Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Speaking Truth to Power at Brigham Young University - The Courage of LGBT Students and Their Supporters


"Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” 
~Robert F. Kennedy

And one of my favorite jokes:

The Buddha is in New York City, and becomes hungry. He walks up to a hot dog vendor and says “Make me one with everything.” (rim-shot here)

He hands the vendor a $20 bill. The vendor pockets the money, and says “thank you very much.” “Hey,” replies the Buddha, “where’s my change?”

“Ah,” the vendor smiles, “change comes from within.”

Unless one has attended Brigham Young University it is probably impossible to understand just how tightly the reins on students are held. Most college campuses at least go through the motions that students are intelligent adults. However, at BYU peer pressure is influenced from the top down, with the added weight of God and righteousness. If one questions anything about the teachings of the church, the operation of BYU or even grading standards, one is assumed to have inadequate faith. I cannot begin to count the hours I spent on my knees, praying to believe in the LDS faith, to understand the absurdity of the Church’s stance on women’s rights, and seeking understanding of stories of BYU security driving to Salt Lake City to take down the license plate numbers of the cars in the parking lots of gay bars (all student vehicles have to be registered at the university, so identification was a snap).

While many aspects of the culture are incredibly appealing – a true sense of belonging, warmth, shared history, inclusion, a sense of safety, friendliness and caring – they all come at a very high price. Conform or be cast out. And if you are cast out, your eternal salvation is at stake. These folks don't mess around.

When one’s entire life is built around the church – friends, social life, one’s very belief system – it feels almost life-threatening to consider “stirring the pot.” It simply isn’t done. Leaving the church means leaving all that is familiar and actually thinking for oneself: finding a new moral code, determining ethical standards, making a place in one's own world, where all decisions and norms are not already decided. I felt very adrift when I finally left the Mormon Church at the age of 26. While my reasons for leaving are personal and not necessarily appropriate for this post, let me just say that while I felt free and finally able to be myself, I also felt adrift and lost for a number of years. The church is all-encompassing.

In the 1970's, I had an experience which was pretty typical of my life growing up in the church. One time, when I was a sophomore in high school,  I was waiting for my mom to pick me up from basketball practice at our local (California) church building. A group of “church ladies” walked by, and asked if I wanted to go with them to an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) rally. Warily, I asked “for or against”? Looking a bit shocked, they replied “against, of course.” Of course? Why on earth would women be supporting something that said Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex? I clearly was not on the same page as these folks. This was when Sonia Johnson was chaining herself to the Salt Lake City’s temple gates in protest of the church's stance on the proposed amendment. At the time I questioned why she was fighting so hard to stay in a church that clearly didn’t respect her or want her around if she insisted on thinking. I realize now that she wasn't concerned about herself - her aim was to expose the LDS church's behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to defeat the ERA. It's 40 years later and little has changed - Prop 8 anyone?

Granted, I last attended BYU in 1981. I left two classes short of my Bachelor’s degree because I simply could not pass the Book of Mormon classes. At the time I didn’t have the maturity to simply view it all as a myth and parrot back what the teachers wanted to hear (in order to get a passing grade on required classes). It just seemed so ridiculous. My crisis of faith and my stubbornness cost me my degree. Taking on a behemoth like the Mormon Church was way beyond my confidence and comprehension. It still is. Fortunately I no longer feel like fighting.

Which brings me to my point, finally. What I’m really writing about is the stunning, spectacular, balls out courage it takes to stand up to the powers of the Mormon Church, that group of old white men behind the curtain. When I came across this video on Facebook a few days ago, I wept.

I wept with pride, and also with knowledge of the heartbreak ahead for these kids.

That they are willing to risk all that they have in order to be true to themselves fills me with awe.

It also fills me with anger that a "loving Christian" church considers them bad and wrong in the eyes of the world and the eyes of God.

I want to embrace them all, keep them safe, fight for them.

I’m not sure that I can really do any of these things. However, I can lend my support here and anywhere else I am asked to. While they may find, as I did, that I don’t belong in a church that refuses to respect many of the things they hold dear, for now they believe. And as the Buddha says, change comes from within.

 The famous statue of Brigham Young in Salt Lake City (his back to the temple, his hand outstretched to the bank...)

Sending love and hope and good wishes to all LGBT students and their supporters at BYU.