When David Archuleta, the former “American Idol” finalist who won the hearts of the nation with his adorable boy next door looks and velvety pop vocals, publicly came out to the world as LGBTQIA+ earlier this year, he had no idea it would have the impact it's had, or go as viral as it did.
“I was shocked because I thought, 'OK, this is probably gonna be a bigger deal, maybe I'll get 30,000 or 40,000 likes, if that,' because I know this is a controversial topic and a lot of people have assumed things about me and tried to label me in the past,” he told TODAY. “But it exploded. I didn't realize all the media outlets were going to talk about it, but the way that they did, it was so respectful.”
The 30-year old Nashville resident says he wasn’t sure if the LGBTQ community would embrace the intersectionality of religion in his coming out post because of the way “they’ve been treated” in the past. In addition to those apprehensions, he was nervous his religious following would be equally offended regarding his revelation that he’s attracted to other men.
“A lot of conservative Christians follow what I do because that's my own upbringing and I'm still involved in that community,” he said. “What are they gonna think of me now? But everyone on both sides… I was just amazed at how supportive and loving everyone was generally, for the most part, and for me, it was just a huge tender mercy.”
In an interview with TODAY, Archuleta discussed his experience reconciling his sexuality with his strict Mormon upbringing, and shared what (or more like who) urged him to tell the world this year that he is part of the LGBTQ community.
‘This could be the most important day of your life'
Born in Miami, Archuleta moved to Salt Lake City with his family when he was 6 years old. From there, he spent much of his childhood home-schooled, and was active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church.
“I always felt like my feelings were different, starting from a younger age and I just thought maybe I need time to figure this out and I'll be able to understand this better or work it out,” he said. “I didn't really want to be honest with myself because I was always embarrassed, and really, I was ashamed to feel that way. Just growing up in a religious household, the idea was, ‘Oh this isn't OK. It's not right.”
"I must have done something wrong and I got to a point where I was feeling so embarrassed and so guilty.”
In 2008, Archuleta rose to prominence on the seventh season of “American Idol,” placing second behind David Cook. Regardless of losing, Archuleta was able to carry over his success into a burgeoning pop career, releasing his debut album a few months later, It premiered at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning album “Fearless.” His first single, “Crush,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right behind Rihanna’s single “Disturbia.”
In the company of stars like Rihanna and Swift, Archuleta was doing something some “American Idol” contestants had struggled to do: parlay his popularity on the reality show into radio plays and album sales. Despite this success, in 2012, he decided to take a break from performing and embark on a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Chile.
“In terms of my feelings and my attractions, I thought if I'm there and I'm not focusing on anything else but serving God, then this must be the solution to fixing why I feel the way I feel,” he said. “Because I'm really trying hard to fix this. I really love God and I really want to be close to him and do what he asks me and so if he didn't want me to have feelings for guys, I didn't want to have them.”
However during his mission, Archuleta discovered that even with this seemingly total focus on God and work in his name, he was still developing feelings for other men.
“I'm not wanting these feelings. I'm not trying to have them and I'm not even focusing on them and they're still coming whether I want them to or not,” he said. “I'm not focusing on guys and how attractive they are and anything but it doesn't get rid of, just walk by someone, or just look at them and all of a sudden you just feel that boom. And so I was just like, 'I'm broken, I must have done something wrong' and I got to a point where I was feeling so embarrassed and so guilty.”
Unable to deal with these feelings alone anymore, Archuleta decided to tell someone about his attractions to other men. The first person he turned to was the mission president, a church leader based in Chile.
“I guess I was expecting to be sent home from my mission, or be counseled on how to overcome these feelings or how to fix it,” Archuleta said. “But my mission president, he didn't tell me I needed to fix it. He didn't tell me how to change. He didn't try to correct me. He just said, ‘This could be the most important day of your life, Elder Archuleta.’”
‘These are hyper-polarized times’
This kind of acceptance in the church has seemingly grown in recent years; however the church’s stance has left some confused.
According to NBC News, students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said they had "whiplash" after the school confirmed a ban on same-sex relationships last year, just weeks after it changed its code of conduct to appear to permit them. The move appeared to be a reversal after the private university, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, updated its code of conduct for students to remove a clause prohibiting "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings."
And just last week, also at BYU in Provo, a respected church official, Elder Jeffrey Holland, urged faculty and staff to do their part to ensure the university “stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the Church that sponsors it.”
Advocates and activists have denounced the rhetoric used during Elder Holland’s viral speech, specifically when he referenced “musket fire” to be used by defenders of the faith and its doctrine.
“These are hyper-polarized times,” Troy Williams, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Utah, told TODAY via email. “We have been on the receiving end of violence many times in our history. Words matter. Especially the words of ecclesiastical leaders. We must throw down the metaphors of war and reach out to love and uplift the downtrodden. That is the message that we learned about Jesus when we were in Sunday School.”
Archuleta, who may be one of the most famous Mormons, is trying to reframe how people reconcile religion and LGBTQ identity. From his conversations with his mission president, Archuleta came out to his family, who accepted him, while also personally struggling with labeling himself, going back and forth between gay and bisexual.
But it was this year when he popped up on everyone’s social media feeds with a sincere and simple Instagram post, sharing a secret that had been a source of guilt and shame for him. In the minutes before he hit send, he had a deeply personal conversation with God, who he said urged him to come out publicly.
“When I had that prayer, God just said, ‘David, you know, I trust you, right?'"
“I was literally outside doing my yard work, pulling weeds,” he explained. “I kind of went through a faith crisis for a month, when I was in the process of breaking up with this girl I was in a relationship with. But I felt so disconnected from everything. My anxiety had gotten so bad. I was like, 'I don't even remember how it feels to be close to God or to even have feelings for anybody.' Or, I don't even know how I feel about myself right now.”
So he prayed.
“When I had that prayer, God just said, ‘David, you know I trust you, right? I want you to post about what you're going through right now.’ And it was just so clear what I needed to say. I knew exactly what I needed to say but I feel uncomfortable saying it because I like to keep to myself, especially with this kind of stuff. But I just knew I had to.”
Archuleta's fan base spans multiple generations, and his coming out became a huge moment. Some trolls commented that they already assumed this about him, while others — outside and inside the Mormon community — lauded his courage.
“Having a courageous, beloved, public member of our religious community come out as LGBTQIA+ is fostering empathy and bridging gaps of understanding,” Charlie Bird, a mascot at BYU who came out as gay in 2019 and whom Archuleta has been inspired by, told TODAY via email. “There is a strong ‘us vs. them’ mentality when it comes to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. When David came out publicly, he challenged that narrative for many people and helped them realize ways they can offer love and support. I’ve heard a lot of people having conversations they’d never had before.”
Bird, who wrote the book “Without the Mask: Coming Out and Coming Into God's Light,” added, “Overall the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m so glad there is more visibility in this space.”
‘They’re not alone’
Currently, Archuleta is working on new music, preparing for a tour that has been postponed twice due to the pandemic, and a children’s book, “My Little Prayer,” that is based on one of his religious songs.
He is currently "getting to know guys” and he is using his platform to be an advocate. In the wake of Elder Holland’s speech at BYU this week, Archuleta shared video on Instagram urging his followers to find the positive in the speech and to continue having “hard conversations” to “understand better where we are coming from.”
On what he hopes people learn from his experience coming out privately and publicly over the course of a decade, Archuleta stresses, above all else, that no one is alone.
“Especially if they're currently really involved in their church or their faith and feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happens if I speak out? If I'm honest, what's gonna happen?’" he said. "I just want them to know they're not alone. I had so many direct messages from people who are in the same situation. So hey, it's OK. Even if it’s not clear how — I know I’m still figuring it out — you can make room for both.”
Spoken like a true idol.
CORRECTION (Aug. 31, 2021, 10:30 ET): A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information about Archuleta's dating life.