Kendall Wilcox: LDS Church can’t get away with ambiguous language

(George Frey | Special to The Tribune) BYU students and others gather in front of the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center on the campus of Brigham Young University to protest BYU's rollback of a newly announced policy change on LGBTQ students on March 5, 2020, in Provo.

I don’t see the recent events concerning the Honor Code at Brigham Young University as a “reversal” or “flip-flop” (though I understand why it feels like it is). Instead, I see it as a horribly mismanaged rollout of a sanitized-for-public-relations-and-correlation-purposes draconian policy that opened the door for misinterpretation and misplaced hopes.

LDS Church HQ and the Honor Code Office weren’t communicating and, per usual, LGBTQ+ folks pay the price.

But ultimately, this whole mess is due to the persistent and erroneous belief that the “Law of Chastity is applied the same way for all Mormons - straight and gay.”

Or as President Dallin Oaks put it in April 2019: “Immoral conduct in heterosexual and homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way.”

Church and BYU leaders continue to believe that this legalistic and vague wording will afford them the appearance of fairness and placate their critics.

But the Law of Chastity has not been, and may never be, applied the same way to straight and gay members. Straight members are encouraged to pursue marriage by dating (and all the things that dating people do) while gay members are told to deny themselves of all of this. In other words, per Oaks’ statement, in the church’s eyes all “conduct” in a homosexual relationship is considered “immoral conduct.” There is no moral conduct in a homosexual relationship.

So it appears that some well-intentioned yet ill-informed persons somewhere in the LDS Church Education System (from Elder Holland to an honor code office counselor) — feeling pressure from professional and athletic associations and a growing portion of church membership — thought it would be wise to remove the old explicit language from the Honor Code prohibiting all same sex intimacy and in its place, double down on that erroneous notion of equal application of the law of chastity.

Church HQ thought they could get away with the new ambiguous wording and claim to be “nicer” to queer people while never actually changing anything of substance. Then the Honor Code counselors thought they could get away with taking the “simplified” wording literally (i.e. removal of prohibitive language must mean full ecclesiastical approbation).

And no one spoke up and pointed out how problematic that would be or how it would open the door for many to believe that the change in wording would be taken to mean that the church would now allow same sex intimacy — something what would have merited a huge announcement from the church, not a buried simplification of wording in the honor code."

And now we have this uproar and outrage and heartache.

It’s justified and yet so avoidable if only someone, somewhere, in power had spoken up and stated the obvious: That the wording change does not mean that LDS Church is signaling that it is changing its standards regarding same sex relationships.

That the removal of the the explicit language in the old honor code prohibiting “same-sex behavior” is going to lead some people to believe the fundamental prohibition has been removed.

I recognize that this kind of analysis is of no comfort to most people right now. I just wanted to give my take on how/why things have played out as they have. But, hopefully, the church now understands that it cannot get away with the vague language and project an air of inclusivity and acceptance to its critics.

And I hope middle managers will be more circumspect when — in their zeal to make the church a more welcoming space — they want to make pronouncements that are clearly not reflective of the realities we are facing.

Kendall Wilcox

Kendall Wilcox, Salt Lake City, is a gay Mormon media producer and consultant. Since 2010, he has been producing the documentary project, “Far Between,” which portrays what it means to be LGBTQ+ and Mormon. He is also a co-founder Mormons Building Bridges and CWEERS empowerment groups, founder of Circles of Empathy, and co-director of documentary, “Church & State: Utah’s Battle Over Same Sex Marriage.”