History of BYU & homosexuality



Although the Brigham Young University community today hosts a diverse opinion on the matter of homosexuality, BYU’s history of dealing with its gay students has been a long, controversial journey.

While BYU has since changed its policies regarding homosexuals, its actions decades ago still resonate with people today.

In 1965, BYU President Ernest Wilkinson gave a devotional talk in response to the increasingly liberal atmosphere of the 1960s.

In reference to homosexuals Wilkinson said, “Nor do we intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you has this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the University immediately after this assembly…we do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.”

This public statement spurred BYU administration into a phase from 1967 to 1969 where certain administrators conducted searches to find and expel BYU students suspected of homosexual behavior, in what some refer to as the “BYU Witch Hunts.”

Students were encouraged, as they are today, to seek out other students suspected of disobeying the Honor Code and to turn each other in. Detailed files were kept on students suspected   of   homosexuality, according to Connell O’Donovan’s A Revised History of Homosexuality and Mormonism. In this same text, O’Donovan reports that some students who were   caught faced the ultimatum of providing names of other gay students or expulsion from school.

Most controversial of all, however, was BYU’s employment of electric shock therapy in cases of its gay students.

In 1976, Professor Max Ford McBride led 22 experimental sessions involving 17 male homosexual BYU students with the purpose of converting students from gay to heterosexual, according to Max Ford McBride in Effect of visual stimuli in electric shock aversion therapy.

According to McBride, students came in a few times a week for 50 minutes at a time as an alternative to expulsion from BYU for their homosexual behavior.

The therapy involved explicit pornographic slides of both men and women. If the slides depicting naked men aroused the gay student, the experiment supervisor delivered painful electric currents through the electrodes directly attached to the student’s body, including the genitals. The supervisor then encouraged the male student to feel arousal when being shown the pornographic slides of naked women, reports McBride.

The dangerous nature of this experiment was no secret; students signed a release form stating, “These procedures will likely produce a great deal of discomfort; and tissue or organ damage could result.  I also witness the fact that the visual, auditory and other sensory modality stimuli could be construed to be socially or morally offensive” (McBride).

There is no evidence that the experiment achieved its desired goal.

Jonathan* is a Provo resident who had two close friends who both went through the aversion therapy at BYU. One of his friends eventually ended up taking his own life years later. Jonathan believes that the aversion therapy “was a large part of his suicide.”

“Aversion therapy messed with your sexuality forever,” he said. “The therapy only made them not look at men, and they still couldn’t look at women.”

BYU’s official statement on its history with these controversial experiments states the following:

“In the late 1970s, one professor did study the effects of aversion therapy utilizing electric shock. At that time, such techniques were being studied at other universities and institutions.  Studies of this type have not taken place at the university since then.”

Sam Wolfe, a lawyer at Southern Poverty Law Center who works to alleviate the harm of conversion therapy in Utah, believes that there is still leftover damage that BYU has the responsibility to repair.

“This type of torture is horrendous even if it was in the ‘70s,” Wolfe said. “There really should be a healing, some sort   of   acknowledgement   that   this hurt people. There has to be some sort of truth and reconciliation that ‘this was wrong; we’re sorry, and let’s all do better.’”

Such events stand in a certain degree of contrast to BYU’s current climate towards its homosexual students.

In 2007, BYU administration responded to students’ questions for clarification regarding the policy in regards to BYU’s gay population.

What formerly read:

“Advocacy of a homosexual lifestyle (whether implied or explicit) or any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature, are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code.
“Violations of the Honor Code may result in actions up to and including separation from the University.”


“Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation 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.
“One’s sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior or advocacy of homosexual behavior are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code. 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.”

Understanding Same Gender Attraction, also known as USGA, is a club founded in 2010 by BYU students who wanted to give gay students an opportunity to meet in the open and discuss issues.

Within a year the group grew from five initial members to 40-60 attendees each meeting.

In 2012, many of the group’s members participated in “It Gets Better at Brigham Young University,” a number of short features released on YouTube in which BYU students express their thoughts as gay students at BYU. Within weeks each video had collected hundreds of thousands of views, and the word of USGA spread further. Now the club sees up to 100 attendees in a single session.

These videos further report that of BYU’s 1,800 known gay students, 74 percent have contemplated suicide and 24 percent have actually attempted.

USGA vice president and BYU student Adam White believes that there is an air of increased optimism about BYU regarding homosexuality with these recent developments.

“It has been a very positive experience,” White said. “People have been very positive and affirming. USGA has brought people to a place where they can talk. It’s becoming more of a normal thing to talk about the issue.”

The increase of notoriety and attendance has led BYU student Samuel Elmer to set out to start BYU Lighthouse.

Elmer disagrees with what he calls “the affirming nature of USGA” and envisions a group that strictly upholds a celibate lifestyle for gay students as the correct path.

“My focus is to give students another perspective on this and to raise awareness that the lifestyle is not the only path to take,” Elmer said. “The club will offer tools and principles to help [homosexual students] in their own life, and separate attraction from the sins.”

While BYU Lighthouse is not an official sponsor of conversion therapy, Elmer hopes that the club will “help students diminish their same gender attraction.”

In these past few years especially, BYU has developed into a university that hosts diverse opinions on the matter of homosexuality. Whether one idea is more persuasive than the other, people of each opinion can be found all around campus. Current resources for homosexual students that can be found at Brigham Young University prove that BYU has moved on from its methods of long ago. ■

*The interviewee requested that his real name not be used.



  1. I never knew about this history of shock therapy, but frankly it’s revolting. Members may have wished (and possibly still wish) for some way to make homosexuals revert to heterosexuality and conform to long-held beliefs regarding gender identity and sexuality, but until the church can find a way to make homosexuality and a healthy homosexual lifestyle fit with any of its doctrines, claiming that the church can offer the same kind of happiness to homosexuals as it offers for romantically and sexually fulfilled heterosexual couples will be problematic and divisive within the church for years to come. Celibacy is a nice way to stick to old ideas of gender identity, but physical intimacy has always been taught and celebrated in the church as the pinnacle of a chaste relationship that has led to marriage; accepting a homosexual form of this relationship would be a start down the right path.

    • The Church has never and will never change its doctrines on marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman. May I refer you to The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I think it says it a lot better than I can. Read it sometime.

      • When I was your age, I also thought the same thing about blacks. I even remember when Joseph Fielding Smith said that man would never be able to reach the moon. I remember when the temple ceremonies were changed in 1990. I remember when the “I am a Mormon” on the internet paid for with tithing dollars didn’t exist. If you think the church’s stance on homosexuality won’t change either, you’re in deep, deep denial.

      • That’s right, the church has never changed it’s stance on marriage, just ask my five mothers.

      • Never say never, Jason. Believe it or not, doctrine, teachings, policy, and practices have changed dramatically over the Church’s history. While I agree that a shift on the Church’s definition of marriage is highly unlikely, I would never discout wholesale the possibility of a change.

      • Andrea /

        The proclamation isn’t actually officially church doctrine. It’s church policy, in the same way that modesty is a policy, not a doctrine. Ergo, modesty standards have changed, policies have changed in the past. I’m not closed off to the idea that the same thing could happen.

      • >The Church has never and will never change its doctrines on marriage.

        The Church has repeatedly changed its doctrines on marriage. First polygamy was not allowed. Then polygamy was allowed and regarded as a core element of the Gospel. Then polygamy was formally forbidden but secretly allowed. Then by the early 1900s it was entirely forbidden.

        I anticipate that the LDS Church will eventually, grudgingly, drop its active opposition to gay marriage but won’t allow gay ceremonies in temples or chapels … not for a few generations, anyway.

        >Marriage is between a man and a woman.

        Did you know that in the late 1800s, the LDS Church took its battle to defend polygamy to the Supreme Court?

        The Supreme Court said ‘no you can’t haz’ and upheld the 1887 disincorporation of the LDS Church as a legal entity under the Edmunds-Tucker Act. A few months after this ruling, mainly to prevent the Feds seizing additional LDS property such as real estate, the 1890 polygamy manifesto was proclaimed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LDS_Church_v._United_States

        According to one line of thought, the current LDS Church is literally not the same church that Joseph Smith established, since it was in legal limbo for a few years as the lawsuit wound its way through the courts. not the

  2. Thank you for publishing this. BYU students have a right to know about what goes on (or has gone on) at their university.

    • For those who are interested, McBride’s thesis is available. Feel free to contact me for a copy.

      Surprisingly, the article failed to point out the Honor Code change that took place quietly in January 2011. Before:

      “Homosexual behavior or advocacy of homosexual behavior are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code. 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.”

      “One’s stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. 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.”

      The prohibition against promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable was removed with no formal explanation. I for one was quite glad for the timely change (my April 2011 graduation was in question as a result of my BYU Bookstore sell-out, Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective, http://www.scribd.com/doc/44716106/homosexuality-a-straight-byu-student-s-perspective). It is significant that the only Honor Code changes in the last decade were related to homosexuality and progressive in the direction of greater safety for (1) LGBT students, (2) LGBT allies, and (3) homosexuality dialogue.

  3. daniel parkinson /

    Hey you cool Student Review guys….Be careful. You may not remember this but a long time ago the predecessor to The Student Review which was called 7th East Press was shut down because of an article about homosexuality at BYU. I wouldn’t want history to repeat itself. Just sayin’ :)

  4. I’m a student at the U and sometimes I get sent articles from this site from friends, so I apologize if I seem like I’m lurking. I must say that I continue to be really impressed by the student’s who write for this site.I love their initiative to address issues such as this and not shy away or sweep under the rug BYU’s rocky relationship with it’s gay students. The church has come a long way but I feel it still has a lot more to catch up on. The new mentality of “we’re going to love you and support you while you struggle with this issue” is a big improvement from the days demonizing and condemnation, but unfortunately it still fails to recognize the heart of the issue.
    The problem with this new mentality of “love and support” for gay people is that, while it is heartfelt, it continues to perpetuate the notion that if you’re gay that makes you inferior, that there’s something wrong with you, and you’ll never be fulfilled like the rest of us. It doesn’t matter how much love and support the church offers, so long as they keep acting like gay relationships have no value then their gay members will continue to feel inferior and worthless. If you stop treating homosexuality as something to be “suffered through” than it will magically stop being so! It’s a funny paradox. Like Jace mentioned above me, until the church implements into the doctrine a path where gay folks can feel on par with straight folks, nothing is going to change the ostracizing and sense of inferiority that gay members continue to feel.

  5. Temple University (PA stet institution) was conducting aversion (shock therapy) at least as late as 1971 per their record for homosexuality. Also the University of Washington was using aversion therapy in the 1980′s though this. there is also an institute up in washington that uses aversion therapy for alcoholics.

    The APA didn’t drop homosexuality from the DSM 1973. BYU seems to have trailed slightly.

    • Corey Wozniak /

      Ryan, thanks for bringing this up. I think that sometimes it is implied that BYU was in some weird scientific fringe group. Nearly every respected university institution was practicing it at some time. See, for example, this article in the Atlantic which details the long, sad history of sexual reorientation therapy which BYU was certainly not the only participant: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/californias-historic-move-to-ban-gay-conversion-therapy/261755/

      • It’s true that other institutions made use of shock therapy in an attempt to reorient sexual behavior. But pointing to other institutions as a way to deflect responsibility and minimize accountability is not perhaps the most effective way to respond to the past.

      • ExMoHoMoDon /

        Other institutions don’t belong to a Church which claims to be the sole representative of God…..just sayin’

  6. Great article SR! Keep it up.This is the first time I have heard about Lighthouse. I would have thought that Evergreen would have had a BYU student chapter. Does anyone know how many people are attending Lighthouse?

    • Allie Rae Treharne /


      Thanks for your comments. As of now, the founder of the BYU Lighthouse club may still be getting things in order with BYU, so I’m not sure if it’s officially in sway yet. From what he told me though it should be by next semester.

  7. The fact that the author requested that his/her name not be used should still be a good sign that this issue is still a hotbed issue, and writers of such informative articles are still sufficiently nervous to hide their identities.

    • My bad…. it was the interviewee, rather than the author, who withheld his name.

  8. Loren Fay /

    It is good when these historical items appear so the newer readers keep up on what a previous generation had to endure to be true to themselves… I was at BYU in the 1970s an knew the LDS were totally against gays and any other kind of lifestyle that did not fit into the plan of salvation as the LDS see it to be… When I got closer to my 40s, I finally came out and accepted my orientation, eventually resigning from the church… I became an Affirmation member and have kept in touch over the years whit any progress made in the LDS world… I have about 30+ LDS relatives in three branches of the family and I do the family history research and do not mind if they use the names for temple work… My personal vision sees all kinds of couples and families as part of the Plan of Salvation, just as they appear in real life here on earth and that does not seem confusing to me at all… wishing all a happy holiday season and all a happy 2013!

  9. ExMoHoMoDon /

    I was one of the subjects of the McBride study, and I published my experience in ‘Peculiar People–Mormons and Same Sex Orientation,’ Schow. After I left BYU, through the early eighties, BYU denied and lied–they officially claimed that aversion therapy had never happened. I supplied a reporter with a copy of the dissertation ‘Use of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy,’ BYU, 1976, McBride, and immediately BYU came clean, claiming a ‘misunderstanding’. I and others have threatened to sue if BYU repeats its lies–as hiding a dissertation is in violation of BYU’s accreditation contract. I and my lawyer are just waiting for the day….

    • Thank you very much for your support ExMoHoMoDon. I hope that day will come and I and my lawyer will sue them too…Church has to change no matter what and they are changing so slowly. Its better than nothing…


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