Describe your BYU experience
I grew up in Napa, California. I knew I was gay when I was 13 years old. I never really felt like I fully fit in with anyone. Too Mormon for the non-Mormons, too gay for the Mormons. We were the only Latino family in our ward. But I believed in the church with all my heart.
I never had aspirations to attend BYU. To me, that was the school for legacy Mormons; my own parents were both adult converts and we had no ties to BYU or Utah. But my institute teacher, Brother C, who was a hero of mine, really pushed for me to go. I applied, and when I got accepted, he gave me what he undoubtedly viewed as a warning: "Be prepared. You've stood out your whole life, but when you get to BYU you'll find yourself surrounded by people who are just like you." I took hope from his words. I wanted to be like other people.
Sadly, this didn't happen for me. When I got to BYU, I met tons of people just like Brother C., but not a lot like me. But the people I met were wonderful. They were attractive, kind, smiling, righteous people who generally had adopted the same opinions about most things in the world. I decided to try to get in line. I started attending Evergreen, which was a support group for "strugglers," (our code word for men with same-sex attraction, which is the church's euphemism for gay). I dated girls. I became very active in my ward. I was deeply depressed. By the time the first snows came in my first semester, my attendance and grades were suffering. I couldn't bear to go outside and get all the way across campus in the inversion. I kept up with the responsibilities of my callings and my job, and I kept smiling for everyone, but inside I felt like I was failing to be the same as all these people I admired.
The next semester I tried again, and again it was too much. I withdrew from classes. The fact of the matter is that BYU was not a good match for me. What I thought at the time was that this meant something was wrong with me. I needed help. To compound the issue, some students in my ward in whom I'd confided outed me to my bishop. Ashamed, I moved to a new ward in the middle of the semester, breaking my housing contract and negatively affecting my credit. I withdrew from all my classes with the intention of returning after I'd somehow fixed myself. At the time, the Honor code contained vague language: "Advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle (whether implied or explicit) or any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature, are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code." This was frightening to me and the students I'd met through Evergreen. Could we get in trouble for telling someone we were gay? For talking about it with a counselor on campus, or an ecclesiastical leader? For voting a certain way, for holding hands, for watching the Wizard of Oz? It was unclear, and part of what had led to my feeling like I didn't fit in at BYU was the idea that my very existence made me break the Honor Code. My friend Glade approached me with a risky solution.
Glade and I got together and wrote a letter to President Samuelson. We chose our words carefully. Like Esther of the Old Testament, we were worried that speaking up to our leader on behalf of our people might mean punishment for us. But we also knew in our hearts that we had to do it. We explained in the letter how terrifying it was to be a gay student at BYU. We explained the anti-gay rhetoric we heard from professors in our classes (comparing gay marriage to bestiality, telling us homosexuals would be the undoing of society, telling us we were gay because of sins we'd committed or choices we'd made in the pre-existence, etc). We mentioned how hard we were trying, and how faith for us came at a higher price than for most of the students there. And we sent it off.
We were surprised when we were invited to speak with Jan Scharman, Student Life Vice President of BYU. We gathered a few other gay students and went to her office. She told us she had written the portion of the Honor Code we brought up. We worried we'd offended her, but she assured us she'd never considered it from the perspective of same-sex attracted students. When we met with her a second time two weeks later, she surprised us again by presenting a new version of that clause of the honor code, which she wanted us to approve before it was made public.
The new version still wasn't ideal by today's standards, but it was such an important step forward that we were overcome with gratitude. Included in the new text: "One's stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue." It cannot be overstated how important a milestone that was for us. This opened the door for LGBT BYU students to organize and meet together. The new section also more clearly identified which behaviors were allowed and which weren't.
As I was getting ready to return to BYU, I helped a friend apply to UVU, and I realized that school might be a better fit for me. I could get my education and deal with my religious experience and my sexual identity all separately, instead of trying to untangle them all at once. This was definitely the right decision for me, and I graduated from there with a bachelor's in theater arts.
I will always consider my brief time at BYU to be one of the most challenging and darkest times of my life. But I am glad I went, as I also consider the work that Glade and I did to be one of the most important things I've ever done. I know we were able to help others like us to experience a little more freedom than we'd experienced.
Describe your post-BYU experience
I now live in Los Angeles. I'm a freelance writer for The Advocate, the oldest LGBT rights magazine, and I'm working on my teaching credentials so I can teach high school. I have left the LDS church (you can read about how that process went for me here) and I live with my boyfriend of four and half years. We have an amazing little doggy and we recently completed all the paperwork necessary to become foster parents, so hopefully we'll be adding to our family in the next few months.
Even more significant than the outward changes I've made to my life are the ways I've grown internally. I don't feel shame any more. I feel like I am the person I was always meant to be. I live authentically. I continue to push for justice for groups who need advocates. And it's only in truly living as my own unique self that I finally feel like I fit in. Now I have the whole human family, all of us searching and striving and trying to make things a little better.
What advice or wisdom would you share with a current LGBTQ+ BYU student?
My advice for current LGBTQ+ students is that you should take care of yourself. Listen to that still small voice, even when it disagrees with everything you're being told by your leaders or your fears. I haven't attended church in years, and I no longer believe the core of its teachings, but I do still feel that warm feeling I always associated with the Holy Ghost. I still find ways to serve my fellow man. It's still incredibly important to me to have a strong sense of morals, and a community of good people who help me to be better myself. Your life will likely take turns your current self could never imagine, so make sure to identify what's important to you, what makes you love yourself, and bring those parts with you no matter where your road takes you.
Posted June 2018