LGBTQ

The Biggest Mormon School in the US Now Says Queer Students Can Date—Maybe

Brigham Young University removed key language from its "honor code" denying queer students the right to kiss or date. Except now the school is saying the changes don't mean anything at all.
February 27, 2020, 6:52pm
two women almost kissing
Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy

When Emily Mullis went on three dates with another female student at Brigham Young University, she was forced to write a five-page essay explaining why her actions were “wrong” and detailing how she would strive to “be better in the future.”

Mullis wasn’t told why she was being called into the Honor Code Office at the world’s largest Mormon college in June 2018. A representative of BYU—a sprawling campus located in the heart of Provo, Utah, that is home to 32,000 students—called Mullis and told her that a counselor needed to speak with her. At the time, students were forced to sign a statement when they enrolled at BYU pledging that they would not engage in “sexual relations between members of the same sex,” in addition to “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

Widely known as the “Honor Code,” that statement was understood by authorities at BYU to mean that students of the same sex could not hug or hold hands, but the rules weren’t “defined in the actual writing,” Mullis recalled. “I had to be turned into the office and be told what I did wrong,” she told VICE.

Mullis said her first meeting in the Honor Code Office, which unsubtly displays a painting of Jesus holding a lamb outside its doors, felt like a courtroom “sentencing.” It was, in many ways. After a two-week investigation into her alleged misconduct, the office mandated that Mullis perform 10 hours a week of what was effectively community service. That part of the punishment was eventually dropped after the office assigned her to a new counselor, as was the mandate that she read a book on repentance.

“The first counselor shook me in how she had little to no empathy for my situation at all,” said Mullins, who noted that they only met in person once. “I was crying. To have that level of scrutiny from the place that I’m learning from, and to treat it the way that they did, it is a lot to deal with.”

Experiences like Mullins’ appeared as if they could become a thing of the past after BYU updated its Honor Code on February 19 to remove language on same-sex relationships. The new Honor Code governing student behavior at the four campuses overseen by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—which include BYU-Hawaii, BYU-Idaho, and Ensign College, the LDS business school in Salt Lake City—solely forbids “sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.” It does not say anything about same-sex kissing, hand-holding, or even dating.

The changes were met with widespread elation at BYU. Queer students took photos of themselves sharing celebratory smooches on campus in front of a statue of 19th century Mormon leader Brigham Young, for whom the school is named. Matt Easton, a BYU graduate who came out during his 2019 valedictorian speech, tweeted a photo of himself holding up a sign that read, “I’m Here, I’m Queer, and I Deserve to Feel Safe.”

“As of today, homosexual relationships are now treated the same as heterosexual ones at BYU,” Easton wrote. “Girls and gays, we did it!”

BYU is denying the changes mean anything

The rollout of the Honor Code policies, however, has caused nearly as much confusion as it has glee among the Mormon faithful, as officials with the university seemingly attempted to walk back the changes within the same day of announcing them. Just hours after students began tweeting screenshots of the new language taken from the BYU website, the main campus posted on its official Twitter account that “there may have been some miscommunication” about what the new policies actually mean, claiming that the “principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

“The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case-by-case basis,” BYU’s Twitter stated. “For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually.”

That opaque explanation has been met with a collective head scratch in the LDS community, and the university has been slow to provide clarity. The Honor Code Office did not return multiple requests for comment from VICE, and has been responding to media inquiries by reiterating the same language BYU posted on its Twitter almost word for word. “We have removed the more prescriptive language and kept the focus on the principles of the Honor Code, which have not changed,” spokesperson Todd Hollingshead told the international news outlet Voice of America.

In a press statement released on Monday, BYU said Honor Code Office Director Kevin Utt would “be presenting on the recent changes and adjustments to the Honor Code” in a meeting open to all students, but within hours, spokeswoman Carri Jenkins claimed that announcement was a mistake. She told BYU’s student newspaper that the office would “continue to meet individually with students who have Honor Code concerns.”

Nathan Kitchen, president of the LGBTQ Mormon group Affirmation and an alumnus of BYU, was one individual who reached out to the Honor Code Office personally for clarification on what the new policy means for students. As he reported to CNN earlier this week, representatives explained to Kitchen that it is “no longer an Honor Code violation to engage in same-sex hand-holding, kissing, or to even date” but suggested that there’s a “caveat” regarding queer romance. Casual dating is fine, but BYU draws a line at any relationship which could potentially lead to marriage.

“Since the church still has a doctrine that marriage is only between one man and one woman, then that possibly could be an Honor Code infraction,” Kitchen told VICE.

While the school has yet to publicize that policy, Craig Mangum, co-founder of the Out Foundation for LGBTQ alumni and former students of BYU, believes those guidelines would be next to “impossible” to enforce. How does one determine what constitutes a serious relationship? Would moving in with a same-sex partner or even saying “I love you” cross the line? Mangum, who kept his relationship with his boyfriend secret for two years during his undergraduate studies, said the fact of the matter is that “feelings are going to do what feelings are going to do.”

“It speaks to a general misunderstanding of the reality of a queer person’s felt, lived experience,” he said. “One of the ways a lot of queer Mormons try to make their lives and relationships acceptable to their families is to get married [to a same-sex partner]. It's just confusing and contradictory, in my opinion.”

The confusion surrounding the policy likely stems from BYU’s attempt to please both liberal and conservative factions of the religion, a tension that has played out on campus over the past week. While, on the one hand, researcher Jana Reiss argued in a 2019 book that young Mormons are the most liberal generation in LDS history—largely breaking with leadership over LGBTQ acceptance—on the other, a student group calling itself “Save BYU” has been posting fliers around campus warning: “The Family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”

Magnum said that “even a concession as small” as queer students being able to casually date is “really is destabilizing to the identities” of their conservative peers, which is likely why BYU leadership have attempted to shroud the Honor Code updates in a veil of secrecy.

“The [LDS Church] often skews conservative in policies,” he said. “It's 20 years behind on every large social change, whether it be the priesthood being extended to African Americans or even some concessions that they've made to the role of women in the church. But it usually does in the grand scheme of things take a centrist line; it remains this open net that catches the majority of people.”

Other BYU campuses might interpret the rules differently

There also remains an open question as to whether the Honor Code Offices at outposts like BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii interpret the updates the same way that officials at the main campus in Provo do, especially given that the new rules on same-sex dating are literally unwritten. BYU-Idaho, for instance, is known for a more fundamentalist interpretation of what constitutes acceptable conduct among students. Per its website, flip-flops and shorts are considered “inappropriate” attire on campus, while the university warns students to not “disfigure [themselves] with tattoos or body piercings.”

Located in the small town of Rexburg in the southeastern corridor of the state, BYU-Idaho’s draconian policies made national headlines in June 2017 when Ruthie Robertson, an adjunct professor of political science, was fired after posting on her private Facebook page in support of same-sex marriage. The post, which was written to honor LGBTQ Pride month, was only visible to friends.

The dogmatic, conservative environment fostered at BYU-Idaho doesn’t just affect life for its students and faculty on campus. Michael Summers, the former spiritual and wellness director with off-campus queer student group USGA, said that friends who were dating someone of the same sex would avoid holding hands in a restaurant, even if they were miles away from school grounds. They could be in a completely different city and still feel like it wasn’t safe to be themselves.

“They felt as though someone would see them and would tell the Honor Code Office,” Summers said. “They didn't want to get caught and then be kicked out of school and lose their degrees.”

While Summers said those fears might sound “paranoid” to some, things like this happened all the time. Because the Honor Code policies placed the burden of reporting violations on their peers, students were often known to report each other to the Honor Code Office for as little as sitting on someone’s lap, creating an environment many described as akin to an Orwellian surveillance state. Summers said a friend was once called into the Honor Code Office because his roommate saw him doing homework alone with another male student; his friend was gay, but the other student was straight. It didn’t matter.

“They went through a lengthy investigation for several months,” he said, noting that Honor Code officers requested access to the student’s Facebook page so they could comb through his private messages. “There was a lot of anxiety that it caused him that was unnecessary and unwarranted, just because of the fact that he was gay.”

While officials at BYU-Idaho also did not respond to requests for comment, Kitchen said one of the most significant improvements in the new guidelines—at least, as they are understood by the Honor Code Office representative who spoke to Kitchen—is that students will no longer be permitted to report each other for Honor Code violations. Instead queer students will be allowed to self-report their own behavior, which he said gives the “power back to [queer students] to self-police on honoring the honor code that they signed.”

Having graduated from BYU in the early 90s, Kitchen said these distinctions might seem insignificant to some but, in fact, they represent a major shift in the relationship between queer students and the administration. Since the policy updates went live last week, he noted that BYU students had been flooding the Honor Code Offices to ask questions about what the changes mean for them, which would have been unthinkable two decades ago.

“I would never want to go in just to chat with an Honor Code officer about anything,” he said. “Now my younger peers feel comfortable to just immediately walk into the Honor Code Office to ask, ‘Can I really date?’ It’s huge.”

Trans students won’t benefit from the changes

While the Honor Code updates represent significant, if extremely flawed, progress for queer students attending BYU, these changes don’t affect all members of its LGBTQ population. Transgender and nonbinary students could still face potential discipline from the Honor Code Office if they choose to live in accordance with their gender identity.

Although the Honor Code bylaws don’t mention trans students at all, BYU largely follows the lead of the Mormon Church when it comes to determining its policy. The same day the new Honor Code went live, LDS leaders released a new General Handbook that spelled out the regulations on transgender people who choose to remain in the faith. In a newly added section titled “Transgender Individuals,” it claims that trans people can be baptized and says they are allowed to participate in the church’s spiritual and social life. However, this population is forbidden from pursuing “either surgical, hormonal, or ‘social transitioning’ to the opposite gender.”

Those guidelines could have a major impact on trans students attending BYU. All students need an ecclesiastical endorsement from a bishop to remain in good standing with the Honor Code. If that is revoked for any reason, students cannot graduate or even enroll in classes. They could also lose their housing, if they live in a dormitory or off-campus residence affiliated with BYU.

Prior to the release of the new General Handbook, former BYU student Kris Irvin said the standard for trans students was only that they were “counseled against sexual reassignment surgery.” When Irvin, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, started a GoFundMe account to raise money for their top surgery two years ago, their bishop warned them that they could potentially face explusion. But because the new policies banning social transitioning are so vague, Irvin said trans students could face scrutiny for “anything from changing your name to changing your pronouns.”

“It could even be misconstrued as some woman with long hair deciding to get a short haircut or wearing pants to church, and the bishop decides, ‘Ah, that looks like a trans person,’” Irvin said. “It's very not specific, which means that the leadership roulette that we’ve always faced just got 10 times worse.”

Ash Rowan Sanborn, who came out as nonbinary and genderfluid after graduating from BYU five years ago, feared the changes to the new General Handbook will “keep students in the closet” until they graduate. “I have friends who are not able to come out really at all—to family or to anyone who could potentially revoke their endorsements and their status as a student,” Sanborn said. “It's a really, really unfortunate and stressful position to be in.”

Following the mixed messages from BYU officials regarding the Honor Code updates, the controversy has largely overshadowed the potential situation facing trans students. The CNN report merely noted that transgender students “aren't acknowledged in this new code,” while claiming that “the church takes no position on transgender causes,” the latter of which is arguably inaccurate. The Associated Press and USA Today don’t mention trans students at all in their reporting, while one person interviewed for this story questioned whether the school even had trans students.

Irvin said the erasure will contribute to feelings of invisibility among BYU’s trans population, who often feel as if they are alone on a campus where they very seldom see other students like them.

“It's very isolating being queer in general, but especially being transgender,” they said. “There may be 32,000 students, but there are definitely transgender people among them. They need to know that those of us who have gone before are still here and we’re still speaking out for them. We're all children of God and God knows us. He created us to be the way we are for a reason.”

It’s a small step toward freedom

Addison Jenkins, the former president of USGA at BYU, questioned whether the timing of the Honor Code rollout was designed to “distract” from scrutiny over the newly laid out policies on trans membership in the General Handbook. But he remained hopeful that even incremental improvements in queer student life at BYU could encourage further progress on LGBTQ inclusion. He said one of the primary functions of the university is to “train future leaders” in the Mormon faith, whether they are bishops and policymakers or even the future president of the LDS Church.

“Now when those people are in positions of influence in five years, 10 years, and 20 years, they will know queer people from BYU,” Jenkins said. “This will impact hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of members of the church.”

Even as BYU students wait to see how the new Honor Code policies play out, Jenkins said he’s already seen a difference for a queer student body that is used to being told their feelings and very existences are wrong. Days after the language on same-sex relationships was removed from the Honor Code, he drove from Salt Lake City to Provo to share in the joy. He went to a party organized by queer BYU students and watched “a bunch of kids in their early 20s eating Domino's pizza and jamming out to Lizzo on a Saturday night.”

Before this month, even an ordinary hangout shared with friends would have been nearly impossible due to fears that queer students could be reported to the Honor Code Office for dancing too closely. Letting a stray hand linger for just a second too long might have ended the same way it did for Emily Mullis, as a punishment without a crime. Instead they got to experience something all too rare: a taste of liberty.

“To see a bunch of college kids for the first time being able to live their lives without the fear that has been hanging over us for years was pretty moving,” Jenkins said. “My hope is that this is the beginning of the end of institutionalized homophobia at BYU and in the church more broadly.”

This article originally appeared on VICE US.