Brigham Young University was the only school Ben Asplund ever wanted to go to. Each of the colleges he applied to were affiliated with the world’s largest Mormon university: the main campus in Provo, Utah, along with BYU outposts in Laie, Hawaii, and Rexburg, Idaho. Asplund was eventually accepted to the Provo campus, which is where his parents met and fell in love. His siblings went there.
“It's always been my dream school,” Asplund said. “I always pictured myself being a BYU grad.”
But like many queer students attending BYU, Asplund’s dream turned into a nightmare after the university reneged on its decision to allow same-sex couples to date on campus for the very first time. On February 19, the school struck language from its mandatory Honor Code banning any form of “physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings,” which had been interpreted as prohibiting queer students from kissing or even holding hands.
That decision was met with widespread elation from the queer student body at BYU, many of whom came out publicly after officials with the Honor Code office privately told them the new policy meant that they would be permitted to date. That understanding, however, was rolled back after the Church Educational System, which oversees all BYU campuses, released a statement last Wednesday clarifying that the “moral standards” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had not changed. Although the LDS Church permits its members to be gay, acting on same-sex attraction by engaging in physical intimacy is grounds for excommunication.
Asplund had already been considering transferring to another school. Even before the Honor Code debacle, he applied to nearby Utah Valley University after feeling as though BYU’s conservative culture encouraged him to feel “shame” about his sexual orientation. Although he was out to close friends, Asplund would lie about his romantic life, afraid of being disciplined or even expelled by Honor Code officials.
Although the Honor Code’s brief repeal gave him hope things could change, he said the fallout was like being “stabbed in the back.”
“BYU gave us a hand as if to say, ‘Oh, you’re good,’ and then just turned their backs on us,” he said. “I feel like that’s just not fair to students, especially with something as big as this. It doesn't feel right.”
Dozens of queer students at BYU are reportedly considering a transfer to other schools following the Honor Code’s effective reinstatement. Tiauna Lomax, who came out as bisexual after reports suggested queer students would be allowed to date, told the Salt Lake Tribune she is experiencing “traumatic whiplash” following the events of the past week. “I thought BYU cared about me,” Lomax said.
For students who do wish to leave the school, a fund was set up last week to offer them a helping hand. The Out Foundation—an organization representing LGBTQ alumni of BYU—launched a GoFundMe last Thursday to help subsidize lost scholarships, employment, and even campus housing. John Valdez, executive director of the Out Foundation, said the money will also go to helping students pay for application fees and the cost of having their transcripts sent to another school.
“A handful of students are now in a position where they have been outed on campus, and they might not feel like it’s the safest place for them to be,” Valdez told VICE. “We launched the transfer fund to assist those students in finding a safer space to continue their education.”
The Out Foundation said the amount of support has been overwhelming since the fund was launched less than a week ago. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than $36,000 has been raised to benefit prospective transfer students, and nearly 900 people have donated. The original goal, $10,000, was met in less than 12 hours. The organization will roll out an application in the coming days, and any excess funds that are not spent this year will be saved to benefit queer students in need of transfer assistance in coming years.
Craig Mangum, a co-founder of the Out Foundation, predicted the fund would serve as a critical lifeline for queer students who feel they otherwise wouldn’t be able to leave BYU. In 2019, the university was ranked by Forbes magazine as the “best value” college in the country, beating out institutions like Princeton and Stanford. Estimated costs of enrollment for the 2019-2020 academic year were just $11,580 for non-LDS students and $5,790 for members of the church.
“Leaving BYU can be a very daunting process,” Magnum told VICE. “The tuition is subsidized by the church. Perhaps a student hadn’t saved up as aggressively as their friends who were not aiming to go to a church-subsidized school, and so when you get to that point of realizing that you need to leave, it’s just a huge logistical, financial, and emotional burden.”
Asplund wasn’t sure if he plans to take advantage of the transfer fund. Despite hailing from outside of Utah, he was offered in-state tuition from Utah Valley University, which is priced at $5,726 for the 2019-2020 year. Being charged for out-of-state tuition would add an additional $10,000 to that tab.
“That will help a lot,” he said, still leaving open the possibility he might need the fund to help with the cost of books and additional expenses. “I have to determine my other financial needs.”
Whether or not queer students take advantage of the transfer fund, the Out Foundation hopes the campaign shows this vulnerable population there are people who care about them and love them just the way they are. “What is beautiful about what the Out Foundation is doing is that it is supporting students on both sides of the journey,” Mangum said. “For those students who wish to stay, it is there to support them in that decision. But for those students for whom staying is not an option, it's possible for them to now have support.”
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