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What it means to be gay at BYU

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Brigham Young University is a school founded on religious conviction and guided by the scriptures and teachings of the LDS church. It demands assimilation from all who attend. To that end, school officials have set forth a strict set of standards to which all students and faculty must comply. For instance, if a student wants to sport a beard or goatee, or wear a sleeveless shirt or shorts above the knee, or dye his or her hair an unnatural color, he or she may want to consider attending another university. Such devious undertakings are not tolerated at BYU, for they are not “consistent with the dignity adherent to representing” the LDS church “and any of its institutions of higher learning,” according to the dress and grooming standards guidelines.

What’s more, nowhere on campus can anyone buy a drink containing even the smallest amount of caffeine. In fact, all intoxicants are against the honor code, save anti-depressants and sugar, which reportedly are gobbled up freely.

But above all else, the university preaches zero-tolerance to any form of sexual intimacy outside of wedlock. If a man even touches a woman’s breast, for instance, he has not only violated his hand and the consenting woman, but the honor code as well. Should the Honor Code Office somehow discover this act, both parties could face the possibility of suspension.

It is acceptable, however, for an unwed heterosexual couple to kiss and hold hands, so long as such actions take place outside of the students’ bedrooms and bathrooms and between the hours of 9 a.m. and midnight, or 1 a.m. Saturday morning. What’s more, members of the opposite sex are not allowed in each other’s bedrooms at all. Nor are they allowed to enter each other’s bathrooms except for an emergency or when necessitated by “civility.”

While heterosexual students are—and traditionally have been—held to the proverbial iron rod by a figurative leash, homosexual students seem bound to it by a choke chain. BYU affirms that gay students are allowed to attend the university so long as they “support the teachings and policies of the church and do not act upon their same-sex attraction.”

Yet, according to a school-approved student poll taken in 1997, 42 percent of students believed that same sex-oriented students should not be allowed to attend BYU, even if they adhere to the honor code. In addition, 41 percent believed that the LDS church fully accepts homosexual persons only if they change their sexual orientation. And 10 percent held the view that the LDS church excommunicates all homosexuals regardless of sexual activity. While this poll obviously indicates a large amount of student bigotry, it also reflects ignorance to the church’s—and therefore BYU’s—official stance on same-sex oriented individuals.

In 1991, the church’s First Presidency formally decreed that, although all sexual relations outside of wedlock are considered sinful, “there is a distinction between immoral thoughts and feelings and participating in either immoral heterosexual or homosexual behavior.” And in 1995, church President Gordon B. Hinckley stated: “Our hearts reach out to those who struggle with feelings of affinity for the same gender. We remember you before the Lord, we sympathize with you, we regard you as our brothers and sisters. However, we cannot condone immoral practices on your part any more than we can condone immoral practices on the parts of others.”

And in 1998, in a speech given at the church’s semi-annual General Conference, which was doubtless observed by millions of church members, Hinckley declared, “We want to help these people [homosexuals], to strengthen them, to assist them with their problems and help them with their difficulties.” He added that the LDS church “cannot stand idle” against “immoral activity” such as living in “a so-called same-sex marriage situation.”

But this relatively small extension of sympathy hasn’t always existed, and many would argue that in practice it still does not exist. BYU has a long history of intolerance in its dealings with same-sex oriented students. In 1965, for instance, then-university President Ernest Wilkinson said in a speech to the student body that BYU does “not intend to admit to campus any homosexuals. If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately after this assembly; and if you will be honest enough to let us know the reason, we will voluntarily refund your tuition. We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.” The speech was titled “Make Honor Your Standard.”

Around that same time, Dr. Eugene Thorne, then head of BYU’s psychology department, began conducting electro-shock and vomiting aversion therapy experiments on admitted homosexual students in an ill-fated and arguably inhumane attempt to change the students’ sexual orientation. According to Connell O’Donovan, a homosexual who took part in the experiments, a plethesmograph—which measures physical arousal—would be attached to a participant’s penis and a heparin lock with an I.V. attached would be placed around the wrist. The subjects would then be shown gay pornographic pictures. If arousal occurred, a drug to induce vomiting would be subsequently injected into their veins. While being shown heterosexually erotic photos, on the other hand, a euphoria-inducing drug would be delivered into their bloodstream.

Women were also subjected to these experiments. These mind-manipulation therapy tactics are outlined in greater detail in Max Ford McBride’s 1976 doctorate dissertation on the “Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy,” which can be perused at the Harold B. Lee Library on the BYU campus.

By 1978, BYU had ceased conducting such controversial experimental therapies. To this day, however, the church still publishes and distributes several pamphlets written over 30 years ago that demonize same-sex orientation and, contrary to increasing scientific and medical evidence, insist that one’s sexual orientation simply boils down to a personal choice.

In a more recent example, Ricky Escoto, a gay man and former BYU student, was suspended in April for one year after his roommates turned him in to the Honor Code Office. His roommates said they witnessed Escoto kissing another male on the couch of their apartment. They say he dated men, talked with men on the phone, was addicted to gay chat rooms and once received flowers from a male admirer.

Escoto denied most of the allegations as laughable, but admitted to having phone conversations with and dating men. He is, after all, gay. Had he been a heterosexual, however, all the allegations would have never developed to anything more than friendly gossip, if that.

Former student Matthew Grierson, who is gay, was also suspended in April. He was reported to the Honor Code Office for holding hands with another male while at the mall and allegedly kissing another male in the Richards Building on campus. While he denied the kissing occurrence, Grierson was left somewhat baffled about being turned into the Honor Code Office for simply holding hands. “I didn’t know it was against the rules to hold hands,” he said, adding that he knows unwed heterosexual couples who have been reported for having sexual intercourse but did not receive as strict a penalty as he did.

Because of a strict privacy policy, BYU officials declined to speak concerning any students’ hearings.

Gay student Craig Fisk, however, says that while the Honor Code Office does its best to be fair, frequently only God and the two people involved actually know what, if anything, transpired between them. “In most cases, it’s your word against [the Honor Code Office’s].” And the office seems to take a “guilty until proven innocent philosophy about charges. If a person says, ‘I saw so and so doing this,’ [the Honor Code Office] has to assume that [what the person is saying] is true,” and accordingly investigate. This approach is even more often the case with gay students, says Fisk, because their sexual orientation already makes them suspect to misconduct.

Considering BYU’s strict and atavistic policies against—and questionable approach toward—homosexuality in general, it seems odd that a gay person would willingly choose to attend the school. In more ways than one, it’s like hearing that a wine-enthusiastic feminist decided to move to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Yet to Clark Johnsen, a 24-year old same-sex oriented BYU senior, such a decision is not so hard to understand.

Many of the gay students, he says, come to BYU because “they want to retain their affiliation with the church for the present.” Although convinced of their same-sex orientation, many are uncertain if they want to pursue the lifestyle. “As you can imagine, it is an enormously tough decision for a person who has been reared and indoctrinated extensively in any religion.”

Some attend BYU because “it is socially convenient,” says Johnsen. They can pursue the gay lifestyle while maintaining the image of being a devout heterosexual member of the LDS church. According to Johnsen, many of these students aren’t ready to tell their families about their homosexual orientation and find BYU, with its exemplary reputation among most LDS families, the perfect setting to keep their sexual orientation latent.

Others, says Johnsen, are already “set upon staying in the church and have chosen to not pursue the gay lifestyle.” Johnsen considers himself a part of this group. For these students, BYU offers a morally-inclined support system for gay students facing the same dilemmas. It would indeed be hard to find another university where such a variety of same-sex oriented students subsists.

Johnsen, who was born and raised in an LDS household, says he always felt a bit different than most boys, but as a youth he “tried valiantly to fit in.” Though he came to accept the fact that he was gay at age 16, he did not feel ready to let others know until he was 18 and had graduated from high school. A little more than one year later, his daily attire consisted of a dark suit and he was being referred to as Elder Johnsen.

“I knew that in spite of the obvious difficulties that a mission might present, I was supposed to go, and I have always had a testimony, so I wanted to serve.”

Before leaving on his two-year mission, he entered BYU for two semesters. There, he “did some minor experimentation” and frequently dated men. During this time, he was completely open about his sexuality with all his ecclesiastical leaders, family members and friends. These experiences at BYU, he says, helped prepare him for an LDS mission. By coming to terms with his sexuality, he was able to become a more complete person and more empathetic to serious issues that people have.

It also proved beneficial to other missionaries. Serving in the hot climate of Mexico, where the young women “were oftentimes scantily clad,” he would be asked by missionaries in other cities to perform the necessary one-on-one interview “with some young buxom baptismal candidate who perhaps had not yet learned the virtues of modesty. Somehow, their feminine wiles never seemed to get to Elder Johnsen,” he laughingly mused.

Some of Johnsen’s ideas about same-sex oriented people seem to differ from those of the LDS church, however. In a few of the aforementioned church pamphlets on homosexuality, author Boyd K. Packer takes the stance that homosexual orientation is merely a choice. That is, if a person is sexually attracted to a member of the same gender, it is because that person wants to be attracted to a member of the same gender.

Johnsen does not agree. “It is not my fault I am this way,” he said, “so why should I take a bad rap for it?” Making a clear distinction between orientation and behavior, he says people who have homosexual inclinations cannot deny it and remain healthy. “However, it is a choice to live a gay lifestyle or not. Every person is endowed with free agency to hold on to his testimony or not. I have chosen to hold on to mine,” he affirms. It is his testimony of the truthfulness of the LDS church, he says, that allows him to both accept his homosexuality and healthily suppress the desires that come along with it.

Craig Fisk, however, sees things differently than Johnsen. A senior at BYU, Fisk first attended classes after completing a two-year mission. Like Johnsen, Fisk had been completely open about his sexual orientation with his ecclesiastical leaders before leaving on a mission, and he remains so to this day. Having been accepted to BYU out of high school, he arrived there after his mission “very clean and very determined to make sure [his] life was in accordance to the what the church taught.”

But three years of experiences at BYU have altered some of his opinions concerning the LDS church. “I don’t know how much involvement I’ll have with the church after I graduate,” he admitted. “I have a strong testimony of many of the principles that are taught in the church, and a belief in God.”

But he sees cracks within certain aspects of the doctrine. Like Johnsen, Fisk believes sexual orientation is something one is born with. “I feel Heavenly Father wants me to live an honest life; to be open. Since I’m gay, he wants me to build a family with a man,” he asserted, with a pensive look on his face. “I think God knew I would have these feelings, and I don’t think he intended me to have some destructive relationship with a woman, especially since she would be his daughter.

“Since he respects his daughters so much, he doesn’t want gay men marrying them. It wouldn’t work. It would just mess up their lives. And if you have children, you mess up the children’s lives, as the marriage would most likely end in divorce. I don’t think that’s what he wants.”

Though not quite consistent with LDS doctrine, Fisk subscribes to the church’s creed of maintaining one’s moral ethics. He wants to eventually find a good man, fall in love, and have a 100 percent-committed relationship with him. Perhaps even raise children and build a family. “I think that would be much more beneficial to society than if I married a woman,” he asserted.

But for now, Fisk is fairly content to remain single and adhere to BYU’s honor code. “I chose to come here,” he said, “and in doing so I also chose to obey the rules.”

How would his life be different had he gone to another university? “I’d feel a lot more comfortable and liberated and things like that,” he replied. “But on the other hand, the friends I’ve made here are probably the best I could have made anywhere, because, in a way, it is nice to have gay friends who are also LDS.” They come from similar backgrounds and understand the many dilemmas one faces being both gay and LDS. But he admits that, for the most part, homosexuality remains a taboo subject on and around campus.

“It’s good to have an environment where students really feel comfortable about coming out of the closet and being honest about their feelings,” Fisk said. That way, a closet gay’s suppression doesn’t build to the point of explosion.

“As I’m sure you know,” Fisk continued, “when you’re straight, sexuality is all very open. But when you’re gay—especially if you’re gay and LDS—you aren’t able to gain experience in dating and dealing with certain attractions.” As a result, Fisk says, some closet gays “suddenly go off the deep end” while finally coming out. Not only do they become sexually promiscuous to an extreme, but abuse alcohol and other drugs as well, Fisk says.

This is something the LDS General Authorities are beginning to understand, Fisk says. By showing more compassion and openness towards homosexuals, the General Authorities are helping LDS “people in the closet feel more comfortable getting help,” Fisk said. The help many are now getting from ecclesiastical leaders, and even counselors at BYU, does not deal so much with changing one’s orientation, as in the past, but with “the secondary issues, such as depression, low self-esteem, inability to relate with heterosexuals of the same gender.”

Perhaps in time, one’s image will not be as important as one’s reality at BYU.

“Even though I go to BYU,” Fisk proclaimed, “I don’t feel that I have anything to hide.” u

Stuart Johnsen contributed to this article.

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Jared W. Blackley

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