The History of BYU and LGBTQ Issues
On February 19, 2020, Brigham Young University announced their update to the university Honor Code: A set of rules and principles designed to elevate students at Brigham Young University to an “atmosphere consistent” with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Honor Code establishes proper student conduct, asserting the university’s laws are those of the “highest standard” in “honor, integrity, morality, and consideration of others.” Once students have agreed to the outlined expectations, they commit to adhering to these standards “at all times… and in all places.”
The Honor Code was born in 1948 by BYU students in the Blue Key National Honor Fraternity (as well as the White Key organization). It was written by students, for students, and originally outlined policies related to academic honesty. In addition to the code, students formed the BYU Honor Committee, which acted as the enforcer of the aforementioned honesty policies.
At the same time as this newly formed committee was beginning its enforcement, BYU students Kent Goodridge Taylor and Richard Snow were approaching their 6-month anniversary as boyfriends. They visited with President George Albert Smith to discuss their future. The Latter-day Saint Prophet encouraged them and counseled them to “live the best lives they could.” This “live and let live” policy appears to have been the common standard in 1940s Brigham Young University. Earl B. Kofoed, a gay student also attending BYU in 1948, cited the “live and let live” policy as being basic practice in leaders’ attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual members of the Church. He also elaborates on a “thriving” gay community on campus, particularly in the French Club and intramural/P.E. groups. He asserts that threats of excommunication and social pressure were almost nonexistent.
Up until 1957, evidence suggests that the “live and let live” policy endured, whereas student support for the Honor Committee and Code waned, with students citing its standards to be a “strict legalistic approach” to honor. Then, in 1957, BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson addressed the Honor Committee and suggested the Honor Code expand to standards not solely related to academic honesty, but also university/Latter-day Saint moral standards as well. These “suggestions” would eventually culminate in the Honor Code being infused into university policy and standard. On September 12, 1962, the “live and let live” policy was officially eradicated. Spencer W. Kimball (Quorum of the 12), Mark E. Peterson (Quorum of the 12), and Ernest L. Wilkinson (BYU President) addressed the university and introduced the new university policy: “…we [do not] intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.” It’s difficult to contextualize the sudden shift in university and student opinion on homosexuality and LGBTQ individuals without understanding the social phenomenon of the Lavender Scare, a mass moral panic that coincided with the Red Scare of the same time. The Lavender Scare resulted in legislative, institutional discrimination against homosexuals, and even more so a long-lasting stigma that would continue to propagate homophobia for decades to follow.
After Kimball’s speech in 1962, an impetus of Church leaders and BYU faculty condemning and hunting lesbian, gay, and bisexual students ensued. In July 1964, Spencer W. Kimball spoke to institute faculty, calling homosexuality a “malady”, “disease”, and asserted it was “curable [through] self-mastery”. On January 5, 1965, Kimball again addressed the BYU student body, equating homosexual “desires and tendencies” to “petting”, “fornication”, and “adultery.” He also professed that it was a “damnable heresy” for any homosexual person to claim, “God made [me] [this] way.”
Five gay, male students died by suicide in 1965.
In 1967, BYU administration took control of the Honor Code and Honor Committee (now called Honor Code Office). That following year, a recorded 72 students were expelled under pretenses of “suspected homosexual activity”. Security files were also created for every student suspected of being gay.
The turn of the decade brought with it a change in leadership as Dallin H. Oaks replaced Wilkinson as President of BYU in 1971. By 1973, the first verifiable account of university-sanctioned electroshock aversion therapy was reported. These were mentioned by BYU psychology professor Allen Bergin in a July 1973 New Era article, justifying the actions by claiming that homosexuals were “psychologically disturbed persons.” These claims and practices culminated in the 1976 thesis/experiment by BYU clinical psychology professor, Max Ford McBride, which used 17 gay, male students and subjected them to “positive visual stimuli” (nude images and pornographic videos of women) with no consequence and “negative stimuli” (nude images and pornographic videos of men) accompanied by high-voltage shocks to their genitals and sensitive areas of the body, as well as induced vomiting and odor aversion. The shocks reached an intensity of 4.5mA, the equivalent of a powerful stun gun. Sources suggest this practice continued on BYU campus until 1983.
1976 also saw a new initiative headed by Dallin H. Oaks, aimed to purge BYU campus of gay influence. These purging tactics involved interrogations of fine arts and drama students, surveillance of gay bars in Salt Lake City by BYU security, bugging university dorm rooms, attaching recording devices to suspected students, raiding student housing for incriminating evidence, and placing entrapment ads in Salt Lake City LGBT+ newspapers/magazines to lure BYU students for arrest.
Students and faculty were largely silent during these outlined events. Protests were rare and historically only involved brief, small, and ineffective protests against the Vietnam War or support for conservative agendas (such as war hawk paraphernalia and events). In fact, BYU was repeatedly praised by national media sources as being one of few “peaceful campuses” in the nation with “well-behaved students.” However, in 1977, gay BYU student Cloy Jenkins and gay BYU professor Lee Williams anonymously published The Payne Papers (or Prologue), a publication that outlined the experiences of gay Mormons and defended homosexuality as an “innate trait”. They mailed these papers to all high-ranking Church leaders, as well as known anti-gay BYU administration members. In response, Boyd K. Packer remarked in his 1978 speech, titled “To the One”, that homosexuality is a “curable problem”. He was advised to include these statements by President Kimball. This statement by Packer further supported the dangerous practices of conversion therapy both at BYU and in local communities.
As stated before, on-campus electroshock programs were ended in 1983, and Oaks’ Purge lessened as the 1980s progressed. However, this environment of anti-gay leaders appears to have had a profound effect on the student body. In a 1997 Open Forum student poll, 42% of BYU students believed gay students should be removed from BYU (even if they were adhering to Honor Code standards), and 80% would refuse to live with a same-gender-attracted roommate.
While, by the early 2000s, university policy had progressed to an environment where students were no longer punished for identifying as gay, lesbian, trans, or “SSA”, the Honor Code persisted in its enforcements prohibiting “overt displays of gay affection” and “homosexual advocacy”. Despite this progress, narratives of “successful” conversion therapy and anti-biological evidence for homosexuality were still propagated by BYU faculty and Church leaders. In 2005, the Foundation for Attraction Research (FAR) was founded and run by BYU professors. They later would publish Understanding Same-sex Attraction, a paper openly advocating “therapy to cure sexual attractions.”
On April 10, 2006, a nationwide pro-LGBTQ+ movement, the Soulforce Equality Ride, came to Brigham Young University campus to “affirm queer voices”. The group staged “die-ins” to honor and commemorate the 22 recorded BYU-LGBT suicides. 24 protestors were arrested, including five BYU students who had joined in the die-ins. The group returned again in 2007 to protest and garnered national attention. BYU then updated their Honor Code on April 17, 2007 to clarify that homosexual feelings are not a violation but acting and advocating for them is. This new revision marks the first explicit mention of homosexual behavior and advocacy in the Honor Code. This new section would be deemed the “Homosexuality Clause.”
In 2010, BYU USGA (Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship) was organized following BYU authorizing LGBTQ+ students to participate and gather in groups. USGA was (and still is) an unofficial club/organization, but, unlike the present day, the group was once permitted to meet on-campus. These meetings regularly recorded ~70-100 queer and ally students attending weekly. The unofficial club met in the Talmage Building and the Law Building weekly from 2010-2012. However, in late 2012, the BYU Board of Trustees demanded USGA be removed from campus: USGA Leadership quietly and peacefully complied. According to multiple sources, the motive behind the removal of USGA was misinformation and rumor propagated by conservative interest groups targeted at USGA.
On February 2, 2011, a revision was made to the Homosexuality Clause. The revision removed a ban on “homosexual advocacy” from the section. This new revision now permitted students to openly support and affirm queer relationships and legislation.
Following in the path of the initial Soulforce rallies back in 2006, a number of BYU students joined other Utah County citizens in gathering outside the Utah Supreme Court on March 24, 2013, to show support for gay marriage laws which were contested at the time.
Then, in 2016, BYU Athletics sought football expansion into the Big 12. When BYU announced their prospective position in the football organization, LGBTQ+ ally groups, most prominently Athlete Ally called on the Big 12 to shun BYU due to their “homophobic policies”. At the same time, on August 16, the Salt Lake Tribune published personal accounts of LGBTQ students who were sexually assaulted. The Big 12 Board of Trustees reviewed all program applications from across the nation from September 14-October 17 and denied expansion to any programs in the nation.
University attitude shifted following this rejection from the Big 12. On April 7, 2017 BYU-NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) held a panel of LGBTQ students for an event on-campus. Then, on March 15, 2018, BYU hosted their first university-held LGBTQ & SSA forum with “great attendance”. However, the forum was not without its own controversies as the administration and BYU Student Life committee debated over whether to advertise for the event with rainbow-colored posters (the original design) or standard BYU blue. The BYU administration ultimately won, and a non-rainbow poster was used for advertisement. BYU has not commented on why the administration opposed the global LGBTQ+ symbol.
On April 4, 2019, Sidney Draughon (BYU alumnus) created an Instagram account, @honorcodestories, aimed at highlighting queer, minority, and general student experiences with the Honor Code. Draughon’s account gained over 20,000 followers in several days, along with national media attention and frequent on-campus discussion among students. Two days later, another Instagram account, @restorehonorbyu, surfaced as the “official page for the student-led movement to restore honor to the Honor Code and its enforcement.”
Following dozens of (mostly) anonymous posts highlighting sexual harassment, sexual assault, homophobia, racism, and other issues, Grant Frazier and other student organizers held a protest outside of the Wilkinson Center on April 12. The protest was primarily aimed at bringing attention to the anonymous reporting which frequently resulted in LGBTQ students and victims of sexual assault receiving disciplinary action from the Honor Code office. The Salt Lake Tribune cites ~500 protestors, many current BYU students and many alumni or visiting students. The protests, an extremely rare occurrence at BYU—especially given the size and noise of the crowd—earned additional media attention from major American (and international) news stations.
In the wake of this vastly negative wave of media, on October 1, 2019, the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America removed BYU job postings from their websites. When questioned, both the organizations responded that “the expectation for hired professors to adhere to the BYU Honor Code is inconsistent with our standards.” Brigham Young University declined to offer an official response regarding the removals.
Finally, another Honor Code change was officially announced on February 19, 2020. A silent removal of the Homosexuality Clause caused a flurry of question and confusion among LGBTQ+ students, further exacerbated by a tweet from the official BYU Twitter account that read “even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same. The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case-by-case basis… since dating means different things to different people.” Many students argued the tweet was vague and confusing. BYU’s official statement on their website concerning the alteration upholds that the Honor Code change more closely reflected the new 2020 Church Handbook which was released the same day as the changes. While this statement clarified that the change was intentional and real, it failed to give any guidance to students—especially LGBTQ+ students who were directly affected by the change—as to what precisely the missing wording meant in terms of public displays of homosexual affection and homosexual dating.
Several LGBTQ+ and ally students reportedly spoke to Kevin Utt and other Honor Code officers to personally clarify the missing Homosexuality Clause. All of their accounts suggest these directors reaffirmed that students would no longer be punished for romantic displays or relationships between same-gender couples. This has never been confirmed or denied officially by the Honor Code Office or by BYU administration.
Then, on March 4, 2020, two weeks following the original removal of the Homosexuality Clause, Paul V. Johnson, the Commissioner of the Church Educational System, released a clarifying letter, reminding students that the “moral standards of the Church did not change” and added that “same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.” This whiplash response prompted LGBTQ and ally students to hold two on-campus protests in front of the Wilkinson Student Center and then a large rally outside the Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
However, just following these examples of assembly and protest, the medical expectations in response to COVID-19 reached Brigham Young University and on-campus classes were closed on March 12.
Since quarantine, and the reopening of campus with blended classrooms, no protests and little mention of the controversial Honor Code changes have played out. At this point in time, LGBTQ+ students can still be expelled and/or reprimanded for same-sex romantic behavior. The legality of this possibility has been discussed by accredited lawyers from BYU and LGBT+ advocacy groups. As it stands, the legal situation suggests BYU cannot legally expel students for engaging in same-sex romantic behavior because this is no longer mentioned in the official Honor Code. However, it is the opinion of two experienced lawyers (who have chosen to remain anonymous), that Brigham Young University might use the “ecclesiastical endorsement loophole” to ensure their standards are upheld and rules carried through. The loophole essentially works through administration or Honor Code officers contacting ecclesiastical leaders and instructing them to either discontinue a student’s endorsement or to put the students on probation for purposes of repentance. In other words, the administration goes around the missing Homosexuality Clause by effectively expanding the Ecclesiastical Endorsement Clause. This can only be speculation, though, as little concrete evidence of BYU’s intentions has been uncovered.
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By Hayden Hall & Gabi Svozil
Timeline by Elijah Bickmore