Mormon culture influences nearly every aspect of life in Utah. But these days many long-held values are being challenged, even by the faithful. KUER’s series “Latter-day” examines how Mormon culture is — and isn’t — changing in response.
Brigham Young University serves as a kind of test lab for Mormon culture. The issues students are confronting on campus are often an indicator of what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will grapple with on a larger scale in the near future. At a time when top Church officials are doubling down on heterosexual norms, a growing queer community in Provo is working to show that it is possible to be out and Mormon.
Back in June, about 40 LGBTQ Mormons came together at a Denny’s in Provo. Kerry Spencer, a former BYU professor and gay Mormon, had made the call and she tweeted a photo of the smiling group She now teaches in Maryland and lives with her partner, Heather.
Gay Provo Twitter I love you all pic.twitter.com/ShpJf6YW0F
— Dr. Frizzle (@Swilua) June 22, 2019
Lee Hale: Can you tell me about that picture from Denny’s you posted a few weeks ago?
Kerry Spencer: Our epic queer “tweet-up” at Provo Denny’s. It came about because I was going to be speaking in Provo at the Affirmation International Conference. It's an organization that helps support LGBT Mormons. I was really nervous to be in Provo — I hadn't been back to Provo since I was faculty at BYU and that was a very different time, so I was anxious. So I posted a tweet and I said, “I'm gonna be anxious when I'm in Provo. Please come to Denny's and hang out with me.” I thought maybe like five people would come but it ended up being quite a bit bigger than that. We filled half of the restaurant and it was very unexpected. I think we completely overwhelmed the waitstaff.
LH: It seems like you kind of fill a role for these queer students at BYU. How do you how do you refer to yourself in relation to them?
KS: I mean they have various things that they call me. Some call me their gay auntie, some call me their queer Mormon Twitter mom. It's kind of surprising to me that I play any role at all to them, really.
LH: You taught at BYU for 14 years. And you’re out now and in a relationship with a woman, but you weren’t back then. Can you describe what it’s like to be a closeted professor at BYU?
KS: It's living in a constant state of fear. When I started teaching at BYU in 2000, it was against the honor code to be gay. You couldn't say it out loud. It was something that was unspeakable. You could be expelled, or if you were a faculty, you could be fired. And if were fired from BYU, that often went along with excommunication or apostasy from the Church. That was something that didn't change until 2008.
In 2008 the honor code was updated so that you were allowed to be gay, but you couldn't do anything about it. And by anything, they meant anything. In some ways it got worse then because everybody was always looking for a sign that you were gay ... to prove that you were gay. I got reported multiple times by students because they suspected that I had homosexual sympathies. You have friends that you couldn't hug or touch because it would lead to termination.
Once I was teaching a class and one of the students said out loud something like, “I think that we're too hard on gay people in the church.” And the entire class, all in one motion, turned on him. Twenty bodies all at once turning and surrounding him. It was one of the moments in my teaching career where I just I feel like I failed because I froze. I wanted to say something, anything, but I couldn't speak. I couldn't get the words to form. It's something that still haunts me.
LH: Do you think that things are better now at BYU and in Provo for queer Mormons?
KS: That's a difficult question because things are better but they're also at a really critical place. There is still the dominant narrative that says that heterosexual marriage between a male and a female, as defined by an incredibly narrow understanding of gender, is the only way for happiness. The Church has quite a terrible history with a lot of its queer members. They'll take a step forward and then they'll take two steps backwards and they'll actively promote very harmful doctrine still over the pulpit. They'll describe us in terms that are ontologically associated with perversion or brokenness or sinfulness. We still have suicide as a major risk factor for Mormons. For every positive story that you might hear there are dozens of people in my DMs on Twitter who are suicidal and closeted.
LH: There was a reversal of a policy this year that was very painful for a lot of Latter-day Saints, not just queer Latter-day Saints. The policy referred to gay couples as apostates and required their children to denounce their parents relationship before being allowed to be baptized. And then with the reversal there was an expression of pain and frustration as well. I think some Latter-day Saints didn’t understand how there could be frustration at that point. Can you help unpack that a little bit?
KS: When the “policy of exclusion” was introduced, so many of us who were active practicing Mormons had an immediate sense that it was wrong. It was unkind and it went against one of the fundamental articles of faith of Mormonism that children shouldn’t be held accountable for their parents actions. Baptism is a saving ordinance to Mormons. And this is something that's being denied to children because there parents are gay. It divided families. It caused a lot of unspeakable anguish for queer people. Personally, I lost friends to suicide. And then it was just quietly repealed with very little acknowledgment of the pain it caused. I was sitting in my office at work when I heard and it was hard to have any sort of reaction at first because it's good that the policy is gone, but my friends are still dead.
LH: How about the fact that there was a BYU valedictorian Matt Easton who came out in his commencement speech in the spring. He says his words were vetted by administrators and approved. What does that tell us about the culture at BYU right now?
KS: It's hopeful, but all queer Mormons will tell you it's very difficult to maintain hope.