Affirmation president’s efforts to improve relations between BYU and LGBTQ community
by Nathan Kitchen, President of Affirmation
With the dramatic changes this week to the honor code for schools operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought I would share my experiences at BYU that took place last October in my official capacity as president of Affirmation.
In July of 2019, the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters and the College of Humanities at BYU invited me to be one of three keynote speakers at a two-day roundtable conference and to meet with faculty, administration, and students to discuss ways to build better relations between BYU and the LGBTQ community.
The need for such an event was prompted by the recent loss of an important professional conference that was to be held on the BYU campus.
Clash of academics and BYU policies
In April 2019, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) rescinded its offer to hold its 2023 meeting on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo. Their decision was the result of serious concerns and objections raised by Professors T. H. M. Gellar-Goad of Wake Forest University and Christopher B. Polt at Boston College. Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt successfully asserted that BYU’s honor code as applied to LGBTQ individuals, the university’s nondiscrimination policy that does not include sexual orientation or gender identity protections, and the restrictive visiting speaker policies should make the association question the safety of LGBTQ individuals on campus. Moving the CAMWS meeting off the BYU campus was a significant academic loss for the university.
To their credit, instead of withdrawing from the sting of this loss, the classicists at BYU saw an opportunity for faculty and administration to become better educated and learn to foster respectful dialogue between visiting scholars and the university regarding LGBTQ issues.
In what I can only describe as a surprising and refreshing move, the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters and the College of Humanities invited Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt to campus, the very professors who spearheaded the successful effort to move the 2023 CAMWS meeting off the campus.
My invitation to participate read in part, “As president of Affirmation (and a BYU alumnus too), your insights will be very welcome on how to promote better understanding and discussion of LGBTQ+ concerns at BYU. We hope very much that you will be able to accept this invitation, and that you will join us for what promises to be a good opportunity for a valuable exchange of ideas on how to help better build relations between BYU and the LGBTQ+ community.
The date of this LGBTQ roundtable event was set for October 10th-11th, 2019. As I flew to Utah and considered the history of LGBTQ student treatment at BYU, I was not quite sure what to expect.
Academic freedom on display
At the start of the conference, Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt indicated they were genuinely surprised that BYU was hosting them for an on-campus event, considering that they had successfully procured the rescission of the invitation to host the CAMWS meeting at BYU. They were impressed that BYU wanted to have a dialogue to understand why these issues were important to LGBTQ students and visiting faculty.
Both professors presented classical studies lectures to a packed hall of over 80 students. Notably, Professor Geller-Goad enjoyed full academic freedom as he delivered his classics paper about the houses of sex-laborers in the works of Plautus and Terence, quite possibly the first time this subject had been taught at BYU.
After the guest lectures, the three of us met with Kevin Utt, the honor code office director. We asked many questions concerning the enforcement of the honor code for LGBTQ students as well as the changes that had occurred since BYU hired Mr. Utt earlier that year. The director was open and professional during our meeting.
We discussed the lack of written, precise rules for honor code enforcement. For example, Professor Polt pressed for a list of specific forms of physical intimacy that give rise to homosexual feelings that would be honor code violations. Mr. Utt explained that the honor code office doesn’t have a written list because such things are considered on a case-by-case basis in order to determine student intent.
Professor Polt questioned how exactly intent is discovered saying that ambiguity in the honor code discriminates against LGB students, especially since presumably the honor code office doesn’t need to determine intent when an opposite-sex couple holds hands on campus.
When we asked about transgender students, we learned that the honor code provides no guidance about gender identity; therefore each transgender student is looked at on a case-by-case basis if any issues arise.
We suggested that BYU should clearly state the university’s expectations of LGBTQ students and expressed concern that continuing in ambiguity gives the honor code office an extraordinary amount of power over LGBTQ students. Such uncertainty concerning rules discriminates against LGBTQ students by stoking fear of being reported over an ambiguous honor code. This puts a great burden on LGBTQ students as they navigate the honor code when compared to their heterosexual, cisgender peers.
With regard to reporting, I expressed concern about communications between ecclesiastical leaders and the honor code office. Mr. Utt told us that he had closed that link in both directions when he was hired. The honor code office does not accept bishop or stake president reports about students nor do they report to bishops and stake presidents anything a student discloses with the honor code office or any actions taken by it.
He did reiterate that by law the honor code officers and faculty are mandatory reporters to the Title IX office concerning sex-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence; however, in Title IX matters the honor code office does not get involved and the Title IX office does not report to the honor code office.
Mr. Utt explained that students and faculty are not mandatory reporters of honor code violations. Rather, students and faculty are to encourage others to follow the honor code instead of reporting others. Anonymous honor code reports are no longer accepted and most honor code violations are self-reported, which Mr. Utt says is the intent of the honor code.
As a BYU alumnus of the early 1990s, I feel that the hiring of Mr. Utt has helped change the culture of the honor code office, creating a more transparent and professional organization, especially in the area of protecting student privacy. He’s worked hard to make the honor code office a place where students feel comfortable coming to ask questions. Despite these changes, unwritten rules of enforcement make most LGBTQ honor code infractions a case-by-case matter, which is harmful to LGBTQ students
A safe place on the BYU campus
After our visit to the honor code office, I arranged for Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt to meet Dr. Roni Jo Draper in her office at the Department of Teacher Education. We spent a relaxing and enlightening hour in her office, which if you have never been, is an unmistakably safe place for LGBTQ people on campus. After our morning itinerary, I realized how much I needed this safe space, and how vital it is for LGBTQ students. During our visit, we exchanged ideas on how to make such spaces possible all over campus.
BYU’s general counsel
We ended our first day on campus by meeting with BYU general counsel Steve Sandberg. We discussed the absence of sexual orientation and gender identity in the university’s nondiscrimination statement and how that exposes LGBTQ students and visiting faculty to harm. Professor Gellar-Goad stated that it appears that BYU’s non-discrimination statement is in conflict with BYU’s conduct code.
Mr. Sandberg explained that BYU’s sponsoring organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, receives Title VII, Title IX, and Utah State protections to create a university space that gives preference to members of the religion and allows them to make decisions that are in alignment with doctrine.
What may be seen as inequitable to others are protected religious tenets of belief. All religious universities in America have the protection to create nondiscrimination policies that align with their doctrine as long as they do not conflict with federal, state, and local laws, Mr. Sandberg said.
Both Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt noted that BYU law school has sexual orientation and gender identity protections while BYU Provo does not. This shows that such protections have been worked out on a part of campus, just not the whole campus. Mr. Sandberg responded that much of this has to do with housing issues, which is an important part of the university as a whole, but not an issue for the law school.
Mr. Sandberg stated that the intentions of the current visiting faculty speaker policy are not as restrictive as they have been interpreted by CAMWS. He indicated that BYU is currently clarifying its visiting faculty speaker policy to eliminate any confusion. Professors Gellar-Goad shared that policies are messaging tools. They broadcast values and practices.
USGA, BYU’s off-campus LGBTQ support group
Before our meeting with BYU general counsel ended, we discussed the absence of an on-campus LGBTQ support organization. Professor Polt asked, “What is the university’s anxiety about an LGBTQ organization?” Mr. Sandberg, who sits on the president’s council, discussed their good faith efforts and hard work as a council to create an on-campus LGBTQ group last year. The president of BYU approved the plan, but the Board of Trustees subsequently rejected it without explanation. I urged Mr. Sandberg to continue their efforts, as study after study demonstrates that such on-campus alliances improve the mental health for the entire student body, not just LGBTQ students.
On Friday, we met with the Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship (USGA) presidency. USGA is the off-campus LGBTQ support group led by students. This was my favorite of all our meetings. The students were sharp, well-spoken colleagues who expressed great loneliness in going about their work. We spent over two hours listening to these student leaders describe their intersection of LGBTQ life with the honor code. I offered Affirmation’s support in the lifesaving work that USGA does for LGBTQ students.
The roundtable discussion
Our time at BYU came to a close with Professors Gellar-Goad, Polt, and me conducting a two-hour roundtable discussion with faculty, department chairs, USGA leaders, BYU general counsel, and students. The remarkable thing about this discussion was that we set the agenda. People were there to learn from us and we had a vulnerable and constructive dialogue. During the discussion, we drafted concrete action items that we believed would increase the safety of LGBTQ students and visiting faculty on campus.
Professors Gellar-Goad and Polt introduced the concept of campus-wide safe space training. Safe space training takes place across many campuses in America. This training provides students and faculty with resources on allyship and introduces an “LGBTQ 101” lesson on language and terms. Allyship is education and LGBTQ ally visibility matters when it comes to safety.
Some members of the group commented that shouldn’t all spaces on campus already be a safe space for LGBTQ people because of the Univerity’s code of conduct and the shared values of the gospel?
Professor Gellar-Goad asked the group to consider the following from an LGBTQ person’s perspective: Allies can be eager to offer support, but such support is not automatically assumed by LGBTQ people because in reality much of the world is still an unsafe place for LGBTQ people.
For LGBTQ individuals, the default is to assume a space is unsafe until there is a visible marker that indicates otherwise. This can be a rainbow pin, a trans sticker on an office door, or even stating pronouns at the beginning of a class. There are many other ways to signal allyship, but to be effective, they must be overt. These signs are lighthouses for LGBTQ students.
The everyday stress of being in a marginalized group causes a decrease in one’s quality of life. In such a haze of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, the LGBTQ student needs a lighthouse (markers and signals) to guide them to safe spaces and to allies. This is why ally visibility matters.
- Faculty and students then brainstormed on some concrete ways the classroom can become a safe space:
- Don’t avoid queer topics.
- Acknowledge people who have experiences different than your own.
- Invite USGA to conduct classroom panel discussions on LGBTQ issues. (Many faculty did not realize that BYU has authorized USGA to conduct these classroom panels.)
- Share pronouns on the first day of class.
- Include an allyship announcement of support in the syllabus after the Title IX paragraph that includes the phrase “my office is always a safe space for LGBTQ students.”
At the roundtable, many faculty learned for the first time that BYU has an Office of Student Success and Inclusion. Faculty asked that they receive training on what this office does and what their resources are in relation to LGBTQ students. The Department of Comparative Arts and Letters committed to create and implement LGBTQ safe space training. They will also seek resources from the Office of Student Success and Inclusion as well as from Affirmation.
The faculty in attendance also expressed the need for clearer communication from the administration on policies and procedures. Most hold a deep distrust of the honor code office. Many faculty members stated that the last thing they want to do is turn in an LGBTQ student to the honor code office. Many assumed that they were mandatory reporters to the honor code office.
Students indicated that better access is needed for BYU’s counseling and psychological services. They reported that LGBTQ students find this service amazing, with its licensed professionals trained in LGBTQ issues. However, the waiting period is too long, taking weeks to get an appointment. This does not help with acute mental health needs. Some students expressed that they needed clarification that these services have no ties to the honor code office before they seek services there.
Students acknowledged that BYU must make efforts to overcome past problems with the LGBTQ student population. Even with the many changes, BYU cannot have a blank slate. Trust must be earned.
I was asked by faculty what the outcome of change for LGBTQ people looks like on BYU campus. I replied that you can claim change when any privileges available to heterosexual people are available to homosexual people and any privileges available to cisgender people are available to transgender and gender non-binary people. Until then, we all have work to do for our marginalized population of LGBTQ students.
To close, I want to share with you my remarks that opened the roundtable discussion.
I want to thank BYU, the College of Humanities, as well as all the faculty who have been so attentive and hospitable as we have met with professors Gellar-Goad and Polt in respectful discussions concerning the LGBTQ community.
In 1977, a group of gay Mormons began meeting very quietly at BYU. Due to the hostile environment, they used code names for protection when they met and corresponded. From these meetings, one of the participants, Stephan Zakharias, formally organized Affirmation in response to the suicides of two BYU friends who had undergone shock aversion reparative therapy on campus. A year later after an article was published in the Advocate about Affirmation, Paul Mortensen began to organize Affirmation into chapters throughout the United States.
Today, Affirmation: LGBTQ Mormons, Families & Friends is formally organized in twenty countries around the world and has members in twelve others that await formal organization. As such, it is the largest organization in the world that supports the thousands of LGBTQ individuals and their families in all past and present intersections with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Affirmation exists to work for the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions as full, equal, and worthy persons within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and society, and to help them realize and affirm their self-worth.
In fulfilling this mission, we encourage spirituality, provide resources, provide a forum for dialogue, and provide a community of love and support.
In short, Affirmation creates spaces for LGBTQ individuals and their families to thrive. The current landscape of LGBTQ issues is rapidly changing. Affirmation is prepared to meet these changes in relevant and empowering ways.
I would like to think that the early founders of Affirmation here at BYU would be so proud of how we have safeguarded and nurtured this organization of LGBTQ peers over the decades. We have come a long way from having to use code-names at BYU, to having the president of Affirmation come to campus and speak with you openly about LGBTQ issues today.
Affirmation feels such a kinship with USGA. Affirmation loves and supports you. As president of Affirmation, I am donating the honorarium I received for my participation in this week’s events to USGA.
Because of Affirmation’s origins, we understand your desires for community as queer BYU students and for a safe space for all sexual and gender minorities. I look for the day where you can come on campus as an official BYU organization. Science demonstrates that when schools implement and support an on-campus sexual, gender and allyship organization, it increases mental health and decreases suicidal thoughts and attempts for all students, not just LGBTQ students.
After speaking with BYU general counsel Steve Sandberg and understanding the favorable leanings of the president’s council concerning LGBTQ care, I would encourage the leaders of USGA to again submit a proposal for BYU inclusion. The Church has shown itself willing to work with LGBTQ organizations in order to save lives. For example, in 2018, the LDS Foundation donated $25,000 to Affirmation in our efforts in suicide awareness and prevention. We have had much success in our work to save lives. In the same spirit, both BYU and the LGBTQ student community can forge ahead in the common cause to save lives.
You have something very special happening at USGA as you combine faithful and principled LGBTQ leadership with faculty and peer mentorship in your intersection with the BYU environment. You can continue to demonstrate strong leadership while abiding by the honor code.
There are many, many other intersections for LGBTQ individuals with their faith besides this BYU intersection. Your colleagues in Affirmation are there to tend to those intersections, but you are here and present in this one. Take this opportunity. You are the leaders saving lives in this intersection. You are the angels of this BYU/LGBTQ intersection.
In 2008, Elder Holland taught us that “not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods…Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.”
Angels can come in times we are afraid, in our anxieties and trauma. In the Scriptures, when angels appear, they have two messages for us. Be it Zacharias in the temple, Mary with child, the Marys at the tomb, or the shepherds abiding in the field, the first message is ‘Fear not!’ and the second is a message bringing ‘good tidings of great joy!’
Angels teach us that fear robs us of our joy.
Lehi teaches us in the Book of Mormon that we are–we exist– that we may have joy.
Find your angels who not only admonish you to fear not, but to also have joy! And in the spirit of Elder Holland, be those angels who minister in times of fear and who are anxiously engaged in bringing about joy and in doing good.
Affirmation is grateful to be a part of these discussions and we offer BYU our resources in any way in the support and care of LGBTQ students.