had said "positive things about gay people, even if you didn't know you were talking about me. It really means a lot."
    That post gave Paul Fisher relief. "I thought, 'He's come out, he's OK.