Fostering Understanding for Queer Members

My brother had just returned from a diversity and inclusion panel where members of the queer community answered questions prepared anonymously by students. It was the first event of its kind held on a BYU campus and very well attended. Back in class, a fellow student posed the question,

“Why would they even come here?”

“There are a million reasons,” he responded, “But to name a few, it could be their best option financially, they might feel cultural pressure to attend, or they may be trying to reconcile their faith and identity.”

“Well I didn’t come to BYU to go to school with them.”

This exchange was but one of many homophobic exchanges my brother encountered as a student at BYU. fast forward a few years, and the past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions for many queer students and members. I’ve heard all sorts of rhetoric from church members that seem to echo some of the following sentiments:

“If they don’t like rules they should go somewhere else.”
“Why not find a school that’s a better fit?”
“I don’t want my tithing subsidizing students who don’t abide church doctrine.”

I should make it clear that I’m a hetero, cisgender, white female. I’ve spoken extensively to my brother, a gay BYU graduate, as well as several other gay members. With each experience comes a unique perspective, and the best way to better understand LGBTQ+ members is to listen to them. My hope now is to increase understanding and compassion, and also to encourage people to speak up when derogatory language or ideas are spread. Our marginalized communities should not have to do do this work alone.

So, why might gay students choose to go to BYU?

Like my brother shared with his fellow student, there are a million different reasons. BYU is a well-regarded institution with a strong reputation, for some it may be one of the best options for their career path, or they might like the sports programs or intramural activities. For others, attending BYU could be a family legacy; my husband went to BYU as did his parents and all six siblings. Perhaps it’s where most of their friends are going, or they like the idea of being surrounded by church members. The Mormon culture could be appealing to some queer students, or they might feel cultural pressure to attend. One reason that may come into play for many students is the relative affordability of BYU and its sister schools. Simply saying these students should go somewhere else doesn’t begin to consider the complex dynamics of their experiences or opportunities – a full picture we surely don’t see.

Another key aspect to consider is that some college-age students are still exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity along with figuring out what path they will take for the future. Students may be as young as 17 and still unsure how to navigate situations and relationships that now feel unstable. For example: one queer member felt pressured by his family to attend BYU and was told he would only receive financial help if he went there. Once he came out to his family a few years into college, they said they would no longer support him financially unless he renounced being gay. It’s hard to even imagine the conflict of identity, family pressure, faith, and financial strain all while trying to get through classes.

One of the main reasons my brother chose to attend BYU was an attempt to reconcile his faith and his identity. But this is no easy task with current church doctrine. And there is little way of knowing what environment queer students will face once they actually get to campus. What is important is to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to try to understand the complexity of the choices each faces, and to defend the right of queer students to make the choice to attend BYU.

In 2017 President Ballard declared, “I want anyone who is a member of the Church who is gay or lesbian to know I believe you have a place in the kingdom and recognize that sometimes it may be difficult for you to see where you fit in the Lord’s Church, but you do.” If we’re saying as a church that there’s a place for them, then we must create space for students who are trying to make it work and understand why it might not work for some.

With the initial changes to the honor code, some students may have felt a place had finally opened up for them. Many were thrilled to have a policy that would allow them to fully explore their sense of self and not treat them any differently than their heterosexual counterparts.

Nathan Kitchen and Laurie Lee Hall, president and senior vice president of Affirmation respectively, commented on how harmful this reversal of changes is. They show that BYU continues to be a school discriminatory to queer students and point out that the unwritten rules of the “spirit of the law” as the CES letter states, mask prejudice and create a dangerous environment.

Every student deserves a safe place to go to school free from discrimination. Each individual deserves the freedom to be their authentic self. Brené Brown, a world-renowned researcher on belonging says, “We all need to be seen and honored in the same way that we all need to breathe… What I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.”

Unfortunately for some queer members, coming out to family may mean immediate rejection. When my brother’s college roommate finally decided to come out to his family, he did so knowing he had a loving support system of friends and others who would stand by him. His mom’s response: “I would have rather you commit suicide than come out as a gay man.” This sounds extreme, but this happens. Some students may have come out at BYU believing they had a place to find support, only to have those hopes dashed.

Soon after the policy reversal, The Out Foundation created a fund to help queer students transfer. But even transferring from BYU is another complicated choice and may not be the best decision for everyone. We should also recognize that some queer students will choose to stay or be forced to stay through circumstances beyond their control.

While it seems extreme someone might be disciplined for a handshake or a hug, such seemingly insignificant acts became part of the interpretation of the honor code in the past, and helped contribute to an inquisition-type environment where many students felt their honor depended on making sure everyone else was upholding theirs. This type of environment is neither safe nor loving and calls for discussion on how it can be improved.

I’ve heard stories of fellow students reporting suspicions to the honor code office or going to their bishop over concerns about a classmate’s Facebook post. Here are two stories, one from 2019 and one from 2002, about the challenges of being queer at BYU.

A person’s education should never be put on the line for basic human connection, but an infraction of the honor code allows BYU to suspend students and deny credits. The resulting tragedy is that these policies force many students to hide a key part of who they truly are.

It’s also important to note that the honor code is far more restrictive than actual church policy and doctrine itself. The law of chastity prohibits any sexual relations outside of marriage and it seems like the initial change to the BYU honor code was an attempt to line up with that policy. The honor code clarification is taking this policy even further by restricting all homosexual romantic behavior.

Students who are advocating for change aren’t asking to change doctrine and do away with the law of chastity. They are asking to change a bad policy. They are asking to be treated equally and not have a double standard for behavior. They are asking for compassion and understanding and for their pain to be acknowledged.

Too often conversations are dismissed with suggestions such as “they didn’t have to come here…” Again this doesn’t acknowledge the complex reasons someone chooses to go to BYU or anywhere else. It doesn’t allow grace and growth as a community trying to do better and to love better. Similarly, some might think it best to just agree to disagree. But this inevitably means maintaining the status quo and leaving the burden on the marginalized group to fight for change. We can disagree on what movie to watch or where to go out to eat, but we cannot stop conversations about human rights or injustice.

Do we have to accept all systems as they are?

This extends to similar conversations I’ve heard within the church on this and other issues – if they don’t want to live by the commandments maybe they should go somewhere else.

I support those who feel called to leave the church or who need to step away to safeguard their mental health. At the same time, is it not the work of all of us – the body of Christ – to ensure the health of all our parts? If there are people in pain, shouldn’t we examine how we can mitigate that pain within the current doctrine while also seeking further light and knowledge?

In the podcast Beyond the Block, Derek Knox (with co-host James Jones) says “because I love the church I can name the bad effects.” He hopes that as a people we can live into our birthright of a church of continuing revelation.

I love the language of Victoria Safford who speaks of the gates of hope – the space of seeing the world as it is and as it should be. “Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is.”

To start we need to listen to one another. We need to behold people in their fullness. We need to create spaces that do not demand parts of one’s identity to be hidden. We need to acknowledge the struggle to reconcile faith, identity and community.

What does truly listening to someone really look like? It’s not fixing or giving advice. It’s not ignoring the parts that are uncomfortable. It’s accepting we don’t fully understand what it feels like. It’s being willing to be corrected and to acknowledge privilege. It’s not defending the church when it’s wrong. To paraphrase Harriet Lerner, we should listen with the same passion that we feel about being heard.

There are great LGBTQ+ forums, blogs and publications to help in the journey of learning and becoming a better ally. A dear friend of mine and a Mama Dragon was deeply troubled by the recent honor code reversal and is sharing an invitation to fast and pray to bring healing to the queer community and to stop the causes of pain from the church. We can each reach out to those around us and to our Heavenly Parents for guidance on what we can do. Too often queer members hear, “I love you but…” Let’s stand with them and help change the narrative. “I love you. How can I support you?”

Tirza

Tirza lives in New England with her husband and four kids. She spends as much time as possible reading, sleeping, and playing outside.

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