It was 2008. I had enrolled in a conflict resolution class at BYU. I needed the credits to finish my business minor. I had been in Provo for three years by this point and I was getting ready to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. The coming fall I would start attending the law school just on the other side of campus.
The class was small—only ten of us. We were supposed to do an exercise that day. The instructor had asked us to share with the group an opinion that might be unpopular so we could practice disagreeing without arguing by using some tactics we had just studied, or something like that.
“I don’t think What About Bob is a funny movie,” a woman had offered. The class laughed and several students responded, respectfully, attempting to explain why they disagreed.
Another woman shared an opinion about chocolate being overrated. That went just as well.
Several more students declared their lighthearted "controversial" positions before a man sitting next to me raised his hand. “I have one,” he said. The tone of his voice shifted with nerves.
“I think gay marriage should be legalized.”
The class went completely silent. An uncomfortable silence. A heavy silence.
The fact this could be something so controversial to say anywhere is wild for me to think about now in 2020. But to say this at Brigham Young University in Provo Utah in 2008, when even a then-campaigning Barrack Obama was opposed to gay marriage, was as brave as it was unexpected. To that point, I don’t think I had heard anyone at my school express any kind of support at all for LGBTQ rights (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even heard that acronym before).
“That’s not funny,” another man in the class responded.
“I’m not making a joke,” the first man said. “I really think gay marriage should be legal.”
All efforts to respectfully disagree were swiftly abandoned. The class started arguing with this blaspheme. “How can you even feel good about getting your ecclesiastical endorsement when you are actively advocating against the Prophet,” I remember someone saying.
The argument continued to escalate as a perplexed instructor appeared to not know if and how he should intervene. Then the bell rang.
That night I told my roommates about the fight that had broken out in class. “That dude should be expelled and he should lose his temple recommend immediately,” one of them said.
Another asked if we thought there were any gay people at BYU. “I hope not,” someone responded. “If there are any, hopefully they’ll get caught and transferred to a mental institution.” Nearly everyone laughed.
At this point I hadn’t told anyone I was gay, and I certainly wasn’t tempted to consider it at BYU. The conversations about gay people had changed a bit from the time I was a child. In the 90s I had been taught, regularly, in Sunday school classes that “being gay is a choice” and that one of Satan’s great lies is that a person can be born gay. As a 12-year-old I heard these messages and wondered when and how I had supposedly chosen this inner wickedness.
But by 2008 I had started hearing some talks and messages at church and in devotionals that suggested that maybe it wasn’t actually a choice. They sort of said people wouldn’t be punished for “same sex attraction” because “it’s only a sin if you act on it.”
I hoped that was true, but it seemed to me people were still being punished just for identifying as gay. I had a friend who told his family he was gay but that he was going to be celibate for the rest of his life so he could maintain his relationship with the church. His sister wouldn’t let him be alone with her kids after that and his bishop told him he couldn’t continue in his calling in the Elders Quorum because it might make people uncomfortable. So I stayed closeted out of fear.
I’ve told people about these experiences over the years. Usually in an attempt to help someone understand what going to BYU might have been like for someone like me. Usually in an attempt to encourage some empathy.
“Nobody forced you to go there,” I’ve been told on many occasions. “I agree,” I say, wondering how there can be such a disconnect that that could be someone’s first response to a person sharing their trauma.
That argument is not new. I see the fights on social media about BYU’s policies on LGBTQ issues. The back and forth is so predictable that it’s starting to become boring.
“Nobody is forcing these students to go there.”
“Some of these students go to BYU at 18 under enormous pressure from their families and they only realize they can’t stay closeted after they are already in school.”
“Well then they can transfer and free up the spot for someone who actually cares about the gospel.”
“What’s wrong with showing them some compassion and love and understanding while they’re there?”
“I do love them. I just hate the sin.”
“Who are you to decide who’s a sinner?”
“[Something about the Proclamation].”
And then everyone moves on, their minds unchanged, the LGBTQ people still wondering what to do.
These fights flooded my social media pages a few weeks ago when it was reported that BYU had suddenly taken language out of the Honor Code concerning “homosexual behavior.” A chorus of relieved sighs echoed across the state as grown adults celebrated the fact that a university was not going to punish them for going on a date. It occurred to me how much had changed since a classmate was labeled a pariah and heretic 12 years ago for saying gay people should be allowed to get married in a conflict resolution class.
“Maybe things are actually going to get better,” I thought to myself. “Maybe this new generation of 20-year-olds won’t have to wonder if their roommates are going to actively try to destroy their lives if they find out which gender they are attracted to.”
It was nice to see my alma mater get some good press. I naively hoped this was a sign that homophobia and ostracism of an extremely vulnerable group of people by my community and former religion would slowly go away.
And then it happened. It wasn’t even a surprise. It was disappointing how much it wasn’t a surprise.
A statement was released. There are arguments over who was behind it. I don’t know. I just saw it get tweeted by BYU.
It said something about how just because the wording in the Honor Code had been changed, the gospel had not. That the university would reserve its right to punish kids for going on a date. That we would be maintaining the status quo, whatever that is.
Multiple of my Facebook friends broadcast this statement joyously. A guy I knew in high school wrote that he refused to wear BYU gear after the language was removed from the Honor Code but he was going to start wearing it again now that BYU had re-found its way. That post would have been very funny if it wasn’t so gross.
People are fighting about it again. They’re fighting about their interpretations of scripture. About whether it’s ok to gloat now that BYU has put the gays back in their place. About whether it really is all that easy to just transfer schools, and whether that’s really the point anyway.
I’m left here, like many people, just feeling sort of numb to it all. I’m torn between trying not to care because I’m tired and that’s not my life anymore, and feeling selfish for trying not to care because there’s a terrified closeted gay teenager, probably in my neighborhood, with homophobic parents who are vocally relieved those gays at BYU have been put in their place.
So many of my straight friends who value their religion but feel uncomfortable about how their LGBTQ friends have been so alienated have told me they feel stuck and confused. They are hurting because of the hurt this back and forth has caused someone else. They don’t know what to do, either.
I’ve seen people chime in on this issue over the years by admitting they don’t have the answers. They’ll throw up their hands and say something like “all I know is God loves everyone and this will all work out in the end.” I understand that point and why someone would share it. On some level, I even appreciate and love people for saying it.
But aren’t we past the time where this gets to be a sufficient response? Gay kids growing up in our communities, gay college students at church universities, gay adults trying to navigate the extremely painful road to maintaining their relationship with their religion—these people don’t have the luxury of resting on that sentiment.
I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. When the rolling waves peak on these issues every year or two, I’m just left feeling more and more helpless, and more and more sad that there are still young people who are scared and being tossed by those waves. I feel more and more sad that they feel so stuck and so unsure about where to turn.
The day I graduated from BYU Law School I went to dinner with my family somewhere near Lehi to celebrate. This was 2011. I wasn’t familiar with the area. There was much less development on the north end of Utah County back then and when we walked out of the restaurant I remember being surprised at how dark it was outside. It must have been around 10:00.
My family climbed into their cars and headed north toward Salt Lake County, where they all lived. I tried to head south, back to Provo to pack my belongings. After six years of living in Provo and attending BYU, I would be moving away the next morning.
I was so full of mixed emotions that night. Exhausted from three grueling years of law school. Scared of what would come next. Proud that I had finished. Sad to be saying goodbye to some friends who felt more like family.
I still don’t know how it happened. I’ve never been very good with directions, but it seems strange to me I could have gotten this far off course. Somehow I ended up on the wrong road, which led me all the way to the backside of Utah Lake, far west of BYU.
It was so dark out that it took me several minutes to even notice there was a body of water to the left of me. The West side of Utah Lake sits up against some small hills and mountains. At least at that time, there was no development in the area—just wilderness all around. This was miles from any address.
When I finally realized where I was, a panic rushed over me. I knew it was irrational. Obviously I would be fine. I would find my way back to civilization. But in that moment I just felt so alone, and stupid for getting so lost, and disconnected from everything. It felt like a time when I was a kid and got separated from my family at Disneyland—helpless dread, in that same way.
I stopped my car and looked across the lake to some flickering lights off in Orem or Provo or wherever they were. I remember seeing the Y on the mountain; it was lit up for graduation. It strangely felt like I was looking at it from outer space. So far away. So small. A vast expanse between us.
It occurred to me that I was totally by myself, and in that moment, I was really sick of being totally by myself. Before I could even process what I was feeling, my panicked breaths turned into tears. Suddenly six years of holding everything in and trying so desperately to not be seen, but to be accepted, unraveled through my sobs.
Memories of lying awake in BYU housing with stomach aches and full of terror at 2:00 in the morning flashed through my mind. I saw myself sitting in a friend’s apartment, listening to her tell me she had feelings for me, as I gasped through the words “I . . . can’t” before going home and crying by myself into a pillow. I remembered the sinking feeling I experienced leaning up against a wall under florescent lights in a kitchen while my roommates joked about beating gay people straight in a tone of righteous indignation.
Eventually I turned around and drove home. I stayed up packing my belongings, falling asleep on the floor of my lit bedroom, alone, around 3:00 AM. A few hours later I woke up and moved away. It took another two years for me to build up the courage to come out to anyone.
When we engage in our fights about the Honor Code and the students it affects, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a young person crying into the void on a dark road across a lake somewhere. A young person whose soul is begging for our compassion and understanding, rather than our judgment and sermons. A young person who needs help catching their breath.
A young person who didn’t ask for any of this.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)