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Gay BYU students say attitudes are changing

By Paige Fieldsted - Daily Herald - | Feb 24, 2013
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Adam White, left, the head of Understanding Same Gender Attraction (USGA) talks to Jimmy Hales, 25, a BYU student, after Thursday night's meeting at the Provo City Library on January 10, 2013. USGA, a BYU student group, meets every week and is open to anyone. SARAH WEISER/Daily Herald

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Ben Cluck, 19, left, and Shellie Snow, 31, center, listen to Gary Watts, 72, of Provo during Thursday night's Understanding Same Gender Attraction (USGA) meeting at the Provo City Library on January 10, 2013. USGA, a BYU student group, meets every week and is open to anyone. Watts, who has two gay children, comes to the meetings as an advocate. SARAH WEISER/Daily Herald

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Gary Watts, 72, of Provo, laughs during Thursday night's Understanding Same Gender Attraction (USGA) meeting at the Provo City Library on January 10, 2013. USGA, a BYU student group, meets every week and is open to anyone. Watts, who has two gay children, comes to the meetings as an advocate. SARAH WEISER/Daily Herald

In a dark corner of BYU’s history lurks the fact that at one time shock therapy was studied as a way to cure homosexuality. From administering electric shock to fear of coming out to a student group filled with openly gay members, things are changing.

At a school centered around the teachings and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being a gay student has never been easy, but in recent years changes to the honor code, public discussions and an unofficial student group have been working to change the experiences gay students have at Brigham Young University. Students coming to terms with their sexuality while at BYU say the experience can be challenging.

“It was a very confusing time because I didn’t feel right or normal, I never considered I could be gay because the way we had talked and not talked about homosexuality in church to me it seemed you were either gay or you were Mormon — you couldn’t be both,” Adam White, a junior in theatre art studies, said. “My first year coming to college I was depressed; I turned to destructive habits. It was not a good time for me.”

Gay students at BYU say the environment is changing and things are getting better, but there is still a long way to go.

Darker days

In recent years panel discussions featuring gay students, changes to the honor code and student groups have helped gay students feel more at home and comfortable at BYU, but there was a time not too long ago when students were afraid to even mention that they might be gay.

“Between 2007 and 2009 when all the Proposition 8 stuff was going on the environment was very hostile,” said Mark May, who graduated from BYU in 2010. “I did not support Prop 8 and people were really mean and would say I was going against the prophet. There was no way in hell I was going to come out; I was already getting attacked enough for not backing Prop 8. I didn’t even feel safe at BYU.”

May said he went through his entire college career at BYU, which spanned nearly 10 years, without telling a fellow student or faculty member that he was gay.

In the past students at BYU could have been expelled simply for identifying themselves as being gay, but in 2007 the honor code was changed to read, “Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards.”

Carri Jenkins, spokeswoman for BYU, said it has long been the policy of BYU that a student’s sexual orientation is not an honor code issue and that to ensure policy reflected the practice at BYU, the honor code was officially changed.

But there were even darker days at BYU for gay students. In the late 1970s one professor studied the effects of aversion therapy on homosexuals, using electric shock. Jenkins said that at the time other universities were studying similar techniques but that studies like that have not been done since the 1970s.

“Aversion therapy was an outgrowth of the behaviorist movement, which believed that any behavior could be modified,” Jenkins said. “Our understanding is that most behaviorists no longer believe this is an appropriate treatment for those who are seeking change.”

BYU also has taken steps recently to open up the discussion about homosexuality on campus. In April a panel of four BYU students who identify as gay discussed their experiences. The discussion, which had to be approved by administration, was open for the entire sociology department.

Charlie Morgan, who now works as a professor at Ohio University, was responsible for getting the panel approved. He said he had held similar, smaller-scale discussions in his classes for several years and felt there was a need to take it to the next level.

“There is a real need for understanding about this issue; there are a lot of students who struggle with the issue,” Morgan said. “The fact that the university actually wanted us to have this even spoke volumes about the fact that they see this as an issue and they are willing to talk about it. I feel very positive about the direction that BYU is moving in when it comes to these difficult issues.” Ben Ogles, dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, said faculty members are focused on providing a well-rounded education to students, which includes discussing issues of sexuality.

“In the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, we study and teach about human behavior and contemporary and historical social issues from theoretical, philosophical, experimental, spiritual and practical points of view,” Ogles said. “Our fundamental underlying belief is that better information and education leads to better decisions and actions and ultimately helps students to be better citizens.”

Facing challenges

Despite the changes in both the honor code and the general environment on campus many gay students still deal with prejudice and misunderstanding at BYU.

Kevin Northrup transferred to the University of Utah after spending three years at BYU. He said his roommates knew he was gay and until last summer he had no problems with any of his roommates or the honor code. But he recently started a relationship and one of his roommates threatened to turn him into the honor code office if he didn’t break it off.

“He felt that part of following the honor code is encouraging other people to follow it,” Northrup said. “I understand. BYU put him in this position where he feels obligated to enforce the honor code.”

He also went to class one day to discover students passing out fliers that equated being gay with being a child molester.

However, despite not finishing his schooling at BYU Northrup said he holds no hard feelings for the school or his roommate. They remain good friends.

During the panel discussion in April, White, one of the participants, said most of the questions and interactions with the audience was positive but there were occasional comments condemning the students for making the choice to be gay. He also said students and professors alike aren’t afraid to voice their opinions about gay people.

“People will not say things to your face if they disagree with what you are saying or have different feelings about homosexuality than you do, but people are not afraid in classes or when talking to their friends of voicing very, very ignorant things,” White said. He once overheard a conversation in which two returned missionaries were discussing “punching the gayness” out of one of their companions.

“They were talking about it as if gayness immediately meant badness,” White said. “They were very violent and very ignorant about it.”

Change therapy

The question of how to be both gay and Mormon still remains, however, as do some of the old ways of handling it. Utah-based Evergreen International is one of the major providers of change therapy: doing therapy with the goal of changing a person’s sexual orientation. Its mission statement reads: “Evergreen is founded on the belief that the atonement of Jesus Christ enables every soul the opportunity to turn away from all sins or conditions that obstruct their temporal and eternal happiness and potential. Evergreen attests that individuals can overcome homosexual behavior and diminish same-sex attraction and is committed to assisting individuals who wish to do so.”

The group sustains the doctrines and standards of the LDS Church but is not affiliated with the church.

White said that while the two organizations are not linked there are LDS bishops who recommend Evergreen to those who have feelings of homosexuality and are trying to maintain their membership in the LDS Church.

“The explicit invitation to go and try to change yourself is no longer there but what is there is people referring people to Evergreen. I know of bishops around here that do that,” White said. “If I didn’t know what Evergreen was and my bishop recommended me Evergreen I would go ‘Oh, OK,’ but in reality it is a softer form of reparative therapy with a gospel slant.”

Evergreen president David Pruden said Evergreen doesn’t perform any therapy; it serves as an educational resource for those looking for answers.

“It is a real difficult problem when religious values are in conflict with attractions that you didn’t ask for,” Pruden said. “Evergreen began as an organization that is governed by those who have dealt with this in their lives. We believe people can resist homosexual behavior and can diminish attractions and can still be members of the LDS Church.”

Pruden said Evergreen offers suggestions on books, DVDs and other resources that may help. Evergreen also puts on regional conferences. In November Evergreen sponsored a conference put on by the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists called “Same-sex Attraction: Reconciling Faith and Feelings.” The conference, held in Provo, featured speakers who have experienced same-sex attraction and are now involved in successful opposite-sex marriages. Evergreen also hosted its own conference on Feb. 9 in Orem featuring workshops geared toward men experiencing same-sex attraction, their families and friends and their wives.

Pruden said they don’t promise anything to people who seek them out, but he believes that people can manage homosexual feelings and live righteously within the LDS Church.

The Daily Herald was unable to speak to any bishops about how they deal with gay members who come to them, but LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter provided a statement in which he said all bishops have church resources to help them in their duties and the support of LDS Family Services:

“Regardless of the issue, bishops strive to foster an environment of trust and compassion when ministering to those with personal needs. They provide individual counsel on a case-by-case basis creating a setting where members can find inspiration to work through difficult challenges while remaining faithful to church teachings. The church teaches that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married. Sexual attractions in themselves are not sinful. As followers of Jesus Christ, we reach out to all of God’s children with love and understanding. All are welcome in our congregations.”

BYU professor Renata Forste said having an open and honest discussion, such as the one provided by the panel, is important in helping others gain understanding and creating a safe environment for gay students.

“The biggest issue is there is a lot of misunderstanding in the community about what the church’s standing on being gay is. These students are keeping the honor code and are here to get their degree like everybody else, and we need to create a place for them to be accepted and feel comfortable and safe so they can pursue an education just like everyone else,” Forste said. “Many think that anything relating to homosexuality is a sin, but as long as students aren’t acting on their attractions they are following the honor code and they need to be supported and encouraged in that effort.”

In an effort to reduce confusion about its stance on homosexuality the LDS Church launched a new website, mormonsandgays.org, in December. The website not only outlines the church’s official stance on homosexuality but also creates a collection of resources including talks given by LDS leaders, personal stories from family and friends and those who have been impacted by homosexuality. White said he sees this a huge step for the LDS Church. He said the church openly using the words gay and lesbian creates a more comfortable place to talk about LGBT and same-sex attraction issues, especially at BYU. But he’s also concerned that BYU students could use the website as a way to pressure their LGBT peers into doing what they think is right for that person.

“To see apostles and saints come together on this issue in very frank, authentic ways will facilitate civil dialogue at BYU,” White said. “This website is a call for more love, more inclusivity and more empathy. It isn’t a weapon to pressure people to believe what you want them to believe. That would be a gross misuse of this resource. Unfortunately, I think this will be a challenge for BYU students.”

Finding acceptance

Following his first semester White took a semester off school to deal with his personal issues. When he returned to BYU he joined an unofficial BYU group called Understanding Same Gender Attraction.

The group meets weekly all year to discuss issues facing those who are both gay and Mormon. Topics range from sharing missionary experiences to discussing scriptural references and recent talks given by LDS Church leaders on homosexuality to self-esteem and relationship issues.

“I have been lucky because other than that first semester there hasn’t really been a time when I felt truly alone in this atmosphere because I was gay and Mormon,” White said. For many gay students at BYU, the group is a place they can be truly accepted and understood and is one of the reasons many students believe the environment is getting better at BYU.

“It is what helped me become comfortable with who I am,” Northrup said. “When I first came to BYU I had no one to talk to, to understand, but with USGA you can talk with people who have the same or similar experiences. I felt outcast from my ward and old group of friends, but USGA is a very welcoming group. They are very accepting and encouraging of who you are and what you want to become.”

Northrup said the group also has educated members about how the LDS Church views homosexuality and gay people.

“The USGA is a very important group and I have had students tell me that they know of people who personally struggle and they found USGA and that helped them deal with the situation,” Morgan said. “People who were suicidal were helped by that group.”

Students say that even thought USGA isn’t an official BYU group, coming together as a community will only create positive change.

“I think there is something to be said for coming together. If we really want to effect change on our campus, in its policies, in making a place for us within the church we’re going to have to come out,” said Spencer Smith, a junior in psychology. “We’re going to have to stand together. We’re going to have to make ourselves known and make a good impression because hate feeds on lack of exposure.”

The positive environment and support created by the group is even drawing some gay students to BYU.

Andrew Romriell is a student at Utah Valley University but attends the BYU group weekly. He is working on getting his grades up so he can transfer to BYU. He said the changes he is seeing are exciting and he wants to be a part of it. “The position that the LDS community has on gays has been pretty strong throughout our time, but changes are happening, slowly but surely. Students can call themselves gay without fear of expulsion from the church or from BYU,” Romriell said. “I see a change in the level of support. I see a change in acceptance. I see a change happening, whether it’s in my lifetime or not, and I want more than anything to be a part of it. I want to raise awareness for the LGBT community. I want to show others that it is possible to reconcile your faith and sexuality, no matter what it is. I want to help people find hope and know that they are never alone. I want to help others in the LGBT community know that there is a place for them.”

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