Standing in the shadow of the iconic campus statue of Brigham Young, Franchesca Lopez leaned forward, grabbed her friend, Kate Foster, and kissed her.
The seconds-long embrace was meant to be a celebration. To them, though, it was also historic.
The two women, students at Brigham Young University, ran to that special spot on campus Wednesday as soon as they heard that the conservative Utah school had quietly removed from its Honor Code the section titled “Homosexual Behavior.” That part of the strict campus rules had long banned students from “all forms of physical intimacy” between members of the same sex.
Lopez, who identifies as bisexual, didn’t expect it to ever change. “I just keep thinking maybe I imagined the whole thing,” she said, still jittery from what she’s calling her “first gay kiss.”
Though the changes to the policy are certainly a landmark at the private religious institution, what exactly it will mean is still largely left to be determined. The Honor Code Office and a spokeswoman for BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declined to elaborate on a brief online statement that said only that the code had been “updated.”
But students who contacted the office quickly posted on social media what they said they had learned — and many were cheering. Kirk Bowman, a recent graduate, said the director of the office told him the change would mean LGBTQ students would no longer be disciplined or expelled for being in relationships — kissing or holding hands — as long as they follow the faith’s existing expectation that couples remain chaste until marriage.
“I am personally very excited," Bowman said. "While I still think there are serious problems with the office, I am very happy that they are taking steps towards equality. I am hopeful that this will lead to less homophobia on campus from students, professors, faculty, bishops, etc.”
Lopez said she was told the same thing by a counselor at the office and was delighted. She posted the picture of her kiss on Twitter with the BYU namesake statue’s bronze eyes watching over the intimate moment. She then danced around the campus, she said, holding hands with other female students and singing the Katy Perry hit “I Kissed a Girl.”
For now, she added, she’s “just trying to enjoy it.” Later Wednesday afternoon, BYU officials said on Twitter that there had been “some miscommunication” as to what the Honor Code changes mean.
With the recently released general handbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church Educational System has updated the CES Honor Code to be in alignment with the doctrine and policies of the Church.— BYU (@BYU) February 19, 2020
“Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same,” the tweets read. “The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case by case basis. For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually.”
The church, for instance, does not support gay marriage. And questions remain about the role of local faith leaders, who have previously ruled on whether students can attend the school or not based on their intimate relationships.
As it stood before, the Honor Code previously had banned “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings" among its students and staff. It had stated that the school wouldn’t punish those who felt same-sex attraction but rather only those who acted on it.
The new version deletes those paragraphs.
The university’s short statement announcing that the code had been updated did not explicitly say Wednesday whether certain forms of affection, such as holding hands or kissing, would now be acceptable between people of the same gender. And some questioned whether the school was trying to walk back the changes.
Jaclyn Foster, a recent graduate, said she feels the school wants “to retain the power to punish queer students” but doesn’t want “to have a written rule against it for plausible deniability reasons.” She said it was a bait-and-switch that seemed like “the cherry on top of the transphobic sundae.”
But it’s still not clear yet exactly what it will mean. The change was first noted by observers on social media. A note on the website says the code was last approved and updated on Feb. 12.
Students have previously talked with The Salt Lake Tribune about being investigated by the Honor Code Office for holding hands with a member of the same sex or going on dates. Many said they felt too vulnerable to be themselves.
Addison Jenkins, a former student who was reported to the office for having a gay relationship while at the school, said he’s happy to see BYU reexamine its “homophobic” policy. He left before finishing his degree, in part, because of the animosity he felt there being LGBTQ, he said.
“The lives of thousands of queer students currently at BYU and those yet to come will be measurably improved by this long overdue change,” he added.
Still, others questioned the change, saying they were glad it had occurred but emphasizing that it didn’t erase past hurts from the school’s policies. In 2007, students could be expelled for saying they were gay, noted former student Summer Lee-Corry, who identifies as queer.
Will Damarjian, who uses they and them pronouns, said they know many former students there who were forced out at the school for “daring to love someone.”
“I dated girls in secret where the guilt ate us alive,” Damarjian said, questioning the school’s lack of an apology and calling the quiet updates “revisionist."
Lee-Corry is hopeful but also called it “a bittersweet day,” wondering “why things couldn’t have changed earlier." Church leaders “wield a great deal of power,” she said. "I wish they practiced repentance as well as they preached it.”
The change also comes as the church released a new handbook this week with updates to its transgender policy. Members who elect medical or surgical intervention to transition to the “opposite gender” or who “socially transition” — dress as the gender they identify as or change their names or pronouns — “will experience some church membership restrictions.” But they will not be excommunicated.
That policy didn’t specifically address gay members of the faith, though the church has also recently addressed its relations with those individuals — including no longer viewing children from those relationships as apostates.
BYU’s online statement said: “With the recently released general handbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church Educational System has updated the CES Honor Code to be in alignment with the doctrine and policies of the Church.”
It noted that the changes will apply to all of the church’s campuses, including the main school in Provo and the satellites in Idaho and Hawaii. Previously, each could include their own individualized standards and varied in enforcement.
The statement adds, “The updated Honor Code continues to be a principle-based code that reflects the moral standards of the Church.” The code, as it stands, prohibits premarital sex, sets certain rules for when and how dating occurs, contains a dress code and bans the consumptions of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea.
Those remained unchanged in the new version. Other than the removal of the section on “Homosexual Behavior,” the other most notable alterations were to update the places where it previously said “LDS” and now say “Latter-day Saint.” That’s part of a bigger effort by the church to move away from abbreviations of its name and the moniker of “Mormon.”
The school also expanded an explanation at the beginning of the code. It previously instructed, “Live a chaste and virtuous life.” It now says: “Live a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”
There were no other substantial differences, according to a detection software that The Tribune ran on both versions.
Lopez said she heard about the changes as her friends texted her while she was sitting in class. At first, she was skeptical. “It seemed like a trap,” she added.
But after talking to more students and the Honor Code Office, she feels happy with the changes and hopeful that the school won’t retract them. She said she finally feels like she can be herself.
“I haven’t been able to date girls or explore those feelings,” she noted. “I couldn’t do anything to risk getting reported to the office or risk my status as a student.”
Emma Lundell, who identifies as bisexual, also applauded the changes, though the student still plans to leave BYU this year because of the struggles being LGBT there. “The dissonance between the old policy and my sexuality caused me a lot of pain while at school, and is largely why I am transferring,” Lundell said.
Over the past year, students have been questioning the Honor Code and how it’s enforced. Hundreds held a rally last April on campus — where Lopez spoke — saying they felt the school cared more about punishing those who violate the rules than helping them, particularly with sexual assault and rape cases.
Several also spoke out about the policy on gay relationships, including former student Matt Easton. He later went viral after declaring he is “a gay son of God” during his graduation speech.
On Wednesday, he tweeted: “Girls and gays, we did it!”
Since the campuswide protest, the school has slowly unveiled changes to its Honor Code policy and processes — none, though, as dramatic as removing an entire section. But Jenkins believes the update Wednesday was part of that and due to continued pressure on campus by those most impacted.
“We’ve been vulnerable and authentic and persistently asked for the university to treat us queer students the same as our straight peers,” he said. “Today, that work finally paid off.”
Lopez felt that same. After her kiss by the statue, she walked away from the shadow and onto the sunny campus.