Additional reporting and interviews for this story were contributed by staff reporter Ashley Nash.
Brigham Young University’s Honor Code was updated two weeks ago, removing a paragraph about “homosexual behavior” from the rules. Previously, this section of the code forbid “all forms of physical intimacy” between students of the same sex.
BYU students noted the change and wondered what it could mean. They called and met with Honor Code staff for clarification, and got an answer they didn’t expect. While the LDS church still does not allow same-sex marriages, the staff said, activities such as kissing or holding hands were okay, just as they were for heterosexual couples.
A rush of social media praise and national attention began. Many students who were empowered and excited by the change publicly came out to friends and family. A clarifying letter was sent to students and posted to BYU’s official social media accounts on Wednesday. In it, LDS General Authority and commissioner of the Church Educational System Paul V. Johnson stated that the previous updates to the Honor Code caused “much discussion and some misinterpretation.”
“A foundational doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is that ‘marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,’” the letter read. “Same-sex behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the princples of the Honor Code.”
The celebratory atmosphere that had taken over campus vanished. In its place was one of confusion and hurt.
Current students and alumni alike replied to BYU’s official Twitter post of the letter, saying things like “I am ashamed to see this kind of backtracking” and “this is cowardly and cruel.”
Talk of a protest began, and students quickly organized. A small makeshift protest took place the afternoon of March 4, with another one held the day after with the approval of the dean of students. Around one hundred students and alumni were in attendance over the course of three hours.
During the rally, students held signs referencing scriptures and LDS hymns. Volunteers passed out rainbow buttons and encouraged onlookers to stand with them. The group chanted “Jesus said ‘love everyone’” and sang the hymn “Love One Another” as they stood on the lawn near the student center.
While students felt hurt by Wednesday’s letter, many also felt hopeless that their situation would never truly improve at BYU.
“I think it’s really upsetting because when they removed it, it gave a lot of people hope that they could be open about who they are and not risk getting kicked out for being who they are,” said student Sara-Ann, who attended the rally. “With the retraction it just kind of makes people feel like it’s not a safe space for them to be honest and genuine with their classmates because of fear for being attacked for being gay.”
Many students reported similar feelings of betrayal. Some felt tricked into coming out and worry that anything they did in the two weeks since the revision would be subject to discipline by the school.
“So many people, including myself, came out so publicly because we thought we were safe,” said Ciera Galbraith, a BYU student who helped organize the first rally Wednesday afternoon. “We want to be on the same level as straight students, not higher. I’ve definitely made out with and held hands with plenty of men that also didn’t lead to celestial marriage. It’s not focusing on doctrine, it’s homophobia.”
Matthew Webber, a student at BYU’s Marriott School of Business, said that a lot of the pain and confusion gay students are currently experiencing could have been avoided if the Church Educational System and BYU had made this clarification sooner.
“The ‘he said, she said’ could have been avoided if the Honor Code office admitted that they didn’t see the update coming and had told students that they didn’t know what it meant,” said Webber. “[The church] said one thing and the Honor Code office said another, and let students believe things had changed and allowed celebrations. There was a huge disparity in communication.”
Students hope that the rally showed the school that they would continue to speak up about LGBTQ+ issues on campus, despite rebuttals from others saying that disgruntled students should leave the school.
A student with a megaphone began a chant of “transfer, transfer” during a quiet moment in the rally. He was shuffled off by an administrator while a girl with a sign rushed to stand in front of him, blocking him from the crowd with her homemade sign.
“I think a lot of students feel really rejected because people are responding to this saying ‘If you don’t like it just go to a different school,’” said Carter Allen, a Latter-day Saint. “I don’t think that’s Christ’s message at all. Christ never said, ‘if you don’t like it, leave.’”
The man with the megaphone, who only gave the name of Chris, felt that he was protecting his religious freedom with his counter-protest. He wanted to show his support for the school and their dedication to the principles of the LDS church.
“You can disagree with that, that’s fine. But when you organize … and you essentially pressure the institution to adapt to your values just because you disagree with the ones they currently uphold … to me that’s different, that’s a line crossed,” said Chris. “That’s why I’m here, just to show that I do support the school and their decision in clarifying and upholding the standards that it has upheld for many years.”
“I do believe we should love one another,” said Webber. “People have seen how many LGBTQ+ people there are at school, and those students have seen how many allies they have and hopefully feel less alone.”
Olivia is a theater education major who stumbled into journalism. She’s a little too into movies, pop culture, and Oxford commas (against the desires of her editors). She is also very online. ([email protected])