Dear 100 Hour Board,
In October the American Geophysical Union removed job postings for professorships at BYU. They had received a backlash from members who claimed that BYU's Honor Code discriminated against gay and transgender people, and that AGU shouldn't support a discriminatory institution.
On one hand, I feel that it's fair: BYU and AGU are both private organizations and set whatever standards they want. However, I think the assertion that BYU discriminates is a little unfair. The Honor Code bans homosexual conduct, not homosexual people. If a BYU had a blanket ban on a gay faculty, that would be a different story. Also, BYU's standards of conduct are hardly unique: they're based on scriptures that virtually every Christian sect has used for thousands of years.
What do you think of AGU's decision?
- Leonhard Euler
I think it's fully discriminatory towards certain groups of people by banning an action or outward expression that is part of who they are. You're saying that BYU isn't being fully discriminatory towards the LGBTQ community as they don't ban homosexuals, but rather ban homosexual behavior. But would you call an institution sexist if they allowed women, but refused to let them wear any feminine clothes, makeup, or act in any feminine way? What about an institution that refuses to hire people with a Russian accent, but argues that they aren't being discriminatory because they're willing to hire Russians who have an American accent? It seems like an apologetic way to try and argue that you aren't being discriminatory when you clearly are.
Something also not addressed is that members of the LGBTQ community at BYU are scrutinized even more than heterosexuals. At BYU, students and faculty often take it upon themselves to report others to the Honor Code Office. So if you knew an individual was gay, what would you count as homosexual behavior? Kissing? Holding hands? Hugging? BYU Valedictorian Matt Easton shared that people might report gay individuals for simply hugging a friend, because that might be perceived as homosexual behavior. Knowing that such innocent actions may result in being expelled or losing employment causes a lot of pain and fear among LGBTQ individuals at BYU. So even though LGBTQ members may work at BYU, they're under stricter scrutiny and are discriminated against more than heterosexual individuals.
Just because a group of people feel a certain way and have felt that way for a long time does not mean everyone needs to accept it and act like it's okay. For the longest time lots of people thought slavery and/or segregation was okay and many used the Bible to justify it. Even past BYU presidents used the Bible to justify opposing black faculty and students on campus. Just because these views were based on scriptures that virtually every Christian sect has used for thousands of years does not mean it's not discriminatory and does not mean all private organizations have to respect and follow it.
-guppy of doom
I think religious and non-religious people have been talking right past each other on this issue for about as long as it's been present in public consciousness. The distinction between status and conduct, one that you make in your question, is important to us as a religion, but it means nothing at all to most secular observers looking on. For the overwhelming majority of people, being gay means experiencing and acting on same-sex attraction; being gay without acting on that attraction isn't really being gay at all. It's repression, in the typical view, and damaging to one's mental and emotional health.
This is important to understand. guppy of doom's objections to your dichotomy of gay identity versus behavior don't make much sense in a Latter-day Saint context, where one's free-will responses to their unchosen inclinations are laden with moral and spiritual consequence that's a lot more important than what those inclinations are. But they make perfect sense in a secular context, where there's nothing morally superior about refraining from homosexual inclinations, and asking someone to do so is essentially denying them a part of their being. And yes, it's discriminatory; there's no way around that fact. Discrimination is something of a loaded, scary, almost evil word in today's society--but the fact is that all of us discriminate every single day as we make judgments about who and what we associate with and spend our time on. I think it's more of a losing cause to argue that we're not really trying to be discriminatory, because the simple fact is that we are. Individuals who engage in homosexual behavior are subject to church and university sanctions. The word discrimination does not need to terrify us into kowtowing under political or social pressure, nor does it automatically make us bad people. Despite its pejorative connotations, all it really means is that we differentiate between things that are permitted by God and things that are not. Those who are willing to accept the validity of a personal or religious ethical code will be sympathetic to our position; those who aren't won't be.
So the proper response to this criticism, to me, is not to deflect or to quibble on the precise degree to which we discriminate, but to acknowledge that our doctrine as we understand it does place a burden on many of God's children. Because of that, we have a solemn responsibility to build a community of empathy and support for those LGBTQ+ individuals who choose to make a life for themselves in the BYU community as well as the larger Latter-day Saint community despite that challenge. A better response would include a careful, sensitive acknowledgment of the why of that discrimination, and a Christlike willingness to help shoulder the burden that it places upon those who are challenged by it. No case that attempts to sidestep that burden will be adequate, and more directly, I think it's of far greater importance to be willing to bear one another's burdens and to mourn with those that mourn than it is to debate over whether or not gospel standards are discriminatory in some abstract, absolute sense. (I'm speaking generally here; don't think I'm accusing you, dear reader, of engaging in pointless debate.)
We make this discriminating judgment because, to the best of our current understanding of God's will, we believe homosexual behavior is sinful and ultimately harmful to the eternal destiny of His children. If that is indeed true, then the spiritual welfare of His children is of monumental importance. But likewise, the need for a supportive, loving community for those who have those feelings grows even more critical.
Unfortunately, for most people, this is not the message that organized religion has historically been sending to those who identify as LGBTQ+. If we really want people to understand that our motives for this attitude are based on genuine Christian love and not hatred or bigotry, we need to be absolutely above reproach in every single way we treat people who are gay, and historically I think almost all religions have done a poor to atrocious job of that. Now, there will always be those, like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, who will sneer at anything we say as smoke and mirrors, or perhaps thinly veiled bigotry which can't be dressed up by religious nonsense. I doubt we will win over any fans at the AGU by pleading a theological case, no matter how many adorable diagrams of the Plan of Salvation pamphlet we enlist the Primary children to send their way. But the support of the world is not and should not be our primary concern. For Latter-day Saints, religion isn't nonsense or an excuse to be bigoted, cruel, and mean in service of "the truth." The spiritual welfare of God's children is not merely a real concern, but the single most important concern we have. And yet, on balance, we still struggle to communicate charity to his LGBTQ+ children in a meaningful way. No amount of appealing to God's love for His children will matter when the culture in which we live still produces people who are insensitive, ignorant, and genuinely homophobic and unwelcoming. People get away with saying things like "Christianity is based on hatred" because they can point to examples of Christians being uncharitable and yes, even bigoted. I had multiple (!) mission companions who said things about LGBTQ+ people that were unbelievably offensive. Some of them would play it for laughs, as if the emotional and physical harm of real people who happen to feel differently than they do was something to laugh at. Is it any wonder religion is so often reduced to a facile, superficial, even hypocritical caricature by people who don't think much of theology in the first place?
To sum up, AGU is free to refuse to associate with BYU because of BYU's moral stance, as you correctly note. You and I may not be happy with the decision, but they are perfectly free to do so. Personally, I would be very surprised if this trend reverses anytime soon. Unfortunately, our discourse regarding this issue still has leaps and bounds to go before it's where it ought to be, on both sides. I would love to see organizations like the AGU take a more nuanced and understanding approach to the genuine differences of religious belief that set us apart. And I want more than anything for irreligious observers to see and understand the strict imperative that devolves upon us to be as sensitive, kind, and charitable as we possibly can to all of God's children precisely because the gospel is so difficult. But until we take that obligation seriously ourselves, and the unkind, hurtful, insensitive experiences like those described by Fozzie are entirely eradicated from our religious dialogue, do we have any right to expect secular observers to do so?
The best thing all of us can do is be kind. Especially to those who are different from us.
Dear Leonhard Euler,
To answer your question directly, I think that the AGU had every right to remove BYU’s job posting. If BYU, as a private institution, is allowed to set standards about what type of person can attend and work at their university, then the AGU should also be able to have their own standards. While some AGU’s members did call BYU out for being discriminatory, the official AGU Twitter said that they “decided to remove the BYU job posting as being inconsistent with AGU’s Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy” and didn’t say much more than that.
This reminded me of a similar incident that happened last year when members of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) wrote a letter to the board asking them to reconsider having their next conference at BYU. They also said that BYU’s policies didn’t match the standards of the CAMWS and so they thought that they shouldn’t associate with BYU. But they also had other concerns. They were concerned about the safety of the LGBTQ+ people attending the conference. They were worried that LGBTQ+ attendees might be harassed. They were worried LGBTQ+ attendees would feel like they had to “re-closet” themselves or perform as straight and cis-gendered in order to be safe. Whether you think those concerns are valid or not, this is how some people view our campus. That it is a place where LGBTQ+ people might be emotionally and/or physically harmed. Or a place where they have to lie about their identity in order to stay safe.
To be fair, these organizations aren’t seeing what you are seeing, they probably haven’t actually spent any time on BYU’s campus. I appreciate that from your perspective, BYU might seem like a fine place for LGBTQ+ students and faculty. But they don't see that. What they are seeing is a section titled “Homosexual Behavior” on BYU’s Honor Code that explicitly states what type of “homosexual” person is allowed at BYU. They are seeing LGBTQ+ BYU students saying that they are lonely, in pain, need help, or just want to be heard again, and again, and again, and again, and again. They are seeing that only in 2007 was the Honor Code changed to say that “homosexual feelings” were not a violation. They see a history of practicing aversion and conversion therapy (I personally know someone who underwent aversion therapy while a student at BYU). There has been a history of discriminating LGBTQ+ people on this campus and culture doesn’t change that quickly.
I don’t bring that up to say “ah BYU is the worst!” But rather to say what people are seeing and the kinds of things I hear when I tell people I go to BYU. It certainly has gotten better. Last semester, BYU’s Office of Student Success and Inclusion hosted a Christmas party for LGBTQ+ students, which is something that never would’ve happened 10 years ago. But too many LGBTQ+ students at BYU still feel unwelcome, unloved, and unsafe.
Yes, the Honor Code doesn't ban people who are queer and actively not dating. But it does ban queer people who want to hold hands, date, kiss, flirt with someone who happens to be of the same gender. Some people are allowed less human connection because of their sexual orientation. I feel like I'm allowed to be queer at BYU as long as I don't show it too much.
So. What do I think of AGU’s decision? I feel hurt that some organizations don’t want to associate with an institution that I’m a part of. But I’m also hopeful. I have had roommates and classmates stop talking to me after they found I was queer. During my freshman year, I was a member of a BYU team that I quit after the team captain started saying she didn’t want any gay people on the team. I’ve sat silently in classes where people have discussed and questioned the validity of my identity. I wish that I had stood up for myself, but I was scared. And I’ve been scared to hug female friends out of fear of being reported.
I’ve started to lose hope that people at BYU will listen to me when I say that I don’t feel safe or welcome as a queer person at BYU. But maybe people will listen to outside organizations that have a bigger voice than I do. I hope so.