Some years ago, as an exuberant and rather naïve freshman at BYU, I signed up to take my first religion class on the Book of Mormon. Our professor was a large man who towered over his students, and he had twice as much energy as his graying hair would suggest. Every now and then I would roll my eyes at his enthusiasm for the chapter we were studying, certain that he was putting just a little too much relatability into the dry pages of ancient scripture.
One day we came across a prophetic warning against the many sexual iniquities that would afflict people in the latter days: our days. The professor asked us what “whoredoms” were, and we all giggled because our BYU religion professor had said the word “whore.” He then sent a student to the board to act as scribe as we called out all the different whoredoms we could think of.
“Fornication!” one student yelled.
“NO!” boomed our professor’s voice. “Homosexuality is NOT a sin!”
The room got very quiet and uncomfortable. This was 2009, only a year after the Church’s battle over Proposition 8 in California. I remember seeing graffiti on campus in a bathroom stall condemning homosexuality. Editorials still came out in the school paper to the same effect.
“The same rules of morality apply to everyone,” the professor continued. “There is nothing inherently wrong with homosexuality. Take it OFF THE LIST!”
The scribe quickly erased homosexuality from the board.
I wasn’t out as a gay man yet, even to myself. I had been swept up in the polarized discourse that accompanied the subject of homosexuality and, sad to say, had said a few unkind things myself in high school. But now my 18-year-old brain was scrambling to reconcile everything I knew about homosexuality with what my religion professor had just said. How could homosexuality not be evil? Wasn’t that the whole reason we had passed an amendment to the California constitution to prohibit gay marriage? Didn’t that imply that there was an inherent and unequal difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality?
I never found the answers in that classroom. Only after seven years of agonizing self-reflection, questioning, and reconciliation between my sexuality and my faith during my own coming-out process did I at last understand what our professor was trying to say that day. He knew about the private struggles of the kids in his classroom, knew of the isolation and pain they would face. He knew that kindness and self-acceptance could make the literal difference between life and death.
It seems remarkable to me now that a BYU religion professor would take a stand on my behalf, even when I didn’t know at the time that he was speaking up for me. And yet what else should one expect from a disciple of Christ? In that moment he was not only teaching his religion; he was living it. He used his charisma and influence to put up a shield around the downtrodden, to prevent yet another micro-aggression that could eventually add up to death by a thousand cuts.
One decisive voice against the murmurs of disapproval; one light amid th’encircling gloom; one small act of kindness to rebuff the crushing cruelty; these are the acts of one who knows the Savior.
And when that professor and I stand before the final judgement bar of God, I will gladly testify before the angels of heaven that he is a hero, an exemplar of Christ’s love.