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Federal investigation looks into BYU discrimination against LGBTQ students

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Photo by Rick Bowmer / AP
Photo by Rick Bowmer / AP

Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is at the center of an ongoing federal investigation that is looking into whether or not the school is actively discriminating against LGBTQ students. The federal Office of Civil Rights began looking into possible discrimination on October 21, 2021, after receiving a complaint the previous March.

The investigation concerns reported violations of the 1972 law Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in schools based on gender or sex.

The complaint to the Title IX office came after the school amended its honor code in 2020 by removing a section titled "Homosexual Behavior," which had prohibited "all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings." Following the amendment, many LGBTQ students felt they now had space to be open about their identities and relationships, which prompted several public coming-outs. This joy, however, was short-lived.

Soon after, Kevin Worthen, BYU's president, released a clarifying statement informing students that, despite the revision to the code, "same-sex romantic behavior" was still not permitted. "Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code," he said.

Worthen's statement brought new attention to disciplinary policies for LGBTQ students and caught the attention of the federal Title IX office.

BYU's honor code prohibits premarital sexual relations for all couples, but students in same-sex relationships have faced harsher punishments for holding hands or kissing in public than their heterosexual counterparts. In the spring of 2021, BYU students joined a federal lawsuit challenging faith-based schools' abilities to access government funds if they don't follow anti-discrimination laws regarding sexual orientation.

The lawsuit accuses the school of decades of abuse of LGBTQ students, including "conversion therapy, expulsion, denial of housing and healthcare, sexual and physical abuse, and harassment," as well as "less visible, but no less damaging, consequences of institutionalized shame, fear, anxiety, and loneliness."

BYU addresses investigation
Last November, Worthen dismissed the federal investigation in a public statement, in which he argued that BYU is exempt from Title IX policies as a religious institution. "We reaffirm that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects the autonomy of religious institutions, including BYU, to be free from government involvement in the teaching or practice of religion and excessive entanglement with their religious affairs."

Worthen also argued that Title IX does not protect against discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. "BYU maintains that the text, structure, purpose, and history of Title IX make clear that the term 'sex' is not ambiguous and refers only to biological differences between males and females, and therefore Title IX does not apply to discrimination 'based on sexual orientation or gender identity," he said.

Despite Worthen's defense, the Department of Health Education and Welfare states that all educational institutions receiving federal aid, even indirectly, are subject to federal law.

The institution is aware that accepting federal funds of any kind could strengthen the argument that it must abide by anti-discrimination laws, including those applying to LGBTQ people. Because of this, BYU publicly refused federal aid, even going so far as to reject funds from the CARE Act, which provided federal assistance to students during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the school is still dependent on federal funds. A quick visit to the university website shows that all prospective undergraduate students must fill out a FAFSA form for federal student loans. As for funds from the CARE Act, the government allocated the most money to institutions where students receive the highest federal assistance. BYU was offered the highest amount for any college in Utah.

BYU students receive so much federal funding because 25% of the student population is married. Married students do not have to put their parents' income on their FASFA form. This allows students to earn much more in federal financial aid, and the school benefits greatly as a result.

Now the federal investigation is looking deeper into the FASFA-based funding the school receives to see if it is enough to require BYU to abide by federal anti-discrimination laws.

Daily discrimination
While the investigation is primarily focused on the university's honor code, BYU students say it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination on campus.

I spoke with a current BYU student about their experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community there. The student, who asked to remain anonymous, shed light on the day-to-day struggles they face.

"In terms of discrimination from students, things can certainly be difficult, depending on who you're around. I have a girlfriend, and we've had people openly stare at us while holding hands on campus," they said.

The university also prohibits students in leadership roles from speaking out about LGBTQ issues or expressing their identities in any public way.

"I was a resident assistant for a BYU dorm and was told that, as a representative of the university, I was not allowed to have safe-space stickers or anything Pride-related on the outside of my apartment because it was 'too divisive given the current events.'"

Even in the classroom, LGBTQ students face daily challenges. The student I spoke to admitted they had to drop a class because the professor was so uncomfortable with them that he refused to communicate with them directly.

"In terms of homophobia, it was a religion class, and clear microaggressions were being made toward the LGBTQ+ community under the guise of studying Elder Holland's address concerning musket fire and the defense of the traditional family. I remember sitting in class, holding back tears because I felt unwelcome and unsafe in a university I had worked so hard to get into," they said.

The professor was referencing former University President Edgar Holland's August 2021 speech, wherein he declared that "we have to be careful that love and empathy do not get interpreted as condoning and advocacy... wounding students and parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means."

A shocking history of oppression
BYU has a long history of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. In 1962, university leaders delivered a series of homophobic speeches, after which five students committed suicide. A decade later, the school started practicing aversion therapy on homosexual students. This lasted until the mid-1980s. During this time, former BYU President Dallin H. Oaks began conducting "surveillance raids," attempting to out suspected LGBTQ students.

"As teens, we were taught that homosexuality is second only to murder in the eyes of God," former BYU student John Cameron told ABC News in 2011. Cameron was one of 14 students who was subjected to the 1972 shock therapy program. While the school no longer condones shock therapy, those who went through it have continued to experience PTSD throughout their lives. Cameron, now a playwright at the University of Iowa, poured his trauma into his work, creating 14, a play based on his experiences with shock therapy at BYU.

Forcing students into the closet
Now BYU operates under the guise that LGBTQ students don't exist, and when they demand to be seen, the school shuts them down.

"...Outside my circle of friends, there is almost nowhere I feel I can be open about my identity," the anonymous BYU student admitted. "This is exacerbated by BYU refusing to allow a club for queer students. Some groups have popped up in the absence of a club and been run for years [but] are still denied club status."

The university has not addressed why it will not allow an LGBTQ club, but students believe it is because it fears romantic entanglements, "which feels extremely unfair, especially when psychological studies show [that] isolation reduces mental health, which is already an issue with the number of queer students at BYU who experience poor mental health and even suicidality because of their environment," the student said.

The federal investigation raises mixed feelings for BYU students. Despite the school's stance on homosexuality, many students understand that it is tied to the beliefs of the church, and without a change in church doctrines, BYU's LGBTQ policies will likely remain as they are.

However, members of the LGBTQ community want to feel welcome at their school and are hopeful the investigation might bring about some much-needed changes. "I'm tired of feeling like an outsider and like I can't be who I am, and if a federal investigation can result in a change, like the allowance of a club or something more, that would be amazing."

As far as change in the church goes, LGBTQ issues remain a gray area and one that students feel they should not be punished for. "Many ecclesiastical leaders in local church areas, called bishops, including my own, see no issue with same-sex dating," the student said. "Many bishops do see an issue. My degree should not be threatened by a gray area that my ecclesiastical leaders can't even agree on."

While the church and the school may have a long way to go before LGBTQ students can feel fully accepted and welcome, many hope the federal investigation will result in a nudge in the right direction for the institution.