LGBT, Honor Code controversy took a backseat to COVID-19


Leer en español: Controversia con el código de honor, LGBT cede el lugar al COVID-19

Editor’s note: During Winter Semester 2020, journalism students examined several societal issues that directly impact the BYU community because “The world is our campus.” This story is part of a series called “The World Meets Our Campus.”

The announcement in March that all BYU classes were moving online because of COVID-19 came on the heels of a major dispute on campus involving the Honor Code rules regarding same-sex behavior among students.

That public tension evaporated as students, faculty and staff moved home to work and learn, but the memory of the dispute and its potential future remains.

BYU students’ first recent Honor Code protest was in April of 2019. Priority issues for the protestors included protection for LGBT students and more accountability from the Honor Code Office. 

The Honor Code, Explained (Mickey Randle)

Since that first protest, several changes have been made, including the addition of third-party observers to the Honor Code’s disciplinary processes. On Feb. 19, BYU announced more changes, including the elimination of the Honor Code clause that specified rules about homosexual behavior. 

For some, this was a cause for celebration. National media, including The New York Times and Newsweek, ran stories about the supposed laxation of the standards. A photo of two female students kissing in front of a statue of Brigham Young went viral. 

Conflicting messages

Later that day, BYU announced via Twitter that the administration believed there had been some miscommunication, saying “Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.” Dozens of students attended protests and counter-protests for two weeks and university officials remained silent when asked to clarify what the changes meant.

On March 4, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints released a letter clarifying the statement about the changes. 

“Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code,” read the letter. 

Following the announcement, protests held by LGBT students and supporters were held on BYU campus and at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. These protests were countered by other gatherings on campus that included a public reading of the “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a document released by the Church that states that marriage should be between a man and a woman. 

Mickey Randle

A Twitter account and website entitled “Save BYU” appeared in February. The website has since expired. The Twitter account has retweeted information about events like counter-protests and public readings of “The Family: A Proclamation to The World.”

The account also posted photos of the letter from the Church Educational System with the caption “We Won!” 

Once the campus moved classes online, the Save BYU movement did not respond to requests for comment. 

In limbo

The momentum behind the protests and counter-protests has waned without students on campus, but some say it divided people into separate camps, and that the issue could easily re-appear as a topic of discussion once classrooms are filled again.

Thomas Richins, a social science teaching major and member of the LGBT community, said the changes to the Honor Code have impacted him and the rest of the community extremely negatively.

According to Richins, he and other LGBT students at BYU were happy about the changes earlier this year, especially since they had heard a rumor that revelation and prayer were involved in removing the Honor Code’s clause on homosexuality. 

Following the release of the CES letter, Richins said he has felt a lot of fear and confusion, even to the point of wondering if the initial removal of the clause was an institutional maneuver designed to discover LGBT students on campus. 

“In my opinion, it would have been better if no changes would have happened,” Richins said. 

Students protest outside the Wilkinson Center on March 4 following the release of the clarifying CES letter. (Preston Crawley)

He said, in general, he has had negative experiences at BYU involving his opinions and sexuality but he has experienced negative jokes about homosexuality. He said things have been getting better since people have recently become more aware of the LGBT community.

Richins said he feels the BYU campus is divided on the issue of homosexuality and rights for LGBT students. He wishes that BYU would issue an apology letter to those in the community, or increase the capabilities of BYU’s counseling and psychological services. 

“There’s something wrong in the system, but it feels like BYU doesn’t really care because they’re too focused on the donors, or something like that,” Richins said. “We can’t change the will of God but we can treat others with kindness. It feels like BYU doesn’t want to do either of those things.”

Students marched outside the Wilkinson Center on March 4 carrying homemade signs and pride flags. Protests continued for several days after CES released the clarifying letter. (Hannah Miner)

The division on campus

Political science major Dayson Damuni has a differing opinion.

“I think that it is irresponsible and unrealistic for people to expect and demand that a university that is owned, funded and run by the Church change the standards which it counsels its members to adhere to,” Damuni said. 

He said the wording of the Honor Code affirms his admiration for the Church, but that since the changes and CES letter, he has lost respect for some of the student body. He describes the behavior of students involved in Honor Code protests as “immature and irresponsible.”

“It has been concerning and disheartening to watch how this movement has transformed from last year where some students were protesting Honor Code enforcement policy, to this year where students are protesting the actual Honor Code and Church doctrine as established by the Lord,” Damuni said.

Damuni expresses these views on social media and in person with family, friends and strangers. He said that he almost always receives negative responses, and is frequently called a homophobe or a bigot. 

Chris Santos, right, counter-protests at an Honor Code protest. (Addie Blacker)

“It is very disturbing that most people who belong to this new radical movement cannot even have civil conversations with those of opposing viewpoints without resorting to name-calling, swearing, and playing the victim,” Damuni said. 

Damuni does not believe the campus is very divided, though he acknowledges some political differences between students. Damuni aligns himself with the conservative political movement and thinks that most of BYU students feel the same. 

In some cases, BYU students have chosen to organize in the form of social media movements. Blogs, Twitter and Instagram accounts are frequently used tools for spreading beliefs and information. 

Creating community on campus

Color the Campus, run by psychology major Bradley Talbot, is a movement that aims to show support for LGBT individuals by holding “Rainbow Days.” Talbot announces a designated Rainbow Day via the Color the Campus Instagram account, and students belonging to or in support of the LGBT community wear a rainbow to school. Talbot also hosts educational discussions via Instagram.

Talbot believes that visibility and representation on campus are important. He gets messages from students almost every day who say that they have yet to come out of the closet but are comforted by the idea of having a supportive community.

Students wave pride flags during a protest on March 4. (Preston Crawley)

As part of the initiative, Talbot often gives out free rainbow pins and flags to students. Following the changes to the Honor Code and the release of the CES letter, Talbot says the movement picked up steam. 

In response to the changes, Talbot said the ordeal has been personally difficult for him, and that he feels that BYU has swept the LGBT community under the rug. However, he plans to continue to hold rainbows days as soon as classes resume on campus. 

Talbot feels there is political division at BYU, and that things can only be resolved through compromise and discussion. 

“It’s not the students against BYU specifically, because there is a lot of good that BYU does. You can’t throw the whole thing out because of this one thing. What it is these students are against is this kind of discrimination and ignorance and neglect that they feel,” said Talbot.

With the suspension of classes due to COVID-19, it’s unclear how or whether either group will proceed or how the Church will respond to further developments, though personal beliefs on the topic will likely continue to be part of the discussion.

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