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The Only Consistency in BYU's Treatment of LGBTQ Students Is Cruelty


The Mormon university's shifting decisions about its Honor Code highlight an unceasing animus, writes a former professor.

Last month BYU announced it was removing "homosexual behavior" from its honor code and there was widespread joy among LGB students. They were told they would no longer be treated any differently than heterosexual students. Some went to the Honor Code office to confirm they would not be punished for kissing or holding hands or going on dates. They were told they would not.

A friend of mine, who goes to BYU, wrote to me, "I am safe now, I am safe."

I wanted to believe it was true.

In hindsight, the timing was suspect. That morning, extraordinarily painful changes in the church handbook were announced for trans, nonbinary, and intersex church members. Perhaps it should have felt too convenient when the news that night only reported: "BYU now allows gay dating."

But also: I am a gay woman and I taught at BYU from 2000-2014.

I should have known better than to believe in a BYU where being safe is a possibility.

Today the commissioner of the Church Educational System issued a letter clarifying the changes: "Same sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore incompatible with the principles of the Honor Code."

It is difficult to convey to anyone unfamiliar with BYU the atmosphere its Honor Code creates. While BYU claims the Honor Code is comparable to "All universities [who] have a code of conduct that outlines the expectations of behavior for its students" the Honor Code is unlike any code of conduct I have ever seen at another university. It is strictly enforced, for one. Even minor infractions -- like drinking coffee or using swear words on social media -- can result in consequences as severe as expulsion. But more saliently, students are encouraged to report on each other. The campus is permeated by a sense of paranoia that seems irrational and dystopian to outsiders.

BYU's history with its queer students is more than a little dystopian.

Until the 1980s, conversion therapy that included electroshock therapy was practiced on campus. It was abandoned before I came to BYU as a student in 1996, but due to quirks of the BYU system which requires an ecclesiastical endorsement from your bishop, many of my gay classmates were still required to submit themselves to torture more likely to lead to suicide than a change in orientation.

My sophomore year at BYU I lost my roommate to suicide.

Years later, another BYU student stood in my kitchen. He was wearing tennis shoes with laces that dragged on the floor and he looked at them, not me, as he told me what his BYU bishop required him to do to keep his ecclesiastical endorsement. His knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of my countertop. His voice shook. He never once looked me in the eyes.

When I started teaching at BYU in 2000, it was against the Honor Code to say out loud I was gay.

Not that I would have. I was 21 years old and had been raised in such a devoutly Mormon world it didn't even occur to me I could be gay. I fell in love with another woman for the first time when I was a student at BYU. But being gay? That was about hypersexuality. It was about perversion. I just... I loved her. It didn't occur to me that being gay was as simple as loving someone.

In 2007, the Honor Code was quietly updated: being gay was no longer prohibited! But "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings" were. BYU students could be reported by their peers for having lunch with someone they were sitting too close to. If someone reported you to the Honor Code for holding hands and the Honor Code officer didn't believe you didn't? You could be expelled.

Last month when it appeared that gay BYU students would be allowed to show physical affection to one another, there was a fear that was lifted. They could hug their friends! They could have lunch and sit as close to someone as they wanted! They could be who they were without being afraid their innocent affection would result in punishment.

As weeks went by and the changes appeared to be genuine, I started to believe that maybe they were real. I started to feel a degree of hope.

That is gone as of yesterday.

It is extraordinarily painful to watch the Mormon church deny science and continue to uphold an imaginary ideal family. Eternal marriage -- between ONE man and ONE woman (as defined as sex assigned at birth, which can NEVER be wrong, clearly) -- is the only way for happiness! Looking at Mormon history, it's hard not laugh a little at this. The state of Utah exists because Mormons wanted to have a different than "traditional" marriage.

But this "ideal" leaves out so many people today.

Biology is complicated. Gender is complicated. Nature, as God created it, is complicated. There is no shame in variety.

But they are still willing to offer up their queer members on the altar of this "eternal marriage" and BYU is still willing to provide enforcement.

A study out of the University of Georgia found nearly three quarters of LGBT Mormons surveyed likely met the threshold for a PTSD diagnosis.

I have lost more than one queer Mormon friend to suicide.

Jesus, who the Church of Jesus Christ is ostensibly named after, said if you do it to the least of these, you've done it to me. He said that it's not the 99 he cares about. It's the one. He said that love is more important than any law.

What BYU did yesterday flies in the face of all of that.

Kerry Spencer is an LGBTQ activist and a former professor at Brigham Young University. Follow her on Twitter @Swilua.

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