Kate Foster finally thought it was safe to be her whole self at Brigham Young University.
Foster was one of dozens of BYU students who came out after the Mormon college in Provo, Utah, removed language from its Honor Code barring queer couples from dating. Prior to February 19, the policy prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings,” a vague proclamation often used to target students for hugging someone of the same gender or even holding hands.
Students didn’t even have to be queer to run afoul of the Honor Code, which could end in a suspension or even expulsion from BYU. A straight male student might be reported for sitting on another man’s lap.
When Foster found out about the Honor Code update, she celebrated in a big way: by kissing her best friend, Francesca Lopez, in front of a statue of Mormon leader Brigham Young, for whom the school is named. “I downloaded Tinder,” Foster told VICE. “I started swiping on girls. It was a really exciting moment.”
After a photo of Foster and Lopez kissing went viral, it was printed in the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s largest newspaper. Close friends knew that Foster identifies as queer, but she hadn’t told her parents yet. Many queer people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints face rejection from their families and communities in a religion that views homosexuality as a “serious transgression” and potential grounds for excommunication, but Foster said her parents have been “super accepting and super loving, as they always are.”
“I think they wish I had just not come out so publicly,” she said. “That’s the only thing. They wish I would have told them first and then kissed a girl in front of the view of Brigham Young statue.”
The brief taste of freedom that queer BYU students got to experience was cut short this week. On Wednesday, the Church Educational System—which oversees all four BYU campuses in the U.S., including BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, and Ensign College, the LDS business school in Salt Lake City—released a statement saying the recent Honor Code updates had been subject to “some misinterpretation” and that the “moral standards of the church did not change.”
“Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code,” CES commissioner Paul V. Johnson wrote in an open letter.
The announcement sent immediate shockwaves through BYU’s campus. The same day, hundreds of students gathered to protest in the quad, with signs reading, “Report Me, I’m Gay” and “I Came Out Because I Thought BYU Loved Me.” Queer students say there’s a prevailing sense of hopelessness and despair among their peers. Many used the term “whiplash” to describe the anguish felt by queer students, especially those who had just come out to a campus that no longer feels welcoming.
Bradley Talbot, a junior, said that queer students were given a “false sense of security” by BYU. Over the course of the year, Talbot organized a series of Rainbow Days in which he said students passed out “over 10,000” pins, flags, and posters to show love and support for the LGBTQ community. Many students used last week’s event to be visibly out for the first time, thinking that the Honor Code finally allowed it.
“Now they just have a target on them because they thought they could come out in a safe environment, but it's not safe anymore,” Talbot told VICE. “It’s too late.”
It’s unclear how BYU’s Honor Code reversal will affect the school’s newly out queer population. In a Q&A emailed to students this week, Honor Code Office Director Kevin Utt said that BYU does not “expect” students to turn in individuals who violate the Honor Code—which had been a longstanding staple of the policy. In the past, students have reported their roommates for acts as harmless doing homework with someone of the same gender, as VICE previously reported.
Nathan Kitchen, president of the LGBTQ Mormon group Affirmations, said that Utt’s reassurances are misleading. He noted that a subsequent paragraph of the Q&A states that the Honor Code Office “does not investigate anonymous reports and the reporting individual must agree to have their name be known,” which appears to suggest that nothing has changed.
“It doesn't really say that other students’ reports will not be taken,” Kitchen told VICE. “It’s a whole bunch of ambiguity.”
While BYU suggested that lingering confusion over the Honor Code policy resulted from a misunderstanding over the language being removed, that’s not exactly the case. Kitchen met privately with the Honor Code office following the Feb. 19 update and was told the new rules stipulated that same-sex couples could date and engage in physical intimacy, as long as it wasn’t for the purposes of 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,” he told VICE in a previous story.
Representatives with the Honor Code Office have declined to respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE over the past two weeks, but dozens of students were reportedly told the exact same thing. When Kitchen called the Honor Code Office on Wednesday to discuss the repeated mixed messaging, he said no one was answering the phone. His calls just went straight to voicemail.
“Not much is being said,” Kitchen said. “It’s a very Mormon thing to do. The leader speaks and everyone falls in line.”
BYU has declined to offer transparency as to when the decision to roll back the Honor Code updates was made, but Kerry Spencer, a former writing professor at BYU who left the school in 2014, noted that the board for trustees for the Church Education System is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. That body is the second-highest governing authority in the LDS Church, meaning that the policy reversal is likely “coming from very high up,” Spencer said.
“When you’re talking about the people that are in charge of the Church Educational system, you’re talking about the Prophet and the Apostles,” she told VICE. “So basically the higher-ups were saying no.”
While the collective Honor Code reversal might appear to simply return things to the status quo, many said the situation is actually much worse for queer students at BYU. Before the language on same-sex relationships was removed, students knew what was expected of them, but now the school’s policies on homosexuality merely exist as a series of “unwritten rules,” Kitchen said.
“Unwritten rules are highly dangerous, especially to sexual and gender minorities,” he explained. “Because now all of a sudden, you have no idea if you are in violation or not. It just creates a state of fear.”
No one knows what’s next for queer students at BYU. Thomas Richins, a senior, said the controversy has made it difficult to focus on school when he already has depression and anxiety, and he worried about an uptick in suicidal ideation among a group that is already experiencing a great deal of trauma. A 2017 survey conducted by the off-campus student group Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship found that 52 percent of LGBTQ students at BYU “at some point in life considered self-harm.”
“The most frustrating part is that with all the mental health crises going on, BYU doesn't really understand the harm their statements are doing,” Richins told VICE. “I feel a lot of frustration and regret for even coming here.”
Some queer students told the Salt Lake Tribune they were likely to drop out or transfer schools to reduce the impact on their mental health. Others felt like they don’t have a choice but to stay. Talbot’s parents are both BYU alumni and some of his family members still work there, so it feels as if the university has “always been like a part of [his] family.” “It feels like my family is rejecting me and that they don't want me here,” he said, “even though I so desperately want to be here.”
Foster is just months away from graduating and plans to stick it out, even if it means being suddenly placed under a microscope. She was in class when she got an email informing her that BYU was reversing the Honor Code update and immediately felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under her—especially now that she’s one of the most visible queer students on campus.
“I can't really go back in the closet at this point, but right now, I am planning to stay out,” she said. "I truly think that things will change in the future."