Last weekend, Matt Easton came out as a “gay son of God” in his valedictorian speech at Brigham Young University’s (BYU) graduation ceremony. A video of his coming out went viral, receiving coverage by the national and international press. It might seem that Easton’s “coming out” speech is a tableau of one marginal, courageous voice standing up to a powerful institution. After all, BYU is the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called LDS or Mormons), widely known for its strong stance against non-heterosexuality. BYU’s honor code prohibits “homosexual behavior” because it does not conform to the “law of chastity,” although “same-gender attraction” is not subject to discipline. This policy echoes the Church’s teaching that homosexual feelings are not a sin but acting on those feelings through homoerotic or homosexual acts is sinful. The honor code policy has contributed to the Princeton Review’s ranking of BYU as the second most “LGBTQ-Unfriendly” university in the nation.
Easton’s speech was courageous considering the pulpit from which it was given, but its status as an act of resistance against the institution is complicated. Not only was the speech submitted beforehand to university administrators for approval, but BYU’s honor code currently allows students to openly identify as gay. Still, Easton’s coming out speech should be seen as one voice among a growing chorus within the LDS Church that asserts the presence, worth, and legitimacy of LGBTQ persons within its ranks. In this sense, Easton and his LGBTQ peers make up a sort of “prophetic cohort” who seem to be changing the Church’s culture.
Neither Easton nor his LGBTQ coreligionists would likely characterize themselves as “prophetic.” Most Latter-day Saints associate “prophetic” with Church leaders’ prohibitions against LGBTQ acts. The LDS conception of the prophetic is more informed by its connection to the institutional functions of the Church than by biblical notions of an Amos-like figure who stands outside established institutions to call them to repentance. In the Mormon religious imaginary, the prophetic signals a dichotomy between the divinely-inspired Church and “the world,” which, in premillennialist fashion, is believed to be increasingly corrupt and wayward. As president of the Church, the prophet stands as a “watchman on the tower” to warn the world, especially those within the Church, against the moral dangers and pitfalls that people on the ground are unable to see.
This institutionalized, perhaps even domesticated, prophetic channel has been the platform from which LDS leaders have asserted their opposition to various non-heterosexual lifestyles. They teach that such lifestyles undermine the health and stability of the traditional family unit—the unit, they claim, by which spiritual prosperity in this life and exaltation in the next are achieved. For them, a married heterosexual couple who raises their children in a gospel-centered home is essential to participation in God’s salvific plan for them and the world.
Easton and his Mormon peers have been taught from a young age to “follow the prophet,” but they have also been taught they can receive guidance directly from God regarding the most important aspects of their personal lives. In his valedictorian speech, Easton used the language of what Latter-day Saints call “personal revelation” when he described his hard-won insight—gained through battling with God in personal prayer—that he was created as gay and is still loved by God. Easton’s testimony thus illustrates a tension, at times productive and at other times highly fraught, that runs through LDS teachings about whether to prioritize prophetic revelation that comes through the institution or the personal, immediate revelation given to the individual. Given this tension and the way it often functions as a release valve of sorts for those frustrated with the institution, the implication of Easton’s coming out speech is not exactly a rejection of following the prophet per se. Rather, those who identify as LGBTQ but decide to remain within the Church are driven less to resist the prophet’s counsel as such than to carve out a space within the community that reconciles their commitment to Church teachings with their understanding and experience that LGBTQ identities are not simply matters of choice.
Still, given the presumed loyalty of his audience to the prophet’s teachings, Easton expected a cold reception at BYU, yet his coming out was received with warm support, which surprised him as well as various commentators. We shouldn’t write this warm reception off as an enigma, however, but rather as evidence of the larger and longer work of LGBTQ advocacy in the Church. Indeed, for a number of years now, LGBTQ Mormons have been telling their stories in public venues—through social media, interviews, even on a website hosted by the Church itself—and in private conversations. Many have described their agony when they realized they do not fit the heterosexual mold promoted by Church culture; they often tell troubling narratives of ill-treatment by family, congregations, and friends. In addition, since a November 2015 Church policy which labeled couples in same-sex marriages as apostates and prohibited their children from Church ordinances, advocates have been working to raise awareness about a potential mental health crisis among LDS youth who identify as LGBTQ. These advocates particularly note a rise in suicide rates in Utah in the months following the policy announcement. LGTBQ advocacy also became prominent through celebrity voices like Dan Reynolds, the Mormon lead singer for the band Imagine Dragons, who organized the Love Loud music festival in Utah to raise money for LGBTQ advocacy groups and has publicly condemned anti-LGBTQ teachings at music award ceremonies, on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and in a Sundance Film Festival documentary.
These efforts to raise awareness seem to be having an effect on the rank and file members of the Church, illustrated by the crowd who cheered Easton’s coming out. And these efforts and narratives also seem to be having an effect on the men who hold the strings of power for the Church. In April 2019, Church leadership reversed the November 2015 policy, stating concern about “hate and contention” along with a desire to help increase “more understanding, compassion, and love.” This reversal appears to be an instantiation of what LDS scholar Gregory Prince has called “trickle-up revelation,” in which activity at the grassroots level filters up through the ranks of Church leadership and eventually has an impact on policies and doctrines. The moral quality of these grassroots efforts, such as Easton’s coming out speech, seems to resonate with a Mormon audience receptive to empathetic appeals, which is not surprising given that Latter-day Saints still keenly remember their own people’s suffering at the hands of past persecutors. Thus, a cohort of prophetic voices seems to be doing real work within contemporary Mormonism on LGBTQ issues. They may not be recognized by Latter-day Saints as “prophetic” in the traditional Mormon sense, but we should nonetheless understand their grassroots efforts and their voices as nothing short of prophetic, receiving and offering a message with both divine power and moral import.
Image: Matt Easton delivers the valedictorian speech for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences at BYU on Friday, April 26.
|Author, Elizabeth Brocious, is a PhD student at the Divinity School. She studies the history of Christian thought and Religions in America.|
Gregory A. Prince, Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences: Gay Rights and the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2019).
Gregory A. Prince, “Organizational and Doctrinal Change in Prophetic Religious Tradition,” in Voices for Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Mormon Feminism, eds. Gordon Shepherd, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and Gary Shepherd (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015).