Gay and Mormon: BYU students speak on panel
Bridey Jensen is a student at Brigham Young University. She's also a lesbian. The 23-year-old knows some of her peers see these as mutually exclusive identities, but next week, she hopes to clear up any misunderstandings about what it means to be gay and a devout Latter-day Saint during a panel discussion on her Provo campus.
"Both of these things are just a fundamental part of me that I never chose," said Jensen, one of three students expected to be part of the panel. "Just because I accept [that I am gay] doesn't mean I believe in the gospel any less."
LDS Church teachings condemn sexual relationships between members of the same sex. But in recent years, the church-owned BYU has adjusted its Honor Code to allow for students who experience same-sex attraction but don't act on those feelings. The code does not impose sanctions on gay students as long as their behavior remains chaste and they don't advocate homosexual behavior.
Sociology professor Charlie Morgan is organizing the forum, set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. The event has been advertised with fliers describing it as "Everything you wanted to know about being gay at BYU but were too afraid to ask."
The event will be held in conjunction with a handful of sociology and psychology courses and has not been cleared through official channels as a public event, according to university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
"It's not a campus-wide event or open to the public. It's limited to the classes," she said.
The fliers seem to invite the interested public and do not specify any course listings, indicating only that it's sponsored by the sociology department and will be held in a lecture hall in the Thomas L. Martin Building. Morgan and sociology chairwoman Renata Forste did not return phone messages.
Joining Jensen on the BYU panel is Adam White, a 21-year-old theater arts major from Washington, D.C., who began telling people he is gay about a year ago.
"Talking to people about the panel, it becomes really apparent that a lot of people just don't know that there are gay people at BYU or that it's OK to be gay at BYU," White said. "There are a lot of people who still don't know how to approach this kind of conversation. Opening up this panel allows people to get a dialogue started in ways that aren't volatile. It also puts a human face to these issues."
Such a gathering likely wouldn't stir controversy on most university campuses, where discussion of divisive or complex topics is generally encouraged as an integral part of the college experience.
But one group that bills itself as "an LDS-oriented educational corporation" is urging people to call the sociology faculty and BYU administration to complain. Earlier this week, the Pleasant Grove-based Standard of Liberty sent out an e-mail alert denouncing the event as an "ill conceived" effort that may only serve to legitimize a "soul-destroying situation." Stephen Graham, Standard of Liberty president, characterized the forum as a threat to traditional values because it could depict homosexuality as healthy and normal.
"It will be harmful, harmful to the souls of those giving the talks, harmful to those young minds listening who will be supported in covering both inward and outward sins and initiated further into homosexuality, and harmful to all those these people come in contact with," Graham wrote.
But Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, which serves Utah's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, applauds the forum as a healthy outlet for students and faculty to discuss a sensitive topic.
"It's an affirmation for them and who they are as LGBT-indentified students at BYU and adhering to the Honor Code," Larabee said. "On a personal level that's a success for them. On a broader level, sociology is the study of human social interaction. If you cut out a piece of our environment and not talk about it, are you really educating?"
Jenkins said BYU has received inquiries about the panel, but the school has no plans to act on Standard of Liberty's complaints.
Larabee dismissed the group as outside the Mormon mainstream and beholden to discredited notions that homosexuality is tantamount to a mental illness requiring a cure. Graham did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Jensen said coming out as gay two years ago helped her overcome depression and the sense that she was alone as a lesbian in the LDS Church. Since then, she has met other gay Mormons and learned that many of her friends support her.
"That's what prompted me to finally come out. I couldn't be alone any more," Jensen said. "I couldn't not talk about it."
Since she was a child in Oklahoma, Jensen has always felt a need to attend BYU. She said she abides by the school's requirement that all unmarried students be celibate.
Jensen leads an unofficial student group called "Understanding Same Gender Attraction" that draws about 40 to 80 people a week, including students from both BYU and Utah Valley University, as well as family members and friends. The group is non-political and doesn't take a position on LDS teachings or gay marriage, instead promoting compassion for people who are LGBT.
"As Christians â¦ aren't we missing the mark if we don't embrace these people with compassion and love?" Jensen said. "I want people to understand this is an issue that touches their lives whether they know it or not. It doesn't just skip you because you're Mormon."