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As a new federal lawsuit accuses 25 religious colleges of discriminating against LGBTQ students, more plaintiffs have signed on to speak against one of those schools than any other: Brigham Young University.
“I joined this lawsuit because I didn’t want anyone else to feel how I felt there in Provo,” said Ashtin Markowski, a recent BYU graduate who is lesbian. “I was on edge, anxious all the time and afraid every day that I was going to be kicked out for being myself.”
Markowski is one of three former students from BYU’s campuses in Utah and Idaho who are part of the case, which targets practices such as disciplining and sometimes expelling those who are openly queer.
It argues that religious schools — even if they are private, like BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — should not be allowed to have anti-LGBTQ policies if they accept federal funding for research grants, student loans and other programs.
BYU, for instance, gets about $1 billion each year from the federal government, said Paul Southwick, the lead attorney on the Oregon lawsuit and director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which is backing it.
The proposed class action is not filed against the individual colleges. It instead names the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that because the department allocates federal money to schools, it should be responsible for enforcing Title IX on all campuses. That law prohibits schools from discriminating based on sex.
But there’s a religious exemption that allows those owned by faith organizations to ignore some parts of it. Southwick believes that exemption violates the U.S. Constitution and leaves gay, queer and transgender students vulnerable to “abuses and unsafe conditions” — even while their schools collect federal cash for admitting them.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the school is “in the process of reviewing this lawsuit.” She also said BYU aims to treat all students “with respect, dignity and love. We are concerned when any of our students do not feel this way and greatly value the contributions our students make to BYU.”
Since the case was filed, though, Southwick said even more students from BYU have called him, interested in signing on. “They all have their own story,” he added, “and their own reasons.” Seventeen psychology groups also support the lawsuit and there are currently 33 plaintiffs, representing schools from Baylor University to Liberty University to Colorado Christian University.
Here are the stories of the three who attended BYU.
Ashtin Markowski, the engaged graduate tired of living in fear
When she got engaged in December, two days after she graduated, Markowski refused to tell anyone until after she received her diploma from BYU and could hold it in the hand that bears her ring.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to share her love of her partner, Bailey, with the world — or at least Facebook. She didn’t want to share it with administrators at the school before she was officially an alumna, out of their reach.
“I was just so afraid after how I’d been treated that they’d find out somehow about my relationship and try to withhold my degree or my transcripts or something,” said Markowski, 25.
That reflects how she felt during much of her experience on BYU’s main campus, in Provo: worried about being openly herself.
Markowski said she realized that she was LGBTQ at the end of 2019. At that time, the school had a section in its strict Honor Code banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
In March 2020, Markowski first claimed the label of gay for herself. But she kept it private, for the most part, concerned that she might be asked to leave BYU if she came out and openly dated other women. She had friends who were reported to the Honor Code Office, she said, for hugging someone of the same sex.
Later that same month, BYU removed the “homosexual feelings” clause from the Honor Code and some LGBTQ students celebrated what they hoped that meant, kissing in front of campus statues, holding hands and coming out. But they felt gaslit, they said, when leaders said three weeks later that their relationships were still “not compatible” with the rules at BYU.
Also last spring, Markowski was asked to leave her student job in the Missionary Training Center on campus for not looking “feminine enough” by BYU’s standards. She had been working there for about two and half years when — with everything shifting online because of the pandemic — she decided to cut her hair short.
She liked the idea of a short pixie cut that she thought would make her feel more like herself. When she logged onto her first Zoom call with her new hairdo — the sides and back shaved — her supervisor complimented it.
A month later, Markowski was called in to meet with her supervisor and manager. They had a screenshot of her from Zoom and told her the cut was against the school’s dress and grooming standards, she said, which are part of the Honor Code. They said the haircut violated its prohibition against “extreme” styles, she said.
In the meeting, they also kept asking Markowski why she cut her hair, she said. “It was almost like they wanted me to out myself,” she said. She remembers them saying: “Your eyebrows are too firm. Your makeup is too much. You just look too masculine.”
“It was all so contradictory,” Markowski said.
Still, she wanted to keep her job, which she said helped her feel close to the church she loved. She offered to grow her hair out again and take a temporary position where the public couldn’t see her. The next day, though, Markowski said her supervisor contacted her and told her they were letting her go.
Markowski tried filing a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2020. But they told her she had no case because BYU is a private institution.
She also recalls being told several times by her bishop — a local leader in the LDS Church — to be more feminine. BYU students must meet with their bishop every year to renew their ecclesiastical endorsement, which is their approval to attend the school.
In March 2018, she told her bishop that she had a strong connection to a female friend — not describing it as romantic, which she didn’t think was the case at the time. She said he asked her if it was a “sex addiction” and warned her to stay away from “temptation.” He also instructed her to write several essays about her goals, she said, including dating and marrying a man so that she would meet “eternal requirements.”
“I was just living in constant fear of being expelled,” she said. “And I was too far along in my degree to transfer. I didn’t want to, either. All of my family went there. And everyone deserves to go to a religious school if they want to.”
She paused. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re gay.”
Chandler Horning, the student sent to a club to make him straight
For most of his time at BYU-Idaho, Chandler Horning didn’t go to the Rexburg campus — and that was on purpose.
The now 25-year-old instead lived with his parents in Boise and took every class he could online, out of fear of being “found out” for being gay. He worried that if anyone knew, he would be expelled or suspended.
But starting in January 2019, the classes he had to take in order to finish his degree were only offered in person. So he went.
At that point, Horning had just finished an internship at a magazine in Michigan. Being away from Idaho, where he grew up, had helped him see things differently and feel freer to be himself, he said. He had known he was gay since he was 12 or 13, and he didn’t feel as alone in Michigan, he said, where he experienced a supportive LGBTQ scene and talked about his identity openly with people other than his immediate family.
When he came back to BYU, though, and had to be on campus, he “stuffed himself back in the closet,” he said. “The school doesn’t support who we are,” he said.
For one thing, those who attend the school and are single and under the age of 27 have to live in BYU-approved housing in Rexburg. Roommates, at the time he enrolled, were encouraged to turn in anyone who broke Honor Code rules, including related to dating or same-sex relationships.
Horning said he didn’t talk much to anyone in his dorm, afraid he might slip up and identify himself. “It was a snitch culture,” he said. “The students are the police. The teachers are the police. It’s like everyone is watching you.”
If they’re found to have broken the rules, students are given three days to pack up their things. “Losing my housing would have left me homeless in rural Idaho,” he said.
BYU also regulates all off-campus housing for students in Provo, where students can be reported to the Honor Code Office, too, and evicted from their apartment.
Horning went to a counselor at Rexburg school to confide in someone the overwhelming stress he was feeling. The counselor advised him to start attending an underground, off-campus club for students struggling with “same-sex attraction,” Horning said. “That’s the term they use,” he said. “But it makes it sound like a disease.”
Still, he went. He believed in the church that he was raised in and wanted to be a faithful member; that’s why he was attending BYU-Idaho.
The club, Horning said, was referred to as “The Brotherhood.” Members met in a medical office. Horning said he was warned: “Don’t tell anyone where we meet. Don’t tell anyone we exist.”
The club was led by a faculty member who is attracted to men but married to a woman because he wants to live by the church’s rules. That was the mission of the group: to try to make students with those feelings learn to ignore them.
“They were telling me not to be who I am, not to love who I love,” he said. “It was incredibly painful and traumatic.”
After he quit going, he found Understanding Sexuality, Gender and Allyship, or USGA, a pro-LGBTQ group of BYU-Idaho students. They’re not authorized by the LDS Church and they’re not allowed to meet on campus. BYU also does not allow an LGBTQ support club to meet on its Provo campus.
Horning said he found a safe and welcoming space with the Rexburg group, which helped him through his two semesters on campus.
He graduated in April 2020. His hope with the lawsuit, he said, is that future students feel able to freely attend classes on campus, in person, just as they are, without fear of being kicked out of their dorm or expelled.
Rachel Moulton, the student who dropped out because it was ‘too toxic’
She attempted to take classes at BYU-Idaho three separate times. But each time Rachel Moulton went back, she had the same experience of feeling unwelcome, she said, and even attacked in her classes for being gay. That included when she tried to take them online.
She ultimately decided to leave the school without finishing her degree. The environment, she said, “was too toxic for me.”
“It was a really hard choice,” said Moulton, 25. “But it did not feel like a safe environment for me to be out. It did not feel like a safe environment for me at all.”
She started at BYU in fall 2016. At that point, she said, she first realized that she is gay.
Moulton, who is still an active member of the church and a faithful believer, said the hardest part was the coursework because conversations about LGBTQ issues often came up. Each semester, in religious classes and those on other topics, there always seemed to be a discussion about the LDS Church’s positions on same-sex relationships.
In one of her classes, the professor taught about the faith’s belief that people who are LGBTQ in this lifetime must struggle and sacrifice, but they will be straight in heaven. Moulton said that was hard for her to hear; it made her feel less than, unworthy and inadequate.
She tried to be straight, she said, and tried to date men. But it didn’t accord with who she is. “There was nothing I could do to change it,” she said, “no matter what I did.”
Moulton said her mental health suffered significantly, to the point of self-harm. She checked into a mental health facility halfway through her first semester, where she began to recover.
She said she decided to return to BYU again in fall 2017, feeling like she had learned better how to cope. What she didn’t learn, though, she said, was how to accept herself. And she faced some of the same challenges.
In a class about resourcing and planning, she said, she overheard students talking about “how the family was under attack” after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage. In another, she said, students would talk about LGBTQ folks as “Satan’s agents.” There was talk, too, about forcing yourself to be straight. She was encouraged to marry a man.
She ended up not going back to some of those courses and failed.
After taking some time off, Moulton went back to BYU-Idaho online in 2020. And it brought up the same issues. That’s when she decided not to return again.
Moulton said she’s since been reconciling with her faith. She still believes in and attends church at her Latter-day Saint ward in California. But, she said, she now feels being gay is part of who she is, and she loves herself for it.
“This is how God made me,” Moulton added. “And I now know that being gay and being a child of God can both be true. This part of me doesn’t need to change in order for me to fulfill God’s plan.”
She has joined the lawsuit, she said, in the hopes that it will force the school to be more sensitive about what it teaches students. Being gay, Moulton noted, shouldn’t be presented as “something to cure.”
“Those are horrible things to feel and they’re horrible things to teach,” she said. “I want people to see how damaging this is.”
Moulton is now working as a behavior technician for children with autism. She wants to return to school one day and finish her degree, but she won’t do that until BYU changes.
She thinks maybe, with the most plaintiffs speaking out against the school than any other, that one day it will be different.