Because of a lack of knowing the university’s policy, LGBTQ students feel isolated and choose to hide their true selves, said members of the BYU-Hawaii Ohana. Students, faculty and staff interviewed for this article said greater knowledge and Christ-like love would help members of the LGBTQ community feel part of the diverse environment in Laie.
Aspen Schend, a senior from Washington majoring in communications, identifies as a part of the LGBTQ community and said she has come out to some of her friends on campus.
Although Schend is open about her sexual orientation, she noted she does not know the school’s policy for LGBTQ students, which she said is nerve-racking to her. “I don’t even know where to find the policy because it is something not talked about. I know the church's stance, but I have no idea what BYUH follows.”
Rebekah Walker, an anthropology special instructor at BYUH, said in her Anthropology 105 course, she teaches a section on “Gender, Sex, and Sexuality.” After teaching the unit on LGBTQ, Walker explained every semester students will approach her, and she said she feels their burden that they can’t talk openly about their identity.
“They are afraid to come out on campus. I wish students could know how many people support their efforts to stay in the Church. I think until we have this open discussion, we miss out on being able to love and be their support group,” said Walker.
Walker said in her Anthropology 105 course, she shows “It Gets Better,” a video produced by the USGA.
In “It Gets Better,” it says 74 percent of LGBT students at BYU have contemplated suicide, and 24 percent have attempted suicide. “Those numbers break my heart,” stated Walker.
Jared Anderson, a bishop for the Laie Park YSA Ward and a BYUH employee, said he understands the importance of showing love to the LGBTQ community because he as a parent faced this situation.
“I am a father of a gay son,” he said, “and I have had people in my ward who have SSA [same sex attraction] but haven’t come out to anyone. I can see what they are holding in. Being in the closet is a lonely feeling.”
He said after praying and exercising faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ, he was able to overcome his feelings of hopelessness and felt his job was to love his son.
The manager of BYU-Hawaii's Office of Honor, Feki Pouha, said the school follows the same policy as BYU in Provo on homosexual behavior.
Pouha said he does not know why some students said were unfamiliar with the policy, but he replied, “I think it is important for all our campus community to understand that no matter the feelings or attractions we have, we have committed to living consistent to our honor code commitment at all times and in all places, as long as we are students and employees of BYUH.”
According to Director of Communication and Marketing Laura Tevaga, the official policy for LGBTQ students is: “BYUH will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards. Members of the university community can remain in good Honor Code standing if they conduct their lives in a manner consistent with gospel principles and the Honor Code.”
Tevaga included an excerpt from BYU-Hawaii’s President John S. Tanner, from his “The Order of Love” Commencement speech on Feb. 27, 2016. It says, “We should reach out to every child of God with profound, genuine neighbor love. We have an obligation to do more than merely tolerate differences…Our deepest Christian obligation is to go beyond tolerance. It is to love.”
The Church website Mormon and Gay has a similar statement saying, “God loves all of us. He loves those of different faiths and those without any faith. He loves those who suffer. He loves the rich and poor alike. He loves people of every race and culture, the married or single, and those who experience same-sex attraction or identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. And God expects us to follow His example.”
Rebekah Strain, a special instructor at BYUH and former coordinator for Title IX, said in regards to the unknown Honor Code policy for LGBTQ students, it leads to students, especially members of the LGBTQ community, to wonder if they have to be in the closet and hide their identity.
“There is always a fear if the Honor Code is going to kick [them] out. I understand why students would be scared to say or doing anything. They should feel safe as long as they are living the standards,” Strain said.
She added, “The focus of our campus should more be on standards, not sexual orientation. Are our students in proper dress and grooming, and are they following the law of chastity? That is what matters more than who are they attracted to.”
Acting with Christ-like love
Anderson said when his son came out to him at age 16, it was difficult at first. “I had a plan that my son would serve a mission, get married, and have a family. All of sudden it was turned upside down.”
“The biggest fear my son had with coming out with us was that he was going to disappoint us. It was sad because he was fine with his identity, but he was more concerned about hurting us as his parents.”
Through prayer, Anderson said he overcame a “hopeless feeling" that came when his son came out. “I cried up to God in prayer that through the atonement of Christ, I would be lifted and have that heavy feeling removed.”
After praying, Anderson noted he received the answer that his son was not in a “phase,” rather his job was to love his son. Because of this experience, Anderson said he is a better husband, father and bishop.
“My relationship with my son is stronger than it has ever been. As a family, we are blessed with a son with this reality in his life. It made our family more Christ-like.”
Anderson said he wants other parents is similar situations to love their children and keep them in your life. He noted people can still love someone without agreeing with how they exercise their agency.
“Nothing is more important than keeping the connection to your child. It may get worse before it gets better, but it is worth it. Especially if your children choose to be their authentic self, keep them in your life and love them.”
He noted the Church should be a place where those struggling with their identity should feel love and not feel judged. “If someone chooses to live in a different way than we think they should, we need to honor their agency and love them.”
In regards to BYUH, Anderson explained instead of ignoring LGBTQ students, having panels and safe spaces for these students can help them feel comfortable with being their authentic self.
“I never thought about having safe spaces until my son came out. Before that, there was probably a little bit of ignorance I didn’t know existed. It has been very enlightening for me to expand my understanding and my heart. It has strengthened my testimony in the gospel.”
Anderson added it would be helpful if BYUH had a similar support group for LGBTQ students because he knows members of the community often feel alone.
According to Anderson’s son, Arenui Anderson, the vice president of the USGA at BYU in Provo, USGA stands for Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship at BYU, and it was created in 2011 when the Honor Code clarified that students could actively be a part of advocacy groups concerning LGBTQ/SSA topics.
“Students who go to BYUH, in the past, have attempted to create something like USGA,” said Arenui. “But it seems to come in and out of existence. We have lasted so long due to our set charter, our leadership team and system, and because of active interest from the general BYU population.
“I think any school can really benefit from a place where LGBTQ/SSA students can gather and be in each other’s company. Just last week, I met someone who thought she was the only homosexual person in all of BYU. Having a place available for people to be themselves is such a stress reducer.”
Coming out on campus
“I would love it if there was an LGBTQ club,” stated Schend. “Especially for people who are going through their journey before or after accepting themselves. I feel like if we have that club there would be more acceptance on campus.”
Schend said she identifies as queer, and is “very open about her sexuality,” but it is not the first thing she tells people. She added she wants people to understand hiding sexual and gender identity is not healthy.
“I have a hard time with labels. I don’t feel comfortable with bisexual or pansexual. Those don’t fit me, and I’m not lesbian. So queer is perfect for me. Everyone defines it in their own way. For me, it means not straight.”
She noted she started realizing her sexuality when she was 16 but had worries about being accepted by her family. “I didn’t have a reason to be worried, but it is just difficult when you are expected to be straight, and it turns out you're not.”
Schend said she did not come out until last year. If she was closer to accepting herself before choosing a college, she said she might not have decided to attend BYUH. On campus, Schend said since she only comes out to her friends, the response is positive, but it does bother her when her friends reply, “Can you not wave your it in my face? I do not want to know about it.”
Schend added she would love if people asked her more about her sexual orientation, but she noted, “I think right now we are not to that point.”
The Church’s Mormon and Gay website says this about coming out: “For some people, keeping feelings of same-sex attraction private can result in shame or a negative internal dialogue. Sharing those feelings with a trusted confidant can be liberating and healing. Some, however, wish they had waited longer or at least limited the number of people to whom they disclosed their feelings, so this decision shouldn’t be based on yielding to pressure to ‘come out’ publicly or openly identify as gay. If you decide to disclose feelings of same-sex attraction, prayerfully consider whom you would like to tell about it and how to share this aspect of your mortal experience.
“As Church members, we all have a responsibility to create a supportive and loving environment for all our brothers and sisters. Such a support network makes it much easier to live the gospel and to seek the Spirit while navigating any aspect of morality.”
Creating safe spaces
Shemaina Maeve, the assistant director of the David O. McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding, said she hopes to create a forum aimed at understanding the LGBTQ community and the struggles they face and start a group like BYU in Provo’s USGA.
After graduating from BYUH in peacebuilding, she worked with youth (including LGBTQ youth) at a restorative justice center in Southern California. She said she then went to the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and earned a master’s degree in gender studies and peacebuilding, which she said furthered her knowledge about the LGBTQ community.
Maeve said her family influenced her interest with the LGBTQ community. “My dad is gay and my youngest sibling is pansexual, which is a sexual orientation, and non-binary, which means on the gender spectrum, they don't identify with the binary man/woman identities.”
According to Maeve, when her dad came out at age 42, it was one of the most transformative experiences of her life. “It hit home the importance of loving and being educated.
“I knew how resistant the community was going to be to my dad, and I think the love I had for him made me want to protect him. If we think about the importance of honoring our parents, I felt the only path forward was to love him.”
She added her dad struggled with depression and anxiety, which was partially because he didn’t feel safe to express who he was in the Latter-day Saint community.
Because of seeing her dad struggle, Maeve said she would not want BYUH students to have a similar experience, which is why she feels a forum or a series of forums focused on awareness, respect, and love for the LGBTQ community are needed.
“When my dad went through his coming out, he did not have access to spaces that were safe within the Church. If he would have those, his experience of coming out would have been a little bit better for him.”
Overall, Maeve said she sees education as a powerful tool for helping individuals not fear coming out and thinks everyone can benefit from learning about the obstacles the LGBTQ community faces.
Taking knowledge home
Learning more about LGBTQ issues was at the center of anthropological research done by Kerin Haua Sipili Sialeipata's, a junior from New Zealand majoring in anthropology and peacebuilding.
For Anthropology 447, she said interviewed LGBTQ students at BYUH to learn about why depression and suicides rates can be high among the group.
After interviewing people, Sialeipata explained she found students expressed they did not feel comfortable coming out.
“There is definitely a level of discomfort here. You have to stay hidden or else something may happen to you. You might lose your endorsement, you might get expelled, and people may treat you differently.”
Before coming to BYUH, Sialeipata said she never saw homosexuality as an uncomfortable topic. She was raised in New Zealand, and said her mom is from the Cook Islands and her dad is Samoan.
“Culturally, I have never been taught to treat any of my members of the LGBTQ community any differently.”
Sialeipata said she did not realize, until researching Gay Pride for her Anthropology 322 class, that homosexuality in the Cook Islands is a criminal offense. She found the law criminalizes male partnerships, not a lesbian partnership.
According to Sialeipata, if students, especially from an area where LGBTQ rights are not recognized, learn about LGBTQ issues, then they can take knowledge to their home countries. She added BYUH students can be voices for these communities in places where they are voiceless.
Gabe Fryar, a junior from Pennsylvania majoring in peacebuilding, political science and anthropology, said he is an advocate for the LGBTQ community. He agreed with Sialeipata and said BYUH has an opportunity to help students who are coming from countries where homosexuality is not understood.
“One of the most beautiful elements about BYU–Hawaii is we have a diversity of people and also a diversity of minds. I think these lenses are essential to understanding people who are different than us so that we can respect those marginalized, like the LGBTQ community.”
Fryar noted some villainize the LGBTQ community, just as individuals did in history with African Americans and indigenous people. “We come from a place of mental privilege and superiority, which leads to discrimination.”
According to Fryar, this leads people to stay LGBTQ in silence. He said this is as a problem he sees on campus.
“If we had a more accepting culture and more diversity of opinion, you would see people open about their sexual orientation or how they identify their gender.”
LGBTQ in silence
Staying LGBTQ in silence is what BYUH alumna Rebecca Vigoren, from Washington, said she chose while attending college here until graduating in 2015.
“I am a member of the LGBTQ community. I realized it near my junior year at BYUH. I chose not to come out while I was at school for fear of losing friends, getting kicked out, and overall it was just scary. I felt extremely alone and terrified.”
Vigoren said her hope is people will try to understand LGBTQ individuals. She added she once heard a bishop who strove to teach every Sunday as if there was a closeted member in the congregation. “I think that is a beautiful way to try to create safe spaces. Every student, administrator and bishopric to think and pray about how to lift the burden of others.”
While Vigoren attended BYUH, she said she made attempts to start a group like the USGA. She said she hopes students will not be scared to come out like she was.
“I promise you, members of the LGBTQ community have soul searched and searched for God in the darkest hours. Praying for Him to change who we are. Please respect our identity. If you truly want to be an ally, choose to love and strive to understand us even if someone leaves the Church for a time or forever.”