PROVO (ABC4 News) – For the second day in a row, hundreds of students marched and chanted with pro-LGBTQ signs and flags on Brigham Young University’s (BYU) campus. The protests came immediately after school officials released a statement clarifying its honor code policy on homosexual behavior.
Two weeks ago, BYU announced changes to its honor code following the release of a new handbook by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The changes included the removal of a section, which originally stated, “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the honor code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Immediately, students identifying as LGBTQ had questions on what the removal meant.
“I actually called the Honor Code Office and was able to talk to Kevin Utt, who is the director,” said BYU student Emma Lundell. “He said that, ‘Yeah. We are allowing homosexual dating at BYU, hand-holding is OK, kissing is OK,’ which is just something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime. That was really cool and really freeing to feel like I could be accepted.”
Several other LGBTQ students told ABC4 News they had received similar answers as Lundell from the Honor Code Office. Emma Ramirez, Student Outreach Coordinator for the OUT Foundation said over the next two weeks, she began to see more members in the LGBTQ embracing their authentic selves.
The experience, she said, had immense personal meaning for her as a former student who met her wife while going to school at BYU.
She explained that for many LGBTQ students, their religious identity is just as equal to their sexual/gender identity. It’s why many still choose to attend BYU despite its history of upholding traditional values.
“More people were coming out. They were sharing their relationships. People were kissing, even just as friends and posting it online, outing themselves to a larger audience. It was really beautiful to see that,” she said.
However, the removal didn’t come without objection. Flyers from the group, SaveBYU were distributed around campus the following day, stating, “The Family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”
On Wednesday, two weeks after the change, officials released a clarification letter from Elder Paul V. Johnson, Commissioner of the Church Educational System.
The letter read in part, “Recently, the language of the principle-based Church Educational System Honor Code was updated. Those adjustments included significant doctrinal and behavioral matters that have led to much discussion and some misinterpretation.”
It went on to say, “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.”
Lundell said the clarification letter blindsided her.
“A lot of people have described it as whiplash, which I agree with. I also feel like it’s a slap in the face or being stabbed in the back,” she said. “It felt really sneaky and I just felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe they were taking it back.”
Ramirez said her organization, the OUT Foundation is now concerned with the safety of LGBTQ students. They are now raising money to help students who wish to transfer out of BYU without fear of financial repercussion. As of Thursday evening, their fundraiser has raised $16,000 in less than 24 hours.
“Any student who may have come out to their roommates as dating, or displayed any affection in public may now face a precarious situation in which their academic standing, on-campus jobs, housing, or career prospects could all be in jeopardy,” the organization wrote in a statement to ABC4 News.
Just hours after the clarification letter was released, hundreds of students participated in a protest outside the Wilkinson Center Wednesday afternoon. The demonstrations continued Thursday afternoon.
A student, who requested to only be identified by Jimmy, said he was still participating in the protest because he believes everyone should be treated equally no matter their gender or sexual identity.
“I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m married. I’m about to have a kid and I support the prophet and the apostles. But I’m upset by what’s happening up at BYU, on-campus,” he said.
He went on to say, “As far as discipline is concerned, this shouldn’t be a matter for the school. It’s a question of beliefs and if these people believe in same-sex attraction, they can take this up to their church leaders. But it’s not something for the school to punish.”
Others who disagreed with the protest’s message said it was unfair to ask the university to compromise its traditional values and standards for those who don’t agree with it.
“As the last few years have gone by, I personally feel like religious freedom has been under attack. BYU as an institution is a religious institution and it tries to upholds same the values and standards as its sponsor, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said a student who asked to only be identified as Chris.
He added, “That’s something we commit to live by when we come to BYU. So I feel like BYU has the right to explicitly state those standards and expect the students to live by those standards.”
When asked for comment on student protests, BYU Media Relations Manager Todd Hollingshead referred ABC4 News to a statement from Honor Code Office Director Kevin Utt on the Q&A webpage:
“We realize that emotions over the last two weeks cover the spectrum and that some have and will continue to feel isolation and pain. We encourage all members of our campus community to reach out to those who are personally affected with sensitivity, love and respect.”
Hollingshead also added:
We would also ask all members of our campus community to heed the counsel given by President M. Russell Ballard this week at our BYU Devotional:
“We are all children of God. That makes us family, brothers and sisters bound by a common divine heritage. That one simple, unifying fact should override all else that we allow to cause separation and division among us.”
Students tell ABC4 News more demonstrations are planned through the next week, with sit-ins taking place outside the Honor Code Office.
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