Dying at BYU

Dying at BYU

This is the sixth in a series of Advocate
dispatches from the Equality Ride. Sponsored by
Soulforce, the ride is taking 33 young LGBT activists on
a nationwide tour of college campuses that have
policies calling for the expulsion of openly gay
and lesbian students. Its first several
stops—including Jerry Falwell’s
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and Lee University
in Cleveland, Tenn.—led to a lot of
constructive dialogue as well as some arrests for
“trespassing,” as did the ride’s
more recent stop at the Mormon Brigham Young
University in Provo, Utah.
 

This dispatch was written by Equality Ride
co-director Haven Herrin.
 

A list of
expectations is not an agreement. A few times on the
Soulforce Equality Ride, a school has given us a list
of rules rather than a commitment to negotiation. When
a school such as Brigham Young University hands us the
dos and don’ts but refuses to allow for any
sanctioned forum for discussion of LGBT issues, this
dialogue has not been validated. Our affirming
viewpoint has not been treated equally to the voices of
oppression and condemnation. When that is the case, we
cannot bow to the school’s expectations.

As we walked onto
campus Monday morning, April 10, we knew what BYU
expected: Do not walk in the blue areas defined on the map
e-mailed to us and do not congregate, give speeches,
or pass out literature. They want the affirming gay
voice to wait until it is invited.

I make no
apologies for my refusal to wait. People are dying.

Given the gravity
of the situation, to have an administrator tell me that
I am disrespectful or without integrity for not submitting
to the laundry list of oppressive rules does not make
me flinch. The time for robust dialogue has come--not
an unreasonable request at an institution of higher
learning. So if the administration wants to talk about
respect, I will speak with them about respect for the
sanctity of human life.

We entered into
an unknown on BYU’s campus. Without prior
negotiation, we had liberty to fashion the day of
dialogue in a meaningful way, which is what responding
to such discrimination requires. We gave speeches, we
handed out literature, and we shared the message that all
people are loved and affirmed without reservation.

Our actions were
not egregious; speeches and the distribution of
literature happen often on university campuses. But BYU took
issue with the content of our message; they wanted
silence from us because of who we are. They arrested
five of us for offering an out and affirming voice in
the only forum left to us: out in the public square.

Equality Ride BYU | Advocate.comEquality Riders draw a crowd outside the student
center at BYU.
Photo: Stephanie Houfek

After being
largely ignored, unsanctioned, and minimized on Monday, we
returned on Tuesday with the intention to bring a message
that could not be ignored. I looked in the eyes of a
gay student at BYU and asked him what he needed from
the Soulforce Equality Ride. He said, “Please make it
so they can’t sweep us under the rug anymore.”

A die-in with
lilies--the beautiful simultaneous representation of past
death and promise of life--occurred as I read off the names
and stories of gay Latter Day Saints. Suicide is a
marked characteristic of the gay LDS culture. The
stories ranged from 1965 to present day. What have we
learned? I asked. The 24 who were arrested for
“dying” on Tuesday were only a tiny
fraction of those who have killed themselves because they
could not reconcile their LDS faith and their sexuality.

Of course, we
knew the university did not want a die-in on campus, though
school authorities can always choose not to arrest us. They
made their disapproval apparent with scores of
plainclothes policemen throughout campus on our first
day. But if every idealist and every activist followed
the rules handed to them from those in power--those who are
oppressing--then we would not have such a thing as activism,
nor would we have the general movement toward justice
and equality.

We died on their
campus to show the very real results of their doctrine
and policy. We died on their campus to show how the school
has ignored this issue for decades. We died on their
campus to show how far BYU goes to keep this
discussion at bay. Had there been vigorous and sanctioned
dialogue, no death--real or facsimile thereof--would be
necessary.

I have received
several letters from BYU students saying that we are just
another deafened protest organization. But what are we if we
agree to be ignored, mostly silenced, and suppressed
simply because we are LGBT?

We cannot condone
discrimination. We lack principles if we accede to
anything less than full equality--not as regular citizens,
but as unique guests--when we come to campus. Do not
ask me to look in the eyes of the young gay man who
had the courage and the radical idealism to speak at
our rally on Monday night and tell him that it is acceptable
to be minimized and passed over. Social change does
not happen without living out the radically idealistic
view of the world as we wish to see it. Now.

This is what I
would say to Brigham Young University’s
administration if, after three months of my earnest
attempts, they would deign to have a conversation with
me:

Your students are
truth seekers. They are more open, more engaged, and
more rebellious than perhaps you would like. One of your
students stood with us at our rally and claimed his
gay identity and his LDS faith without shame, fear, or
apology in a 15-minute address to 100 community
members. He also led the march of lilies on the way to die
on your campus.

Because the fear
of rejection holds no sway over him any longer, he is
blessedly dangerous to a static worldview that rigidly
defines who is acceptable and who is condemned. He
honors the weight of his own truth gained from living
life. You disapprove of this young man, but I
recommend that you wholeheartedly claim him. He is your
strongest missionary and the greatest example of
love--not a notion but something tangibly realized by
living as he does. I do not know if one can embody
that kind of love without the boldness to live by truth
rather than fear. He alone has me thinking deeply
about Christ and religion in a new way--this from a
woman who does not worship, pray, or believe in an
external God with agency. That is radical.

Another of your
students, an incoming heterosexual freshman, also stood
with us, carried a lily, and represented those physical and
spiritual deaths within your flock.

There is dissent,
Brigham Young University.

They are and we
are a threat to fundamentalism of any flavor. The youth
of today are searching and deliberating and relying on the
value of our own cognizance. We are learning from
history, and we are going to purge society of LGBT
discrimination. I have seen it 13 times over on our
journey--no amount of control or authority is going to stop
the movement of youth to push our country towards
broader justice.

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