This week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made changes to its official handbook, which provides guidance on church policy. There was also an update to BYU’s Honor Code, and both have a lot of implications for the LGBT Mormon community, especially transgender church members and gay students. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with religion reporter Lee Hale about the reaction from church leaders and members.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Let’s start with the church handbook. What is it and why is the update significant?
Lee Hale: Previously, there have been two handbooks. One is for the bishops and top male leaders and primarily has to do with church discipline like what sins are considered worth disciplining and what could lead to even excommunication. The other one, called Handbook 2, is for the daily runnings for the congregation. And now those handbooks are combined and made public for the first time.
CB: There were some noticeable updates, in particular regarding transgender members of the church.
LH: Anthony Perkins is a General Authority in the church, and he oversees the handbook. This is what he said about the new transgender section in a video released by the Church yesterday:
The reason that that policy has been added is we've had an increase in questions coming from bishops and stake presidents saying, “What can a transgender person do? What are the guidelines?”
CB: So what are the guidelines?
LH: It says that a church member who has socially or medically transitioned to a different gender cannot have a temple recommend. They're not allowed to enter the church’s temples, which represents the presence of God. These are the holiest sites in the Mormon church. These are a big deal.
CB: What's the reaction to this been?
A prominent trans Mormon, Kris Irvin, tweeted [Wednesday]:
“I am frustrated with many parts of the new policies, but I'm also relieved that it wasn't worse.”
For example, I am frustrated with many parts of the new policies, but I'm also relieved that it wasn't worse. So just allow yourself to feel your feelings and let's keep the lines of communication open with each other. We can work through this together. I promise.
I love you.
— possum icon™ (@krisis86) February 19, 2020
And I've seen that sentiment reflected in other people's reactions, too. I don't think most people are surprised by the church taking the stance, but now that it's in the handbook, clearly it gives a lot less wiggle room for trans Mormons.
CB: Any other big changes in the handbook that we saw?
LH: A big takeaway is the fact that it is public and digital. And Anthony Perkins, who oversaw the new handbook, says the reason it's digital is so that changes can be made quickly, and that if there's wording that needs to be changed, they can update that. The church has been criticized for not updating their handbooks as quickly as they've announced changes in the past.
Another big thing is language. The church is trying to distance itself from words like “excommunication” and “disfellowship,” so they're not using those words anymore. But those concepts still apply.
CB: These changes in the handbook have had some ripple effects. What's been happening at BYU? It seemed like, initially, school officials would stop the practice of disciplining gay students for dating.
LH: Along with these changes happening at the church level, there are some changes to the Honor Code at BYU, which is run by the church and the same church leaders.
There was a section in the Honor Code — the rules for how students need to live their lives — that had to do with homosexuality. The line that used to be in there said, “all forms of physical intimacy that give expressions to homosexual feelings” were forbidden.
Basically, if you were holding hands with someone of the same gender or kissing on campus that would put your academic life at risk.
CB: Which straight couples were permitted to do.
LH: Right. The true thing for all students [is] that you can't have sex or have sexual relations before marriage, but that went further for gay students. That section was taken out. So, a lot of students thought, “Wow, like, as long as we're not having sex, gay students can date, too.”
There was kind of this celebration or exuberance. I talked with one student, Calvin Burke — I actually caught him between classes [Thursday], and he was one of those who was really excited. He said the change was a welcome update and felt a lot of relief. Burke is an openly gay BYU student, and with that relief came some skepticism. It felt a little too good to be true. He told a friend, “Let’s read the fine print and see what’s going on here.”
CB: And it sounds like he was right to be skeptical. After KUER initially reported on the changes [Wednesday], BYU officials walked that back a little and clarified later in the day, what removing that homosexuality section actually meant.
LH: They said that the language had been removed, but that the principles stay the same. So basically, no change really.
They said they would meet with people on an individual basis when concerns arose. And this kind of took the wind out of a lot of the celebrations.
In speaking with Honor Code Office Director Kevin Utt this afternoon, we've learned that there may have been some miscommunication as to what the Honor Code changes mean. Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.
— BYU (@BYU) February 19, 2020
Calvin Burke said he wasn't really surprised.
And I should say, too, there are some students that think that the BYU Honor Code Office is getting too lax: that they need to be more firm against homosexual relationships. [Those students have] been leaving this LDS church document called The Family: A Proclamation — which says that marriage is between a man and a woman and reinforces gender roles — all over campus to try to combat the excitement and exuberance from students on [Wednesday].