'Traumatic whiplash': BYU's U-turn on homosexuality a blow to gay students

One student came out to her parents after Brigham Young University seemed to have changed its Honor Code to permit same-sex relationships.
Image: Brigham Young University student Kate Lunnen joins several hundred students protesting near The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints church headquarters
BYU student Kate Lunnen at a protest near the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints headquarters in Salt Lake City on Friday.Rick Bowmer / AP
By Caroline Radnofsky

Students at Brigham Young University say they have "whiplash" after the school confirmed a ban on same-sex relationships, just two weeks after it changed its code of conduct to appear to permit them.

"Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage, and is therefore not compatible with the principles of the Honor Code," Elder Paul V. Johnson, commissioner of the Church Educational System, which oversees BYU, wrote in a statement to university students Wednesday.

The move appeared to be a policy U-turn after the private university in Provo, Utah — owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church — updated its strict and mandatory code of conduct for students on Feb. 19 to remove a clause prohibiting "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings."

Last month's update had been welcomed by the university's LGBTQ students, who saw it as an indication that BYU had further eased its restrictions on same-sex sexual behavior. While students have been allowed to openly identify as gay since 2007, they have long been banned from being in same-sex relationships.

Current and former BYU students told NBC News that they had spoken to university administrators after the code was updated and confirmed that as long as gay couples also followed the rule of chastity and didn't have sex outside a heterosexual marriage, they could openly date and show affection.

But in a Q&A with the director of the Honor Code Office, Kevin Utt, which was published Wednesday on the school's website, Utt emphasized that "any same-sex romantic behavior is a violation of the principles of the Honor Code" and was still prohibited.

Students turned out late last week to protest the apparent return to the status quo, with two on-campus gatherings on Wednesday and Thursday in Provo and a larger rally Friday in front of the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City, where BYU students and community allies chanted "Let all students date!" and sang Mormon hymns.

"It was whiplash — total, complete traumatic whiplash," Tiauna Lomax, 21, a junior who identifies as bisexual, said of Utt's interview.

Lomax said the change to the Honor Code last month had given her the courage to come out to her parents. She hadn't been comfortable dating women before that, because it was against school rules and meant risking being suspended or even expelled.

"I felt like I had an institution that supported me. ... The place I called home supported me, so I could come out to my parents," Lomax told NBC News.

She said the subsequent "clarification" to the rules two weeks later felt like a personal rejection.

"I sobbed for hours," she said. "It was awful to not feel wanted and betrayed like that."

Lomax hasn't ruled out transferring. She said that it's an option open to her financially but that she fears for other students who don't have the resources. The OUT Foundation, an organization for LGBTQ BYU alumni, is offering advice and financial support for students wanting to transfer. The group's fundraiser, which launched Wednesday, had raised over $34,000 by Monday afternoon.

Summer Lee-Corry, 21, transferred from BYU to Utah Valley University last year. She identifies as queer and said BYU "was not a healthy place" for her. Lee-Corry said fear of being reported to the Honor Code Office and punished led her to avoid even platonic physical contact with women in public and in front of her roommates.

"I've had several friends die by suicide. If I had stayed at BYU, I would have been one of those statistics," she said.

Lee-Corry still attends church to serve as a role model for other young gay Mormons. She said BYU's attitude is at odds with her faith.

"They often call it 'the Lord's University' within the LDS Church," Lee-Corry said. "What I learned within the Christian religion was that Jesus sat with people who nobody else would sit with. How can we call BYU 'the Lord's University' when I know that Jesus would have been part of our protest, loving and accepting the queer students there?"

In an email Monday, Carrie P. Jenkins, a BYU spokesperson, said, "The Honor Code was changed to create a single standard for all Church educational institutions that is consistent with the recently released General Handbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Under a section titled "Same-Sex Attraction and Same-Sex Behavior," the General Handbook, which was also released Feb. 19, encourages "kindness, inclusiveness, love for others, and respect for all human beings."

The handbook allows gay men to serve in senior church roles, but it ultimately asks LGBTQ members to remain chaste, emphasizing that sex must be reserved for heterosexual marriage.

While BYU still asks students to "encourage" others to comply with the school's Honor Code, "encourage is not synonymous with 'turn someone in,'" Utt said in his Q&A on the school's website.

"We realize that emotions over the last two weeks cover the spectrum and that some have and will continue to feel isolation and pain," he said. "We encourage all members of our campus community to reach out to those who are personally affected with sensitivity, love and respect."

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