BYU’s LGBTQ students feel relief, backlash and confusion over Honor Code change

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sidney Draughon holds a sign as she takes part in a protest in Provo, Utah, in April 2019 against how the Brigham Young University Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students. BYU this month announced it revised its strict code of conduct to strip a rule that banned any behavior that reflected "homosexual feelings," which LGBTQ students and their allies felt created an unfair double standard not imposed on heterosexual couples. Students, however, are still unclear on the details of how the new Honor Code rules will work.

Calvin Burke says he has never been disciplined by Brigham Young University.

But he says his Honor Code file, more than 70 pages long, is brimming with accusations: that he had a boyfriend, that he had a Tinder account, that in advocating for LGBTQ students he was in apostasy against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the school.

But since BYU eliminated a ban on "homosexual behavior" from its Honor Code, Burke says he feels "freaking immense, immense relief."

“I feel like I am safe at my university that I’ve loved for the longest time,” the BYU senior said, choking back tears. “Finally I’m able to go to my school in peace, finally I’m able to study. It just feels surreal. I never would have thought I’d have been able to feel safe at BYU.”

The Honor Code — which includes a dress code, rules for dating, and bans on drugs, alcohol, coffee and tea — previously prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings." The university quietly removed that section this month.

But it’s not clear how far-reaching the changes will be in practice. After students posted on social media that staff in the Honor Code Office told them they would not be disciplined for dating, holding hands with or kissing people of the same sex, BYU officials said there “may have been some miscommunication as to what the Honor Code changes mean.”

“Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same,” BYU’s official Twitter account posted.

BYU officials did not respond to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune as to what the miscommunication was, saying only that the Honor Code Office would address students’ questions as they arise.

“We’re glad students are meeting with the Honor Code Office administrators to get answers to individual questions on a case-by-case basis,” said Todd Hollingshead, a spokesman for BYU.

Sam Cosgrove, a 20-year-old student who calls himself “an ally that just wants the university to be a safe and welcoming place to all people,” said he and three friends met Thursday with Kevin Utt, director of the Honor Code Office, to ask for specifics.

What the students learned, Cosgrove said, is that “if a straight person would get in trouble for it in a straight relationship, a gay person would get in trouble for it in a gay relationship.”

Another point they discussed, Cosgrove said, is whether a couple intends to marry. A same-sex couple who declares they plan to marry would violate the Honor Code, because church doctrine only recognizes marriage between one man and one woman.

However, Cosgrove said, “we asked how they prove someone’s intent, and they said they can’t, really, unless there’s physical, tangible proof stating intent.”

“We couldn’t get them to say, yes, gay students can date without the intent to marry,” Cosgrove said. “But they said there is no way to punish it, there is no way to enforce anything.”

That was the takeaway of another student, Lilly Bitter, a junior who said she has had a girlfriend for about six months.

“They were very wishy-washy. If we said, ‘Can gays date?’ they wouldn’t answer. But when the question was, ‘Will I be punished for dating?’ they said, ‘No,'" Bitter recounted. “I think they don’t want to condone gay dating in any way, but they don’t want to punish it any more.”

Some students reacted angrily to the perception that BYU may condone any romantic expression between same-sex couples. A group called SaveBYU formed last year after protests against the severity of student discipline in some cases, and revived their activity in the past week.

“Sorry, we just can’t stand for this,” the group tweeted with photos of students smiling and one image of two women kissing in front of the Brigham Young statue on campus.

In a phone call, members of the group refused to identify themselves to The Tribune, but said there are between “three and 10” students in the organization. The group took credit for posting more than 100 copies of the “The Family: A Proclamation to the World" around campus between Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

“They highlighted everything in it about marriage being between a man and a woman," Bitter said. “It was very directed at LGBT students.”

The group also said they removed a rainbow party hat from the head of the Brigham Young statue and taped copies of the Proclamation to the statue.

“Just make sure to have cameras rolling when the [progressives] come and rip them up. Then post that footage here,” one of the group’s supporters replied on Twitter, prompting another to suggest sending footage to students’ bishops.

Bishops issue — and may revoke — students’ ecclesiastical endorsements, which are required to attend BYU. Some students said they worried that dating and light physical affection with someone of their same sex or gender may not bring about discipline from the school, but that their bishops may still take action.

“I think part of what they’re doing is, they’re putting a lot more power into local bishops, which is great if you have a bishop who’s supportive and sympathetic to the plight of LGBT students,” said Zachary Ibarra, a senior who is gay. “But you could have bishops say, ‘Just because this is not against the Honor Code, this is against the church teachings,’ and [deny an endorsement]. I think that’s a real fear that a lot of people have.”

But several LGBTQ students said they still are relieved that their detractors have one less avenue to attack their enrollment. Ibarra noted that he previously was afraid to confess even an idle crush on another man for fear of triggering an Honor Code investigation into whether he was “acting on it.”

Cosgrove, in a widely read Twitter thread compiling the answers he received from the Honor Code Office, put the issue of bishops’ discretion in language usually not used by church leaders: “If your bishop is chill, you’re chillin’.”

Junior Caroline McKenzie said family members reported her to the Honor Code Office this year after she came out to them.

“Just coming out was enough to cause a report and an investigation,” she said. “People felt like that was enough to get you kicked out of the university. ... It’s wonderful that there’s this change where I don’t even have to worry about dating anymore.”

Burke says the change also limits the potential for retaliatory campaigns against LGBTQ students. In addition to Honor Code reports, he says his LGBTQ advocacy has been targeted in multiple complaints to his employers, university administrators and even his clergy. At one point, he says, someone was offering a cash reward for information to get him expelled from BYU. Another posted his stake president’s name to solicit reports against him, he says.

“He said he got to the point where he didn’t even open emails about me from people he didn’t know,” Burke says. “These people who tried for so long to hurt me won’t be able to hurt me anymore.”

Beyond protection, Burke says, the change has freed up faculty and staff to be open in their support for vulnerable LGBTQ students. One professor sent an email to Bitter, offering her an excused absence from class for a celebratory date. Another professor told students that anyone who harasses LGBTQ students should expect a report to the Honor Code Office.

“Professors over the years have always been kind and loving and supportive, and have wanted to help. Administration has been harder, but seeing this happen — it’s been huge. It’s like a total about-face,” Burke says. "This is the thing about Latter-day Saints: We make mistakes, but when we do something right, we go all out. It’s cool to see BYU go all out on this.”