(RNS) — LGBTQ students at Brigham Young University celebrated three years ago when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ flagship school quietly deleted from the honor code a ban on “homosexual behavior.” For the first time, many students began holding hands or kissing in public. Others took the moment to come out as queer.
Then, a month later, the Church Educational System administrators who oversee BYU’s campuses issued a statement clarifying that despite the deleted language, “same-sex romantic behavior” wasn’t compatible with the honor code.
Last week, the Church Educational System restored language to the code explicitly prohibiting LGBTQ affection — now called “same-sex romantic behavior.” Though the ban had never really lost its effect, for some students the official restoration of it still felt like a gut punch.
“It’s heartbreaking to see it repeated over and over again that queer students aren’t welcome,” said Gracee Purcell, a BYU psychology major. “Every time they reinstate and repeat it, it hurts a little more.”
The honor code, a set of guidelines that employees and students are expected to follow, is enforced by the administration on the main campus in Provo, Utah, as well as BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii and Ensign College. It instructs all community members to live “a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman.” The new language adds that “Living a chaste and virtuous life also includes abstaining from same-sex romantic behavior.”
In an FAQ list included with the announcement, the Church Educational System noted that the ban on same-sex behavior does not represent a change in LGBTQ policies. Disciplinary responses to students holding hands, kissing or going on dates with members of the same sex will “be handled on a case-by-case basis to help each student feel the love of the Savior and to encourage them to live their gospel covenants and university/college commitments.”
The announcement declared that “LGBTQ students are a welcomed and valued part of the campus community and share a common identity with every student as sons and daughters of God.” A BYU spokesperson referred media requests about the honor code to the LDS church, which declined to comment beyond the press release.
After the Church Educational System’s announcement, three groups for queer BYU students or alumni — the Raynbow Collective, the Out Foundation and Understanding Sexuality, Gender & Allyship — released a joint statement on social media acknowledging that, while they oppose any prohibition of same-sex romantic behavior, the updated language is in some ways a step toward transparency.
“I’m just glad people can now finally see explicitly what’s happening,” said Evelyn Telford, one of the vice presidents of USGA, a community group for queer BYU students that is not affiliated with the university. “There’s no way to get around it that they are openly being discriminatory to queer students.”
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However, the groups said that the updated guidelines create a discrepancy between how same-sex romantic behavior is treated in the LDS church and how it is treated at church-affiliated schools.
In 2019, Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reversed a 2015 policy that categorized same-sex LDS couples as “apostates” and that barred their children from religious rituals, including baptism unless they received permission from top church leaders.
The 2019 reversal of that policy allowed lay bishops to authorize the baptism of children of LGBTQ parents. In a 2019 devotional given at BYU, Nelson also clarified that while the church still opposed gay marriage, “homosexual immorality would be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.”
Purcell argued that the new honor code language means queer couples can be disciplined even if they are following the same chastity guidelines assigned to straight couples. This, she said, is out of step with the church’s overall policy.
“Depending on where you are, who your religious leaders are, you can actually date people of the same sex with very little church repercussions,” said Purcell, 20, who is also president of the Raynbow Collective. “At BYU, that usually gray line within the church is a hard line. Anything that they deem homosexual behavior, or same-sex romantic behavior, is not allowed.”
Though the honor code’s strictures may not change how LGBTQ students are disciplined at BYU, in practice, Telford is concerned the change could increase isolation.
“It’s going to make us all a bit more nervous to be out and doing things with our friends,” said Telford, 22, who said she’s worried that simply hanging out with people of the same sex could lead to punishment. “Most of us are just trying to go to school here. Most of us are just trying to make it by. And now that there’s such vague language, it feels like people are looking at you all the time to see if you’re going to slip up and do something wrong.”
Telford said she’s often asked why queer students come to BYU in the first place. She said academic opportunities, location, affordability and family ties at BYU are all factors students might consider, adding that there are other students who, like her, didn’t realize they were queer until getting to college.
“It’s such a personal decision to be at BYU, and your sexuality shouldn’t mean you don’t deserve a place there,” she said.
As the school year at BYU begins, Telford said she and other queer students in USGA plan to keep meeting regularly, resisting the isolation of being on a campus where expressing themselves isn’t officially welcome. Purcell and others in the Raynbow Collective also said they would continue hosting their annual off-campus Back to School Pride event on Sept.16.
She added that she hopes the administration will consider how these updates impact the emotional and mental well-being of queer students. “The lack of representation and the increase in religious and societal pressures won’t stop queer students from coming,” said Purcell. “But it will hurt them.”