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.