History of USGA
USGA (Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship) is not, and has never been, an official club at Brigham Young University. We were founded in the summer of 2010. Prior to 2012, USGA was permitted to meet on campus.
On March 29th, 2012, USGA released a video, “It Gets Better at BYU”, on YouTube. Within a week, the video received several hundred thousand views. USGA was a major topic of discussion on campus at Brigham Young University (BYU), and national news organizations (Yahoo, CNN, etc.) ran stories on the video and organization. National pressure and attention had been cast on BYU, their policies, and the pain of LGBTQ students at the university.
Directly following this, and just days leading up to an anticipated panel of LGBT students, fliers were distributed in the Wilkinson Center, advertising for the panel. Word quickly spread online of the upcoming event, which would be the first of its kind at the institution. Dr. Forste (USGA faculty advisor and BYU professor) and BYU administrators (including President Samuelson, the president of BYU at the time) began receiving phone calls; Many of the callers identified themselves as conservative activists and donors, and strongly urged/pressured BYU to cancel the event. However, despite this, President Samuelson told coordinators to continue with the panel.
Hundreds of students attended the panel, filling a lecture hall in the MARB to over-capacity. Several non-students were also in attendance, including Stephen Graham, a co-founder of Standard of Liberty (an anti-LGBTQ activist organization). Despite faculty reminding attendees numerous times that the panel was for BYU students only, and that all activists and journalists should leave to permit room for BYU students, Graham did not leave the panel meeting.
USGA Targeted and Rumors Spread:
During the spring, summer, and fall of 2012, no members of USGA leadership met with or spoke to any BYU administrators. It is important to note, however, that at this point, USGA was still meeting on campus regularly with the express knowledge of President Samuelson and the permission of the Vice President of Student Life, Jan Scharman. At no point during these months did any BYU administrator ask USGA to move its meetings off campus or tell USGA that it needed to change how it operated in order to remain on campus.
However, from numerous sources, it has been expressed that following the sociology panel in winter 2012, as well as the March “It Gets Better at BYU” video, multiple anti-LGBTQ activists, ecclesiastical leaders, and BYU donors began contacting school officials in an attempt to persuade them to remove USGA from the university campus. These efforts proved unsuccessful. Seeing as their attempts were futile, these groups and individuals then, allegedly, redirected pressure to the members of the BYU Board of Trustees (made up of the First Presidency, some members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and other general authorities of the church).
Now, it is important to note that this is the section of our history we know the least about. We want to underscore that all this information is based on private conversations and private interviews and interactions. That said, on multiple occasions, various BYU administrators and individuals USGA has met with have stated implicitly or explicitly a number of things about USGA which are fundamentally untrue. None of these administrators or individuals had previously attended USGA. There is reason to believe that these false rumors about USGA were most likely propagated by external, non-BYU, anti-LGBTQ activists. We know such groups have been keeping an eye on USGA (such as Stephen Graham in 2012). These rumors included claims such as the organization being a “hook-up club”, a meeting group of underground atheists at BYU, an activist/advocacy organization, or that USGA and its leadership positions were open to students and others outside of BYU. None of these remarks are true.
USGA has always been run by and intended for current BYU students; No person has ever held a leadership position in USGA without being a current student at Brigham Young University—it is explicitly prohibited in the charter. The faculty advisory board consists only of current BYU faculty. USGA has never been controlled, funded, or influenced by local or national LGBTQ groups/activists. USGA has never entered into an official relationship with local or national LGBTQ activists. All USGA meetings are planned and executed by the leadership team, which is composed solely of students. USGA is not, nor ever has been, a “hook-up club” or a place for people to find dates or potential partners; It is explicitly stated that this is not the purpose of USGA in our mission statement. This mission statement is read aloud at the beginning of every meeting and panel conducted by USGA.
Kicked Off Campus:
Every week throughout 2010-2012, USGA met on campus in the Talmage Building. These student meetings were held with the express knowledge of BYU administration, who previously gave permission for USGA to form an unofficial club and conduct its business on campus. Official club status was denied to USGA in 2010, with Scharman citing the Oaks/Wickman statement of 2006 as reason. During those first two years, little-to-no conflict occurred between administrators and the USGA leadership.
In the fall of 2012, regular attendance of weekly USGA meetings broke 100 attendees, sometimes reaching up to 125 people in attendance. To accommodate the growing demand, USGA moved its meetings to a classroom in the Clark Law Building on BYU campus. This room was reserved by a law professor who was a member of USGA’s faculty advisory board.
In late November 2012, the presidency of USGA—comprised of Bridey, Adam, and Nathan (all previously mentioned)—received an urgent phone call from Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis. Dabakis, an openly gay man who had developed a positive relationship with Church Public Affairs in the past, informed the presidency that someone from Church PA told him that the BYU Board of Trustees had decided to remove USGA from campus. Apparently, the Board was acting on misinformation (such as the aforementioned examples) given to them by outside sources. This person from Church PA, allegedly, approached Dabakis with news of the decision and was attempting to find an amenable way to accomplish moving USGA off campus without causing a media firestorm. Dabakis asked for 48 hours to formulate a solution.
In an in-person meeting with Senator Dabakis held the following day, the presidency decided there was utility to gain from leaving campus quietly and maintaining good relations with BYU, as opposed to protesting and causing media attention. In exchange, USGA requested that BYU not harass members of the now off-campus USGA with undue Honor Code investigations, and that no temple recommends would be withheld for participating in USGA. Dabakis contacted Church Public Affairs and informed them of USGA’s decision. They agreed with USGA’s stipulations and approved the “deal”. Senator Dabakis also spoke personally with President Samuelson to ensure he was aware of the situation and the agreement being made between USGA, BYU, and Church Public Affairs.
Looking back at this situation, there was a clear power imbalance in these negotiations. USGA received nothing from this deal; The outcome was a campus with no LGBTQ group presence, and further evidence of a university unwilling to consider the lives of their queer students above public image. USGA was unable to properly advocate for itself. This experience offered an insight to USGA leadership: A club created, and solely operated, by Brigham Young University would likely be a group under extreme risk of being manipulated, pushed aside, and disregarded when convenient.
Following this change, the Bastion Foundation, sponsored by Bruce Bastion, co-founder of Word Perfect and a gay BYU alumnus, agreed to pay for USGA’s use of the Provo Public Library for weekly Thursday meetings. And, beginning in January 2013, USGA began meeting in the Provo Public Library and continues to do so to this day.
At the time, the USGA presidency decided on a public story to address the sudden move off campus. It is important to note that outside of the three presidency members, no one in leadership or in regular USGA attendance had any real knowledge of the preceding events. So, the presidency stated publicly that the group was encountering difficulty in securing a large enough room on campus to hold their weekly meetings. While this was obviously false (the classroom being utilized in the Clark Law Building had a capacity roughly double-the-size of the room in the Provo Public Library), this statement seemed to placate BYU, Church Public Affairs, and all other skeptics.
The Oaks/Wickman Statement:
Over the next several years, multiple USGA presidents came and went. And while communication between BYU administration and USGA leadership was, and continues to be, incredibly infrequent (typically no more than twice per academic year), each president has asserted their desire for USGA to move back on campus. And, furthermore, to be included as an official student club of Brigham Young University.
In July 2015, an official BYUSA club application was submitted for USGA under the direction of then USGA president, Addison Jenkins. He reportedly discussed this proposal with various BYU administrators in several meetings. It was made clear to USGA leadership that approval for any club dealing with LGBTQ issues had to receive approval directly from BYU’s Board of Trustees. This alleged requirement has never been necessary, or even mentioned, for any other club or club application at BYU. After numerous meetings, and nine months of waiting for a response from BYU on the club application, Casey Peterson (Associate Dean of Student Life) informed Jenkins that the Oaks/Wickman statement from 2006 was still in effect. The application was denied.
The leadership of USGA meticulously pointed out to Peterson that the Oaks/Wickman statement was specifically delivered in response to a question about “support groups”, which USGA is not (in the sense that we do not offer therapy or lifestyle changes for attendees; we do, however, “support” each other as all communities of friends do). Furthermore, the statement refers to groups that promote “the homosexual lifestyle”, which USGA does not. Finally, it references groups that define their members by their sexual attractions, which is something else USGA does not do as it is open to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. To understand precisely what USGA is and what we stand for, click here.
Nevertheless, the answer stood: BYU would not sponsor an LGBTQ-specific club, without direct approval from the Board of Trustees.
The Working Group:
In fall of 2016, Liz Darger (from BYU athletics) participated in NCAA Common Ground, a group that builds bridges of understanding between LGBTQ+ athletes and religious universities. Darger reported to top BYU administrators that she had a very positive learning experience at Common Ground and that she had gained a new perspective on LGBTQ students. Following this report, President Worthen organized a task force for exploring and improving the experience of LGBTQ students on campus. This group of BYU admin and faculty held meetings and would occasionally invite select students to come and participate in discussions. Members of the USGA presidency were among those invited to meetings on occasion. The presidency expressed criticism towards the fact that student involvement in the group was so minimal. The task force eventually expanded to involve student members and was rebranded as a ‘working group’. This group met frequently during the 2017-2018 academic year and discussed a range of issues facing queer students, as well as possible courses of action.
Same-Sex Attracted, directed by Maddy Purves and Zoie Young.
The working group was responsible for the campus-sponsored LGBT panel that enjoyed tremendous success, with both sessions filled to capacity. They made arrangements for a resource website for queer students and allies. They also worked diligently on plans for a BYU-sponsored group for queer students. During discussions about this proposed group, USGA leadership advocated for their acceptance on campus as a recognized club. BYU General Consul, Steven Sandburg, told the club leadership that BYU had no intention of letting USGA on campus and that if a BYU LGBT group was to ever exist, it would be one that the university created themselves. USGA leadership was disheartened, but the presidency was committed to moving forward with the idea of an official BYU club.
Caleb Holdaway, who would eventually serve as club president from March 2018-2019, described a lot of anger and pushback from the USGA general leadership who had grown to distrust the university and saw their efforts as insincere. He explained that, in his opinion, the campus community could not support two groups; and they had two choices for how to respond. First, USGA could choose to weaken the campus group through lack of participation and support: USGA would likely survive, but never be allowed on campus and progress for BYU would be severely diminished. Second, USGA could be involved as much as possible in the details of this new group, ensure its success by active participation, and enjoy the official status of a campus group while knowing that USGA would eventually fade away. They ultimately decided to divert their efforts into the working group and an on-campus club.
The members of the working group often disagreed on particulars, and there were long meetings and many intense discussions, but they eventually agreed on a proposal for a university-sponsored LGBT club. This was passed up through the administration and approved by the BYU admin. However, when it reached the BYU Board of Trustees, communication went silent. It took several months to hear back. During this time, Steve Sandberg was confident the group would be approved and expressed this often to students. USGA leadership had decided to save all their best activity ideas for this new group in order to help it get off the ground successfully. Eventually, a vague answer came back from the Board, informing both the working group and USGA, that “BYU wasn’t ready for such a group.” Sandberg reassured students that they pressed top admin for what they could change about their proposal, or of any recommendations to meet the expectations of the Board of Trustees. He reports that no clear answers were given.
Following this, the working group was disbanded silently. None of their original goals were seen to fruition or put into action. Several administrators who participated in the discussions continued to attend USGA meetings intermittently and interact with students, but the working group never formally met again.
We demonstrated our intention in the working group was not self-preservation; our intention was the care for and well-being of a marginalized community at our university. If that concluded with a BYU club, then we were willing to accept and happy to attend. We placed the welfare of students into the hands of BYU, because we felt that the responsibility of inclusion rested with the institution. But, BYU ultimately was unable to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. They failed our trust. This experience demonstrated, yet again, to USGA that in order to meet the needs of LGBTQ students, a student-led group would be essential.
We Deserve a Campus Community:
Blake Fisher and Melanie Burton picked up where the working group had left off and hosted several smaller, more private events for LGBTQ students. The Office of Student Success and Inclusion (OSSI) was created, and Vern Heperi was made Assistant to the President for Student Success and Inclusion, making him part of the highest administrative body of the university. There is now a possibility that the OSSI is planning to create--or even in the process of creating--a BYU-led club for LGBTQ students. Regardless, communication and action regarding this proposed student club remains untouched (or, at least, uncommunicated to USGA).
USGA did not apply for club status again following the clear statement from Sandberg during the working group. Instead, club leadership focused on maintaining a positive relationship with the university, encouraging participation in OSSI events, and meeting the needs of their community while promoting positive change at BYU.
With cultural and administrative changes in the university over the past few years, however, we have decided to submit an application again and see what the response is from the university.
If BYU creates a club independently from their LGBTQ students and queer-friendly faculty, then we feel this group would fail to meet the dire needs of the LGBTQ BYU community. If BYU is not willing to accept USGA or include us in these conversations, then how will any club created solely by their administration work to protect and value the interests and happiness of queer students? Not to mention this creation would disregard the efforts of the queer community at BYU, and the years of leadership and experience that clubs such as USGA have garnered in over a decade of promoting and defending LGBTQ students at BYU. The queer students at BYU uniquely understand the challenges and purposes of an organization of this nature and are better equipped to lead such a group than BYU-admin, which has failed to support us many times in the past.
While USGA is committed to a goal of becoming an official BYU student organization, we also recognize the overwhelming value of having any form of student-led LGBTQ group/club/organization at Brigham Young University. Whatever form this takes, it is essential that the queer student community remain at the forefront of club leadership, decision-making, and planning. In addition, when discussions are held regarding the formation of this crucial club, it is also vital that admin and faculty who are experienced in advocating for LGTBQ students are leading from a faculty board standpoint.
We invite all BYU students, and others outside of our campus, to openly advocate for an official, student-led, LGBTQ club at Brigham Young University. A safe place where queer students and allies can gather together, connect, and be uplifted at their own university is an indispensable necessity. It is even direct counsel from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see 2021 BYU Women’s Conference) that inclusive spaces for LGBTQ people must be supported throughout the Church and its institutions. We are not advocating for any changes to university policy or the Honor Code; We simply need an official student-led group dedicated to the well-being and happiness of LGBTQ students.
Same-Sex Attracted, directed by Maddy Purves and Zoie Young.
To offer further clarification to our readers, below are several FAQs and rumors regarding USGA. We have provided answers to all of these:
Who comprises the leadership, presidency, and faculty board of USGA? Who attends meetings?
The leadership and presidency of USGA is composed solely of current Brigham Young University students. Our faculty board only includes current Brigham Young University faculty. While students from other universities are welcome to attend, the vast majority of USGA attendees are current BYU students. This has never changed.
Is USGA affiliated with any local or national LGBTQ groups or activists?
No. USGA has never been affiliated with any advocacy groups of any nature. Occasionally, local queer voices will guest speak at our events but this is entirely voluntary and not related to any sponsorship or partnership. This has never changed.
Who plans and conducts your meetings?
All of our meetings and activities are planned by and executed by the leadership team. This team is composed solely of current students. This has never changed.
Is USGA a hook-up club? Is it somewhere that LGBTQ students go to find potential same-sex partners?
USGA is not a hook-up club. Nor is it a dating club. We obviously cannot monitor or control all the decisions of those students that attend our meetings, but it is explicitly stated in our mission statement that USGA is not “a place for romantic or sexual pursuits.” We do not advocate for or encourage any attendees to pursue same-sex romantic relationships. This has never changed.
Does USGA attempt to lead students away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Do you teach ideas contrary to Church doctrine?
USGA maintains a political and religious neutrality. We do not denounce or speak poorly of any Church doctrine or practices. We do not advocate, encourage, or endorse decisions and ideas contrary to Church doctrine. We require all our attendees to maintain respect for “BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the beliefs and experiences of others.” We offer an opening prayer at the start of each activity. This has never changed.
So what does USGA do?
We’re a group of BYU students who dedicate our time to offering “a safe space for open, respectful conversation on LGBTQ & SSA topics.” We host weekly (sometimes biweekly) meetings every Thursday at 7pm. We seek to provide a space filled with friends and understanding for queer and ally students at Brigham Young University. We operate under the fundamental idea that every person deserves a sense of belonging and community at their university (and in their life). This has never changed.