The following is the fifth and final part in a weekly series detailing the community of LGBT students who attend Brigham Young University and the unique challenges they face.
Samuel Schiess came out on Facebook in January, while a student at Brigham Young University, to a flurry of support. But in his gut, he knew he wouldn’t stay at the university in Provo for much longer, especially if he wanted to date men.
“I just had a feeling I need to leave and it never went away,” Schiess said. “So I went for it.”
While many LGBT students at the university choose to attend BYU if already out or stay if they come out while attending, many leave as well, citing vagueness in BYU’s honor code and the school’s climate as reasons for going elsewhere.
Students agree to live by BYU’s honor code as part of their admission and attendance requirement for the university, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“One’s stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue,” the policy reads. “However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Schiess, a student from American Fork who is currently attending the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, attended BYU from the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2016. After he came out, he said the students who attended his church were nice — maybe even a little too over-the-top compared to before he came out.
Then, he was sent to the Honor Code Office for holding hands with another man.
“What I explained is that I didn’t interpret the honor code as restricting that specifically,” Schiess said.
Schiess, who was initially attracted to the Mormon university because of its music program, is still a member of the LDS Church, although lately he hasn’t spent much time around it. He’s also trying out dating.
In contrast, Jessica Kurki-Swenson didn't wait to start dating her wife, Leo, who was her girlfriend at the time Kurki-Swenson was a student, before leaving BYU. With Kurki-Swenson in the United States and Leo in Sweden, the couple didn't know if they were breaking honor code rules by having a relationship.
“There was always some sort of weird fuzziness of the honor code because I was in a committed and loving relationship, but I wasn’t doing anything physical about it,” Kurki-Swenson said.
Kurki-Swenson, a student from 2010 to 2015, started a secret, long-distance relationship with Leo, who she met online, in the fall of 2012. Three months before meeting Leo, Kurki-Swenson, who was studying linguistics, accepted she wasn’t straight.
Near the end of 2015, her grades started declining and her girlfriend was starting a foreign exchange program in California. Kurki-Swenson left BYU without a diploma, moved in with Leo in California and the two got married this summer.
Now, Kurki-Swenson is in Logan, waiting for her visa so she can reunite with her wife in Sweden.
“We are just so sick and tired of the waiting, but we know our relationship is worth it,” Kurki-Swenson said.
Two months after getting married, she submitted her resignation to the LDS Church because she didn’t want to be put through an excommunication process.
Knowing there was the potential for her to lose her status as a student at BYU because of her secret relationship was stressful, Kurki-Swenson said, and she was already struggling with her mental health. She’s spent the past year doing recovery work to get to a place where she could return to college.
Despite eventually leaving, Kurki-Swenson said she owes a lot to BYU and the people she met there.
“I will always be grateful for the community that was there and for the friendships I made, keeping me alive so I can be excited for the future,” Kurki-Swenson said.
As a high school student, Bryn Decker only applied to one college — BYU.
“I didn’t really think I had any other options,” Decker said. “I was like this Mormon boy who figured I needed to go on a mission and I wanted to go to the Mormon college.”
Decker, who will attend Utah Valley University in January, attended classes from the fall of 2013 to this spring.
Decker came out to her friends, but not really to her roommates. She said she was told by her bishop she’d be fine as long as she lived by the honor code, but she wasn’t sure what that meant. The code doesn’t specifically address transgender students, but does have a section on dress and grooming standards that states men must trim their hair above the collar, leaving their ear uncovered and men cannot wear earrings.
As a student, she wore foundation, but not other makeup, and occasionally leggings to class.
She heard comments from others who didn’t know a transgender student was there, but wasn’t ever directly harassed. She left the university because she said there wasn’t a place there for transgender people wanting to transition.
“I didn’t feel very safe while I was there,” Decker said. “I felt like if the wrong person found out at all, I’d be screwed.”
She’s since left the LDS Church and was suicidal when she dropped out of BYU.
“I would say I’m doing a lot better than that,” Decker said. “I’m not as bitter about the church and Mormonism as I used to be. When I was at BYU, I felt trapped by it.”
Todd Norman, who is spending his last semester at BYU before attending UVU next semester, has no plans to leave the LDS church.
Norman, who has been coming out for the last month and a half after returning from a two-year LDS mission, said he’s switching universities because he felt as if the school had him living a double standard.
He came to BYU for its engineering programs and will be studying communications at UVU. Norman said he is transferring because he believes UVU is a more open and liberal-minded university. Once there, he’s weighing dating as a possibility.
“I can explore options, and that is one of the options I would like to explore,” he said.
Back in Tucson, Arizona, Sonora Orchard, a student from 2013 to 2015, has started dating, something that was hard to do at BYU due to dates being terrified of breaking the honor code.
“I feel like I can finally explore, be bold about it, ask girls out, have them meet my parents and feel pretty great,” Orchard said.
BYU’s culture was toxic to her, she said. Once she started taking classes at BYU, she realized she had been repressing her feelings towards other women.
While there, she was sexually assaulted on a couple of occasions, which led to depression. Near the end of her time at BYU, she failed most of her classes, was sleeping throughout the day and gaining weight. When she announced she was leaving, her parents were relieved.
Now, she’s studying veterinary sciences at a community college and is in the process of creating a group of LGBT LDS people similar to the local group Understanding Same-Gender Attraction, which is not officially affiliated with BYU. USGA has been credited with forming a community for the LGBT BYU students, who can often feel isolated and alone from their straight peers, especially with the active dating culture at the university.
With forming a similar group in Arizona, Orchard is hoping to pass on the goodwill the Provo group had and create another safe space for LGBT Mormons to discuss their sexuality, thrive and be able to link up with resources they might need.
"I am missing that support from USGA because I was a part of it for so long," Orchard said. "Having this as a goal, creating a similar community here, it feels wonderful."