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LGBTQ students wanted to start a club. Three years later, BYU still hasn’t decided if the group will be recognized.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune LGBT Brigham Young University students meet at the Provo City Library, June 28, 2018 to hold open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction. USGA is an organization for LGBT Brigham Young University students and their allies to discuss issues relating to homosexuality and the LDS Church.

Brigham Young University has 257 recognized clubs on its private and conservative Provo campus. There’s the Abracadabra magician society, a band of Shakespeare enthusiasts, six a cappella choirs, a rollerskating league and one group that calls itself Unraveling Pornography.

An additional 97 are listed on the school’s student association website as “not recognized.” For reasons unknown, that includes the Jane Austen Regency Club and the scuba team. (The “Weird Al” Yankovic Fan Club falls under the equally nebulous “restricted” category; the university did not return calls for clarification.)

But at least one group, Understanding Same Gender Attraction, doesn’t appear anywhere — not even named among the unofficial clubs — though the LGBTQ group formed in 2010, has 100 members and has met almost every week since.

The school has yet to approve its application, which was submitted three years ago, or act on creating a new group. The holdup, frequently cushioned by promises from administrators that it will get approved soon, maybe next month, maybe this fall, has begun to feel intentional. Did they think the students might eventually give up? Did they ever plan to give them the green light?

“We’ve been talking with BYU for a long time and still nothing has happened,” said Liza Holdaway, the club’s current president. “We’ve never been given concrete answers of what we should change or what we should do.”

Now, in the quiet of summer semester and with mounting frustration, members are renewing their efforts with the hope of finally getting a club on campus. Their sights are set on approval by the end of the year.

‘We want them to have a place’

BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As such, its policies must be in accordance with the faith’s practices. (Its board of trustees, for instance, is made up, in part, by the church’s president, officers of the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)

The Mormon church teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin but that acting on it is. Accordingly, BYU’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.” Students who don’t abide by it — say, they are seen holding hands or kissing — are widely expected to be disciplined.

But even those who do follow the guidelines say it’s easy to feel ashamed or unworthy, isolated or unwelcome. And leaving the application for Understanding Same Gender Attraction pending for so long, Holdaway said, only adds to the potluck of lousy emotions for LGBTQ students.

“We want them to have a place. We want them to get that love that they need.”

BYU formed a working group in late 2016 to study forming a club, as well as other ways to support gay, bisexual and transgender students. A year later, a few club members were invited to participate and provide input.

At least three times since then, club members say, the working group’s administrators and faculty led them to believe they were on the verge of being approved. The biggest letdown came in March after the group planned two landmark on-campus forums — with attendance that filled the auditoriums, aisles and overflow rooms — to discuss how to reconcile gender identity with faith.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Panel members Kaitlynn, Ben, Sarah and Gabriel speak during a LGBTQ and SSA student forum at BYU in Provo, Thursday, March 15, 2018.

That was supposed to be a sort of kickoff event that would precede an announcement. Then the students were told it wouldn’t happen until fall. Then they were told it likely wouldn’t happen this year after all.

“They kind of just strung us along over time,” said Robert McClellan, who drafted the group’s first application in 2015. “They would hold out these carrots, but … I don’t think they ever actually intended to work with us.”

In a written statement, Casey Peterson, BYU’s associate dean of students, said he has met with the club’s leaders for several years and also “other great students seeking to educate, support, strengthen and assist LGBTQ and [same-sex attracted] individuals and allies.”

“By endorsing one group of students and formally bringing them on to campus, I have worried about hurting other groups of students equally invested in assisting and serving,” he said.

It’s unclear what other groups he’s referring to. Understanding Same Gender Attraction is the only established organization of LGBTQ students studying at BYU.

Holdaway said the club is planning to push back, mostly out of frustration, but hopefully with workable compromises to have some kind — any kind — of physical representation on campus. Meanwhile, the administration has asked the group to focus more on planning events like the panels rather than continuing to fight for a club. The reason: The board of trustees is in transition now with a new LDS president, Russell M. Nelson, this year.

But even without that major change in the church, there’s always been something to point to, said Addison Jenkins, a current urban planning student and Understanding Same Gender Attraction president from 2015 to 2017. Before the new church president, he was told they couldn’t form the club because of a 2006 interview with two church leaders — Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Lance B. Wickman — who discouraged people “getting involved with any group or organization that foster living a homosexual lifestyle.”

“I don’t even know what ‘living a homosexual lifestyle’ means,” Jenkins said with a laugh while strongly suggesting that even if he did, this group is not fostering it. It’s not a support group, not an advocacy organization, not a hookup club and definitely not an underground meeting of atheists, as he said has been rumored.

“We are a service organization that speaks to saving and improving the lives of LGBT students at BYU.”

Why, he wonders, is that such a problem?

‘Screaming at a brick wall’

Currently, the group meets off campus every Thursday at the Provo City Library. Some students won’t attend because they don’t have transportation. Others won’t because they fear it’s not BYU-approved and they’ll be turned in to the Honor Code Office.

“BYU is sending the message that its LGBT students are not good enough or not worthy enough to be able to start their own club,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s an incredibly damaging message.”

The working group has drafted a new charter that outlines how a club would uphold school policy and the faith’s beliefs. It has a website mocked up and byu.edu server space waiting. It has picked out faculty advisers (who did not return calls for comment).

All of that was submitted in February, a few weeks before the big student panels. They’re ready. They’re just waiting for the OK that never comes.

“It feels like we’re screaming at a brick wall,” said JD Goates, a recently graduated student and former president of Understanding Same Gender Attraction. “I really hope that they move along. I am sad and I am angry that it couldn’t happen when I was there.”

Goates attended BYU from 2011 to 2018, with a two-year break to serve a church mission. He’s astounded that in seven years, there was no movement, despite his telling the school about several LGBTQ students who felt unable to find a community that supported them and who would rather have been straight and dead than gay and alive.

“There are people wanting to kill themselves,” he said, “and they are doing nothing about it.”

Jordan Sgro, chief program officer at Encircle, a resource center in Provo for queer individuals, said she sees BYU students come in every day. “There’s this feeling at BYU that if you’re LGBTQ, then you’re on the outside.”

Sgro, who is gay, attended the school and promised never to go back after graduation. The environment has improved a bit, she said, but more can be done to foster inclusivity — including accepting Understanding Same Gender Attraction.

‘It would mean a lot’

As soon as she left the meeting, Kaitlynn Wright knew one thing: “that I wanted to go back.”

It had taken a year for her to attend a Understanding Same Gender Attraction event. She’d seen the group on Facebook in December 2015. She’d wanted to go. But, after growing up in the church, she had suppressed her attraction to women because she felt it was “evil.”

By January 2017, though, she had come out to herself as gay and decided to check out the off-campus club.

“It was really great to find other people who understood where I was coming from,” she said. “But there was a lot of fear knowing that it wasn’t BYU official.”

Wright, who graduated in April, participated in the March student panels. She’s also a member of the working group that has been studying the issue. She was told that if the administration does decide to allow an LGBTQ group on campus — which has been routed to the board of trustees while every other club goes only through the BYU student association for approval — it likely would be a newly formed organization, not Understanding Same Gender Attraction.

While that’s not ideal, she said, at least it would be something, at least she would know the school had actually looked at the proposal, that it was decisive in wanting to make things better for students.

“I think it would mean a lot for people like me to know that there’s something official, that’s BYU approved.”

Holdaway and Jenkins said much the same. After years of submitting applications and waiting, they just want to see a club under the “recognized” list on the school’s website.

And they intend to continue fighting until they do.

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