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Robert Gehrke: BYU hurt itself but, more importantly, hurt students with LGBTQ flip-flop

Robert Gehrke

Brigham Young University has sure managed to “frick” over its gay students in a baffling display of incompetence.

Last month, the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stripped out of its Honor Code a prohibition on “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

What came next should have surprised no one. Scores of relieved and jubilant LGBTQ students celebrated, posting photos on social media believing it was now OK to hold hands or hug or kiss another person of the same sex, just like their heterosexual classmates were allowed to do. And Honor Code officials told them it was OK. They asked.

The response was moving. You could feel the relief from students who had been deprived of expressing and sharing that affection and love, a fundamental part of who they are — really of who we all are — or at least sacrificed that part of themselves in order to get an education.

On Wednesday, the school did a complete reversal.

A letter from Paul V. Johnson, the commissioner of the Church Education System that oversees BYU, said there had been “some misinterpretation” of the Honor Code revision and that romantic same-sex behavior was not compatible with the Honor Code because it “cannot lead to eternal marriage” — which remains one of BYU’s prime directives.

[Read more: After BYU Honor Code change, LDS Church now says same-sex relationships are ‘not compatible’ with the faith’s rules]

Now, even if you share BYU’s position on same-sex relationships and even if you supported their past discipline of those students, I think we can all agree that the reversal, then re-reversal of the Honor Code was an unmitigated disaster.

The initial announcement was incompetently handled and abysmally communicated, then left without clarification for weeks, despite the obvious confusion it created.

Now it’s a public relations nightmare for the university, which is seen as having pulled a bait-and-switch on a move toward openness that many of its students — those who are LGBTQ and the many, many more who support their friends — had been pleading for for years.

Students turned out to protest the move by the hundreds, gathering in the Wilkinson Center, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the Honor Code has got to go.”

It’s perhaps fitting, since it was BYU President Ernest Wilkinson who implemented an Honor Code where women were banned from wearing pants, men were banned from wearing beards and homosexuals were banned altogether.

“If any of you have this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the university immediately,” Wilkinson reportedly told an assembly in 1965. “We do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.

He seems nice.

This Honor Code 180 is more than in image problem. It was callous and cruel, giving students the hope that they might not have to hide their romantic feelings — really their true selves — only to drive them back into the shadows.

And going back into the closet is not even possible for all of those students who publicly celebrated the original change, posting pictures reveling in the elation of being able to openly love who they love for the first time.

"There's pictures of me on the news, kissing a girl in front of the Brigham Young statue. People who didn't know before know now because I thought it didn't matter," student Lilly Bitter told my colleague Courtney Tanner. "It's so much more scrutiny, and I feel like I'm not safe here anymore.”

The university has tried to say the right things, while not admitting a mistake.

“We realize that emotions over the last two weeks cover the spectrum and that some have and will continue to feel isolation and pain,” said Kevin Utt, the director of BYU’s Honor Code Office in a Q&A posted on the school’s website, encouraging the campus community to treat each other with “sensitivity, love and respect.”

That would be the same “sensitivity, love and respect” that Utt and the university failed to show the students, the cause of so much “isolation and pain.”

I’m not going to run down the damage inflicted on these students. They know the rates at which these students will turn their back on their church. They know the rates of depression. They know the rates of suicide.

“The world is our campus,” as the school’s motto goes, so long as part of your world stays in the closet.

Look, BYU is a private university, run by a church. They can, within few limitations, do whatever they want and I try not to tell the university or the church what they should do. Students who enroll there understand the rules when they sign up although, frankly, I’ve never understood why LGBTQ students would want to attend a school that treats them less-than-human.

But I would advise university officials to consider their own Christian underpinnings when they look those students in the eyes — students who have finally had the terror lifted and tasted the smallest bit of freedom — and appreciate the torment the university’s incompetence has caused them.

Editor’s note: If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

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