Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Got My Rock Moves

When I was quoted on page 9 of the Daily Universe, everyone read it. Everyone. Oddly enough no one read an article that focused a lot more on me than I thought it would published on the front page of the Sunday Tribune. Go figure. I guess the people that know me read Deseret News.

In any event, I was on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune! How exciting. We're all taking bets as to how long it will be before I am contacted!

I felt the article was pretty good. It was very well written, and he represented me surprisingly well. It did reveal a lot about me, which felt really weird. At the same time, I hope that it can make a difference. You can read the article and tell me what you think here:

Gay students at BYU still struggle for acceptance

Portraits of gays give administrators a moment of pause.

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 23, 2009

Provo - Dan Embree came to Brigham Young University four years ago, in part, to iron out his sexual orientation.

Hailing from a Chicago-area Mormon family, Embree grew up believing his same-sex attraction was deviant and unclean. But he is healing in a way he did not anticipate when he matriculated at the church-owned school.

"I was not in a healthy frame of mind, doing self-destructive things," says Embree, a senior who is studying painting. "I did therapy and it didn't work. After my mission, I realized it wasn't going to go away. When I accepted that, it really improved my life."

Last fall, Embree was one of several gay BYU students who posed for portraits shot by photography student Michael Wiltbank. The portraits were hung as part of a class show, but after a week college administrators ordered the portraits taken down.

The move disturbed some BYU arts faculty, as well as critics who lit up the blogosphere with renewed allegations that BYU does not tolerate a free exchange of ideas. Within days, officials declared the portraits acceptable for public display and invited Wiltbank to rehang them.

The incident illustrates how sensitive the subject of homosexuality is on the BYU campus, particularly at a time when its owner, the Mormon Church, was playing a pivotal role in the divisive fight over California's Proposition 8, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Gay students say they sat through religion classes last fall, listening to professors liken the California ballot initiative to God's war against Satan.

"I have never been comfortable at BYU," Embree says. "During the Prop 8 campaign I had to listen to peers talk about homosexuality being the same as a pedophile and an alcoholic."

Looking for support » That BYU allowed the gay-portrait exhibit shows how far the school has come since the student days of its most famous gay alumnus, Bruce Bastian, who happens to be Embree's granduncle. Bastian, the Utah County software developer behind WordPerfect, attended BYU in the late 1960s when gay colleagues did not venture from the closet and many hid their struggle with same-sex attractions.

"It wasn't an issue because you wouldn't dare talk about it," says Bastian, who contributed $1 million to defeat Proposition 8. "If people let gay people be gay, there would be a lot less pain surrounding it all. Gay men shouldn't marry straight women and try to become straight."

Recent studies show that gays rejected by their families have a far higher incidence of suicide, while mainstream psychology flatly rejects therapies intended to "cure" same-sex attraction.

Wiltbank, a 28-year-old senior from the tiny Arizona town of Eager, solicited his portrait subjects through Facebook and his social networks. Embree and a friend went together to Wiltbank's Orem studio and sat in front of a camera as the photographer shot dozens of digital images of their faces.

"I participated to show other students who might be struggling that it is OK to accept the fact that you are gay and know that there are people at BYU who do support you," Embree says.

The faces in the finished portraits have neutral expressions with only the eyes in sharp focus.

"It's visual communication. When you want to get into someone's face you look in their eyes," Wiltbank says.

His untitled series was one of 16 student shows in a class exhibit hung in the Harris Fine Arts Center's Gallery 303 for a two-week run starting in late November. Four portraits each depicted a gay student along with a supportive person in his life.

"I have not included labels with these portraits as I feel that labels only create separation and division and further ungrounded stereotypes," Wiltbank wrote in an artist's statement. "We never know who may identify themselves as homosexual and I felt that not labeling these images would force us as a society to question what it is to be homosexual." No Honor Code violation » On Dec. 5, the exhibit came down on orders from the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications to the dismay of gay students who sat for Wiltbank.

"The project wasn't promoting homosexuality," says English major Tommy Johnson. "It was promoting understanding of a group that doesn't have a lot of understanding in the Mormon power structure."

University officials declined to discuss the incident, attributing the take-down order to a "miscommunication" between arts dean Stephen Jones and faculty. Arts faculty contacted by the Tribune declined to speak on the record; while Wiltbank's professor, Paul Adams, also declined comment.

Administrators say the exhibit did not violate the university's Honor Code, which obligates students to abide by strict moral standards.

Last year, BYU sharpened its position on homosexuality to make it clear that same-sex attraction does not run afoul of the code, although acting on it does. Homosexual behavior and advocacy therefore constitute violations, according to university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.

"However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity," Jenkins wrote in response to e-mail queries. "Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings. Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable."

Bastian takes issue with the idea that gays should deny themselves one of the great comforts of life to remain in the good graces of the church.

"It's really unfair and ridiculous to say gay people are supposed to remain celibate," he said. "You get to live half a life? They are so determined to punish people who don't fit in their box."

Before his show, Wiltbank says he showed the portraits to arts faculty to ensure their support. He did exclude one portrait pairing that could be seen as an Honor Code violation because it depicted a friend's father who lives in a gay relationship.

In the ensuing hubbub, Wiltbank was unnerved that his exhibit upstaged the good work of his classmates, such as portraits of Mexican immigrants who held professional jobs in their homeland. Another series paired photos of natural objects, such as mushrooms and poppies, with the contraband they produce.

Still, Wiltbank sees the outcome as a "win-win" in that his ideas were aired, and BYU showed it isn't the fortress of bigotry and homophobia painted by critics.

"I can't tell you how may people have seen [the portraits]," says Wiltbank, who intends to move to New York City after graduation. "I thank BYU for that. I got the message out much farther than I could have on my own. I like that they are being used to open dialogue."

Icing Over a Secret Pain

Saturday night I watched the lifetime premiere of "Prayer's For Bobby." It was far more of an emotional experience than I expected for so many reasons. Like Bobby, I was really close to my parents. I had a good relationship with my dad, and he was far from absent, but I related more to my mom. (It's funny because I probably act more like my dad). I saw patterns in the way Bobby talked with his mom and the way I talked with my mom. And like Bobby, I was outwardly a scriptorian and spiritual guru who inwardly hid shame and guilt, in part relating to homosexuality. When my parents discovered that I was gay, they told me that I wasn't really gay and that I could overcome temptations with faith. This was because we wanted to be together in Heaven. I sought out therapy on my own, but, like Bobby, found that same gender attractions don't go away.

Certainly all of these similarities could also be shared with half of my readership here, because I think a lot of this stems from growing up gay in a religious home. I think it was actually one other similarity, though, that affected me the most. Bobby jumped off a highway overpass to kill himself, which would have been how I would have taken my life.

Near my house there was a quiet backstreet that ran over the freeway. It was called Duffy Lane. When life would seem unbearable, I would think about that overpass and what would happen if I jumped off of it. I would imagine my funeral. I would imagine people reading the letter I would leave, outing myself to the world as the horrible monster I really was- the monster they never knew. It was a morbid thought, but fortunately in high school my pain was never more powerful than my fear of death, and I never really considered suicide.

Right before my mission was a different story. I was haunted by something horrible that I had done years prior but that hadn't been resolved. Leaving on my mission without resolving it felt like damnation. Furthermore, despite a year of "gender affirmative" therapy, I was still gay. Between the two, I was overwhelmed with shame. The shame was only compounded by going to the temple, which made me feel extremely hypocritical. One night after an argument with my mom, I left my house so abruptly I started riding my bike barefoot towards Duffy Lane. The spikes on the pedal were tearing into my skin. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to teach my mom a lesson. I wanted to show her what she was doing to me.

At some point I stopped, though, and called my ex-girlfriend. She talked me down. I hadn't come out to her yet, but deep down she knew I was gay. That's not what we talked about though. She just told me it'd be ok. In 2 weeks I would be away from my family and on my own and things would be ok.

Four months later I was a missionary. My Mission President called to say that he had learned about things I'd done that hadn't been resolved. Again the shame came back. He told me he'd meet with me the next day. All night long I was tortured with shame and with dread. I went outside, tempted to take the car and drive to a nearby bridge. I figured I could just drive the car off the bridge and it would seem like an accident. Fortunately I didn't. I think mostly because I was afraid of leaving my companion (that would have been a horrible sin!). In the morning, I met with the President, and life went on. I finished my mission, and I learned how to deal with shame and to love myself.

As I look back, I wonder if jumping off Duffy Lane would have changed my mom. Obviously it would have changed her, but I'll never know if it would have turned her into a Mary Griffith. Maybe it would have, maybe not. Either way, I am grateful that I didn't do it. I think in the long run, I can do more good for this world by overcoming my problems and by being happy and in turn showing others how to be happy. I can do more to change my mom by letting her see how happy I am now, rather than ending my life in depression.

If you have a Duffy Lane, please don't jump. Instead, lets try to improve the world with our lives, and let's improve ourselves.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sweet Land of Liberty

"I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval upon it" (Ezra Taft Benson).

Latter-day Saints here at BYU speak reverently and frequently of the divinely inspired Constitution of the United States. Often they cite the hundreds of other nations who have mimicked or looked towards the US constitution for inspiration for their own. Certainly authorities of the Church that owns BYU as well as BYU's leaders have confirmed this stance. It is even embedded in Latter-day Saint scripture in which God says, "I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose" (Doctrine and Covenants 101:80).

If BYU administrators and students feel that the Constitution is inspired by God and is a role model for others to follow, then why does BYU's mission statement, Honor Code, or policy not adapt the same principles embodied by that document?

"I think Americans all look upon the Bill of Rights as part of the inspired work of the Founding Fathers," said former BYU president Dallin H. Oaks, "I have always felt that the United States Constitution’s closest approach to scriptural stature is in the phrasing of our Bill of Rights. . . I also see scriptural stature in the concept and wording of the freedoms of speech and press, the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, the requirements that there must be probable cause for an arrest and that accused persons must have a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, and the guarantee that a person will not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. President Ezra Taft Benson has said, 'Reason, necessity, tradition, and religious conviction all lead me to accept the divine origin of these rights.'" These concepts, which Elder Oaks says approach scriptural stature, are absent from BYU policy.

1. The Freedoms of Religion, Speech, and Press
The Bill of Rights states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Compare that to BYU policy, which states:

  • "[M]embers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [must], have done their duty in the Church, attended meetings, and abided by the rules and standards of the Church." (Relationship Between Campus Officials and Ecclesiastical Officers)
  • "The Brigham Young University Board of Trustees policy mandates that a student is ineligible to attend BYU upon . . . disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." (Relationship Between Campus Officials and Ecclesiastical Officers)
  • Speech or writing is forbidden if it "contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental Church doctrine or policy; deliberately attacks or derides the Church or its general leaders" (BYU's Academic Freedom Policy)
  • "BYU faculty, staff, and students should avoid swearing in speech and writing; coarse expressions derived from profanity; displaying of pictures, posters, and other forms of expressions which are crude or suggestive; and expressions that depend upon allusions to crudity for effect." (Honor Code)
  • "advocacy of homosexual behavior [is] inappropriate and violate[s] the Honor Code. . . Advocacy includes . . . promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable." (Honor Code) In other words, you can't write or say anything that promotes gay marriage or the legitimizing of gay relationships. This forbids students from protesting BYU's treatment of homosexuals.
How can a President of BYU state that he values a document that guarantees religious freedom and the freedom of speech and press when his own policy at his institution inhibits the free practice of religion and the freedom of speech and press?

2. Security Against Unreasonable Search/Seizure & Probable Cause
The Bill of Rights states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. . . "

Compare that to BYU policy:
  • "Generally, the university will follow the procedural guidelines as outlined in this document. However, the procedures set forth in this document are merely guidelines and are not intended to create any contractual obligations or expectations. The university reserves the right, at its discretion, to vary from these procedures according to the circumstances of individual matters" (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process)
  • "The university, at its discretion, may choose to investigate reported or suspected Honor Code violations. . . Anyone may refer a student to the Honor Code Office for reported violation(s) of the Honor Code, whether the alleged conduct occurred on or off campus. . . the HCO reserves the right, in its discretion, to proceed with an investigation based on a anonymous report." (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process)
  • "When there are significant discrepancies or contradictions between the supporting information and the student's response, the HCO will attempt to ascertain the truth and exercise reasonable discretion, including further investigation if practicable. No attempt will be made to apply technical rules of evidence. In general, any information, whether oral or documentary, which is considered to be relevant will be received and reviewed, subject to the reasonable discretion of the HCO." (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process)
In other words, students may be investigated by the Honor Code office based on accusations of hearsay. The evidence doesn't have to be credible. The Honor Code Office retains all rights to search for evidence or witness against its students with very few limits.

3. The Right to a Fair and Speedy Trial & Due Process
The Bill of Rights states, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."

Compare this to BYU Policy:
  • "the Honor Code Office and the university will reasonably strive to keep the names of witnesses confidential" (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process). In other words, the accused does not have the right to face his accuser or even know who has accused him.
  • "Because the Review process is intended to be educational and not adversarial, attorneys are not allowed to attend or represent . . . the affected student" (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process). In other words, there is no right to the "Assistance of Counsel for his defense."
  • "After a violation report is received, the HCO will (i) analyze the violation report and relevant evidence, (ii) conduct an investigation and interview the student and any witnesses or other persons having information about the student and/or the allegations as the HCO deems appropriate, (iii) notify the student in writing of the alleged violation(s) of the Honor Code if it appears that an Honor Code violation has occurred,(iv) encourage the student to respond, preferably in writing, to the allegations and relevant evidence, (v) assess the credibility of the witnesses and strength of the evidence, and (vi) prepare a decision and recommended course of action." (Honor Code Investigation and Administrative Review Process). This process is not public, and the accused is not provided with any sort of "assistance of counsel" during his or her investigation.
Though those who wrote and those who revise BYU's policy believe that the Bill of Rights was divinely inspired and even approaches scripture, they haven't included those inspiriting principles and rights into that policy. I wonder why, and I wonder if this will ever change.

For the record, this is not a criticism of the Honor Code or the Church. I am simply analyzing what could be viewed as an inconstancy for the purpose of frank and open discussion.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Then You Go And Cut Me Down

I love this comic so much because it describes a very real awkwardness in a lighthearted way. There is an awkwardness in what the Church currently offers homosexuals. If you strip away all the emotion of prop 8 and all the personal turmoil and history you may have and just look at what the Church offers to those that are already living a gay lifestyle, its kinda funny. We talk so much about gays who grow up in the Church and who must make extensive sacrifices--but what of those who grow up as Unitarians in LA, fall in love and marry in Boston, and raise a family there? What about those good people, established in their homes and families, who answer the door and find two Mormon missionaries?

To be baptized, they would need to get divorced. Who takes the kid(s)? If they believed in the Church, but decided not to get divorced, then they are told they will be angelic, but ministering, servants of others whose marriage is more holy than theirs. How awkward is that? No wonder the Church took such a strong stance on proposition 8. The more secure, stable, and common gay families become, the more awkward and obvious this situation is.

I think then, that it is fair to say that the Church doesn't want to recruit these gay families. The Church doesn't want them to join the Church. It's message is certainly not enticing to them, and the process to join is not possible without destroying their family.

It reminds me of something an old man in Glendale told me while I was on my mission. He said that when he was a missionary in the 60's, he was taught not to teach African Americans because they couldn't hold the priesthood or go to the temple and it wasn't time to bring them the gospel yet. He was taught that if a black man or woman answered the door, he was to say, "Oh excuse me, I thought this was the Jone's house," and the person at the door would smile and say, "Oh no, they live three doors down." There weren't really Jone's three doors down, but this was the way to avoid a conflict or awkward situation.

Is this how missionaries in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Canada, Spain, etc. are trained now in relation to gay families? I can really understand why the Church would be so afraid of gay marriage. And yet, I can also see how the Church has really fenced itself into a corner on this one. At some point, gay marriage will be established in major places of the world, and the Church will be missing a major group of people that it could proselyte to. There will be a large group of people to whom the Church will not be able to bring its gospel.

But that's just it. All the evidence says that the Church doesn't want to bring the gospel to those people. It's an interesting train of thought to consider. And it does beg the question, what are the implications of this thought on gays who grow up in the Church? Does the Church want gay members at all?