by Joel McDonald
Matt Easton just graduated from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University. He did so as the Political Science Valedictorian. As such, he delivered a speech and came out as gay to all his fellow graduates, those attending the commencement, and shared it on YouTube.
Matt began his speech by congratulating everyone who “tackled” challenges in their time at BYU. “Congratulations to those who at some point felt alone, uncertain, or afraid while here; to those of us who have struggled with our faith; and to those who have strengthened it. Congratulations to my siblings of color, my LGBTQ friends, to students who are walking with mental illness, to all of those who have constantly stood in the face of adversity to make our campus better for future generations. You are seen. You are loved.”
“In the Book of Mormon, Enos is described as having a soul hunger, of crying out to the Lord in mighty prayer and supplication. As I’m sure many of you have felt, I recall countless times that here at ‘the Y’ that I battled and fought in prayer with my Maker. It was in these quiet moments of pain and confusion that I felt another triumph: That of coming to terms, not with who I thought I should be, but who the Lord has made me to be. As such, I stand before my family, friends, and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God.”
At this point in his speech, Matt had to pause for the applause from commencement attendees to settle down. He then continued saying, “I am not broken. I am loved and important in the plan of our great Creator. Each of us are.”
“Four years ago, it would have been impossible for me to imagine that I would come out to my entire college,” Matt said. “It is a phenomenal feeling, and is a victory for me in of itself.”
The video of Matt’s speech is making the rounds in LGBTQ Mormon circles on social media. In the Facebook group for Affirmation Millennials, Affirmation President Nathan Kitchen commented with, “It is amazing that just 54 years earlier Ernest Wilkinson, president of BYU, stood before the student body and said directly to students who were homosexual: ‘May I suggest you leave the University immediately…we do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.”
Wilkinson’s comments in 1965 weren’t just an expression of his individual opinion. It was the policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who owns Brigham Young University, not to admit to or keep homosexual students at BYU. It wasn’t until 1973 that this prohibition was lifted, but only for those who had demonstrated repentance of their homosexuality. For many decades, officials at BYU actively sought out and investigated through dubious and intrusive methods those suspected of being homosexuals. In 1990, a prohibition against “any behaviors that indicate homosexual conduct, including those not sexual in nature” was added to the school’s honor code. This language was removed in 2007 and replaced with language stating that BYU would “respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or attraction,” and that “same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue.” However, “homosexual behavior” in the code is broadly defined as “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Within the past month, BYU students recently held demonstrations in an effort to reform the honor code and its enforcement. An Instagram account, @honorcodestories, was launched to allow current and former BYU students to share their experience with the honor code anonymously. Many of these stories are from LGBTQ students. An online petition in support of reforms now has over 23,000 signatures. Much of this effort has been organized by a group called Restore Honor who says their goal is “to change the way the current Honor Code Office is run, not the Honor Code itself. We want more transparency from the Honor Code Office. We want equality and empowerment for all students. We want to rid BYU of a finger pointing culture and turn it more towards a culture of acceptance of everyone.”
“Currently at school, we finally said it’s O.K. for you to be gay, as long as you don’t have a relationship. I think that’s morally repugnant,” said Grant Frazier, 18, a freshman involved with Restore Honor B.Y.U. “Threatening a student’s academic future because they are having a healthy relationship with someone they’re attracted to is wrong.”
It’s with this history and current landscape of both LDS Church and BYU policies regarding LGBTQ members and students that make Matt Easton’s speech so remarkable and refreshing. In some future time coming out may be unnecessary in a world where one’s sexual orientation and gender identity is never assumed. Today, coming out is still a revolutionary act, especially in spaces where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people have faced, or continue to face, ignorance and discrimination.
Congratulations to Matt, and all those graduating in this season and setting out to continue to change the world. You’re off to a great start.