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Dying at BYU

Dying at BYU


A symbolic die-in to honor the many gay Mormons who have committed suicide gets two dozen Equality Ride protesters arrested on the campus of Brigham Young University. It also sends an important message.

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 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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