The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers same-sex marriage to be a “serious transgression” – and, until this spring, treated Mormons involved in these unions as apostates, subject to church disciplinary hearings that could result in their excommunication.
So a commencement ceremony on Friday at Brigham Young University, the flagship academic institution of the Mormon Church, was an unlikely occasion for this pronouncement: “I stand before my family, friends and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God.”
The affirmation came from Matthew Easton, 24, who was being celebrated as the valedictorian in the political science department – and the graduating senior chosen to deliver remarks at the ceremony for the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.
Held up as a model for his classmates, he spoke plainly about the part of him that his church finds less commendable. Before an audience of about 10,000 – which included family members to whom he had not disclosed his sexuality – Easton asserted his value and his role in divine intent.
“I am not broken,” he declared. “I am loved and important to the plan of our great creator. Each of us are.”
Among the audience members to whom the announcement came as a surprise was one of Easton’s sisters, who was recording a video of his speech. The camera slipped as she let out a whoop, part of a chorus of cheers that echoed through the Marriott Center. In the middle of the immense sports arena stood Easton, at a lectern bearing his university’s initials. He smiled and paused, waiting for the applause to die down.
“Four years ago, it would have been impossible for me to imagine that I would come out to my entire college,” he continued. “It is a phenomenal feeling. And it is a victory for me in and of itself.”
A private conquest, the speech also marked a notable chapter in a searching public debate about faith, sexuality and generational change.
Easton, in an interview with the Washington Post, said he has been inspired by the way Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Ind., and upstart candidate for president, has spoken about the connection between his Christianity and his sexuality. He pointed in particular to a speech the 37-year-old gay mayor gave earlier this month to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, in which he assailed the vice president, an evangelical Christian, for his views on sexual minorities.
“That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: That if you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is not with me,” Buttigieg said. “Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
As he aims to break the Republican hold on the devout, Buttigieg has tapped into the dissent of younger Christians against the traditional teachings of their churches. The schism has been on vivid display in protests over the decision by Christian colleges to invite Pence to speak at their commencement ceremonies. Students are protesting his planned appearance next month at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.
“My generation, and even more so the generation after me, we’re changing the way we talk about our identity and who we are,” Easton said. “It’s okay to be different, or not fit the norm. When I started at BYU, I didn’t think that. I thought that I had to be what everyone before me was. I do feel from my own experience that this is changing, or maybe I’m changing. I hope that our country, my faith, my community will follow in a similar fashion.”
Mormons, who are the most consistently Republican-leaning religious group in the United States, are hardly alone in opposing same-sex relationships. The United Methodist Church voted last month to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage. And Roman Catholics, roiled by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, have shunned gay priests. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been among the most steadfast in its traditional view of the family.
A 1995 church document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” declares that “marriage between a man and woman is ordained of God” and that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” In a handbook for church leaders, only parts of which are publicly available online, there is some guidance on same-gender attraction and marriages, listed in the same section as instructions on pornography and “occult affiliation.”
The issue is especially fraught at Brigham Young, which enrolls more than 30,000 undergraduates in Provo, Utah. The school enforces an honor code that requires chastity and forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” Dress and grooming standards proscribe beards and form-fitting clothing. Students live in sex-segregated housing.
In a sign of how difficult the path can be for Mormons who don’t conform, a transgender student, who is taking time off as they prepare to undergo surgery in June, said they would seek to resume their studies at the University of Utah.
“I strongly suspect that if I reapplied I would not be accepted,” Kris Irvin told The Post. A Mormon leader was excommunicated in 2017 for living as a woman.
Students at the university have been “out” to varying degrees since the 1970s, said Taylor Petrey, an associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. But it was only in 2007 that the honor code was amended to allow students to call themselves gay without “official recrimination.” Earlier this year, the Mormon Church said it would not oppose a ban on gay conversion therapy in its home state of Utah.
What the scholar of religious studies, who writes on gender and Mormonism, found most significant about the commencement speech was the applause that met the declaration – a sign that church culture has shifted more rapidly than official policy, he said.
The applause was what most surprised Easton, too.
“I was preparing for awkward silence,” he said. “So when people started clapping, it was a little overwhelming. To have a group that I had for so long thought would hate me or ostracize me actually celebrate and accept me, it was awesome.”
Easton was born and raised in Salt Lake City, where his father works as a chemical engineer and his mother, who has been battling cancer, stays at home. His parents were high school sweethearts. His family has been Mormon for generations.
He served a mission for his church when he was 18, assigned to Sydney. After that, he enrolled at Brigham Young, where he majored in political science and added a minor in professional writing and rhetoric.
As he took courses in American and international politics, he wrestled as well with other questions. “Am I gay?” he asked himself. “What does my future look like?” He sometimes strained to find a hopeful answer at the “very conservative and religious university.”
He gained the confidence two years ago to open up to his parents, as well as to a number of friends. He also credits faculty advisers with supporting him both academically and emotionally.
As graduation approached, the valedictorian of each department was eligible to apply to speak. He put his name forward and was selected. He wondered what to do with his platform, and whether it would be best to “give a speech just like any other valedictorian, saying things I’m grateful for, pumping people up.”
After consulting with his parents, he decided he would try to broach the topic of his sexuality in the speech, and see if he could get the approval of the dean’s office. He submitted the text two weeks before the ceremony, adding a series of annotations explaining his intentions and citing the words of apostles advising acceptance of gay members. The dean’s office signed off on the speech, telling him, “Go for it.”
He was nervous until the moment he stood to address the crowd. “Then, it felt right,” he said. In the days since, he has received an outpouring of support, including a missive from Kristin Chenoweth, the actress and singer, on Twitter. He has also received some criticism – from people who say he went too far, as well as those who believe he didn’t go far enough.
For years, Easton told himself to focus on school, and that he would figure out his place in his church, and how to reconcile his sexuality with Mormon teachings, after graduation. Now that he has received his diploma, he is beginning to pursue answers.
“What I’ve been focusing on is my relationship with my family and my relationship with God,” he said. “They haven’t always been great, especially my faith. But the more that I’ve understood my relationship with God, the more authentic I’ve been able to be and the more true to myself I’ve felt.”
His identity alone is not contrary to modern church doctrine. But to live fully in that identity – he knows conflict would arise. That knowledge creates cognitive dissonance. “Some days I feel okay about it; other days I don’t,” he said.
On his first Monday as a college graduate, he’s turning his attention to more prosaic concerns – planting a garden with his sister and his niece. Soon, he’ll begin a job doing data analysis in Salt Lake City. He would like to go to graduate school. Slowly, a better answer to the question he once asked himself about his future is coming into view.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.