PROVO (Associated Press/ABC4 News) – A gay student who came out during a valedictorian speech at Brigham Young University has earned applause and admiration from fellow students and notable figures like actress Kristin Chenoweth and the husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
“I was not expecting the response that I’ve gotten. Actually, I was kind of anticipating maybe an awkward silence or just people acknowledging and then me moving on in my speech,” said Matt Easton. “To hear people cheer when I announced that I was gay, it was overwhelming. It was awesome.”
ABC4 News viewers first met Easton back in December, when he spoke out about the university’s mental health services after an anonymous emotional letter was posted to the door BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office.
“It’s really discouraging. It’s really lonely. I thought the one place I was told where I could go and get help and I couldn’t find it, it made me feel really alone,” Easton told ABC4 News back in December.
At the time, the political science major said he wasn’t fully comfortable sharing who he was, but that changed on Friday.
“I stand before my family, friends, and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God,” he said during his speech pre-approved by college officials.
Easton said he hopes his decision helps ease loneliness felt by other LGBTQ students at the institution where an honor code forbids dating between members of the same sex.
“I hope they can know they’re not alone in the ways that sometimes I’ve felt alone at BYU, to know there’s support for them and they’re not broken,” he said. “It could also show other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the success LGBTQ members can achieve. We deserve to have our voices be heard.”
Video of the speech online sparked accolades from Chenoweth, who tweeted her love and support as a straight Christian woman and Chasten Buttigieg, who responded with “Bravo!”
“I’ve been inspired by other BYU students and grads who have come out such as Charlie Bird, who was our Cosmo Cougar, and Stacey Harkey, who was a really popular BYU student. I thought, ‘You know what? If they could do it, maybe I can too.'” said Easton.
The church has a doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and intimacy, though the faith has gradually adopted a more compassionate stance. It said in 2016 that homosexuality itself is not a sin and LGBTQ members have a valued place. This month, the church reversed policies banning baptisms for children of gay parents that advocates said were particularly demeaning and hurtful.
The faith’s balancing act hasn’t always been smooth, with some initiatives raising hopes among LGBTQ members and others leaving them deflated. At BYU, hundreds of students rallied on April 12th, calling on officials to be more compassionate with violations of the Honor Code, which also bans drinking and premarital sex.
Easton, a Utah native and lifelong member of the faith, spoke glowingly about his academic and spiritual experience at BYU and said he’s gotten personal support from people who knew about his sexuality.
“Just 50 years ago, we had Ernest Wilkinson stand up and say, ‘If you’re a homosexual, leave this university immediately.’ So to be able to stand on the same campus where he said that and say that I’m proud to be gay, I’m proud of the LGBTQ community, and I was able to succeed at BYU, I think that’s huge,” said Easton.
But he said there’s still a long way to go, like allowing an official club to support LGTBQ students. BYU didn’t immediately comment on Monday.
Easton said it’s only been in the last four years that he’s come to terms with his own sexuality, and he’s still figuring out how exactly how he’ll reconcile it with his faith as he takes his first post-college job as a data analyst in Salt Lake City.
Next up, he’s planning to plant a vegetable garden with his sister and his niece and will take the big questions one day at a time.
“I wish I had all the answers to it and I don’t,” he said. “But I take a day at a time and focus on my relationship with my family and God.”