‘I thought I was the only queer person at BYU’: LGBT students host panel focused on faith and gender identity at Mormon church-owned university

Gabriel Cano doesn’t get called on in class. Maybe he’s just not raising his hand high enough. Maybe he’s just paranoid.

Maybe. But probably not.

Cano suspects the real reason is because he’s transgender.

His professor knew him when he had long hair. And he’s in his class again, nearly two years after transitioning, now wearing suspenders and thick glasses. He doesn’t look the same, and he isn’t seen the same.

At LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, that treatment, sometimes intentionally biased, sometimes just oblivious, is not unusual. LGBT students say it’s the standard. They want to change it.

“It’s not talked about. And that makes you feel isolated. I thought I was the only queer person at BYU,” Cano said. “Can you believe that? There are so many people here.”

He spoke to friendly crowds of more than 600 people each Thursday afternoon and evening, crammed into a small auditorium, sitting in the aisles and spilling into overflow rooms. The rare campuswide, school-sanctioned events focused on how to reconcile gender identity with faith and how to accept “our LGBT brothers and sisters.” The frank and open discussions were led by four students who shared their personal experiences and encouraged acceptance.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but that acting on it is. The Mormon school’s stringent Honor Code forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

Those who break it are widely expected to be disciplined. Those who uphold it say it’s easy to feel ashamed or unworthy.

Kaitlynn Wright said she grew up as a “typical, goody-two-shoes Mormon kid” who knew the stories of the Old Testament, answered every Sunday school question and dutifully went on a mission to proselytize for the faith. For seven years, she suppressed her attraction to women because she felt it was “evil.”

“I love this gospel, and I love this church,” the 24-year-old said. “But I feel a lot of disconnect there. … After coming out, I did have a faith crisis.”

She believes in salvation and God and atonement. She has “put aside” the church’s family proclamation, which spells out long-standing views on the eternal importance of marriage between a man and a woman. “I can believe things, but I don’t have to believe everything at once,” Wright explained.

The audience clapped at her response. Some wore “Y” T-shirts in rainbow patterns. Others had stickers from the student-led support group Understanding Same Gender Attraction, which is not sanctioned by BYU and is not allowed to reserve meeting space on campus.

“LGBT and [same-sex-attracted] students don’t only exist at the BYU, they belong at BYU,” said Liza Holdaway, co-vice president of Understanding Same Gender Attraction.

To improve the climate on campus, members of the panel suggested making the group an official club. Others proposed conducting sensitivity training for students and faculty or opening a resource center. Sarah Langford said people need to feel like they can talk freely about their orientation without worrying about being turned into the school’s Honor Code Office.

The 26-year-old sociology major said she enrolled in a sexuality and gender studies class and told her professor about her marriage: She’s bisexual, and her husband of four years is mostly attracted to men. The instructor was “more than unkind,” Langford recalled, and asked her not to share the experience with other students.

“My relationship is really beautiful,” she said. “I just felt sanctioned.”

Since coming out, though, Langford said her connection with God “has deepened.” Wright said hers has been complicated. Ben Schilaty is still figuring it out.

A master’s student in social work who is gay, Schilaty tried to be a “checklist Mormon.” He thought going on a mission could make him straight. But it didn’t. Neither did volunteering at the temple, nor reading the Bible, nor trying to date women in his ward nor going to BYU. “I felt imprisoned or trapped by the church’s teachings,” he said. “There were so many times I would have rather been dead and straight than alive and gay.”

As an active member, he struggled with having to choose between the gospel he loves and being with someone he loves. He gets most frustrated when the faith’s leaders pressure young adherents to marry by saying those who don’t are “selfish.”

“Things like that are hurtful,” Schilaty added. “My decision to not get married has nothing to do with selfishness.”

BYU and the church as a whole, he said, need to readjust language and teachings to be more inclusive and understanding of the challenges its members may face. The LGBT community shouldn’t be blamed “for our circumstances” or made to feel like strangers. And they shouldn’t have to fear being honest about who they are.

Addison Jenkins, who spoke at the first campus forum about LGBT students last year, said the school took a good step forward Thursday “in hosting this panel.”

“And the students who showed up did the right thing, too.”

Cano, who’s a bit shy, was glad he participated. Some days, he feels like sitting in a pew. Others, he doesn’t even want to hear the acronym “LDS.” This week, he’s been pretty hopeful.

He’d like BYU to be more Christlike, with people respecting each other and not passing judgment. When an LGBT individual confides in a friend on campus, he hopes the response is, “That’s beautiful. That’s so different and cool. Tell me all about it.”

“If Jesus were here, what would this place look like?” he said. “Would there be a space for LGBT people? Yes. Just think of what he did, his mission and his life. He was always trying to help people.”