BYU prof becomes bullying target after mentioning her trans child in class

Utah Sen. Mike Lee retweeted a news article about the episode, setting off a backlash of attacks.

(Courtesy photo) Sarah Coyne, a professor of human development and associate director of Brigham Young University's School of Family Life.

Mentioning her transgender child during a class on “eternal marriage” was an authentic, vulnerable moment for Brigham Young University family life professor Sarah Coyne.

But it was hardly momentous.

After all, Coyne has described briefly her child’s years of wrestling with gender dysphoria, including suicidal thoughts and agonizing mental health issues, during this particular lecture every semester she has delivered it.

It is meant to humanize LGBTQ issues facing young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she says, while also providing the faith’s perspective about them.

“It’s a beautiful class,” Coyne says. “Lots of students are hugging and crying. It feels like we are there for each other.”

Last month, though, the description of her child made it into a critical article in a conservative off-campus newspaper, The Cougar Chronicle, which was retweeted by Utah Sen. Mike Lee on his personal Twitter account, with the remark: “Commonplace at most universities, but BYU?”

After Lee’s tweet, which attracted tens of thousands of views, Coyne became the target of online bullying and hostile emails.

One commenter wrote that the headline should be “former BYU professor speaks.” Another said “send her packing.…Maybe she took too many pills while pregnant.” A third urged “purge every heretic.”

And there’s this: “The woke/Satan mind virus has been allowed to take over/infiltrate BYU.”

Lee’s office declined to comment on his tweet or remark.

Why did something so personal become a partisan pingpong ball for a Republican U.S. senator, she wonders, especially in the wake of church President Russell M. Nelson’s General Conference call for members to be peacemakers?

“Trans kids have been villainized on a really awful level,” she says. “[Our families] have become a political story when we are just trying to live.”

Not that Coyne doesn’t have plenty of supporters. A student-led petition backing her has drawn hundreds of signatures.

Within BYU’s guidelines

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023, urging Latter-day Saints to be peacemakers.

To graduate, students at church-owned BYU are required to take at least one class on eternal marriage.

They can take it from either the religion department, which is mostly theological, or from the social sciences department, taught by scholars such as Coyne, who provide academic research.

In the latter case, she outlined the church’s position as spelled out in its General Handbook, as well as official statements by the faith’s leaders. She went on to highlight perspectives from various scholars.

Coyne presented data that suggests “being religious can be better for queer students than not being,” recalls George Eppel, a student in her class, “depending on how they’re received.”

The discussion then turned to specific ways Latter-day Saints could help LGBTQ members feel that they belong in the Utah-based church, the sophomore from Washington state says. “She shared local resources for queer people.”

At the end of her lecture, Coyne talked about her transgender child and why Latter-day Saints need to care for these members.

The professor “has seen that need to belong in her own family,” the student says, “and the pain that comes when that hasn’t been achieved.”

The teacher expressed her support for the church and “her love of the Savior,” Eppel says. “I don’t think anyone could doubt that she’s a dedicated believer.”

At no point did Coyne “promote transitioning or any other practice that was contrary to what the church teaches,” it says in the supportive petition Eppel helped write, “but instead focused on the mental and emotional pain and difficulty that have come with her child’s experience.”

That fits with the school’s guidelines, according to BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins.

“Class discussions about LGBTQ issues are accepted as long as they do not contradict church doctrine or disparage church leaders,” Jenkins writes in an email. “More generally, while our students are studying and learning at BYU, we want them to feel both the love of the Savior and the joy associated with living his commandments as part of a covenant-keeping community. Faculty have a responsibility to teach both of these messages.”

At BYU, the expectation is that everyone will “strive to clearly articulate and reinforce church positions and university policy without deriding or attacking others,” the spokesperson says, pointing to Nelson’s comments about “how to interact with others — especially when we have differences of opinion.”

If students have a complaint, Jenkins adds, “we encourage them to contact directly their professor. … If an issue cannot be resolved directly with a professor, a student may contact the academic college or department for guidance.”

In today’s highly politicized climate, she says, “when concerns do come forward, the university listens to faculty to make sure their perspective and voices are heard.”

Managing the fallout

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023. Oaks has stated that a person's gender is defined by "biological sex at birth."

Some 3½ years ago, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, took a strong stand on transgender Latter-day Saints.

God created humans as male and female, who are defined by “biological sex at birth,” Oaks told an assembly of high-level church officers. " … Binary creation is essential to the plan of salvation.”

That’s not how Laurie Lee Hall reads the church’s family proclamation.

Hall, a former temple designer who was excommunicated for refusing to give up her female identity, long had agreed with and defended the proclamation’s statement that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Hall believes that gender is eternal but that she was born in the wrong body.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laurie Lee Hall, shown in 2017, believes that gender is eternal but that she was born in the wrong body.

The church’s General Handbook, which spells out the faith’s practices and policies, says that transgender persons “who do not pursue medical, surgical, or social transition to the opposite gender and are worthy may receive church callings, temple recommends, and temple ordinances.”

It goes on to say that “some children, youth, and adults are prescribed hormone therapy by a licensed medical professional to ease gender dysphoria or reduce suicidal thoughts. Before a person begins such therapy, it is important that he or she (and the parents of a minor) understands the potential risks and benefits.”

Members who elect medical or surgical intervention to transition to the “opposite gender” or who “socially transition” — dress as the gender they identify as or change their names or pronouns — “will experience some church membership restrictions.”

The petition to support Coyne urges the university to “take appropriate action to better protect students and faculty who, because of their association with LGBTQ+ issues, are recipients of hate and discrimination.”

And, finally, it invites all people “to stand in solidarity” with Coyne, whom they describe as “a professor, accredited researcher and psychologist, mentor, mother, disciple of Christ, and daughter of God who is doing her best to take care of her child and her family and does not need our criticism or judgment.”

For her part, Coyne does not want any of her supporters to attack her critics or engage in harsh exchanges.

“How are we modeling love and compassion,” she asks, “when our top officials in Utah do something like this — taking a family that has gone through so much and call open season on them?”

The Latter-day Saint prophet just gave “a whole talk on being a peacemaker,” Coyne says. That’s the gospel.

Editor’s noteThis article mentions suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or chat at 988Lifeline.org.

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