Ways to Foster Inclusivity at the BYUs

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This is an article I wrote while I was a professor in the English Department at BYU–Idaho. I had written it at the request of the faculty journal’s editorial board, but I ended up leaving my position before it was able to be published (I relocated to another state where my husband got a faculty offer). I’m hoping these ideas can do some good here, and that it keeps the conversation going regarding how we can make church schools more inclusive and welcoming to students regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation, particularly now that the updated CES Honor Code no longer cites “homosexual behavior” (including “forms of physical intimacy”) as breaking school rules.

But it’s one thing to alter the Honor Code and another thing to alter the heteronormative rhetoric that dominates these campuses and classrooms. This essay was written in the hopes that small changes in the way we perceive BYU-school students and communities will increase empathy and a sense of belonging for everyone.

Fostering Inclusive Spaces that are Safe for Students to Showcase Diversity

In the decade that I have taught for Brigham Young University–Idaho, I have worked with students who have identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender nonbinary, asexual and queer. Chances are, all faculty on campus are teaching classes this semester with at least a few students who identify as LGBTQIA (“lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transexual, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/ally”). These students do not always come “out” to classes or instructors, nor is this essay an argument that they should. However, in order to truly create “safe learning environments where all can stretch and stumble without fear” (BYU–Idaho Learning Model, Principle Five), we must teach our classes with an awareness of diversity—we should always assume that our classes include at least one LGBTQIA student and lead our class discussions accordingly. By doing so, this will also model to all of our students, regardless of sexual orientation, how to live and work empathetically and successfully in the pluralistic communities and workplaces for which we are preparing them.

Inclusive Learning Environments Lead to Academic Success

Studies show that students feel safer on college campuses that are inclusive to LGBTQIA populations, and that feeling safe leads to higher percentages of retention and stronger academic success (Squire and Norris, 2014). Vaccaro and Newman (2017) found that students “felt like they belonged if they perceived the campus to be safe, welcoming, and accepting for all students—especially [LGBTQ+] students” (142). Woodford and Kulick (2015) distinguish between campus environments in which sexual minority students are “safe and tolerated” as opposed to “actively accepted and celebrated,” noting from their research that it was the latter environment that fostered the best academic success for LGBTQ students. They also found that campuses with spaces for sexual minority students to “come together and discuss experiences of discrimination [and] share positive coping strategies” promoted friendship networks that nurtured a sense of belonging, which Woodford and Kulick argue directly correlated with heightened academic success. Kosciw, Palmer, and Kull (2015) note that schools, “particularly those in areas less supportive of LGBT students, have a responsibility to increase resources for these students to help them thrive” (p. 176). While BYU–Idaho has no official gay-straight alliance, there is much that professors can do in our classrooms to foster an environment of inclusion and understanding. 

In fact, many of our BYU–Idaho classrooms already value and showcase inclusivity, and the LGBTQIA students I spoke with in preparation for this article were quick to share these positive experiences. Ben[1], a recent graduate who identifies as gay, recalls a positive experience in an Eternal Families class. Ben writes, “I spoke up once about how [students] on campus use derogatory terms [about LGBTQ+ persons] and that that needs to stop. [The professor] asked the class how many students have a loved or close one who is gay. Almost everyone raised their hand. You felt the hands raise. It was so real and set that tone about how real the need to be kind and aware is.” Ben’s story exhibits the kind of safe classroom environment that Watson and Miller (2012) laud, in which teachers explicitly counter homophobic remarks in their classroom and model inclusionary rhetoric; in this case, acknowledging that nearly everyone in the classroom knows and loves someone who is LGBTQIA.

Unfortunately, not all experiences that BYU–Idaho students and alumni shared with me were as positive. Some students wrote about feeling “disconnected” from class conversations, because they felt their alternative perspectives were discounted or ignored in class discussions. Richard, who identifies as gay, writes that he felt “unheard and unvalidated” when a BYU–Idaho professor compared “homosexuality” to “a sickness.” Another student, John, who also identifies as gay, says he is haunted by a question a BYU–Idaho teacher posed in class: “How does the knowledge of the good truth of the gospel help protect us against the LGBTQ agenda?” John responds that the question made him feel isolated and unwelcome:

“Suddenly, we were at war, and I was the enemy. I don’t remember the answers that were given, but I knew in that moment that I was not one of them and that I never could be.”

Crestfallen, John sought the support of a professor he trusted—a teacher with whom he had already disclosed his sexuality. After sharing the experience of this challenging class conversation in which he felt silenced and isolated, John remembers his teacher assuring him, “I’m glad you’re here. I think it’s important that you are here and that students have a chance to be exposed to different kinds of people.” John reflects, “Obviously nothing was fixed [from this exchange] but I knew in that moment that there were places where I could exist and not be afraid or anxious, if only for a little while.”

Similar to John’s experience, Russell, a recent BYU–I graduate and gay man, recalls a difficult experience in which a professor informally remarked that he “looked forward to the end times because sinners, specifically LGBTQ+ people, would burn.” Russell writes,

“It hurt a lot to hear people who were supposed to be a community to me, a family even, ignorantly throw stones. . . . There is an assumption from most of the student body that everyone else in the student body is straight. . . . That assumption also made me feel profoundly alone and trapped.”

Like John, Russell acknowledges that “the saving graces of BYUI were the faculty members who let me be open about my mental health and who knew to look for struggling students like myself.”

Rebekah, a student who identifies as bisexual, also echoes Russell’s wish that students and faculty at BYU–Idaho not make assumptions that everyone on campus is heterosexual. Her testimony is powerful and praiseworthy:

“I believe marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and gender is essential to the plan of happiness. But I still think there’s room for fierce love and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and asexual members of the church. We need it a lot more than correction, ignorance, microaggressions, and hateful jokes. Christians need to be the most loving. Members of the church should be trying to be more like the Savior and He would be the first to hug and include queer people. Professors and ward leadership should be leading the way in inclusion and learning about the experiences of LGBTQIA students and members of the church. Some professors talk as if we’re all heading for the same path of a mission, dating, then marriage. That’s not necessarily a healthy option for a lot of my gay friends, friends with mostly attraction to the same sex, or asexual friends. We’re in your classes and apartments and friend groups and clubs and sports teams. So I’d ask everyone to please keep us in mind.”

A Catholic administrator at a religious school quoted by Liboro, Travers, and St. John (2015) testifies similarly to Rebekah; referring to the importance of using LGBTQ-affirming language in course curriculum, he says, “If we’re people of the Gospel, [we must remember] Jesus sought out people from the margins, not the priests and high officials of that time period . . . that’s our calling . . . and we’re not doing any more, or any less, than what the Gospel tells us to” (p. 174).

Incorporating Diversity into Course Curriculum Empowers Students

Incorporating diversity within our course curriculum empowers students, who are able to see themselves reflected in course readings and content. Garvey and Rankin (2015) found that “less-inclusive curricula and poor institutional support significantly relate to more negative perceptions of classroom climate.” (198). Because students “carry their impressions, thoughts, and dialogue with them beyond the classroom,” Burke and Greenfield (2016) assert that holding moderated conversations on topics of sexual identity in our classrooms will “create an inclusive, respective environment for students, [promote] tolerance, and [foster] the active citizenship required in a democratic society that values freedom of speech and debate” (p. 50). Thein (2013) contends that “teaching texts that feature LGBT characters, families, and situations really is the work of any [teacher] who takes seriously students’ experiences and identities” (p. 179). Linley et al (2016) report that students feel supported by faculty who use inclusive language and confront homophobic rhetoric in the classroom as well as shape the course curriculum to make space for diverse perspectives. Pennell (2017) points out that constantly focusing on the negative aspects of having a queer identity is not helpful, but that faculty can help students see their LGBTQIA identities as “a source of strength” by incorporating queer voices and texts into our classrooms (p. 70). Ressler and Chase (2009) likewise avow that including diverse voices in our curriculum can “create positive and life-affirming spaces where LGBT students can express with dignity and freely examine their identities” as well as “provide opportunities for straight students to learn to understand, appreciate, and support LGBT people” (p. 21).

Here are some examples of inclusive classroom tactics praised by the LGBTQIA students I spoke with for this article:

  • Jennifer, a current BYU–Idaho student who identifies as a lesbian, says her BYU–Idaho social studies professor set aside time for student presentations regarding ways their classroom could be more inclusive to diverse demographics. Jennifer presented her experiences as an lesbian student on campus, and how she felt that “teachers should incorporate literature that includes multiple forms of diverse characters and experiences,” using as her example Alexandra Penfold’s All Are Welcome, a children’s book which celebrates and values diversity and inclusivity. After Jennifer’s presentation, her professor purchased this picture book and now reads it at the beginning of each semester in his classes, to emphasize that all are welcome in his classroom, too.
  • Russell, who identifies as gay, says a professor during his sophomore year had the class perform an internal bias exercise: “We had to write a few quick sentences containing characters that were from certain professions: nurse, police officer, judge, etc. Then we had to share with the class what gender we made each character. . . . It was a small enough thought, but that exercise stuck with me for a long time. Having a professor encourage critical thought that went even slightly against the grain of the crowd was eye-opening.”
  • Recent BYU–Idaho graduate Kevin, who is also gay, had a history professor who encouraged him to research about topics related to LGBTQIA history. Kevin writes, “I realized we weren’t going to talk much about the homosexuals in the Holocaust. I asked if I could write a research paper on them and [my professor] let me do that. She said she didn’t know much about that and was excited for me to do [the research project]. I think that is why that class was so transformational for me.”

Armstrong and Stewart-Gambino (2016) assert that faculty networks and peer-to-peer mentoring can strengthen implementations of diversity in course development and revision. Part of my hope in publishing this article in Perspective is that we can further a collaborative conversation across departments regarding how we can make our classroom content more diverse and inclusive.

Suggestions for Creating Inclusive Spaces

While I was only able to gather testimonials from a small sampling of our student body who identify as LGBTQ (and these were largely students with whom I already have an established relationship of trust), these voices show examples that BYU–Idaho classrooms include safe, inclusive environments as well as environments that leave some students feeling isolated and silenced. After hearing these students’ stories and reviewing recent research on how university professors can support LGBTQ student demographics, I have composed the following list of suggestions for ways that teachers can make their classrooms more inclusive, welcoming, and safe for students of all perspectives and identities:

  • Include diversity in your curriculum. Minority students (including LGBTQ students) will be empowered by seeing their life experiences reflected in course readings.
  • Always assume that your classroom is diverse with a variety of political beliefs, sexual identities, cultural identities, and economic backgrounds.
  • Acknowledge that there are many ways to live full and happy lives, even when they do not include heteronormative dating, marriage, and raising children.
  • Confront student comments that attack other cultures, genders, social statuses, sexual orientations, and religions.
  • Be a listening person. Instead of trying to “fix” a student who identifies as LGBTQIA, express how much you care for them instead, and thank them for disclosing their experiences with you.
  • Avoid making premature conclusions regarding sexual identity and orientations. Acknowledge that current scripture and doctrine do not give clear answers on many questions regarding the life experiences of an LGBTQIA Latter-day Saint.
  • Learn more about how to be an LGBTQIA ally. As college professors, we thrive on conducting library research and assessing credible sources. We should not be perpetuating myths that have been debunked and challenged by scholars and experts in health care, sociology, psychology, etc.
  • Don’t refer to a “gay agenda.” Such language is oversimplifying and antagonistic. Because words matter, use terminology currently embraced by the LGBTQIA community today.

In closing, I quote Schroeder-Arce (2015), a theater arts teacher whose reflections regarding her imperfect attempts at creating a diverse, inclusive classroom environment resonate with my own:

“At times . . . I have felt that I need to know the answers, to plant myself firmly at the helm. However, we also need to acknowledge the different experiences and ways of knowing in the room, and to yield to the cultural and lived experiences of our students. As we seek to build community, we need to be a part of that community and share our authentic thoughts and feelings. . . . We had built a community and I needed to create space for everyone in it. I needed to model how to respond with authenticity when faced with adversity; how to defer to the community and not attempt to resolve the challenges myself; and how to create dialogue about the frustration rather than deny or gloss over it.” (p. 217)

I know that God will bless us in our desires to connect with all of our students, and that building a true community with space for everyone will require us to acknowledge our students in their diversity, rather than making assumptions that all student experiences, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and even politics are homogenous. As we authentically invite all student voices to the table, our lives will be enriched by the contributions each student brings to the classroom “pot luck” discussion, and our LGBTQIA students will no longer feel left at the sidelines.

References

[1] All names of students have been changed for this article.

Comments

  1. Emily, this is good advice for Sunday School teachers as well as professional educators.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    This is so good, so needed, and so very helpful. Thank you for this

  3. Thanks for writing this up, Emily! There’s a lot of really important stuff in the post.

  4. This would move the ball so far at so many institutions, inside and outside of the CES system, if it were universally adopted.

    I teach at a large public institution of higher ed in a blue state, and acceptance and welcome of our LGBTQIA+ students is not as widespread as you might think.

    Valuable work! Thank you.

  5. Diane F Fish says:

    Your suggestions are great. But it needs to go further. Beyond being open to diversity one needs to be embracing of it. And as an ally we need to stop requesting, expecting and requiring LBGTQIA individuals to do the work for us.

    ‘John remembers his teacher assuring him, “I’m glad you’re here. I think it’s important that you are here and that students have a chance to be exposed to different kinds of people.” ‘

    John isn’t at university to educate people about diversity – he is there for an education!! Allies need to do the work themselves rather than leaning on those who already carry a burden.

  6. Although the words Emily has written here are smooth, polished and pleasing to the carnal mind I can’t help but feel on a spiritual level that what she has written is simply not of God.
    I realize that dissenting views are often unwelcome here on BCC, especially when they come from someone like me who rarely posts. Despite the fact that the moderator will likely delete this post, I still feel that I must stand up and speak the truth that I feel deep in my heart. What Emily has written is not of God. It is well meaning and sincere, but it is not of God.

  7. Fred, I want to better understand your position. What of the above post do you argue is not “of God”? I tried very carefully to make suggestions that fit with current church and BYU policies and theology. I’d like to know what you argue is not working with Latter-day revelation and teachings.

  8. Here is a definition of “heteronormative” that pops up when I google:

    “denoting or relating to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.”

    Unlike the author of the post, I do not believe that this world view is wrong or incorrect.

  9. Fred, you’re going to have to be far more specific about what you object to. Emily has provided a number of suggestions about how to help our LGBTQ students feel welcome and like they belong among us and on campus. For various reasons, it’s critical that we make our brothers and sisters feel welcome, something that the new handbook is explicit about. I can’t think of anything more of God than recognizing the divinity in each other, and making our community welcoming and loving.

  10. Anon for particular reasons says:

    The older I get and the more I learn the more I’m sure that there’s a particular kind of insidious evil involved in the kind of things Fred says. I can’t believe in all my experience reading the scriptures, learning the gospel, and serving in the Church that it isn’t particularly offensive to God to use that kind of language to drive away our beautiful and sensitive LGBT brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins, friends, and loved ones. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

  11. Anthony Roberts says:

    Please Fred, elaborate. Curious how treating others with warmth and respect is not of God. If that is not of God then I want nothing to do with Him.

  12. No doubt that God wants us to treat all of his children with warmth, respect, kindness and love. God IS love.
    My feelings that Emily’s post is not of God are just that, feelings. Spiritual feelings or impressions that defy verbal description.
    I have no doubt that Emily is a good person who is sincere and well intended. I can’t point to any specific thing she wrote and use reason to discredit it. It’s the post in it’s whole that leaves me with a spiritual feeling that her approach is simply not of God. It’s quite an irrational and supernatural feeling. But I really do feel it.
    I suppose this type of forum in not very amendable to discussions based on feelings and impressions. It’s a place where people use reason and intellectual prowess to expound and persuade. I respect that.
    Thanks for the kind reactions to my post.

  13. Thanks for responding, Fred. In my experience, intuition is a tricky form of evidence, because while it might derive from spiritual feelings from God, these feelings might also be evidence of unconscious or internal bias. I do not believe that God is against reasoning or study, but I do agree with you that spiritual impressions are important on a personal level, and I am drawn to stories and ideas that resonate in my heart and make it expand. If my post did not make your heart expand in this same way, I understand your skepticism. However, I also believe it is worth considering if these feelings are not born of human-made ideologies that make us skeptical of and threatened by those that are different from ourselves.

    To respond to Heretic regarding the definition of “heteronormative,” I want to acknowledge that I also abide by that definition, and I do not believe that there is only one “normal” sexual orientation or that heterosexuals are somehow better than everyone else. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, ““We don’t counsel people that heterosexual marriage is a panacea. You’ll see in some of these experiences that are related on this site [churchofjesuschrist.org] that it has been a successful experience in a few cases, or some have expressed the success they have found in marriage and in raising a family, and in the joy and all that has filled out and blessed their lives as a consequence. But that we know is not always true. And it’s not always successful. Sometimes it’s been even disastrous. We think it’s something that a person can evaluate, and they can discuss, and both with priesthood leaders and family and others, and make decisions. But we simply don’t take a uniform position on saying, ‘Yes, always,’ or ‘No, always.’”

    If not every member of the church is biologically inclined to have a heterosexual relationship, then this certainly shouldn’t make them “abnormal.” LGBTQIA individuals are as normal and human and real as any cisgender heterosexual person. Being human is complicated and there is diversity among us. If we really want LGBTQIA church members to feel included in the church, then we need to alter our definition of “normal” to include all of us. If there is no normalcy associated with active LGBTQIA members of the church and no positive narratives about their own plans of happiness within the gospel, then do church members genuinely believe that LGBTQIA members should stay in the church? If so, then we need to change our rhetoric to include all of us—not just one type of us.

  14. Stephen Hardy says:

    Grover: this is most excellent. Thank you. I would like to use some of this in a different context. Can I speak to you about that? I think that you can get my email from the administrator. And a final word that I can’t resist: I think that your husband and my wife are cousins!

  15. No name given says:

    Grover you are not my ally if you are telling me I will be happier outside the Church unless the Church accepts my sexuality as normal. Heterosexuals enjoy sexual urges that might lead them towards temple marriage and sex within marriage and that is normall what happens. It must be nice. If I followed my sexual urges I would fall into sin and destroy my relationships. I accept who I am but I have found joy and companionship in heteranormativity and the Church gives me a plan of happiness. I want the Church to teach what is true no matter what and I want it to teach what I should aspire to be not that I should enjoy a life of sin. My life would not be possible without heteranomativity. If you attack what I need to survive you are not my ally.

  16. Grover I suppose you believe there people who are inclined to bisexuality (since that’s the B in “LBBTQIA.”)

    Would you argue that it is of no consequence if a bisexual woman chooses heterosexual marriage verses homosexual marriage? One is just as good as another?

  17. An extreme example: some people have xenomelia, or an intense desire to cut off an arm or leg:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_integrity_dysphoria

    I don’t believe these feelings are chosen by the individual. I would never suggest that someone who suffers from this condition is “not human” or that I am “better” than they are. I am even open to the idea that maybe they would be happier if they amputated the limb.

    Nevertheless I am comfortable saying that wanting to keep your limbs is both “normal” and “preferred.”

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