The US Department of Education (DOE) is investigating Brigham Young University (BYU), the nation’s largest Mormon college, to determine whether the school’s way of disciplining LGBTQ2S+ students violates their civil rights. Queer students think so.
“The Honor Code Office is the ongoing threat to every queer student on campus,” said former BYU student Calvin Burke. Extra. BYU’s honor code requires all students to live the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since BYU is a religiously affiliated private university. This includes no sexual relationships outside of marriage between people of any gender and no “same-sex romantic behavior.”
“You never know how or why BYU will punish you or what they’ll react negatively to,” Burke says. “The enforcement mechanisms are so arbitrary. There are stories of children being punished for watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Multiple private complaints about BYU’s treatment of its LGBTQ2S+ students led the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights to launch an investigation on October 21. Allegations against the school claim it violated Title IX, a federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education. In June 2021, the DOE confirmed that Title IX includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
BYU stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding if the investigation finds the allegations to be true.
For gay students like Burke, attending BYU meant making sacrifices: He chose not to date while he attended school. During his three and a half years at BYU, Burke was never disciplined for any violation. Still, as an outgoing student, he says “the harassment was relentless.” At one point, Burke said a leader of a homophobic right-wing Mormon movement called DezNat called for a $1,000 bounty to prove an honor code violation that would lead to Burke’s expulsion from BYU. .
Burke told several BYU administrators that he felt unsafe on campus, to the point that he was afraid he would be killed, and said he received no help. He is now transferring out of BYU in his senior year out of fear for his own safety.
According to sources who spoke with Extra, members of the DezNat movement are looking for gay BYU students to report to the Honor Code Office, which investigates allegations of student rights violations. The Honor Code Office conducts discipline of gay students without disciplining DezNat members or offering protection to harassed students. BYU, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has never publicly acknowledged or disavowed DezNat’s presence.
Former BYU student Kevin Beijerling says about 50 people affiliated with DezNat participated in a “witch hunt” to track his whereabouts during his sophomore year. After finding intimate images of him online last spring, they discovered his name and location and began harassing and threatening him.
“I couldn’t leave my apartment for several days,” says Beijerling Extra. He says he thought the worst: “‘I’m going to get killed.'”
The Honor Code Office contacted Beijerling to inform him that someone had filed a report regarding the photos, saying that if they determined he was guilty of posting the photos, he would be deported. Since he was an international student from New Zealand and his visa was dependent on enrolling, he would also be deported. However, New Zealand’s strict travel policies during the COVID-19 pandemic would have made it very difficult for Beijerling to return to his home country if deported.
“I was afraid of being stuck between two countries that refused me entry and ending up in a border camp,” he says.
Beijerling chose to voluntarily leave BYU last June to avoid getting stuck in limbo. His file is still open, he said, and the last time he heard from the school was six months ago. “I’m trying to move on with my life,” he says. “I’m starting at a new school, but I’m still dealing with a lot of traumatic stress and I’m seeing a therapist to try to resolve the issues. It still has an effect on my life.
Contributing to queer students’ fear of BYU is the growing rhetoric of violence on campus, which they say has not been adequately addressed by school administrators. When former BYU President and Mormon Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland spoke at BYU last August, he called for the use of “musket fire” to address the “same-sex challenge” affecting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For his part, DezNat believes in “blood atonement” – paying for sins with death.
LGBTQ2S+ students felt a momentary glimmer of hope that things were looking up in February 2020 when it emerged that the honor code had been updated to allow gay students to date. A month later, the school clarified that was not its intention and claimed that gay students were still not allowed to express romantic attraction to each other.
“You had this little bit of excitement and then right after it came back with this awful feeling of, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here. I’m not really welcome,’ says former student of Austin Haymore. BYU. Extra.
Before the honor code confusion, Haymore met a man who was not a BYU student in 2019. He says that man ended up stalking Haymore for months and repeatedly reported him to the office of the honor code for infractions, such as having a Grindr profile. . In the end, a report from her stalker about “violating the law of chastity” three weeks before her 2021 graduation was enough for the office to take action.
Hours after his graduation became official, Haymore says the honor code office informed him that he had been expelled retroactively. After a hasty appeal, he was able to convert his expulsion into a six-month suspension.
Haymore is now in a low-paying job in a field unrelated to his major because he did not graduate. In the meantime, he must comply with monthly meetings to ensure he still upholds the honor code during his suspension, which lasts until February 2022. “I think they violated my civil rights,” said Haymore, “but I think BYU believes their right to discriminate is more important than my right to exist.
Although BYU has not publicly responded to complaints about its allegations of mistreatment of LGBTQ2S+ students, the school believes it has the right not to follow anti-discrimination laws, according to President Kevin Worthen. On Nov. 19, Worthen responded to the DOE inquiry by writing that BYU is religiously exempt from “any Title IX application relating to sexual orientation and gender identity that is inconsistent with the religious tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of the last days”. Saints.
After the investigation was launched, BYU responded by cracking down more heavily on its LGBTQ2S+ student population. The school banned student protests on “Y” Mountain, where around 40 people lit the iconic letter in rainbow lights last March in support of LGBTQ2S+ students. BYU says students who defy the ban may not only be disciplined by the school, but arrested.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ2S+ students say BYU continues to turn a blind eye to the harassment they face. When BYU professor Hank Smith called Calvin Burke “Korihor” on Twitter in response to a DezNat executive’s tweet, BYU never suspended him from teaching or made a statement about the incident. “Korihor” is the name of the antichrist in the Book of Mormon, the faith’s holiest scripture, and Burke says the term is “the worst word you can call anyone in Mormonism.”
“It hit like a punch,” Burke recalled of the May 2021 incident. “Professor Smith had been my teacher at one point, and he was actually the first teacher I had said to go to graduate school to study religion.”
While LGBTQ2S+ students say BYU steers many away from religion, Burke keeps his belief in God and his relationship with the college separate. In fact, her faith is what leads her to believe BYU has a greater responsibility to LGBTQ2S+ students. “I don’t believe anyone can overlook those who suffer the most and are the most marginalized in society and claim that they are following God at the same time,” he says. “Those in power have an obligation to those who are vulnerable.”