Righting America

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Discrimination as Love: Asbury, BYU, and LGBTQ+ Students | Righting America

by Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6.

Photo of BYU students protesting ad holding up signs for LGBT and being dressed in rainbows while holding up pride flags.
Students who attend BYU in Provo agree to adhere to the code of conduct known as the “honor code,” and nearly all are members of the Mormon church. 2020 Associated Press via Huffington Post.

Earlier this month, Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, a nondenominational Christian university, did not renew the contracts of two professors over their support of LGBTQ+ students. 

At least, that’s the perspective of the many students who are grieving the removal of two beloved educators. Like most young people, including increasing numbers of white evangelicals, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints they feel that discrimination based on sexuality is harmful or wrong. As many of those who have signed a petition, started in 2015, calling for a change to Asbury’s anti-queer policies wrote when they signed, the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people doesn’t align with the very values of love and grace that Asbury proclaims otherwise. Said one, discriminatory policies are “against the Gospel of our Christ.”

But for conservative Christians who oppose same-sex romantic and sexual relations, the issue isn’t that the two professors supported LGBTQ+ students—it’s that they didn’t. For those who view same-sex sexual contact (whether in a casual encounter, a romantic relationship, a long-term partnership, or a legal marriage) as inherently sinful, immoral, or deficient, then what looks like support to people outside this frame is, within it, the exact opposite: enabling, leading astray, or even exploitation. 

A different story: 

On February 19, the Latter-day Saints’ Church Educational System, which includes Brigham Young University (BYU) in Salt Lake City, revised its Honor Code to remove language that prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings”—including, depending on interpretation, platonic hugs or hand-holding. Students were verbally told that this meant that affection in chaste same-sex romantic relationships was no longer prohibited. On March 4, the Commissioner of the Church Educational System clarified that sexual relations were still limited to monogamous, married male-female partnerships, and romantic affection between same-sex couple, even if not overtly sexual, was prohibited. BYU students who had come out in the previous few weeks were suddenly in violation of the school’s Honor Code. While the university assured students that they would not be punished for their sexual behavior during the time when they were led to believe that BYU permitted affection between same-sex couples, the revised Honor Code is now supposed to be understood as prohibiting any kind of same-sex romantic or sexual behavior. 

And, at BYU, the Honor Code has often been used to justify students reporting their peers for disciplinary action. Kevin Utt, BYU’s Honor Code director, notes that the Honor Code asks students to “[e]ncourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code” but notes that

[e]ncourage is not synonymous with “turn someone in.” Encourage is an action that means to give support, confidence or hope to someone. We are all members of the BYU community—thousands of people coming together to develop faith, intellect and character, and we should always reach out in love and support to those around us.

This echoes LDS General Handbook’s comments on same-sex attraction, behavior and marriage (the terms that the handbook uses): same-sex sexual relationships are “sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family” and Mormons should “reach out with sensitivity, love, and respect to persons who are attracted to others of the same sex.” At BYU, this looks like banning same-sex sexual contact, knowing that doing so causes “isolation and pain,” while also framing the university’s choice as one of “sensitivity, love and respect” and insisting that the Honor Code Office has a “responsibility” to investigate violations of the code.

You see, they love you, which is why they don’t want you to hold hands or kiss or have sex with or legally marry a person of the same sex, and if you do, they’ll punish you. 

Asbury’s Statement on Human Sexuality makes a similar argument: “all forms of sexual intimacy that occur outside the covenant of heterosexual marriage are sinful distortions of the holiness and beauty for which God intended,” but “conditional immunity” is offered to students “who come forward to seek help or forgiveness prior to administrative knowledge of the violation” and will be “supported with accountability and mentorship instead of disciplinary consequences,” according to the Morality Statement.

Though their theologies are different, both Asbury and BYU frame punishment for sexual contact between same-sex couples as a loving intervention. Here, they may reference the Biblical directions from James 5:19-20:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. 

In this framework, what looks to the world like “support” is really allowing someone to wander from God. It is enabling a sin that separates the person from God’s presence. It may also be framed as teaching false doctrine—that it’s okay to engage in same-sex sexual contact when it’s not. It may even be seen as an attempt to use another person’s sexual sin as a way to signal your own righteousness; that is, if you encourage queer people to accept their sexual identity, you might only be doing so to appear enlightened to a world that calls the “accountability” that Asbury describes or the “responsibility” that BYU refers to as “homophobia.”

In this view, what the world—and an increasing number of Christians, especially younger ones—calls love for queer people is actually harm to them.

Not surprisingly, queer Christians consistently experience the “love” that universities like Asbury and BYU insist they are showing as pain. They write and speak about being unable to be authentic, about living in fear of being outed, about the high cost of living with integrity, including expulsion, social isolation, and exclusion from institutions that are often part of their family history. 

But living a closeted life has its costs too. When we ask students, faculty, and others members of a campus community to choose between living honestly and their educations or jobs, we are coercing them into lying. And that, too, is a violation of an ethical code.