Striving to belong: LGBTQ students, alumni and faculty work for change

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BYU students participate in Rainbow Day on March 4. From freshmen to full-time employees, different groups in the BYU community are working to make changes that will help LGBTQ students feel like they belong. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

LGBTQ students at BYU have long struggled with how to feel safe and welcome on a campus that is rooted in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policies and doctrine.

For many LGBTQ students, BYU’s religious environment and cheap tuition are what drew them to attend, just like their straight classmates, but the culture can make their time at BYU a challenge.

A recent study found that 996 out of 7,625 BYU undergraduate students identified as LGBTQ. One of the researchers responsible for the study, David Erekson, told The Daily Universe that these findings should remind the BYU community that LGBTQ students “are likely present in every classroom.”

From freshmen to full-time employees, different groups in the BYU community are working to make changes that will help LGBTQ students feel like they belong.

Coming to BYU

Freshmen Madi Hawes and Luka Romney started an Instagram account to connect LGBTQ students on campus before they came to Provo for their first year at BYU.

“We decided that we wanted to be able to help create that community at BYU because that’s something we were both nervous about with coming to BYU,” said Hawes, a bisexual student.

On the page, called BYUQ, they share submitted stories from other LGBTQ students and allies. The page now has 55 posts and just over one thousand followers. “It’s truly a community of people that love each other,” said Romney, a non-binary, queer student. “I’m just really proud and happy to see the environment of mutual support that it has created.”

Romney said finding the community through the page has been a “sacred experience.” “Because at the end of the day, being queer at BYU is incredibly difficult and we go through a lot.”

Since creating the account, Hawes and Romney have formed a relationship with several BYU administrators. “We’re able to have this relationship with the university and see that the university administration for the most part overall, like President Worthen and the people that he chooses to do things for his students, they want to be supporting everyone,” Hawes said.

In their interactions with BYU, Hawes and Romney said they feel like the issues come from a minority of professors, students and the Church Educational System — the organization that helps BYU provide a religious education and determines many policies, like the Honor Code.

“The place where we’re gonna have the biggest area of influence is with the students,” Romney said. “We’re trying to help our own students that are queer, but we’re also trying to create cultural shifts in the student body to be more accepting of queer people.”

For now, the group is limited in what events it can hold because of COVID-19 restrictions and precautions, but Hawes and Romney are focusing on visibility. On the Instagram page, they host discussions about topics like how queer members feel in the Church or how students can better support transgender people.

Hawes said religion is one of the most unifying things for BYU students, and that’s no different for LGBTQ students.

“One of the most important things for us in creating this was showing that it is a false myth that just because someone is queer must mean that they don’t have a testimony or relationship with their Heavenly Parents and their Savior,” Hawes said.

In fact, the Spirit was what convinced Hawes to attend BYU, even though she never wanted to. “I also realized that I couldn’t expect and want change to happen somewhere if I wasn’t there to help make it happen,” she said.

Romney said their expectations of what BYU would be like have matched up pretty closely with reality. “I knew that when I was going to come here I was going to experience the very best things and the very worst things.”

Some of those best things include the classes and the people, but the bad things are the stares and rude, insensitive comments.

Romney and Hawes have chosen to stay at BYU despite the trials, but they recognize BYU is not the best fit for some LGBTQ students.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Romney said.

Graduating from BYU

Recent BYU graduate Ashtin Markowski spent the majority of her BYU career coming to terms with her sexuality and didn’t come out publicly as gay until after she graduated and received her diploma.

Students were confused in early 2020 over whether members of the same sex could date after a section of the Honor Code about homosexual behavior was removed. BYU later released a letter from the Church Educational System clarifying that students could not date members of the same sex.

While the Honor Code confusion and other more public incidents made being a gay student at BYU hard, Markowski said some of the smaller things were more challenging for her, like homophobic comments in classes.

“I chose to come to BYU for the same reason everyone else did. I wanted the religious education, and there was, of course, the family tradition aspect too,” Markowski said. “I didn’t even know I was gay until I had two semesters left.”

Markowski said if the Honor Code had changed in 2020 to allow gay students to date at BYU, she would have felt a lot more welcome on campus. “There are devotionals on campus, the BYU mission statement, all this stuff talks about love and inclusivity, but if you actually ask these minority groups how they feel at BYU, it’s not necessarily welcome.”

Markowski is now working as a high school teacher after graduation. Looking back, she’s not sure whether or not she regrets coming to BYU. “Obviously, I’m the person I am today with BYU,” she said. “Maybe a more secular education would have been healthier for me and I wouldn’t have felt so much pressure, but at the same time I just wish that BYU would change because I still liked it.”

Markowski recently joined a lawsuit with 33 other students from religious U.S. universities in hopes that the U.S. Department of Education will require all schools that receive tax payer funds to be more inclusive and welcome to LGBTQ students.

The lawsuit claims the Department of Education and other federal agencies gave religious universities $4.2 billion in 2018, but no specific statistics were given on a school-by-school basis.

“BYU and the Church could afford, if they wanted to, to just reject taxpayer money, federal funding from the government,” she said. “But the thing is, that would also send a message to their students that they’re more willing to continue in what they have been doing than make BYU a more welcoming place for all.”

Since coming out and joining the lawsuit, Markowski has received many questions from other BYU students asking what kind of harassment she experienced at the school or why she stayed at BYU. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘the gospel is all about love.’ Exactly. But that’s not happening,” she said. “Why are you judging me or telling me I should leave if the gospel teaches love?”

Returning to BYU

Blake Fisher, a gay man, attended BYU as an undergraduate from 2005 to 2011. He is now a full-time BYU employee working as an inclusion advisor in the Office of Student Success and Inclusion.

As an inclusion advisor, Fisher meets with students to talk about their stories, ideas and questions. The office also helps connect students “with their peers and serve those who may be having a tough time,” he said.

When he was a student, he said the only time sexual orientation or gender identity were discussed was in 2008 when Californians were voting on Proposition 8 that said marriage was only legal between a man and a woman. “The only people I felt comfortable talking about my own experience being attracted to guys were those in the university counseling center.”

From class presentations and student panels on gender and sexuality to more open conversations about these topics across campus, Fisher said things have changed since he was a student. He has even noticed a difference in how he as a gay employee is treated.

“I’ve had members of President’s Council reach out to me on days like Father’s Day, just to make sure I felt seen and appreciated on a day that might be challenging otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think things like that were happening 15 years ago, but they mean the world to me now.”

Both Hawes and Romney said they have appreciated the efforts of BYU employees like Fisher who are trying to make the university more welcoming to LGBTQ students. “The administration, at the end of the day, wants to support us,” Romney said about their meetings with Fisher and Ben Schilaty, an openly-gay Honor Code administrator. “And they’re gonna do whatever they can to help us for the most part.”

However, Fisher recognized that there’s still work to be done. “With more productive conversations happening about these topics on campus, we also see more painful mistakes, miscommunications and mischaracterizations being shared,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Fisher said he thinks BYU administrators, employees and students can better support LGBTQ students by being more proactive.

“I think official, proactive statements of love and compassion will go a long way in helping LGBTQ students feel like they belong, especially when paired with proactive, visible outreach efforts,” he said.

Markowski echoed this suggestion. When the Y was lit in rainbow colors on Rainbow Day, BYU tweeted saying it didn’t authorize the lighting. Markowski said she wished BYU would have said that although it wasn’t authorized, the university stood with its LGBTQ students.

Fisher also suggested that individual students and employees should work to get “more proximate to LGBTQ people in their networks.”

As far as helping LGBTQ students feel safer on campus, Fisher said, “we need a clear, advertised process established for students who have experienced any kind of discrimination to find institutional support in addressing the situation, even if the discrimination isn’t considered illegal.”

For any current LGBTQ BYU students, Fisher said it’s OK to still be figuring things out. “On your journey you may have difficult questions,” he said. “Please know that you don’t have to go through this process alone. Find those people who will mourn with you when you’re mourning and celebrate with you when you’re celebrating.”

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