“There really is no place for me here,” Foster said her friend told her.
The email sent Wednesday by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated definitively that same-sex dating violated the university’s rules. The message shook the school of more than 33,000 students, many of whom had believed the university would no longer dole out discipline for hugging or holding hands with someone of the same sex.
“Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code,” wrote Paul V. Johnson, commissioner of the church’s educational system.
BYU has for decades grappled with its treatment of LGBTQ students as the church’s teaching has evolved and members have pushed for change. The two-week gap between the university changing its honor code and officials issuing clarification signals that church leaders are probably arguing among themselves about the guidelines, said Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Kalamazoo College who is writing a book about sexuality and gender in modern Mormonism.
For LGBTQ students, the presumed infighting is secondary to the impact of returning to the status quo after days of celebrating the ban’s demise. Shortly after the updated honor code was announced Feb. 19, Foster and her female friend kissed in front of the campus’s statue of the prophet Brigham Young — a move that Foster said also served as her coming out to her parents.
“Now,” she said, “it feels like a weight has been placed back on our shoulders.”
Carri Jenkins, a spokesperson for the university, said in an email Thursday that the church’s clarification enables the honor code administrators to better respond to students’ questions. She said the school had not received the clarifying information when the updated honor code was announced.
A spokesperson for the church did not respond to a list of questions. Representatives of SaveBYU, an organization that opposes same-sex dating on campus, did not reply to an interview request.
At least 100 students flooded a sidewalk outside the student center Wednesday to protest the policy change with church hymns, chants and a die-in, in which students lay on the ground silently to recognize LGBTQ students who had died by suicide. One dissenting student used the quiet moment to read aloud the church’s teaching that marriage involves one man and one woman.
Several LGBTQ students experienced anxiety attacks and suicidal thoughts after the church’s decision was released, Foster said. Many have asked faculty members for letters of recommendation to transfer out of the university, and a GoFundMe page is raising money for their fees. Students also plan to protest Friday outside the church’s office building in Salt Lake City.
Foster said she can’t go back into the metaphorical closet and hide her queer identity. Although she had gone on a few dates with women in the past few weeks, she said she probably will not date for the last few months of her time at the school.
The university strictly enforces its honor code, and violations can prompt a variety of punishments. Students often report each other’s transgressions, making LGBTQ students fear that at any moment someone might think they’re on a same-sex date, said Kerry Spencer, who taught writing at BYU until 2014 and identifies as gay. Lately, she said, LGBTQ students experienced some reasons to be hopeful.
“There’s been progress, and there’s been changes, and people felt safe,” Spencer said. “People felt not afraid for the first time, and the fear is back again.”
According to Petrey, the university’s approach to homosexuality has gone through several waves: electroshock “conversion therapy” in the 1960s, the beginnings of gay activism in the 1970s and the organization of the school’s first LGBTQ groups in 2007 when the university stopped prohibiting students from identifying as gay.
Now, Petrey said, the school is navigating confusion that arose in February when the church handbook stopped specifically banning same-sex intimacy and instead stated that no “unchaste behavior, either same-sex or heterosexual,” was compatible with the faith.
“My hypothesis is that many church leaders came to believe that there was a single standard of sexual morality for same-sex attracted students and heterosexual students,” Petrey said. “The problem is that there has never been the same standard.”
A “quiet civil war” is raging in the church between people who want liberalization on LGBTQ issues and those who think the church should double down on its stance, Petrey said. Thirty-six percent of members say society should accept homosexuality, according to a Pew Research Center survey of Christian denominations in 2015. That percentage was on a par with evangelical Christians and above only Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Amid her sadness over the renewed ban, Foster said she was heartened that solidarity had increased among LGBTQ students and that they and their allies were able to publicly protest.
“We have a voice on campus, and because of these changes we have been able to talk more openly about LGBTQ issues,” she wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “The first step to change is always talking.”