It isn’t easy being the only openly LGBTQ athlete at Brigham Young University. Just ask track and cross-country runner Emma Gee.
Last year, Gee made history when she came out as bisexual through an article in OutSports. At that point, she was already out to her family, her friends, and certain people within the university. But being openly LGBTQ at a school that treats same-sex attraction as “the urge to sin” made it difficult for Gee and her LGBTQ classmates to have their voices heard. So, she took her story public.
“The only reason I came out so publicly at BYU was just to remind people that ‘Hey, we’re here. There are LGBTQ people here.’ I recognize that as an athlete that people might pay more attention to that,” Gee said. “It got to the point at the end of last year with my diversity and inclusion work that I felt the school was lip-servicing diversity and inclusion but they weren’t really enacting the change that I was looking for and that other people in the community were looking for at BYU. So, I stopped sharing my story within the school to administrators and I decided to make it more public in the hopes that the outside attention would be a reminder to the school of what a big deal this is and that this is something that they need to address.”
Gee wasn’t the only one to share her story. Matt Easton, BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, made national headlines when he came out as gay during a speech at graduation. And Charlie Bird, who serves as the BYU mascot, came out as gay after a video of him dancing went viral.
“It was getting to a place where sharing our story within BYU wasn’t really creating the change we wanted,” Gee said. “So, sharing it with everyone else was kind of the next step.”
But change is hard to measure at BYU. Gee knows that administrators are talking about her story and the stories of other LGBTQ students that have garnered attention. But is it making life better for LGBTQ students at BYU? That’s a more difficult question to answer.
As a student athlete, Gee spends most of her time at BYU around her coach and her teammates. Thankfully, she knew early on that her coach wasn’t homophobic. She had come to BYU from California and spoke about LGBTQ people being a regular part of her life. For Gee, it was a huge relief to know that one of the most powerful people in her life would be an ally.
“When I was in the process of considering coming out, it was really comforting to know that at least from my coach, the woman that had a lot of control over my life, that she wasn’t homophobic. And that she wasn’t going to be a problem for me. And that she was gonna be supportive of me. And between us, ultimately, what matters most is that I can perform as a runner,” Gee said. “It was a huge deal. And honestly, that’s the privilege that I’ve had to come out within BYU athletics is that my coach isn’t homophobic. And she is pretty educated about the LGBTQ community.”
Her teammates were a slightly different story. A lot of them came from more sheltered communities and weren’t as exposed to the LGBTQ community. But Gee had been running with these girls for three or four years by the time she came out. She knew that they loved her and supported her. In some ways, Gee’s experience with her teammates reflects the attitudes of the larger student body at BYU. She says that most of the students on campus don’t really care if you’re LGBTQ or not. But they don’t really understand the community.
“The majority of students on BYU’s campus want to be kind with everyone and they’re pretty accepting,” Gee said. “I think that’s just kind of the generation that’s coming into college right now. They’re more connected with the world, so they don’t really care as much. I think there’s a large portion of the student body that’s just uncultured when it comes to LGBTQ individuals and everything that comes with that. So, I think a lot of what is said… people just kind of don’t know. Which is why I think it’s important to educate.”
The movement towards equality for LGBTQ people in America has put both BYU and the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-Day Saints in a difficult position. Even in Salt Lake City, there are rainbow flags waving proudly during Pride Month. When I went to Rio Tinto Stadium in June 2019, they were heavily promoting the Pride Night games for both Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals. They had a special ticket deal if you went to both games and the store was flooded with rainbow merchandise. Those sort of promotions and events have an impact. And they show how equality is starting to push into the heart of LDS territory.
There is a new generation of LDS members coming of age right now, and they mostly don't have an issue with the LGBTQ community. But the doctrine and practices of the church are often either vague or openly discriminatory. Will they evolve to meet the next generation? Or is that kind of change too much to hope for?
At BYU, diversity and inclusion initiatives are often more about appearing tolerant than about actual change. And one of the motivations behind that change in appearance is their desire to be part of a bigger athletic conference.
“From the beginning, the history of diversity and inclusion and the LGBTQ stuff at BYU originated from the fact that BYU wasn’t accepted into a bigger athletic conference because we had discriminatory policies. And that really was the instigator for them getting involved in the NCAA diversity inclusion work,” Gee said. “A lot of the movement you’ve seen at BYU in the past four years stems from the fact that BYU wants to be in a bigger athletic conference. Because that gets more money, right? And BYU has this huge fanbase. So, I don’t want to be cynical and say that change isn’t happening for the right reasons, but… I think it’s very monetarily motivated.”
One recent example of these half-hearted “reforms” can be seen in the recent changes to the BYU Honor Code. The honor code is a set of standards that students and faculty are expected to follow. If a student violates the honor code, they can be reported to the Honor Code Office and punishments can be as severe as expulsion.
On February 19th, BYU announced a change to the language in the honor code. Previously, the code included a section on “homosexual behavior” that stated, “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 new version of the honor code, which is in line with the new handbook released by the Jesus Christ Church of Latter-Day Saints, removed the section on homosexuality. Now, it simply says, “Live a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”
“I’m not very impressed,” Gee said when asked about the changes. “I think if they were truly making a change because they were making a change to the culture that they would have been more clear. And they would have said ‘Yeah, we’re not gonna come after LGBTQ couples.’ But they didn’t say that. They said ‘Here’s this change’ and then they just changed the wording to take out the blatantly homophobic things and then they put in new wording that was a little bit more inclusive but then they said ‘The policy remains the same.’ So, to me, that’s a PR move. You’re just saying something to make yourself look better.”
Two weeks after announcing the changes, BYU released a letter confirming what Gee had already suspected. “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage,” the letter reads. “And is therefore not compatible with the principles of the Honor Code.”
Gee and I spoke prior to BYU releasing the letter of clarification. But when I asked her if she thought the changes were to make BYU look better to the NCAA and the bigger athletic conferences, she said, “Oh yeah. 100%.”
There's a deeper issue at stake here: Should the NCAA even allow the university to compete? Is it better to shame and exclude someone to incentivize change or better to welcome them in and trying to create change from within. This is one of the most complicated questions in the human rights field.
But as we talked it through, the answer became clear to Gee.
“I think if any organization is going to take young adults under their wing and be in charge of that process of them competing in sports, I think they absolutely do have a responsibility to make sure that the organizations for which they play are protecting their rights which include their rights around their sexuality,” Gee said. “Because my experience at BYU… some of this stuff just shouldn’t have happened. Like it shouldn’t have even been a stressor. So, I think it’s not okay.”
Change is hard. It asks a lot of people and success is never promised. But when people share their stories, it has a ripple effect. In sharing their stories, athletes like Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, and Megan Rapinoe have inspired and empowered generations of women and girls. The movement that these women have all been part of ensures that their stories won’t be the last. They are only the beginning.
When Gee and I discussed the role that her spirituality played in the coming out process, Gee said that her spirituality helped her understand why she needed to do this. “Not only was I coming out for myself but for those that were like me and maybe couldn’t speak out for whatever reason,” Gee said. “I wanted to do good for myself and for others.”
Gee and her LGBT classmates aren’t that different from the pioneering female athletes whose stories changed the world. Change might be moving slow at BYU. But thanks to Gee, the next athlete who chooses to come out at her university won’t have to be the first. And who knows? Maybe someday, students won’t even realize there was a first. Because they’ll know LGBT students have been there all along.