Behind the Scenes at Brigham Young
“There might be a few more people than usual,” said Tristan, the BYU student who was walking Brian, Brandon, Jonathan and I to an apartment where other students had gathered for a weekly off-campus discussion group noted for its lively, late-night exchanges about everything from ecological building to the ethics of war. It was already after nine o’clock. The streets of Provo were dark and the sidewalk glinted under our feet, still damp from an early evening rain. Fifteen people, I was thinking, maybe twenty. These were college students after all. How many people had enough leftover energy after a full day of attending classes, writing papers, and taking care of the various social and institutional minutiae that go along with campus life to show up and listen to a handful of activists from out of town? After about six blocks, we arrived at a sweet little two story with red filigreed doors. Tristan brought us down the walk and motioned us inside. Brian stepped ahead of me into the entryway and, as I tried to decide whether or not this was a household where I needed to take off my shoes, he opened the door to the living room. Just as quickly, he closed it and bulged his eyes at the rest of us. “Oh wow,” he said.
I decided to keep the shoes on and followed him into a room absolutely crammed with students. I knew immediately what he’d meant. The six or seven chairs were occupied, often with someone perched on each arm. The walls were lined, and rows of people snaked across the floor, their legs drawn up tight so as not to bump the people in front. I stepped carefully on the few spaces of carpet between bodies, hoping I wouldn’t bang somebody in the head with my bag. At the front of the room there was flurry of motion while a couch was cleared off for us to sit on. Later, a student would tell me that there had been about seventy people in that space, and, as our conversation continued, more and more people kept showing up, inching their way in the door. When we asked if these were all BYU students, the whole room shook its head, yes.
We gave a very abbreviated version of our presentation about progressive theology, and as people began asking questions about family and the nature of the Celestial Kingdom, I felt both grateful and awed. Here we were in Provo, having been told again and again by BYU that the university was so certain that its Honor Code, which prohibits not only ‘homosexual practice’ (undefined) but also any implied or explicit advocacy or association, was solid LDS policy, that it need not be questioned, that dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t appropriate on campus. And still the five of us Equality Riders were sitting amidst seventy students or more students who’d decided to give up a night of preparation for their classes, to give up the desire to simply be comfortable with school policy, to give up any semblance of personal space, just to talk with us.
We were all tired. We’d had a day of giving presentations at Utah Valley University, of talking with students, of attending a panel presentation of current and former BYU students at the Provo City Library. Aaron was in his second day of a debilitating cold, I was getting over an upper respiratory infection, but I am sure there is nowhere any of us would have rather been for those nearly two hours. The students asked difficult questions, and we answered from our hearts. No matter who was speaking, the feeling in the room was one of great respect and deep listening. This is a testament to the women who started this group and the way they have been facilitating it for several years, to be sure. But I think it is also a testament to the fact that when we accept each other’s right to ask questions based on personal experience with the Divine, conversations of incredible richness are possible.
That night, I learned a great deal not only about LDS Doctrine, but also about the possibilities of dissent within the church. I learned that there was already a group of students working on creating a safe space for LGBT people at their university. I learned that, regardless of BYU’s policies to the contrary, there is a great hunger among students to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities, and that these conversations can be had with deep respect for all the people involved.