PLEASE NOTE: USGA seeks to create a respectful dialogue that encompasses multiple view points on the topics of faith and sexuality. The views and opinions of the following article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect USGA’s official policy or position.
Ask any queer student on campus, and they’ll tell you there are certain difficulties when attending BYU. We watch our friends and roommates date and enter what seems like marital bliss while we reread our textbooks, since we can’t date under current Honor Code restrictions. There are a multitude of firesides each year in BYU’s many stakes about heterosexual marriage and dating, while we’re lucky to find even one on queer acceptance.
When I mention such circumstances to my non-member friends, many of them are puzzled and ask “Why don’t you just transfer to another school? Just about any other campus in the U.S. won’t care whom you date.” Strangely enough, many of my member friends say the same thing, though for different reasons: “If you don’t like the Honor Code, just leave. BYU is for people who want to live in a Gospel atmosphere. You’re taking up space and resources that the Church could spend on people who actually want to be here.”
These are fair observations to make and important questions I ask myself. Is there a reason to stay? Or should all queer students at BYU make a mass exodus to secular schools? I can’t speak for others on this issue (many have already left BYU for very good reasons), but I can speak from my own experience and that of my friends.
There are, of course, many temporal reasons to stay at BYU. It’s very inexpensive and provides a great education. It can also be a huge hassle to change schools, especially if you have depression (an ailment not uncommon among LGBT folk). But these don’t seem to be worth the discomfort some queer students feel in a subtly (sometimes blatantly) homophobic environment.
In fact, the Princeton Review has ranked BYU in the top 6 worst schools for treatment of LGBT students for seven years in a row. The kicker is that it forms the ranking based on student responses from each school, meaning that BYU students and not some disapproving, outside entity are ranking their own school as unfriendly. This directly contradicts Elder Quentin L. Cook’s admonition that “as a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach [towards queer people]” (mormonsandgays.org). So instead of being at the forefront, we are, by our own estimation, 374th of the 380 schools surveyed. Ouch.
Clearly there’s room for improvement. But, if all the queer students leave, will BYU ever change? Many students still have grave misconceptions about queer people, and the most effective way to dispel these is to let students know us on a personal level. When they hear our stories and feel our faith, we are no longer an outside enemy but friends and family. We live beside each other as classmates and roommates. As we pioneer the first generation of openly queer students at BYU, we’re bound to meet obstacles and suspicion, but with time, we can transform our campus into a place of true love and understanding.
And this is critical for future generations. Queer students will keep enrolling at BYU each year, no matter what the policies are, because many of us discover our queerness while at college. Although I began to experience feelings of attraction at puberty along with everyone else, I reasoned that I could ignore what I felt towards other men and date women anyway. As the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet explains, serious dating is discouraged among adolescents. Therefore my first experience with courtship was when I was already at BYU, and it was only then that I at last came to terms with my sexuality. It was a long, arduous process that I had to go through mostly alone. Wouldn’t it be better if there were seniors at BYU who had gone through the process and could help incoming freshmen through the transition? But if all queer students leave when they become uncomfortable, we will have interminable generations of queer students fighting through their awakening sexuality with no one to help them, and not everyone survives the process. Too often the pain and isolation are too much and students take their own life. Having open, experienced queer students at BYU could prevent this.
Something has gone seriously wrong when disciples of Christ do not feel comfortable (and in some cases are killing themselves) at a Church-run university. The mission of BYU is to inspire academic excellence while nurturing faith in our Savior. We seek to admit and create disciple scholars, including those that aren’t straight or cisgender. But if we drive queer students away with quiet rejection, we have failed to live up to our mission.
In many ways, BYU is like a microcosm of the Church as a whole. The Honor Code is (for the most part) what all members are expected to live as part of keeping God’s commandments. Many queer students don’t want to leave BYU for the same reasons they don’t want to leave the Church. I’m reminded of Peter’s response to Jesus after the crowd had left him:
“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68)
We may be able to transfer out of BYU, but it’s not so easy to transfer out of a church that claims to be the only true and living church of Jesus Christ. Where else would we go to find eternal life? Priesthood ordinances available only here are the key to enter the Celestial Kingdom. According to the doctrines many of us have been taught from our youth, we need the Church as an essential tool in our eternal progression. Leaving has serious implications.
I do not believe that any clear-thinking member of the Church would try to drive queer people out of his or her congregation. We usually have a good understanding that the Church and the gospel it teaches are for everyone. But some members (probably from a lack of understanding) want queer people to stop being queer, to change their sexual orientation or gender identity to conform to what is “normal” and “proper.” Yet for good or for ill, our sexuality and/or gender identity are part of who we are; we can’t detach it and hang it at the door of the chapel. If we’re going to stay in the Church, our queerness is coming with us.
And somehow I think God had planned this all along. He seems to have taught something very similar through the Apostle Paul when he compared different members of the Church to different parts of a human body:
“For the body is not one member, but many . . . If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body?” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 17-19).
If we were all the same, all “normal,” then the Church wouldn’t be able to function. Somehow we came to think that queerness doesn’t belong in the Church, but I can’t bring myself to believe this. In a lot of ways, queer members are like the appendix of the human body. For a long time, everyone thought the appendix was useless. It wasn’t until recently that we discovered it serves as a refuge for useful digestive bacteria, a safe house in the event that the normal stores in the stomach are destroyed after dysentery or cholera. We may not know exactly how queer members contribute uniquely to our wards and stakes, but as we allow them to flourish among us, we will soon find out. Queer members bring unique perspectives to the table, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we drive them from our congregations by subtle hostilities. As President Uchtdorf recently taught us, “we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church” (“Come, Join Us” Oct. 2013).
In the end, both BYU and the Church are my home. I grew up, learned, and loved here. Mormons are my people, my family. Yes, I’m queer, for which the Church as a whole is only now adjusting. But I have faith that I have a place here, even if I’m still discovering exactly where it is. It’s hard when a key aspect of my identity is either erased or rejected, but I press forward with hope that somehow I can make my university and my church a better place for others. Some people still decide to leave for their own mental health and safety, and there should be no shame in this. But for those who are able to stay, put your shoulder to the wheel. We have work to do.