When Jimmy Hales came out, it was to an audience of nearly 600,000 people. In February 2013, he posted a YouTube video to let the whole world know that he was out of the closet—and planning to remain celibate for the rest of his adult life. “It sucks,” he admitted in the video, in a tone curiously cheerful and content for a college junior who had just sworn off sex forever. But for Hales, an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, his YouTube post was the gateway to peace of mind, his best attempt to be out and proud while remaining committed to the Mormon Church.
When I speak to Hales, now 26 and about to graduate from BYU, his voice radiates with the polite optimism that Mormons are known for. The upbeat pioneer spirit that is so valued in a community whose foundation was laid as Brigham Young led the faithful to Utah in the mid-19th century surges through Hales. It never fades, even as he talks about his decision to be completely celibate so he can still remain in good standing at BYU and, more importantly, within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
“Because this is something I didn’t inflict,” he catches himself for using a word that denotes pain and negativity, “not inflict—choose—I feel God will take care of me.”
Though Hales’s faith sustains him, he admits that it comes at a cost. Instead of celebrating his homosexuality, he sees it as a test of will, a Job-like experience imposed by the Almighty. “God allows hard, bad things to happen to good people all the time in history. There were wars. Righteous people are killed by evil people, not to compare homosexuality to being slain,” he says. “I don’t know why God allows it [homosexuality] to happen. I don’t get mad. In my mind, it is nothing new.”
By embracing celibacy, Hales is embarking upon one of the only sanctioned paths for LGBT students at BYU. The Mormon Church is known for its aggressive anti-homosexual views. (In)famously, it was a critical source of support for California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. At the annual LDS General Conference this year, Neil L. Andersen, an elder in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, one of the top governing bodies in the Mormon Church, stressed that “while many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not.”
As severe as this stance on same-sex marriage is, the fact that the Mormon community even recognizes gay members is a huge step forward. Up until 2007, the BYU Honor Code made it permissible for students to be expelled if they came out of the closet. The Honor Code is a formal list of rules that students, faculty, and other administrators must sign and agree to follow as long as they are affiliated with BYU. It includes a wide range of stipulations on personal behavior, such as using “clean language” and living “a chaste and virtuous life.” It applies to life on and off campus. There is also a separate Honor Code Office that evaluates different punishments when students and faculty are accused of violating the rules.
Berta Marquez, who transferred to BYU in 2001, says she never came out because the Honor Code office “could affect you if you wanted to transfer. Your academic office could hold onto your records and refuse to give them to another school.” Kendall Wilcox, a BYU graduate and former faculty member, said that when he was a student in the 1990s, the Honor Code “was broadly applied to a lot of different cases, from students who said, ‘Heck with this, I'm gay,’ all the way up to professors who had LGBT children they were openly supportive of. Some were forced into early retirement because of it.” When asked about this history, Carri Jenkins, the spokesperson for the university, said in an email, “I am not aware of this.”
It wasn’t until 2010 that administrators removed the prohibition against “advocacy of homosexual behavior” from the Honor Code. Before that, the Honor Code stated “Advocacy of homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code.... Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable.” The current policy in the Honor Code states “same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue,” making it explicit that students will not be kicked out for coming out. However, the revision also makes it clear that any sort of same-sex affection is still grounds for expulsion: “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Many LGBT students at BYU still take offense at the Honor Code restriction for various reasons. One of the first problems is with the language itself of “same-gender attraction.” Cary, who graduated from BYU in 2011, explains that “LDS Church leaders are counseled when they speak with young men and women who are gay to help them move away from calling themselves gay or lesbian to saying ‘I struggle with same-gender attractions.’”
Cary says the language choice both pathologizes homosexuality and makes it seem temporary, likening it to the doublespeak in George Orwell’s 1984. “It’s a 1984 word-making-reality thing because you’re not taking on an adjective. You’re taking on a condition that’s changeable. It’s the idea you weren’t created that way or it’s not immutable.”
Case in point: When the LDS Church initially sent BYU students an online survey on Millennial sex habits last month, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, there was no LGBT option. Instead, there was only “I am heterosexual, but I struggle with same-sex attraction.” The next week, the survey was re-sent with the question “Do you experience same-sex attraction,” in order to “better convey the intent of the question," LDS Church spokesperson Jessica Moody told the paper.
It’s for this reason that coming out of the closet is often a two-part process for LGBT Mormons. The first is admitting you “suffer” from same-sex attraction. During this stage, “People often are very warm,” says Cary. “That’s the norm. They say, ‘We’ll help you through this.’”
The second is actually accepting being LGBT. “I had to come out a second time. ‘No, Mom and Dad, I’m actually gay and date boys and will hopefully marry one some day,’” recalls Cary. “That was a much harder coming out. The first often serves as a buffer to the second.”
It’s not just that BYU treats homosexuality as a temporary condition. Sam (not his real name), who is currently a student at BYU, says he’s bothered that the Honor Code reduces LGBT students to their sexual behavior. “It is simplistic to view homosexuality that way, to say that I’m only gay when I’m committing a homosexual act,” he tells me. “I breathe gay. I’m never not gay. But apparently, when I do something sexual, BYU draws the line. I’m more than my sexual urges.”
Sam comes from a long line of gay Mormons. His great-uncle, who has never self-identified as gay but who Sam believes is, lives a celibate life committed to the Church. His aunt married a gay Mormon, and they lived in a mixed-orientation marriage, which is when a heterosexual and a homosexual person marry, before eventually divorcing. His uncle, who had come out as openly gay, died of an overdose after years of struggling with substance abuse. Sam said that he “personally believes that issues surrounding his sexuality and his experience as a gay Mormon led him to many of the substance problems and depression spells that dramatically hurt his quality of life and ultimately led to his premature death.”
Sam said one of his biggest disappointments with the BYU administration is how little it does to support and protect the LGBT community, especially since the population is so vulnerable to suicide attempts. “It brings me pain to say there’s a history of gay students committing suicide because of their treatment here. People say this is a Christian community, but it turns a blind eye to students’ needs because they’re gay. It is a huge failing of the culture,” he says.
BYU has firmly disagreed with this assessment of the university. “This is absolutely not true,” Jenkins said. “BYU is fortunate to have located right in the middle of campus our student counseling center where students can receive free counseling. For emergencies, an on-call counselor is available 24-7. The counselors are all trained and certified therapists who can provide professional counseling to students who may be struggling with suicide and depression.”
A number of the students interviewed for this article did praise the counseling center, though said it was a counselor “roulette” depending on whether you saw someone who was more hospitable to LGBT issues. Tyler, who graduated from BYU in April, said, “I had a couple of experiences where the counselor wanted to help me in case I decided to date women and how I could focus on that part of myself. That was a little too close to the change side for my taste.” At the same time, one of the counselors he saw helped him feel confident enough to ultimately come out. “Before I even accepted, he said you know it’s okay to be gay and many people who are gay lead happy lives.” Adam White, who also graduated this April, said he was grateful for the counseling services, even though he was sent to groups for “people struggling with pornography and masturbation issues” when he revealed his homosexual feelings. “I hear they can’t recommend LGBT-affirming resources. It depends on who you get,” he said.
However, while students report mixed levels of success with specifically BYU’s counseling, every person interviewed for this article said suicide was a major problem plaguing the LGBT community at BYU. Although there are no statistics on suicide at BYU specifically, Utah has the nation’s highest prevalence of suicidal thoughts among adults, according to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control. Suicide is also the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-17 and 18-24.
“I would say 90 percent of LGBT members has very seriously contemplated suicide, and close to half have attempted some range or form as a cry for help,” says Tyler. When he first realized that he was gay, he says, he planned to kill himself. “I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is the weekend I’m just going to end it. This is the time.’ I was so confident, so sure I didn’t want to live anymore rather than face everyone with my reality,” he tells me.
He believes that because suicide is such a serious violation in the LDS Church (as it is in many religions), most students are “not willing to make the attempt a very final one.” Still, self-harm is very common, he says. “It’s general knowledge, from cutting to using pills.” He then recalls in an uncomfortably matter-of-fact way, “I have a friend who did hang himself but he was found. I forgot about that.”
Wilcox also said he went through periods of what he calls “suicide ideation.” Though he recognized his homosexuality as a student in the 1990s, it wasn’t until 2011, when he was already part of the BYU faculty, that he came out of the closet. Wilcox says he had been “working to pray the gay away.” In fact, one of the reasons he joined the school’s broadcasting department was “to fully invest myself in the cause of the Church in order to sequester myself away from the world and keep myself clean and free of temptation.” By the summer of 2011, after his own personal reckoning, along with seeing a spate of well-publicized LGBT suicides, Wilcox felt compelled to come out. He also knew that under the revised Honor Code (which faculty members also have to abide by) he could not be fired for it.
By November 2011, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Wilcox had been fired anyway.
BYU adamantly denied that his dismissal had anything to do with his sexuality. At the time he was fired, Wilcox refused to say it was because he was gay. In fact, he actively encouraged people not to see it “as one more example of institutionalized homophobia on the part of BYU or the Church.” Over two years later, though, Wilcox says, “There were so many issues that had nothing to do with my sexuality, but my sexuality was now one of the layers. It wasn’t only because I was gay, but the fact I was gay played into my being fired.”
As Wilcox’s case shows, despite the changes to the BYU Honor Code, some students say being out is still a huge liability. It leaves LGBT undergrads all the more vulnerable because, students say, there is a culture at BYU that encourages students to spy on their peers. “Even if you’re willing to say [you’re gay] it’s dangerous in itself because then you have added the pressure of people looking at you to see whether you're following the Church’s tenets,” says Tyler.
Tyler said that three of his LGBT friends lived with one straight Mormon, who ultimately reported them to BYU’s Honor Code office. The only reason they weren’t expelled, Tyler says, was because one of the three attended nearby Utah Valley University, which does not have the same prohibitions on homosexuality. The two BYU students had to “put all the blame on him.” In another case, Tyler claims, the ex-boyfriend of a student at BYU got revenge by reporting him to the Honor Code. “The ex-boyfriend sent pictures and all sorts of things to the Honor Code and got him kicked out,” says Tyler. “He had one semester left, a great GPA, and he was kicked out because his boyfriend who wasn’t going to BYU got revenge.” Regarding the incident, Jenkins said, “Because Honor Code matters are confidential, I would not have any information about the situation you have mentioned here.”
Students interviewed for this article say that BYU’s Honor Code is so influential that even Provo community members are aware of the same-sex stipulations and enforce them. White, who graduated this April, recalled how his plans to move into an off-campus apartment along with some other LGBT friends were thwarted because a straight student joked about their sexual orientation in front of the landlord. The landlord, says White, pulled his friend aside and told him, “You know what you’re doing, I don’t want to get us in trouble.” The housing discrimination opened White’s eyes to what he says are the on-the-ground problems with BYU’s treatment of the LGBT community. “That even having LGBT students living in the same apartment together caused a landlord to say, ‘I don't want any trouble,’ is very disturbing. Maybe she even was an accepting individual, but there were institutional problems.”
Because LGBT students say they need to remain guarded even among their peers, they develop their own ways of socializing and dating under the radar. Just as covert but vibrant gay social scenes developed in cities across America when homosexuality was still a crime, the LGBT students at BYU have created their own spaces and ways of communicating. “BYU has a cool little scene with the gay kids and the atheist kids and the promiscuous girls. It’s a little alternative underground,” says Cary. In fact for him, the secret scene was its own silver lining to being gay at BYU. “Everything is more fun when it’s against the rules.”
Tyler agreed that the covert nature of the LGBT scene at BYU has had its upshots. “On a positive note, it’s been a wild ride that makes you feel like a different, dissident organization,” he says. “It’s like Fight Club. You don't talk about it ever.” He’s learned to navigate who is safe to be open with by what he calls “dropping hairpins,” giving hints about his sexuality or the LGBT community to see if someone recognizes them.
“If I’m trying to figure out if someone is gay, you can say phrases that tend to only be used by LGBT people or really gay guys such as ‘hot mess,’” he explains. “Or you talk about your hairstylist. ‘Mine’s Sierra. She’s fantastic.’ Everyone goes to Shep Studio [a hair salon in Provo, Utah]. There are also clubs in Salt Lake.”
But there are dangers to the LGBT underground scene, as well. According to LGBT students, the Provo-area police are often no more hospitable to physical expressions of homosexuality than the BYU administration. Since LGBT students can be expelled for hugging or kissing someone of the same sex, they are forced to take their displays of affection off campus.
“I didn’t really have anywhere I could make out, and my boyfriend and I went out to a park,” Cary recalled. “A police officer caught us, and he made us come out without our clothes because he said he wanted to see our hands. He said we would be registered as sex offenders. I was afraid he’d turn us in to the Honor Code. Another police officer came and took my license. He said if I ever came back to the park, they'd consider me a sex offender.” Cary and his then-boyfriend never returned to that park.
With all of these frustrations and dangers both on and off the BYU campus, some LGBT students have tried advocating for change through USGA, Understanding Same Gender Attraction. Though not officially recognized by BYU, the group was permitted to meet on campus when it started in 2010 as “a place for open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction.” At its peak, the group drew 100 members to its weekly meetings and was a vanguard for LGBT advocacy. But in December 2012, BYU asked the group to no longer hold meetings on campus. Jenkins completely disputes this claim, stating in her email, “I am not aware that anyone at the university told the group they needed to move their meetings off-campus and, in fact, I had the impression that it was the group’s decision to move their meetings off-campus.”
However, White, the president of USGA from 2012 to 2014, said the group was asked not to hold meetings on campus, which was confirmed by every student interviewed for this article and Wilcox, a former faculty member. The group’s removal from campus is still suspect to some of its former members. Wilcox, who was active in USGA when he was part of the BYU faculty, says “a group of concerned community members began a year-long campaign and worked on administrative leaders to shut it down.” More specifically, Tyler believes it was not a decision from administrators as much as “from those high up within in the Church” who were concerned it was becoming too vocal. “USGA was on the verge of becoming potentially quite a powerful voice and could have been garnering a lot of national attention,” he says.
Although USGA still operates, many LGBT undergrads feel it went down hill after an initial buildup. Now, in its off-campus version, Tyler is disappointed with what USGA has become. “It’s a lot about, ‘What is this conflict between me and the Church,’” he says.“We felt there wasn't enough sense of ‘I’m happy to be gay and LGBT, and this is what’s so great about it.’”
The administration’s removal of USGA was one of the final measures that taught Tyler and his peers to not bother fighting for change on BYU’s campus. “For me and my friends, there’s definitely a learned helplessness that has emerged,” he says. “Over the course of the time I’ve been here, we have been beaten down so many times. We almost had to learn our place in what we could and could not say and what we had to be silent on.”
His only salve has been counting down the days until graduation. “I’ve just worked and made myself as busy as possible to get out of here. At some time you feel there is nothing you can do except to get out of this place. It just kills your spirit. You don’t feel like you have a voice anymore.”
Even White, USGA’s former president, is proud of the LGBT work he has done at BYU, but says he also feels beaten down. “Would I do it [lead USGA] again? I don’t think I would. With a lot of my own personal anxiety and depression issues that have stemmed from this community, I have kept from dealing with by serving others. It’s been quite exhausting, and I don’t think I’d put myself through it again.”
Out of all the people interviewed, White had the most positive things to say about his experiences with the BYU administration—yet even he says he wouldn’t necessarily endorse the school as a good choice for LGBT Mormons. “I get asked by people who are LGBT Mormons, ‘Should I go to BYU?’ I say, if you have a real passion for advocacy and you want to do real work and fight that uphill battle, come be with us. But, if that isn’t your cup of tea, if you feel you’re maybe too vulnerable right now, I would suggest going to another university.”