By Timothy Rawles; photos by Ryan Bakerink
Singer Justin Utley stands tall. His physique is what you notice first, made up of what appears to be solid muscle; it’s rugged, intimidating, and gorgeous. The second thing you notice is his smile. It brightens up his face and is infectious to those around him. It’s a glimpse of the happiness he was born with but so many tried to erase.
Justin is openly gay and a survivor of conversion therapy. His latest single “American Nightmare,” from the album Scars allows listeners to feel his inner struggles as a gay man who endured the practice, a psychological technique any respected mental health official would say is more damaging than good.
Expressing his harrowing life’s journey through music, the singer-songwriter has literally put his heart on his sleeve. “American Nightmare” is the fourth release from his latest album and it might be the most gut-wrenching one to date.
“This album, and everything that I had experienced while writing it and recording it, from getting married to actually getting a divorce through recording the last part of it, was just unsurmountable emotions,” says the singer.
He was taking a chance on this project too, abandoning his comfort zone to emerge as a kind of re-built version of himself, a new model he says. “It was something a little riskier and less happy-go-lucky; rawer, more emotionally available to the listener. Just to go down some dark roads that I hadn’t gone down before.”
The younger Justin had been down a dark road indeed, it was disguised as a recovery program. Conversion therapy hopes to brainwash its subjects into thinking they are sick or spiritually malnourished. Psychologists have sworn against it, and 19 states have now outlawed it, including Justin’s home state of Utah. That’s good for future generations, but not for those who have already been forced into it.
Justin says when he was in therapy the leaders convinced him that he was molested as a kid and that’s where he learned to be attracted to the same sex. There is a line in “American Nightmare” that says ‘I keep buying what they sell,’ which he explains is an expression of just how desperately he wanted to believe he could be cured.
“I wanted to buy what they were selling me and I took the medication for PTSD and all these anti-depressants and anxiety medications that I didn’t need,” Justin recalls. “But because of this lie, I bought into it as hard as I could. I just tried to believe this was going to fix me. They said that I’m not gay, that I was suffering from same-sex attraction disorder, that it’s a result of the abuse, that I was only behaving like a homosexual, but I was actually not one myself and that’s the lie they were selling me.”
Wanting to be an equal part of his family, a part of his culture and most importantly right with God, Justin was desperate to rid himself of these feelings. “It was presented by my ecclesiastical leader, my religious leaders that if you do not do this you will not see your family in the afterlife, and so really what other option is there?”
In grade school, Justin had crushes on boys, although he didn’t fully understand what that meant until a few years later. “I went on a Mormon mission where I was knocking on people’s doors for a couple of years trying to convert people. I realized pretty hardcore-ly that I was gay at that point and so when I came off of my Mormon mission that’s when I started therapy. That was in my mid-twenties.”
At first, finding people who shared similar experiences was comforting. Just understanding that he wasn’t alone gave him hope. After a while, those thoughts began to wan, and slowly an alarm went off; it was a wake-up call.
“But then I realized in this group, these guys had been coming to this therapy for years and I thought to myself, I don’t want to be one of these guys that’s hooking up at rest stops just to get off, and you know they’re just considered a sex addict as a part of their recovery. That’s not a life I want.”
Love would happen not soon after he left, but even that would end tragically. Justin was still in the closet when he met a man he describes as Superman. They dated for about six months before he died of a heart attack as a result of suicide.
“We were both not out,” Justin says, overcome with emotion. “We were still trying to figure out who we were, what we were together, and so I didn’t even go to the funeral. I was incredibly distraught. I went back to my bishop to reconcile what had happened. The bishop told me that God took him away because I wasn’t supposed to be in a homosexual relationship, now I’ve just made it harder on myself. I am now responsible for the sins we committed because I knew better as one of God’s chosen.”
After surviving a suicide attempt himself and coming out to his accepting mother, Justin left Utah. He finally believed he wasn’t broken and took off across the country to start a life in music. But even in the Big Apple, a city that would seem to be diverse and accepting, Justin was again asked to be someone else.
“I didn’t really talk about my journey much because when I got to New York I talked to a music agent who was managing some of my gigs and career stuff and he had said not to talk about my past, not to talk about ex-gay therapy or Mormonism or any of the crazy polygamy stuff with my extended family,” Justin says he was just another hopeless musician. “I kind of lost my way as a musician and an artist because I felt silenced, in a way. And then I just became like one of the other million guys in New York with a guitar on their back trying to make someone listen to them.”
It wasn’t until 2010 while doing a gig in one of New York’s well-known nightclubs that Justin finally freed himself on stage. At a bar called The Bitter End, Justin sang one of his songs called “Goodbye, Goodbye,” about a girl he once dated while in ex-gay therapy. At the end of the song, he changed some lyrics and sang “Bitch, I’m gay.”
“The crowd laughed,” Justin says. “And the owner of it came down and he’s just like, ‘wait a minute you played here a bunch of times and you never talked about what that song was about, what was that?’ I told him, and he asked, ‘why aren’t you talking about this?’ I said the music agent told me not to and he said ‘don’t listen to that guy. Everyone is going to leave tonight knowing who you are now.’”
Based on that advice Justin released “Stand for Something” and began touring the country, doing Pride gigs and fundraisers.
His latest album Scars is probably his most profound when it comes to honesty. Which brings us back to “American Nightmare,” only a part of his emotional playlist.
“It’s a pretty raw album and the journey’s pretty raw, I feel like this album is giving me the opportunity to open the flood gates and really put it out there in some different genres in different ways, I just want to stretch myself as an artist and not completely shy away from my roots.”
For years Justin has been giving people the person they want him to be. He has tried to make everyone happy and in doing so lost himself to a world full of vultures that pick at the remains of his tattered spirit. “American Nightmare,” is a song that kills a few of those scavengers just enough for him and all of us to see into his soul, one that was pure from the very beginning.
“Deep down I’ve always wanted to matter,” Justin says. “I think at this point in my career, I’ve gotten to that place where I want to be a change agent which is still part of that feeling like I matter, you know that I’m making some sort of difference.”
Justin Utley’s “American Nightmare” is available on Apple Music, Spotify, and all digital platforms, along with the entire Scars album.