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

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friends Julia Stark, left, and Sophie Gordon join other students protesting outside the student center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, after an official with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a clarification to the school's Honor Code, which said that same-sex romantic behavior is still "not compatible" with the rules at BYU.

Provo • Despite removing the section on “homosexual behavior” from its Honor Code last month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has clarified for the first time that same-sex romantic behavior is still “not compatible” with the rules at Brigham Young University.

The surprising announcement came Wednesday morning after weeks of questions about the change and after LGBTQ students had celebrated what they hoped that it meant. Many said they recently came out as gay only because they believed — and were told by some Honor Code staff — that the school and faith now allowed it.

“We felt like we finally had a place and then they ripped it away again,” said junior Katie Guerrero, who is bisexual.

In the afternoon, hundreds of students met in the campus quad to protest what they saw as a painful reversal by BYU. They solemnly sang church hymns and marched in a circle. One person clung to a poster that read, “Jesus said love everyone." And they chanted together, “The Honor Code is honor-less."

In his short letter Wednesday, Paul V. Johnson, a general authority Seventy and commissioner of the Church Educational System that oversees BYU’s campuses, said the Honor Code updates in mid-February led to “much discussion and some misinterpretation.” Johnson said he wanted to clarify “out of respect for all concerned.”

The Honor Code had previously prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings" at the university, which is owned by the LDS Church. Those who acted on such feelings could be punished or suspended.

In the update last month, that section was deleted. Students have said that staff in the Honor Code Office told them it meant they would no longer be disciplined for dating, holding hands with or kissing people of the same sex — as long as they upheld the faith’s existing expectation that couples remain chaste before marriage and its ban on same-sex marriage.

BYU officials immediately countered that there “may have been some miscommunication” but declined to elaborate.

[Read more: Rally by LGBTQ students at BYU and allies planned Friday at LDS Church headquarters]

In Johnson’s statement Wednesday, he wrote: “There is and always has been more to living the Lord’s standard of a chaste and virtuous life than refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage. Lasting joy comes when we live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.”

He then cited the LDS Church’s “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that says that gender is “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose" and that marriage is, for the faith, only to be between a man and a woman.

He added: “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.”

Students at the protest Wednesday challenged that, saying that kissing and hugging between heterosexual couples also doesn’t always “lead to eternal marriage.”

In addition to the letter, BYU also released a statement from Kevin Utt, the director of its Honor Code Office, whom many students said they had talked to directly after the change last month and who they said assured them that gay relationships would be allowed on campus.

In the response from Utt on Wednesday, he said that “any same-sex romantic behavior is a violation of the principles of the Honor Code.”

Utt acknowledged some students are likely to feel “isolation and pain” as a result of the announcement. And the school’s spokeswoman said counselors there are “well equipped to handle students’ crises,” including expertise in assisting LGBTQ students, who experience heightened risks of suicide and depression. She did not answer questions from The Salt Lake Tribune asking whether school officials specifically prepared or offered additional mental health resources or reached out in advance to vulnerable student groups before the statement came out.

“We realize that emotions over the last two weeks cover the spectrum,” Utt wrote in his response. “... We encourage all members of our campus community to reach out to those who are personally affected with sensitivity, love and respect.”

[Read more: BYU professor says school’s gay Honor Code change is 'a blessing,’ especially for those who don’t like it]

Hundreds of students had originally celebrated the Honor Code change last month before the clarification — with many coming out openly as gay or lesbian in response and many more attending a Rainbow Day event on campus.

Now, some say they feel gaslit, as though they were tricked into coming out as part of a sting.

“I was telling [a therapist] how I’m very happy now to be at BYU and to know that I can be myself and talk to people about dating and not have fear of being suspended,” said senior Danny Dawson, who is gay. “I didn’t realize how much that had been looming over me until it was gone.”

Just hours later he received an email from the school with Johnson’s statement. “I read it and said, ‘Please tell me this isn’t saying what I think it is,’ ” Dawson said.

After the change was announced last month, Franchesca Lopez, who is bisexual, had grabbed a female friend on campus and kissed her in front of the school’s statue of Brigham Young. She posted pictures online. She’s now feeling heartbroken and devastated.

“I feel so incredibly stupid to have believed BYU cared about me or anyone else,” she said.

Wednesday’s apparent about-face leaves a lot of LGBTQ students far more vulnerable than they were even before BYU updated the Honor Code last month, said Ciera Galbraith, a BYU senior who is bisexual. "Everyone is in so much fear now,” she added.

Galbraith helped organize the rally on campus Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 students marched with rainbow flags for three hours. At the start, they quietly chorused together: “As I have loved you, love one another.”

Some female couples held hands — despite the reaffirmed ban — while others hugged and cried. And they walked together in a circle that continued to expand. It was one of the biggest protests ever held at the campus.

“There’s a lot of sadness right now," said Zach Ibarra, a senior who is gay.

Tiauna Lomax said she came out as bisexual last week, feeling confident after the Honor Code section on “homosexual behavior” was removed. After the change Wednesday, she feels “traumatic whiplash.”

“I thought BYU cared about me,” Lomax added. She’s now considering transferring to another school.

During the rally, a few individuals spoke out against the massive crowd, but each one was drowned out by chants of “Gay rights” and “Love, not hate, will make BYU great." One student tried to read the "family proclamation,” though he didn’t make it to the second sentence before he was overwhelmed by LGBTQ protesters surrounding him with their posters. “Love means love,” one read. “Let gay students date,” said another. Others had references to scriptures scribbled on them in black marker.

Lilly Bitter, a junior, said she doesn’t know whether she’ll be allowed to keep attending BYU after celebrating the previous change with her girlfriend.

[Read more: Hundreds of BYU students protest over Honor Code for a second day]

"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," Bitter said. "It's so much more scrutiny, and I feel like I'm not safe here anymore. I have kind of blown my cover as an LGBT student."

In a Q&A attached to the campuswide email, Utt said that students are not required to turn in their classmates for “romantic behavior” but said they should “encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code.” It’s unclear, though, if those who have been open about their sexual orientation in the past few weeks will be questioned or disciplined.

Michael Austin, executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a Methodist school in Indiana, said Wednesday that BYU’s explicit prohibition will produce more negative press for the school than it would have a month ago.

The Provo-based university got a lot of “positive national press” — including from CNN and ESPN — when it first appeared to be allowing LGBTQ romantic behavior, said Austin, a Latter-day Saint. "Until two weeks ago, nobody knew what their policy was; now everybody does. It’s not just that they made this policy decision but made it when everybody was paying attention.”

There is no legal issue for the private school, he said. It has a right to prohibit same-sex couples from dating. The school’s board of trustees largely overlaps with church leadership. And the changes were made in line with recent updates to the faith’s handbook.

But other schools have the legal right to protest BYU’s action, Austin said, to refuse to affiliate with the university, or to advertise its job openings in their publications, which happened last fall with two nationally recognized science societies.

There likely will be more such incidents, Austin said, in which “affinity groups” — including athletic conferences, academic disciplines and social organizations — choose not to allow the LDS-affiliated school to join or to host events based on the honor code’s stance on LGBTQ behavior.

Next week, the Provo campus will be the site of the prestigious national ballroom dance championships, after the school said it would allow same-sex couples to compete. It had to change its long-standing rules to do so.

But, with the clarification Tuesday, the policy hasn’t budged for BYU students.