“A Weight Has Been Lifted Off My Shoulders”

Students at Brigham Young University welcome the school’s removal of “homosexual behavior” from the honor code. But what does that mean in practice?

A statue of Brigham Young is seen beside a regal building.
A statue of Brigham Young seen in Salt Lake City.
George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

Addison Jenkins was the president of a club for queer students and allies at Brigham Young University when, in 2016, he was called into the Honor Code Office over his alleged “homosexual behavior.” At issue was a brief relationship Jenkins had with another student years before, which he told me was reported to administrators by another gay student struggling with his own identity. BYU is the flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and all students must abide by its strict honor code, which forbids the consumption of alcohol and coffee, for example. Queer students were allowed to be open about their “stated same-gender attraction.” But until this month, the code forbade “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feeling.”

Queer students at BYU describe the vagueness of that stricture as causing almost constant unease. Jenkins described the disciplinary process as occasionally surreal. He said that he asked the counselor assigned to him if he could be disciplined simply for hugging another man and was told “there are two kinds of hugs: hugs that are motivated by brotherly love and hugs that are sexual in nature.” Jenkins left BYU in 2018 without graduating, in part because of the difficulty of navigating campus life as a gay man. “It’s not like gay kids were getting called into the office every day, or even every week,” he said. “It wasn’t the Gestapo. But the fear of that being able to happen permeated LGBTQ student life in general.

On Wednesday, word spread that BYU had quietly changed its honor code, removing the section on “homosexual behavior” that ensnared Jenkins. The changes seem to mean that queer students can engage in ordinary public displays of romantic affection, like holding hands and kissing. Like straight students, they still must abstain from sexual relationships outside of marriage. Unlike straight students, they are offered no promise of future consummation, given that the church does not support gay marriage.

Still, allowing queer students to date openly is a momentous shift on the influential conservative campus. On Thursday, queer students and alumni were largely ecstatic. “I’m still stunned and in shock,” said Calvin Burke, a junior who identifies as gay. “There was such an atmosphere of fear. This a great move because it eliminates that pressure and fear. It’s a blessing.”

Junior Kate Foster was with her best friend, Franchesca Lopez, when they heard the news. They decided to celebrate in front of a prominent monument on campus. “We ran over to the Brigham Young statue and said, ‘This would be so iconic if we kissed,’ ” Foster said. “I remember just feeling really extremely happy and feeling a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.” (Foster had to call her parents and come out to them as bisexual when a photo of the celebratory moment appeared in a local newspaper story about the honor code: “I think they wish I had done it in a less dramatic way than being in the Salt Lake Tribune, but they’ve always been supportive.”)

There has already been some backlash on campus from those who see the change as a concession to liberal values. An underground student group called Save BYU posted copies of the church’s “family proclamation” around the campus in protest, including several on the statue of Brigham Young that Foster and Lopez kissed under. The brief 1995 document established official LDS positions on marriage (“between a man and a woman”) and gender roles (“Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children”). Save BYU’s website states that it was founded to “take back God’s school.”

BYU has an undergraduate population of 31,000 at its main campus in Provo, Utah, and additional campuses in Idaho and Hawaii. The honor code applies to all students and faculty. There are still questions about what, exactly, the changes will mean for campus life. For example, to be enrolled at BYU, a Latter-day Saint student is generally required to maintain the endorsement of their bishop, a lay leader who counsels church members. It is unlikely that all individual bishops will respond to the changes in the same way. Meanwhile, BYU issued a series of tweets on Wednesday that confused some observers, saying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.” Carri Jenkins, a representative of the Honor Code Office (and no relation to Addison), said by email that the office “will handle questions that arise on an individual, case-by-case basis.” But multiple students reported on social media that they had met with leaders in the office and were reassured that queer students can indeed date openly now.

Although students said they were surprised by these particular changes, the school’s honor code has fallen under intense scrutiny in recent years. In January 2019, the school hired a new director for the office, Kevin Utt, who was tasked with reassessing the code “top to bottom.” On a campus where public dissent is rare, hundreds of students gathered last spring to protest what they saw as injustices in the code’s language and application, which fell disproportionately on women and queer students. In response, Utt announced several changes to the office last summer, including external training for employees. Meanwhile, last year the church reversed a 2015 policy that labeled people in same-sex marriages “apostates” and barred their minor children from baptism.

Jenkins, who hopes to reenter BYU this fall to finish his degree, is cautiously optimistic about the impact of the latest changes to the school’s honor code. BYU is the “cultural nucleus of the church,” he said, and it exists to develop future leaders. Until now, it also kept queer people almost totally invisible. In five or 10 years, he said, “the guy in your Bio 101 class” could be a bishop. Now, when a church member comes out to that bishop, or when he’s making decisions about whom to place in other leadership positions, “gay people won’t just be people he’s seen on TV, it will be his roommate from college,” Jenkins said. “To me, that is absolutely the most important part of this.”