Gay Mormon students at BYU come out in web video

Published April 7, 2012 11:00PM (EDT)

Students from a strict Mormon college that prohibits "homosexual behavior" have launched a web video aimed at reassuring other gay and lesbian youth struggling with their faith and sexual orientation.

The video recently posted to YouTube by 22 Brigham Young University students is the first of its kind with ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids gay sex and marriage. By posting the video, the students could face excommunication from the church and expulsion at BYU, where gay students are prohibited from touching or kissing.

The campaign is part of columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, which seeks to give voices and hope to bullied gay and lesbian teenagers. In the video, several BYU students confess that they considered suicide because they didn't think they could be Mormon and gay.

"In our religion, there is a lot of misunderstanding and ugliness about homosexuality," said Kendall Wilcox, a former BYU faculty member who produced the video and serves as an adviser to the school's unofficial gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender support group. "We wanted to send this message that God loves you just as you are."

The video has sent tremors through the Mormon community and represents the latest effort to reconcile the church's conservative values with a growing acceptance toward gay relationships. The video estimates there are more than 1,800 LGBT students at BYU. It also notes that the school is consistently ranked as one of the most unfriendly campuses for those students in the nation.

A mere five years ago, BYU students weren't allowed to discuss their sexual orientation without risking expulsion under the school's strict honor code. A clarification in 2007 stressed that "one's stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue."

In 2010, BYU lifted a ban on advocacy of homosexuality. That same year, students formed Understanding Same-Gender Attraction. The support group drew eight people to its first meeting. This semester more than 80 students have attended the weekly meetings on campus.

Gay students must still adhere to much stricter standards than their heterosexual classmates under the updated honor code. While premarital sex is off limits to all BYU students, straight couples are allowed to kiss and cuddle openly on campus. Gay students cannot.

The student support group is more conservative than many LGBT groups. Some members have embraced lifelong celibacy as a way to stay in the LDS church without violating its rules. One student leader is gay, but married to a woman.

Some students used the video to come out to their parents. One student recalled how she "died a little in the inside" every time she kissed a former boyfriend. "I thought eventually maybe it would be better if I died," another student tells the camera.

BYU provides counseling to students grappling with depression, anxiety and other issues, spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.

"Students who uphold the honor code are welcome as school members of the campus community," she said.

Adam White, a sophomore featured in the video, said he struggled with his sexual orientation during his first year at BYU.

"It was a very dark time for me because I was just feeling so confused," he said. "I mean, I was living in an all-male dorm, and just being in such close contact. Everything I had suppressed was coming at me."

White took a year off of school to examine his feelings. When he returned last year, he came out on Facebook as gay.

White said he constantly thinks about transferring to a less conservative school, but hopes he can accomplish more for students like him by sharing his story.

"The 'It Gets Better' message is we can be open, this is not something we have to fix or change about ourselves," White said. "This is something we can celebrate."

The video initially drew nasty comments from some anti-Mormon and anti-gay groups. On campus, however, the reaction has largely been positive, Wilcox and White said.

Some gay activists are celebrating the video as the latest sign that the church is becoming more open to their community.

In the 1990s, LDS leaders openly fought same-sex marriage legislation nationwide and, in 2006, joined other religious denominations in asking Congress for a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Gay church members were often sent to rehabilitative therapy to "get fixed."

But gay activists said they have made strides in recent years. A conference for LGBT Mormons was held in Salt Lake City last year and is scheduled to reconvene later this month in Washington, D.C. At the meeting, gay leaders plan to unveil an "It Gets Better" video featuring Mormon adults.

Joshua Behn, a gay activist and former BYU student who recently left the church, said he had doubts about the student video when he first heard of it.

"I was afraid it was going to be, 'oh, you can deny your sexuality,'" he said. "But watching, they don't make judgments about that. They are saying, 'there are other people out there. You are not alone.'"

Randall Thacker, 39, said he "was completely closeted, completely shamed" when he graduated from BYU in 1997. A church leader sent him to therapy to change his sexual orientation.

"To see the video gives me so much incredible hope for the future," said Thacker, a gay activist in Washington, D.C. "It seems like a miracle."

By Salon Staff

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