Growing up as a devout fundamentalist Mormon in a polygamous family, Mariah Brown struggled to come to terms with her sexuality. Terrified of being gay, the Sister Wives star says she became a self-proclaimed homophobe.
“It was something I was so scared of in myself,” she says in the latest issue of PEOPLE. “If you were to ask me my biggest fear, it would have been to be gay.”
As a child in Utah, Brown says her church’s stance on homosexuality was always made clear to her.
“I remember being in church, and they talked about how being gay was bad,” she recalls. “But none of that came from my parents. It was from church and the people I was around. One bishop told me gay people were selfish.”
To cope, Mariah did her best to bury her feelings.
“People say they try to ‘pray away the gay,’ but I wouldn’t even let myself think the word,” she says. “I just wouldn’t even go there.”
Eventually, the inner turmoil took a toll and Mariah suffered from sleepless nights and panic attacks. It wasn’t until she started touring colleges as a high school senior that a chance encounter changed her life. While visiting a school, one of Mariah’s guides was gay and shared his story with her.
“That was sort of the start of realizing this is okay,” she says. “My whole life I tried to shut it out. I was finally letting myself be real. I had this image I had to uphold, and when I started letting that go, I realized I didn’t have to be the person I thought I had to be.”
- For more on Mariah’s story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
Just before Thanksgiving, Mariah told her family, including her father, Kody, biological mother, Meri, and her mothers through polygamy, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, that she was gay.
“I’m so proud of her for having the strength,” says Meri.
While their church may not approve of homosexuality, the Brown family is standing by their daughter.
“No matter what our religion says, what my heart says is that she is our daughter and she is a person and she has a right to her truth,” says Robyn.
Sister Wives airs Sundays (8 p.m. ET) on TLC.