After remaining ‘closeted’ for years, BYU professor leaves for a ‘safe’ space at UVU

“I felt burdened,” says Chad Emmett, “by being gay at a school that would never accept me.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU professor Chad Emmett at Bicentennial Park in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022.

Chad Emmett has spent his professional career standing up for underdogs and victims, the marginalized, those in peril and those seeking peace — Palestinians, religious minorities and women, to name a few — but now it is time to stand up for himself.

On Sept. 30, Emmett announced on his blog that he had retired as a geography professor from Provo’s Brigham Young University, had taken a job as an adjunct at Orem’s Utah Valley University, and, though married to a woman for more than two decades, is attracted to men.

“In 2011, I finally admitted to myself that I was gay. It took me a few more years to come out to my family. I have refrained until today from coming out more publicly because I didn’t want to draw attention to my new reality, nor did I want to jeopardize my job (for house payment and insurance reasons),” he wrote. Ultimately, though, the “mental trauma of trying to balance being employed at BYU with being gay took its toll. I needed my job (efforts to find a job elsewhere all failed), but to keep my job I felt I had to remain closeted.”

And so he chose to “withdraw to a place of safety two years earlier than I planned,” Emmett wrote. “I am now happily teaching two adjunct geography classes at UVU and this winter I’ll also be a lift operator at Deer Valley two days a week (yay for free skiing).”

Financially, it wasn’t “a smart move,” he acknowledged in an interview, but the accumulated weight of policies and pronouncements from BYU administrators that seemed to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals proved too burdensome to Emmett.

The school has defended its approach as consistent with the policies of its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches it is not a sin to have same-sex attraction, only acting on it is. The Utah-based faith also opposes same-sex marriage.

Thus, BYU forbids all forms of romantic relations for LGBTQ students and faculty.

“BYU affirms that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law includes the freedom to operate a religious university without sacrificing distinctive religious beliefs or practices,” school President Kevin Worthen wrote to the U.S. Department of Education investigating it for possible Title IX violations. “At the same time, BYU welcomes and supports all our students and employees who agree to abide by the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ, including those who identify as LGBTQ.” (The feds dismissed the complaint against the school.)

To Emmett, the school didn’t feel welcoming to people like him.

“It was eating at me and getting worse,” he said. “I submitted my retirement papers last October and after that, there was a continual stream of statements and policies that convinced me I didn’t want to be there.”

But there were no Utah jobs in his field — human and political geography — and he didn’t want to move his kids. And it was too challenging to function at the flagship Latter-day Saint school as an out gay man.

So he kept his head down and stayed in the closet.

“I wasn’t doing anything that would jeopardize my job,” he said, “but I felt burdened by being gay at a school that would never accept me.”

The signs ‘were all there’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU professor Chad Emmett at Bicentennial Park in Provo on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022.

Emmett grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the church and much of society believed that being gay was a choice — and the young Latter-day Saint simply “chose” not to be gay.

He earned his undergraduate degree in geography from Utah State University, his master’s from BYU and a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

“I just thought, ‘I am not going to be gay,’” he recalled. “I am going to get married and have a family, and it will all go away.”

That’s what he was taught.

In 1992, Emmett returned to BYU to teach in the geography department, and, five years later, at age 40, he married. He and his wife have three kids.

Looking back, though, he said, “the signs of his homosexuality were all there.”

Defending the voiceless

Emmett likes to say it was the church that made him a champion of the marginalized.

He served his mission in Indonesia, at the time the only Muslim country that allowed Latter-day Saint missionaries, which, he observed, tolerated minority Christians.

As an undergraduate, he did a BYU study abroad semester in Jerusalem (before the BYU Jerusalem Center was built), where he discovered the humanity of Palestinians and Arabs as more than “just the enemy of Israel.”

He worked at the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., and, as a single man of 29, was tapped for the presidency of a Southeast Asia Latter-day Saint branch, which prompted him to be a lifelong advocate for refugees.

When he did his graduate work in Chicago, he was called as a Scout leader, and all his troop members were Black youths.

“The church thrust me into caring for Muslims, Southeast Asians and Black communities,” Emmett said, “where I ended up serving the ‘other.’”

While at BYU, he was a bishop in a Springville ward, which included a mobile home park and lower to middle-class homes. “Some of our members had drug issues and financial woes.”

Some congregants told him, Emmett said, that it was the first ward where members with tattoos or smelling like tobacco “had ever felt welcome.”

And his geography classes “were always discussing minority groups and political oppression.”

A building storm

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on Y Mountain east of Provo is lit in rainbow-flag colors to show support for the LGBTQ+ community on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

In recent years, however, Emmett believed BYU was treating its LGBTQ students unfairly.

“I saw the joy of the gay students when they first thought that they would be able to date like heterosexual students,” he said, “and then when that was removed weeks later, how deflated they were.”

Some young people responded by lighting the Y in rainbow colors as a gesture of love and respect for LGBTQ students.

BYU noted that the school did not authorize the lighting and, a year later, blocked access to the site.

Why couldn’t the school have tweeted “BYU didn’t approve the lighting of the Y but congrats to the students for creatively letting their light shine?” Emmett asked. “What does it hurt to put up a symbol of support for students so they know you are a safe place?”

In solidarity until his final year, he posted a rainbow with the statement “I’ll Walk With You.”

A talk by apostle Jeffrey R. Holland in August 2021, decrying some faculty members’ public advocacy for same-sex marriage “was the final straw,” Emmett said. “I was not threatened, but was just watching it and realized we are really not wanted here unless you remain quiet and closeted and don’t say or do anything.”

He began to write to gay students to say, “I support you. I am gay, too,” offering to help them “navigate being in the church.”

The day before Emmett began teaching political and world geography at UVU, he got an email from a student, saying, “I am transitioning to male, and here’s my new name.”

Emmett could reply without fear: “I’m gay. Glad to have you in class.”

It felt good.

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