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BYU Gets Better?

So there's this college in Provo, Utah, that's run by a socially conservative church. All of the students who choose to attend the school agree to adhere to a pretty strict honor code that governs the way they dress, forbids them from drinking alcohol, and explicitly bans students from having sex. I am, of course, talking about Brigham Young University and it shouldn't exactly be news that the place exists or that students there are held to pretty strict moral standards. But despite the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' somewhat undeserved reputation for a being comprised of a bunch of catalog models marching lockstep, I know from personal experience that BYU is a pretty diverse place ideologically and otherwise. (My mother and sister went there and a number of family friends have worked or taught there as well.)

College kids, as they are wont to do, have bucked the school's honor codes in any number of ways over the years from various forms of public protest to publishing underground satirical newspapers. There have always been students determined not to adhere to the honor code. My sister attended BYU while Jim McMahon was the school's quarterback and I don't think I'm divulging any big secrets to say that he didn't win awards for piety while he was a student there.

The bottom line is that BYU has an honor code and the students are supposed to abide by it. The Mormon church penalizes flagrant violations of the code, but isn't running a prison camp here. Nor is BYU unique in running a religious college where students are expected to voluntarily adhere to certain moral standards.

So all that said, the Associated Press's Cristina Silva recently made waves with a story about gay students at BYU making a video that has been included in Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign. While this development is undeniably news, and clearly worthy of mainstream coverage, Silva reports this story with an unwarranted tone of breathlessness throughout:

The video has sent tremors through the Mormon community and represents the latest effort to reconcile the church's conservative values with a growing acceptance toward gay relationships. The video estimates there are more than 1,800 LGBT students at BYU. It also notes that the school is consistently ranked as one of the most unfriendly campuses for those students in the nation.

"Sent tremors through the Mormon community"? It would be nice to see generalizations such as that documented, otherwise it reads like editorializing. And in a story as potentially contentious as this, I'm not sure it's the best journalistic practice to uncritically repeat statistics, without at least attempting to understand the basis for their figures. Silva does note how the church has evolved in recent years:

A mere five years ago, BYU students weren't allowed to discuss their sexual orientation without risking expulsion under the school's strict honor code. A clarification in 2007 stressed that "one's stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue."

In 2010, BYU lifted a ban on advocacy of homosexuality. That same year, students formed Understanding Same-Gender Attraction. The support group drew eight people to its first meeting. This semester more than 80 students have attended the weekly meetings on campus.

Gay students must still adhere to much stricter standards than their heterosexual classmates under the updated honor code. While premarital sex is off limits to all BYU students, straight couples are allowed to kiss and cuddle openly on campus. Gay students cannot.

A "mere" five years ago? Such a loaded word reeks of editorializing. More broadly, much of the honor code at BYU would be considered strict in comparison to the behavior that's come to define college life. If you're looking for keggers, classes on post-structuralist theory, or an environment that is constantly affirming of a panoply of sexual behaviors -- it shouldn't be news that BYU is a different kind of university. This is being framed almost as if it's an obvious injustice, instead of what every student should expect the place to be like before they matriculate.

That said, I suppose the video does represent how gay Mormons are becoming more vocal and this is an interesting development. I just wished Silva talked about it in a more serious fashion rather than relying on sympathetic anecdotes:

Adam White, a sophomore featured in the video, said he struggled with his sexual orientation during his first year at BYU.

"It was a very dark time for me because I was just feeling so confused," he said. "I mean, I was living in an all-male dorm, and just being in such close contact. Everything I had suppressed was coming at me." ...

Joshua Behn, a gay activist and former BYU student who recently left the church, said he had doubts about the student video when he first heard of it.

"I was afraid it was going to be, `oh, you can deny your sexuality,'" he said. "But watching, they don't make judgments about that. They are saying, `there are other people out there. You are not alone.'"

Randall Thacker, 39, said he "was completely closeted, completely ashamed" about his attraction to men when he graduated from BYU in 1997. A church leader sent him to therapy to change his sexual orientation.

"To see the video gives me so much incredible hope for the future," said Thacker, a gay activist in Washington, D.C. "It seems like a miracle."

These are certainly illuminating stories, but it would be nice if they were in any way balanced out with some perspectives from BYU administrators or church leaders. There's also no discussion of what the church actually teaches about homosexuality from a religious standpoint, and how that affects BYU's evolving policies here. Ultimately, there's little doubt about where Silva's sympathies lie here.

And my final bone to pick here is that, per the Behn anecdote above, Silva refers to gay Mormons being sent away for therapy by the church multiple times, and drops this on us:

Gay church members were often sent to rehabilitative therapy to "get fixed."

Attention all news editors: Whenever scare quotes are used, especially in sensitive and unsubstantiated contexts like this, it should set off klaxons in the newsroom and the writer should have their knuckles rapped. I'm pretty sure therapy for gay members was never an official church policy -- local bishops have a wide degree of latitude for how they help members of their wards. I don't doubt that it did happen, but the impression here is as if sending gay Mormons off for reparative therapy was commonplace. Maybe it was, but given what I know about the church I'm skeptical. And given the way this allegation is cavalierly thrown out in this story, I'm doubly skeptical.

Overall, there are enough interesting details to be gleaned from Silva's reporting and I give her lots of credit for understanding how to this video project is pushing the boundaries of the church's increasing public tolerance of homosexuality. But if this story certainly deserved to be written, the distinct lack of balance ultimately gets in the way of a more complete understanding.

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