BYU professor urges students to make campus and Mormonism safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals, women and people of color

Courtesy: Kylea Knecht/BYU BYU professor Eric Huntsman

Brigham Young University biblical scholar Eric D. Huntsman always asks his students what Jesus’ disciples meant when they called some of the Master’s words “hard sayings.”

In the past, students at the LDS Church-owned school said “hard sayings” — any doctrine or practice that is difficult to understand, accept or follow — referred to questions about Mormon history or theology.

These days, though, young Latter-day Saints tell Huntsman the expression includes “gender disparities, sexual and other identities, and racial and ethnic discrimination.”

And the professor of ancient scripture has been deeply troubled by reports of escalating numbers of youth suicides by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

So, in a rousing BYU devotional speech Tuesday, Huntsman urged hundreds of listeners to create “environments that are, on the one hand, places of faith where we can seek and nurture testimony, but are also, on the other, places where our sisters and brothers can safely question, seek understanding, and share their pain.”

He specifically addressed the tensions faced within the faith by LGBTQ students, Mormons of color and LDS women — topics rarely mentioned directly from the podium during BYU devotionals.

Whatever their individual realities, Huntsman said, “the unchanging fact is that they are children of loving Heavenly Parents, and the same Jesus suffered and died for them as for us.”

For many people, not only LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, he said, “the choice to love can literally make the difference between life and death.”

As a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Huntsman relished the chance to participate in the June 1 “Be One” pageant, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the church lifting its ban on black boys and men gaining the priesthood and on black girls and women entering LDS temples.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, Huntsman followed the continuing debate about how the racial ban had harmed black Mormons and how various participants perceived the event itself — including whether “a white ally … should even sing a traditional song of Negro liberation.”

He needed to “resist the temptation to come up with answers or defenses,” he said in his speech, “and instead I just needed to sit with them, listening and trying to understand.”

As the choir went on tour to the West Coast, it had occasion to join with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, an unexpected bridge-building move that thrilled Huntsman.

Later, though, the BYU professor and singer met a young gay Mormon who felt, he said, “like he was still under a rock.”

The young man’s “continued choice to stay in the church,” Huntsman said, “comes at the cost of constant struggle, frequent pain and considerable loneliness.”

On gender issues, even his own daughter Rachel, then a seventh-grader, asked him, after reading the words of Paul in the New Testament: “Daddy, why doesn’t Heavenly Father like girls as much as boys?”

In the years since, he said, he has worked to include “models of powerful women of faith and testimony” in his classes. “I must find and share faithful witnesses of all sexes, tongues, peoples and life experiences.”

When it comes to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor,” Huntsman said, “there are no outsiders.”

Even those who “find themselves outside of formal church fellowship or membership,” he added, “should never find themselves outside of the fellowship of our friendship and the circle of our love.”

Without diluting LDS “doctrine or compromising our standards,” he said, “we must open our hearts wider, reach out farther, and love more loudly, making space for struggle and faith” — a not-so-subtle reference to the recent LGBTQ fundraising LoveLoud concert.

Rachel Huntsman, now a BYU senior, said her friends and co-workers responded enthusiastically to her father’s approach.

“These are issues that my generation is grappling with,” she said. “We are trying to be sensitive and open about them.”

Renata Forste, director of BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, found Huntsman’s speech particularly timely.

“As we think about our lives as followers of Christ, and especially as members of the LDS faith,” Forste said, “we need to reach out and love all of our brothers and sisters and reach across racial, gender, class, and sexual orientation and identity boundaries.”

Mormons need “to live what we preach,” she emphasized. “We can do better. Especially in the current political climate of exclusion and nationalism, we need to reach out and cross boundaries and be inclusive — not create walls and borders to separate us as human beings.”

For his part, Huntsman was gratified by the response. After the collective “amen” at the end of his sermon, the students clapped.