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Will College Football Make LDS Church Finally Tolerate LGBTs?

Will College Football Make LDS Finally Accept LGBTs

A sports controversy at the Mormons' flagship university may make the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints choose between homophobia and millions of dollars.

In retrospect, attending Brigham Young University was not a good choice for a young, impressionable gay man. My Latter-Day Saints church leaders had tried to brace me before I left: "The hard part about BYU," one had told me, "is that you're not special there. You get there and everyone is just like you." Secretly I was exhilarated by the prospect of finding other people like me. I'd grown up mixed-race, gay, and Mormon in suburban Northern California; I'd never been around a group of people just like me. My memory of my first day at BYU is sunshine and smiles. Everyone smiles at BYU. All these attractive, happy, shiny faces, beaming the light of Christ out of their eyes confirmed what I had hoped: I had found my people!

All the rest of my memories of BYU are darker: snow, overcast skies, pollution, confused girlfriends, and an aching depression setting in as I realized I actually was not one of these people. And everything in Mormon and BYU culture told me that this was my fault, that something was wrong with me that made me not as smiley and happy and attractive and straight as all these amazing people around me. Being gay at BYU was killing me. My leaders told me it was fine to be attracted to men as long I didn't "act on it." They sent me to conversion therapy. I was called to a meeting and asked directly to lend my voice to the fight for Proposition 8 -- the (temporarily) successful effort to overturn marriage equality in California -- so I could keep my good standing in the church. One female professor advised that I find and marry a woman who had been sexually abused, so she wouldn't mind if we were rarely intimate. Soon I had dropped out of school, stopped going to my job, and stopped getting out of bed except to go to all my various church meetings. It took me years of real therapy and herculean personal effort to finally accept that the problem wasn't me.

Here's the thing most people don't realize about the Mormon Church, though: It changes. I got to see this firsthand a few years later when my best friend and I wrote a letter to BYU's president that led to meetings with the top brass and soon a change in the wording of the honor code that meant that students could no longer be punished simply for stating their sexual orientation. The whole premise of the Mormon Church, in fact, is that its leaders are in constant communication with God so that he can update them on any changes needed to respond to a changing world.

BYU has a long, long way to go. The honor code still prohibits any of its students or employees from being in same-sex relationships or participating in "homosexual behavior." This year the Princeton Review ranked the college as the sixth most hostile campus in the country toward LGBT students (which is actually an improvement over last year's fourth place -- baby steps!). But a recent move in an unexpected arena may finally lead to the changes BYU needs, and it may even have lasting implications for the church as a whole.

Last week a coalition of LGBT advocacy groups sent a letter to the Big 12 football conference, asking officials there not to consider Brigham Young University for membership. In July BYU had expressed interest in joining the Big 12, a move that Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally told a reporter could lead to a "$20 million ... reward." Taylor's group drafted the letter against BYU's admission, which was signed by 25 advocacy groups, including GLAAD, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and Lambda Legal. The story was covered by outlets as diverse as The Advocate and ESPN, and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby responded Tuesday by saying, "As we move forward with our processes we will certainly take your concerns into consideration." Fingers crossed.

Athlete Ally's letter lays out several reasons why BYU is not a good fit for the Big 12, including BYU's discrimination against trans people (which violates Title IX, a federal law) and the treatment visiting LGBT players, coaches, and fans would face due to the fact that BYU is exempt from Utah's antidiscrimination laws. "Moreover," the letter states, "any student-athlete who identifies as LGBT, and subsequently selects BYU due to its Big 12 membership, would be subjected to BYU's unabashed discrimination." I can tell you firsthand that my heart goes out to any LGBT athletes who might be lured into BYU by their sports program. I know how shiny and right the school can seem when you first see it.

In response to the letter, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins issued the same sort of canned statement she invariably releases when accusations of discrimination against LGBT people are leveled at the school: "BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards. We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One's stated sexual orientation is not an issue."

My friend Matthew Perry, whom I met in my time at BYU, responded on social media to Jenkins's statement: "I was a minor who had never known any gay people and only been out to myself for a few months when I signed the honor code for the first time. There's no possible way I could have understood what the honor code actually meant for me."

I truly believe that pressure from the Big 12 as well as media attention surrounding this entire issue,might be exactly what is needed to get BYU to change its harmful and antiquated honor code. Of course, BYU is just one facet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose recent history with LGBT issues ranges from funding the fight to pass Prop. 8 in 2008 to last November's new policy that prohibits children of people in same-sex relationships from getting baptized. Following that announcement, there was a spike in teen suicides reported in Utah. BYU's Honor Code is simply another manifestation of the deep-seated homophobia that has been central to many of the church's recent moves.

Interestingly, this is not the first time college sports have played an important role in bringing to light the church's problems with inclusion. In 1978, after several other schools and athletes very publicly refused to play against BYU, the church reversed its policy that had barred black people from the priesthood --though whether that was because of the heightened negative media attention that accompanied the protests or because God told the leaders of the Mormon Church that he had changed his mind right around that same time depends on whom you ask.

The church is at a similar place now. If it's ever going to change its deleterious policies on LGBT people, it's going to take prodding from the outside, likely in the form of sanctions that cost the church money or new members, which is why it's so important for the Big 12 Conference to take Athlete Ally's letter seriously. I don't even care if the church pretends it's another surprise revelation from God; it has to change how it treats LGBT people. People are dying out there.

In the end, I agree with Reddit user bookofbob, who quipped, "It's OK for BYU to feel like they belong in the Big 12, just so long as they don't act on it."

ROBBIE PIERCE is a Los Angeles-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @RobbiePierce.

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