Jana Riess: A fifth of LDS college students in the U.S. don’t identify as heterosexual

In a new study, 22% say they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or something else.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on Y Mountain near Provo's Brigham Young University is lit in rainbow-flag colors to show support for the LGBTQ+ community in 2021. A new survey shows 22% of Latter-day Saint college students in the U.S. say they are something other than heterosexual.

More than 1 in 5 Latter-day Saint college students (22%) say they are something other than heterosexual, according to a new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Political scientist Ryan Burge discussed the findings in his twice-weekly Graphs About Religion substack. While the overall FIRE survey included more than 55,000 respondents, Burge restricted his analysis to those students ages 18 to 25, narrowing the sample to around 39,000.

Of those 39,000 respondents in that age group, 709 identified as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The survey showed Latter-day Saints to be in the middle of the pack in terms of heterosexual orientation, below Muslims and Protestants (85% and 84%, respectively), but significantly higher than atheists (53%).

Among the Latter-day Saint respondents, 78% said they were heterosexual, 6% bisexual, 3% gay or lesbian and 13% something else (which can include asexual, pansexual, queer, questioning and others).

[To view graphic breakdowns, go here.]

The survey’s college students were recruited from a variety of four-year colleges and universities. For the Latter-day Saint respondents, nearly half came from three universities: church-owned Brigham Young University (28%), Utah State (15%) and the University of Utah (5%). The remaining respondents came from other universities but in smaller concentrations.

Burge was surprised by the findings about Latter-day Saint students, since their 78% rate of self-reported heterosexuality was only 6 percentage points higher than the sample as a whole — 72% of the college students surveyed said they were heterosexual, while 12% identified as bisexual, 5% gay or lesbian and 11% something else.

“The LDS rate was lower than Protestants and even than Catholics,” Burge said in a follow-up Zoom interview this week, “which is weird because the Catholic ethic is definitely more liberal.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known for its sexual conservatism. It prohibits same-sex marriage for members and has engaged in anti-LGBTQ activism, though it has recently softened its stance a bit politically. In 2022, it supported the Respect for Marriage Act, which church leader Dallin H. Oaks explained was a strategic decision to ensure that churches and individuals who oppose same-sex marriage will “not have to perform or host same-sex marriages or celebrations. It protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations.”

The FIRE finding about sexual orientation is similar to one Benjamin Knoll discovered two years ago in the Nationscape Survey, which revealed that only 77% of Generation Z Mormons in the U.S. identified as heterosexual. (That study did not restrict itself to college students.)

Burge noted that the cultural identity of being Latter-day Saint may be strong enough that some respondents still reported having a Latter-day Saint identity even if they were not religiously active or believing. Unfortunately, religious behavior and beliefs were not covered in the FIRE survey.

Burge added that “there may be some people who are, like, ‘I still identify as LDS because my parents were LDS and went to the temple. I really don’t have a strong sense of being a Mormon, and it’s not part of my central identity anymore, but I hold fast to it because I know my grandma would be mad if I didn’t.’”

While the survey did not ask much about religion, it has a wealth of information about political identity and beliefs. Burge noted that the Latter-day Saint college students in the survey were more evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans than Latter-day Saints usually are as a whole: 39% identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, and 45% view themselves as Republicans. Another 16% identify as independents.

Despite being more left-leaning than older Latter-day Saints, the students are not exactly liberal in comparison to their peers. They have the lowest rate of “strong Democrats” of any religious group among the college students in the study, at just 10%.

Burge was able to break out the Latter-day Saint respondents into BYU students and all other Latter-day Saint students, finding that students at the church-owned university were more aligned with the Republican Party than other Latter-day Saint students. More than half of BYU students identified as Republican in some way (“strong,” “weak” and “lean Republican”), while 41% of non-BYU Latter-day Saint college students did.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)