Gay students at BYU still struggle for acceptance

Portraits of gays give administrators a moment of pause.

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 23, 2009

Provo - Dan Embree came to Brigham Young University four years ago, in part, to iron out his sexual orientation.

Hailing from a Chicago-area Mormon family, Embree grew up believing his same-sex attraction was deviant and unclean. But he is healing in a way he did not anticipate when he matriculated at the church-owned school.

"I was not in a healthy frame of mind, doing self-destructive things," says Embree, a senior who is studying painting. "I did therapy and it didn't work. After my mission, I realized it wasn't going to go away. When I accepted that, it really improved my life."

Last fall, Embree was one of several gay BYU students who posed for portraits shot by photography student Michael Wiltbank. The portraits were hung as part of a class show, but after a week college administrators ordered the portraits taken down.

The move disturbed some BYU arts faculty, as well as critics who lit up the blogosphere with renewed allegations that BYU does not tolerate a free exchange of ideas. Within days, officials declared the portraits acceptable for public display and invited Wiltbank to rehang them.

The incident illustrates how sensitive the subject of homosexuality is on the BYU campus, particularly at a time when its owner, the Mormon Church, was playing a pivotal role in the divisive fight over California's Proposition 8, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Gay students say they sat through religion classes last fall, listening to professors liken the California ballot initiative to God's war against Satan.

"I have never been comfortable at BYU," Embree says. "During the Prop 8 campaign I had to listen to peers talk about homosexuality being the same as a pedophile and an alcoholic."

Looking for support » That BYU allowed the gay-portrait exhibit shows how far the school has come since the student days of its most famous gay alumnus, Bruce Bastian, who happens to be Embree's granduncle. Bastian, the Utah County software developer behind WordPerfect, attended BYU in the late 1960s when gay colleagues did not venture from the closet and many hid their struggle with same-sex attractions.

"It wasn't an issue because you wouldn't dare talk about it," says Bastian, who contributed $1 million to defeat Proposition 8. "If people let gay people be gay, there would be a lot less pain surrounding it all. Gay men shouldn't marry straight women and try to become straight."

Recent studies show that gays rejected by their families have a far higher incidence of suicide, while mainstream psychology flatly rejects therapies intended to "cure" same-sex attraction.

Wiltbank, a 28-year-old senior from the tiny Arizona town of Eager, solicited his portrait subjects through Facebook and his social networks. Embree and a friend went together to Wiltbank's Orem studio and sat in front of a camera as the photographer shot dozens of digital images of their faces.

"I participated to show other students who might be struggling that it is OK to accept the fact that you are gay and know that there are people at BYU who do support you," Embree says.

The faces in the finished portraits have neutral expressions with only the eyes in sharp focus.

"It's visual communication. When you want to get into someone's face you look in their eyes," Wiltbank says.

His untitled series was one of 16 student shows in a class exhibit hung in the Harris Fine Arts Center's Gallery 303 for a two-week run starting in late November. Four portraits each depicted a gay student along with a supportive person in his life.

"I have not included labels with these portraits as I feel that labels only create separation and division and further ungrounded stereotypes," Wiltbank wrote in an artist's statement. "We never know who may identify themselves as homosexual and I felt that not labeling these images would force us as a society to question what it is to be homosexual." No Honor Code violation » On Dec. 5, the exhibit came down on orders from the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications to the dismay of gay students who sat for Wiltbank.

"The project wasn't promoting homosexuality," says English major Tommy Johnson. "It was promoting understanding of a group that doesn't have a lot of understanding in the Mormon power structure."

University officials declined to discuss the incident, attributing the take-down order to a "miscommunication" between arts dean Stephen Jones and faculty. Arts faculty contacted by the Tribune declined to speak on the record; while Wiltbank's professor, Paul Adams, also declined comment.

Administrators say the exhibit did not violate the university's Honor Code, which obligates students to abide by strict moral standards.

Last year, BYU sharpened its position on homosexuality to make it clear that same-sex attraction does not run afoul of the code, although acting on it does. Homosexual behavior and advocacy therefore constitute violations, according to university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.

"However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity," Jenkins wrote in response to e-mail queries. "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."

Bastian takes issue with the idea that gays should deny themselves one of the great comforts of life to remain in the good graces of the church.

"It's really unfair and ridiculous to say gay people are supposed to remain celibate," he said. "You get to live half a life? They are so determined to punish people who don't fit in their box."

Before his show, Wiltbank says he showed the portraits to arts faculty to ensure their support. He did exclude one portrait pairing that could be seen as an Honor Code violation because it depicted a friend's father who lives in a gay relationship.

In the ensuing hubbub, Wiltbank was unnerved that his exhibit upstaged the good work of his classmates, such as portraits of Mexican immigrants who held professional jobs in their homeland. Another series paired photos of natural objects, such as mushrooms and poppies, with the contraband they produce.

Still, Wiltbank sees the outcome as a "win-win" in that his ideas were aired, and BYU showed it isn't the fortress of bigotry and homophobia painted by critics.

"I can't tell you how may people have seen [the portraits]," says Wiltbank, who intends to move to New York City after graduation. "I thank BYU for that. I got the message out much farther than I could have on my own. I like that they are being used to open dialogue."

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