Two Degrees off Center: A peculiar people
March 13, 2020
“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
by Rich Keys
Back in 1997, a traveling exhibit of the famous sculptures of Rodin made its way to BYU’s Museum of Art in Provo, Utah. It was a major coup for the university, and there was a buzz of excitement in anticipation of the event. However, at the last minute, the school administration held back four of the statues from display, the only ones involving male nudity, including one of Rodin’s most famous works, “The Kiss.” The museum director said, “we have felt that the nature of those works is such that the viewer will be concentrating on them in a way that is not good for us.” University President Merrill Bateman then explained it was his decision that they were inappropriate and not in keeping with the standards of the university (even though the same sculptures were in art books on sale at the campus bookstore, and they were also studied and discussed in art and culture classes), and the war was on.
Students and faculty rose up with their torches and pitchforks and descended on the administration, and the issue made the national news. No other university on the tour, even religious-affiliated schools, held back any of the content from display. The administration tried to spin it, explaining many children tour the museum on field trips and their parents might be uncomfortable exposing their children to such famous sculptures that involved male nudity. That made it even worse, keeping the items from adult students in a college environment because little Johnny’s mom and dad didn’t explain the difference between great artwork and porn. President Bateman did admit the exhibition came through without adequate screening, but the solution wasn’t better screening. Rather, they would simply reject any such exhibitions in the future that may contain certain questionable materials.
Finally, about 200 students marched on the Smoot Administration Building on a bright sunny morning, raising their voices and picket signs. One of the signs caught the attention of an observer from his office window. It read, “It’s okay to be a peculiar people, but we don’t need to be a ridiculous one.”
This church and its culture have produced a lot of peculiar people who say and do a lot of peculiar things. We’ve taken Peter’s comment in the New Testament about “a peculiar people” and bastardized its true meaning by including all things wacky, silly, bizarre, and even ridiculous to it. Then we wear that label with pride for all the world to see. The church seems to go out of its way to do peculiar things as proof it’s the true church, and BYU is no exception. In the late 60s while I was at BYU, one of the big debates on campus was whether there was jazz in heaven. Seriously. Defenders of the faith argued there was only Tabernacle Choir music, while progressives and music majors like me declared there was plenty of room in heaven for diminished fifths and syncopated rhythm too. Articles in the Daily Universe, letters to the editor—people were being judged and their degree of glory determined solely by what music they preferred.
During that same period of time, while protests over the Vietnam War erupted from coast to coast, while unarmed students at Kent State were being shot and killed by government troops and students were taking over NYU and Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley, the only demonstration at BYU—the ONLY one—was students picketing the Wilkinson Center because the serving size of their French fries was always too small. Meanwhile, elsewhere on campus, some student noticed by accident that page 357 of the Freshman Health textbook, the page about scientists and medical professionals stating there was nothing physically or mentally wrong with masturbation, was missing. It had been very carefully cut out of every copy prior to sale with no notice or explanation. My own copy of the textbook also jumped from page 356 to 359, and if I spread the book far enough, I could see where the cut was made. The censorship and the issue being censored caused such an uproar among the student body, the administration finally agreed to stop the practice beginning the next semester. Like I said, peculiar.
The most recent evidence of all things peculiar happened just last month. The Honor Code’s infamous paragraph regarding “homosexual activity” that forbid “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings” was suddenly removed. One day gay students couldn’t go on dates, hold hands, or kiss like straight people, and the next day they could. Students couldn’t believe it. Many called the Honor Code office thinking it was a joke or computer glitch, and they were all told by more than one staff member, including Kevin Utt, the director of the Honor Code Office, that, yes, they could now hold hands, kiss, and date. No more discipline, no more tattling by others, just free to be. The change made national headlines. To the outside world, this may have sounded like last century’s news, but for BYU, it was a huge leap forward. Gays jumped for joy, finally came out of the closet, openly hugged and kissed their significant other on campus and took selfies of it and shared them online. It was a time of pure joy and celebration.
Two weeks later, as if to make it even clearer, Elder M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke at a BYU Devotional and told the students, “marginalizing and persecuting people based on age, gender, nationality, religious preference or anything else can be hurtful and misunderstood…We consider every person divine. To love your neighbor is to have compassion—even if they belong to a different group…What this provides is the antidote to anger, ill feelings, distress, hate and demonizing one another. Of all the universities in the world, BYU should be where Jesus’ teachings and commandments are proclaimed, discussed and lived.” For the first time, gay students heard that and felt included, accepted, like they were one of the gang…
…and then it was gone.
Just 24 hours later, the church released a letter on official letterhead from Paul Johnson, a general authority Seventy and commissioner of the entire Church Educational System, clarifying that there must have been some “misinterpretation,” so to set the record straight, nothing has changed. “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code,” he stated. At the same time, Utt, who earlier gave his blessing to gay PDA, issued his own “clarification” statement and reversed himself, saying students should reach out to those feeling isolation and pain, and do so with “sensitivity, love and respect.” He also encouraged any students with further questions to visit the Honor Code Office. The gay celebration suddenly turned to feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, distrust, and fear. That same day saw the largest campus demonstration in the school’s history protesting the whiplash. It was as if they dangled a carrot and then pulled it back, going out of their way to hurt and harm the most tender, vulnerable areas of our minds, our hearts, and our testimonies—an evil game of Gotcha.
I’m usually a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I’m feeling a lot of anger on this one, and I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s because I went to BYU and experienced the closet and fear and shame and discipline process myself. Maybe it’s because I’m gay and they’re my tribe, and I can relate and identify with those students who are going through this ordeal and continue to suffer because of it—I love them, feel for them, empathize with them, want to share their burdens and comfort them, show Christlike love to them. Maybe it’s because of the horrible way that the church and BYU mishandled this entire thing—so amateur, so void of feelings and empathy, a disastrous marketing plan that just got worse and the PR nightmare that came with it. How can they botch this as incredibly as they did and still brand themselves as the One True Church and the Lord’s University?
So how do I handle this anger I’m feeling and still be authentic? How do I bridle these passions, and channel this anger so I can feel Christlike love again? The Lord and I talked it over quite a bit in the past week, and I’ve found an answer. It’s not everyone’s answer, but it’s mine.
Last year while visiting Chicago, President Dallin Oaks set aside his prepared remarks and felt it necessary to advise the youth and other members to use their right hand when taking the sacrament. He said, when we’re baptized, the priest raises his right hand—if he uses his left hand, it has to be repeated until he gets it right—and since the sacrament renews that same covenant, we have to use our right hand. He noticed so many deacons using their left hand that he felt it had to be addressed. Now, just a year later, the newly revised Handbook of the church added the directive and it’s official policy: “Members partake with their right hand when possible.” I guess that means that now when little two-year-old Tabitha reaches for the piece of bread with her left hand, Mommy and Daddy can gently slap her wrist and tell her she’s doing it wrong.
I should state at this point that…yes, I’m left-handed. I’ve always known since I was a little kid that I was different. I used my crayons with my left hand when others used their right. I batted left, threw left, even parted my hair on the left side. I never made a big deal of it. It was who I am, my authentic self. Then when growing up, I met others who were left-handed and I felt a special connection. I also noticed how bigoted and bullying the world is towards lefties. About 10% of the world’s population is left-handed, and the other 90% treat us as less than equal. They make all the tools, design all the equipment, so we have to put up with student desks with only a right armrest, or scissors that are uncomfortable to use, or binders that make it difficult for us to write in because the spirals or rings are on the left side and in the way, and we put up with terms like “left-handed compliment” and dancing with “two left feet.” The righteous sit on the “right hand of God,” while His left hand is for judgment. Some parts of the world even train their kids to use their right hand for eating and preparing food, while the left is used for “personal hygiene.”
So it seems like I’ve got two strikes against me now in this church: I’m gay, and I’m left-handed. But I’ve always eaten with my right hand. I don’t know why, but I grabbed my first baby spoon with the right hand and my parents let it be. Thankfully, they didn’t try conversion therapy to make me eat left-handed. I just felt like holding the fork and spoon and the beverage glass with my right hand, and I’ve always taken the sacrament with my right hand too, because it was like eating and drinking to me. But telling us it MUST be with the right hand, and then making it official church policy? That’s just going too far. Even if Jesus is right-handed, it won’t make me more Christlike, and I seriously doubt my bishop meets with every youth in the ward once a year behind closed doors and asks them if they use their left hand to take the sacrament, how long they’ve been using their left hand, whether they’ve tried to quit, and then given them a plan to pray and read the scriptures more often to overcome the habit. I’m also sure the youth haven’t confessed to him that they use their left hand, feel shame about it, have tried to hide it from their parents, tried to quit but couldn’t, and worry that their membership is in jeopardy and they won’t be saved.
So, in the future, I’ll be using my left hand to reach for the bread and water. It’s my way of channeling my anger about the Honor Code fiasco. I’ve seriously talked about this a lot with my Heavenly Father, and He approves. Taking the bread and water with my left hand won’t lead me off the covenant path or away from being my authentic self. The church may require the deacons to pass it, the teachers to prepare it, the priests to administer it, and the bishop to authorize it, but the covenant itself is still between me and God. He knows where my heart is, and He’s assured me that I can be peculiar, but I don’t have to be ridiculous.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.