Same-sex couples at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University have long been told they couldn’t hug, hold hands, kiss or date in public. If they did, they’d risk an investigation by the feared Honor Code Office, as well as punishment at their church or expulsion from school.
But this week, a section of BYU’s student honor code that banned “homosexual behavior” on campus was quietly deleted. University officials are keeping details of the change vague, leaving LGBTQ students left to wonder if public displays of affection are now permitted.
The change was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.
“I feel free and cared for by the university for the first time in a long time,” Franchesca Lopez, an undergraduate studying sociology, told CNN. “I really hope they don’t disappoint me again.”
The honor code was always vague for same-sex couples. Attraction between two men or two women wasn’t banned, but “all forms of physical intimacy that gives expression to homosexual feelings” were.
That meant public displays of affection among same-sex couples were off limits.
That section of the code is gone now. LGBTQ students took that to mean they could be seen publicly with a significant other, and many of them celebrated what they viewed as a win.
But the university said Wednesday that its students may have misinterpreted the policy.
“The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case by case basis,” the university tweeted. “For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually.”
CNN called and emailed the Honor Code Office repeatedly about the change to the code, and an employee directed CNN to the university’s communications department.
Carri Jenkins, spokesperson for BYU, reiterated the school’s tweet in a statement emailed to CNN.
“The principles of the honor code have not changed,” she said. “We will handle questions that arise on an individual, case-by-case basis.”
She said the role of the Honor Code Office is not to “approve or disapprove relationships,” but to help students maintain their commitment to the code.
“We want our LGBTQ students to feel welcome and included on our campus,” she added.
So for now, students are cautiously optimistic.
Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer and BYU graduate, said that’s understandable.
“Of course students are excited about this,” she told CNN. “It’s a tiny change, but for them it could be a lifeline.”
The Honor Code update reflects changes in the Mormon church
The university said it updated the honor code to align with the new policies on homosexuality outlined in the Mormon church’s handbook released last spring.
Before then, the church considered same-sex couples “apostates” and wouldn’t allow their children to be baptized without special approval from leaders.
That policy led as many as 1,500 liberal and LGBTQ Mormons to leave the church.
The church called its updated stance on homosexuality an attempt to “reduce the hate and contention so common today,” but still considers same-sex marriage to be a “serious transgression” and condemns sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriages.
The change is mostly a step forward, said Nathan Kitchen, president of Affirmation, an organization for LGBTQ Mormons.
“As anything that has to do with religion and LGBTQ+, it’s a victory, but then it’s not quite a victory,” Kitchen, a BYU graduate, told CNN.
Kitchen said he spoke to the Honor Code Office on Thursday morning, and officers told him that they’ll allow same-sex student couples to kiss, hold hands and date. They’ll also no longer accept tips from other students or ecclesiastical leaders about “homosexual behavior” on campus, Kitchen said – it’ll all be self-reported.
The office used to investigate violations of its code – including “homosexual behavior” – using tips from students, faculty and local church leaders. They’d interview witnesses and place students on probation or expel them, in some cases.
Now, Kitchen said, same-sex student couples can “date for fun or companionship,” but if it’s with the goal of marrying, they can report themselves to the Honor Code Office – because that would mean they’re breaking church doctrine, which forbids same-sex marriage.
“I like to call it the rainbow stained-glass ceiling,” he said. “That’s a ceiling no one can cross.”
BYU students are surprised, thrilled and confused
When Matthew Easton, the valedictorian of BYU’s graduating class of 2019, came out in his convocation speech in May, it was still against the code for him to hold hands with a male partner.
Now an organizer for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, Easton shared an image of himself last year, protesting the code’s “homosexual behavior” policy.
“As of today, homosexual relationships are now treated the same as heterosexual ones at BYU,” he tweeted. “Girls and gays, we did it!”
LGBTQ students shared his joy.
Lopez was “overwhelmed” when she heard the news. Three female students asked her out, she said, and she kissed a woman for the first time in her life.
After speaking to an honor code officer, she said she believes the change for students in same-sex relationships is here to stay.
Zachary Ibarra celebrated at first. Administrators told his friends they could hug, hold hands and kiss partners of the same sex.
“In some ways it’s a huge victory, and we’re trying to be excited about it!” he told CNN. “It’s hard because it’s something I think most of us never thought would happen. Now suddenly it’s here, and I think a lot of us aren’t sure what to do with it.”
It’s especially confusing, he said, because the Mormon church outlined its changes in April. Students had been waiting since then to see how those policies would trickle down to the university. And even now, they’re not sure if administrators will walk it back.
“There’s a lot of fear that ‘case-by-case basis’ could be a tool against queer students,” he said. “We want to follow the rules, either out of fear or respect, but we have to know what those rules are, and right now that’s not abundantly clear.”
It’s a vital change for LGBTQ students
If same-sex couples are allowed to make PDA under the new code, it could make them feel a whole lot safer on campus, Kitchen said.
“It takes away a lot of fear in the LGB community about being found out and turned in,” he said. “The prohibitions are now gone. As long as you live under the doctrine of the church, you can continue like your heterosexual peers.”
Kitchen is careful to omit the “T” from LGBT – transgender students aren’t acknowledged in this new code either. The church takes no position on transgender causes, according to its handbook.
“For now, we’ve hit that ceiling,” he said. “But one thing the church has in its doctrine is it believes in continuing revelation and an open canon. We know [change] can happen.”
Kelly is less optimistic about future changes.
Kelly was excommunicated in 2014. Even though she’s no longer a church member, she said seeing the ways LGBTQ members are discriminated against still stings.
“As a queer person, it still affects me to see these policies still in place, to see these students suffer,” she said.
She points to Utah’s suicide rates, which are consistently higher than the national average, particularly among young people. She has attended funerals of friends who died by suicide because they weren’t accepted by their church.
To the students who felt the same way, getting to hold hands or kiss without fear of discipline is vital.
“For these adherent, orthodox Mormon kids, this is a very pivotal and life-altering decision,” she said. “Any tiny iota of acceptance, any glimpse of hope that they can get, makes a big difference.”