Good evening everyone. Today is the last USGA meeting I will attend as president. Over the past few days and weeks I’ve been reflecting on the past two years of my time in the presidency – I decided that I would regret not using the opportunity to address all of you in a more organized fashion.
Serving as President of USGA has been the most challenging, frustrating, meaningful, and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. I can’t think of something more impactful I’ll be able to do for the foreseeable future. Martin Luther King famously said “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.’ What most people (including me, until I looked up this quote for this speech) don’t know is that King was actually quoting 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker, and that Dr. King’s full quote reads “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” Dr. King’s assertion was that yes, good will eventually prevail, but not without significant setbacks and injustices. If you believe in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you ascribe to the belief that there was a great Apostasy, where for nearly 2,000 years, or close to a 3rd of human spiritual history, God allowed his children to wander in darkness. Progress is not always linear, it does not always follow a logical progression, and it frequently is followed by setbacks and sorrow.
I had so hoped that I would be able to stand before you all today and announce that big, bold and meaningful changes had happened at BYU. That I would be able to tell you that, like our video said 5 years ago, that it had gotten better at BYU – in tangible, and demonstrable ways. I’m disappointed to say that while there has been some progress, there has not enough.
What I’ve learned along the way is that life is complex and difficult and messy and nuanced. I don’t know that I believe that there are good people and bad people, but more likely most people are trying to do their best with what they have. But I also know that often, someone’s best is just simply not enough. It is a sobering realization, perhaps part of anyone’s journey into adulthood, that people will disappoint you and let you down – sometimes in a small and inconsequential ways, and sometimes in ways that are profound – that have real and reverberating impacts on your life.
The frank reality is that BYU is not an emotionally, nor sometimes physically, safe place to be an LGBTQ student or member of the Church. There are real, not fabricated, not exaggerated, real reasons our university is consistently ranked as the largest and one of the worst universities in the country for LGBTQ students. My inclination here is to soften that statement by qualifying it or explaining it, I do that too often personally, and we do that too often as a community. So for now I will let that sit. BYU should be the best, the safest, the most welcoming school an LGBTQ or SSA member of the Church could attend, but all things considered, it simply is not. I wish it were.
A couple of years ago, I tried out for Divine Comedy – BYU’s sketch comedy group. I almost made it my first time, but got cut in the final round of auditions. A year later, I had been appointed USGA president and knew that my time and energies were limited. But I thought about the potential impact I could have as an openly gay member of a visible BYU performing group. I wasn’t sure what that impact would actually look like, but I thought it was worth the try. As an audience member I had sat through sketch after sketch and joke after joke that was heteronormative, and focused on the common themes of straight dating, courtship, and marriage at BYU. I was grateful, but apprehensive when I was selected to join the cast.
Last semester we chose The Prince of Egypt as the musical headliner for one of our shows. All of us know the story of Moses and the escape of the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity into the promised land from the Bible. It was not a story I had given much analytical thought to, until confronted with needing to satirize the movie into something our audience of BYU students would find funny and entertaining for 15 minutes. While thinking about the plot, it became apparent to me that this classic liberation story actually told the importance of privilege and sacrifice. Moses was born a jew, but miraculously rescued and raised in the most privileged upbringing imaginable. Prince of Egypt and 2nd in line to the throne of the world’s most powerful civilization at the time. But upon learning of his true heritage, Moses world was turned upside down. He spent a time learning about his people – his lineage and his calling in life. When he returned to Egypt it was to use his privilege – his personal relationship with his step-brother who was now Pharaoh – to ask and then demand for the release of his people.
As Divine Comedy looked for parallels to BYU campus and it’s culture, we briefly considered casting Moses as a gay BYU student who fled to the University of Utah and then returned to free his LGBTQ brothers and sisters. But we didn’t consider it for very long, because we knew that topic and the implications of that plot line would likely make out audience too uncomfortable. Instead of laughing they would probably be cringing. The final iteration of our satire cast the Israelites as downtrodden art students who are never paid for their work, and exploited by their malevolent Business school and BYUSA overlords. Common campus clichés that are rooted in a kernel of truth. Moses wound up as an unknowing MDT major, and a few lines indicated to any audience members paying enough attention, that Moses was likely gay and discovering his sexual orientation – clichés in their own right.
I was proud to be a part of a cast that was willing to take at least that many risks in the exploration of comedy. But I was also sobered by the realization that my reality as a gay BYU student was too edgy for people to laugh at in a campus comedy performance. No faculty adviser asked us to strip the overtly gay references (thought they likely could have). We knew as performers and students the limits our audience would go with us. Too often within the Church and at BYU we think of LGBTQ issues instead of LGBTQ people. Gay friends. Queer classmates. Lesbian Relief Society Presidents and Trans roommates. Issues are easy to ignore. To explain away. To minimize and justify. People are much more real than issues. People shouldn’t be afraid of me. People shouldn’t be afraid of you.
As LGBTQ students at BYU we’re used to having our narratives and lives erased from the institutions we serve in. We’ve watched comedy sketches of straight dates, seminary videos about temple marriage, seen peers and leaders at BYU celebrated for their relationships and righteousness. As a university we are content to let our gay students sing in Vocal Point, act in our plays and musicals, run the Political Review, College Republicans, be the President of BYUSA, do ground breaking research in mathematics, display our art and our faces in the HFAC, and the innumerable others you all contribute to campus every day. But so far we’ve been asked to largely leave our stories at the door. And what are if we if not our stories?
Sing and dance they say, but don’t take off that mask.
As part of the Prince of BYU headliner we did, I had to sing a parody of the song All I Ever Wanted. Our version was lighthearted – making fun of a business major who’s known nothing but J Crew and networking events. But practicing and listening to the original lyrics a hundred times, I became acquainted with emotion behind the song. Moses upon realizing he doesn’t belong with the family that raised him, that his heritage and destiny are different from everything he’d ever imagined, sings “All I ever wanted – this is my home.” Not ‘this was my home’ but ‘this is my home.’ How much do we resonate with that sentiment? I do. It is sobering to be at the university your parents always dreamed you would go to, experiencing all of the life milestones you’d expected to achieve, and then have it all dissolve in front of you. Whether you think of Moses as a historical and spiritual figure, or a cartoon character, I know how painful it is to be faced with the idea that the only home you’ve ever known – spiritual or physical – isn’t yours anymore. We’re told, too often, that as queer people we don’t belong here. We’re not welcome. This isn’t our home.
You all deserve to have people listen to your stories and validate even your mere existence. We all deserve to have someone tell us that we matter, that we have a home here. That has been the work of USGA since its founding nearly 7 years ago. To save and improve the lives of LGBTQ and SSA students at BYU by providing a space where they feel at home, where they feel welcome and acknowledged. Before I decided to apply to be president of USGA, I looked into running for BYUSA president, solely because I wanted to be in a position to represent and tell the stories of queer students, and to tell them that they mattered. I wish someone more important were here to tell you this today. But for now, that responsibility falls on me. You all matter. Your experiences are valid. Your narratives are real. BYU is your home just as much as anyone else who was admitted to this campus. Not in spite of your sexuality or gender identity, but with it and because of it. I deserve to hear that. And you deserve to hear that. It may not always feel like it, but it is your right as much as anyone’s. Whether you’ve been to USGA a hundred times, or you just see this speech on Facebook, you deserve to know that you belong. I know and remember what it’s like to feel alone on this campus and in the world. I’ve served in a hope that that period of isolation won’t be as long, or as deep, or as dark for the next generation of queer students at BYU. The work of USGA will continue in that direction until it is no longer necessary.
I hope that this message has been not just sobering but also inspiring. As hungry people, I think we have started off begging for a loaf of bread. I have gone to administrators numberless times to say “my people are hurting – please help me help them.” They said we couldn’t have a loaf of bread. So we asked for a slice. They said they couldn’t give us a slice, so we asked for crumbs. Today we are living off crumbs. Never lose site of the loaf of bread. You can’t live off of crumbs. When told no, ask again. When told no, ask why? When told no, turn the other cheek – not in submission, but in example.
I have enjoyed serving these past two years with wonderful friends as vice presidents – JD and Gina and Zoie and Lyman are exceptional people who care about this community a lot and sacrificed so much to help us all. The members of leadership have toiled thousands of hours over the past two years to provide this safe and welcoming space. Be kind to JD and Liza and Gabe as they take over as the presidency for the next year. They will face pressures and decisions that are hard to imagine until you’re in those positions. They will be doing the best they can with the resources they have. I know that they will do an amazing job of leading this organization over the next year and beyond. If you feel up to the task – join leadership. We can always use your help.
While the structural forces that make life as an LGBTQ student at BYU remain difficult – the current Honor Code wording that is not based on current doctrine or Church practice, and the lack of on campus resources – things have begun to improve. I have said that BYU is not now a safe place to be an LGBTQ student or member of the Church. I do not say that because evil or hard hearted men and women run this university. They are not. The administrators that I have met and worked with over the past few years, I believe to be good and hard working people. They intend to do good. Too often they have acted, or not acted, out of fear, out of misinformation, and out of ignorance. Things are changing. Last semester the Resident Assistant classes added a unit on understanding and responding to LGBTQ students in their residence halls. After a decade of asking, the Counseling Center is now allowed to run LGBTQ specific therapy groups – there are currently 2 authorized to meet about ¼ of the demonstrated demand. Last week the BYU chapter on NAMI held the first event open to students on campus about LGBTQ students’ experience, not in a basement class room, but in Wilkinson Center in the middle of campus. President Worthen has asked a Task Force of top-level BYU administrators to meet and explore the experiences of LGBTQ and SSA students and to propose ways the university can improve. In that way the university’s aims and USGA’s are moving in parallel.
These improvements are all still band aids, not cures. They are still crumbs not loaves. But there are more than ever before. Someday, I hope, we will see more improvements and concrete, tangible steps by the university. I pray that day comes soon.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to serves as president of this genuinely amazing organization. The best student run anything I’ve ever been a part of. The organization that has made the most difference in the most people’s lives that I’ve ever worked in. If you have come to understand, to be understood, to find empathy and compassion, and to build community, you’ve found the right place.
May God bless us all in that endeavor.