I remember the exact moment that I stopped believing in the Church. It was at 2:34 in the morning, on a cold February night, and I was reading an article on my computer from my living room couch. Reading the comments under this article, I felt my whole world catch on fire as I realized the Church I believed in no longer fit my true identity. I sobbed and prayed, and asked for God to heal my broken heart. It felt like a loved one had died and there was no way to ever, ever bring them back.
It’s easy to say that those who leave the LDS Church are lazy or just don’t like living Gospel standards. People make it sound like it’s easy to leave. But I can tell you that leaving the Church was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Leaving the Church meant leaving my Church community, where I had made friendships that were unfortunately dependent on me staying a member. Half my family was LDS, as well as the entirety of my husband’s family (by the way, telling my wonderful in-laws that I wasn’t Mormon was close to heartbreaking). I lost the feeling of knowing my life’s direction or if I was going to live after death, which led me into a deep depression. And on top of all this, I was a student at BYU. So not only was I going through essentially an identity crisis, but I had to hide my pain and opinions from everyone around me, for fear that I would be reported to the Honor Code Office and thus expelled.
Why I Didn’t Leave BYU
When I realized that I could no longer live happily as an LDS member, the first thing I did was look at ways to transfer schools. But transferring, I came to find, was more difficult than I thought.
- My husband was required to stay at his job for another 3.5 years before he could change employment, so no matter what happened, I had to attend school in Utah.
- I was a neuroscience major and no other nearby school held a neuroscience program or a program even similar to that of BYU.
- Even if I did transfer to another school, it would have taken me at least 2.5 years to finish my degree when I had less than a year to finish at BYU. Including the time to transfer my records, it would have taken at least 3 years to finish a degree that wasn’t even related to my future career. It would have been like starting over from scratch, not to mention the tuition money that I invested in my BYU education would have been completely wasted.
Those were the logistical reasons why I didn’t leave. But there were so many other reasons to stay. My educational network was centered at BYU. Within the month of my faith transition, I had attended an international research conference, where I had the opportunity to present my own contributed research. If I left BYU, I would have left my research prospects behind and potentially the relationships I had with my professors. I loved the neuroscience program at BYU and I never felt more spiritually uplifted than when learning about the brain. And academics aside, I found a community at BYU for people like me. I made friendships that will last the rest of my life because we survived BYU with each other’s help. And I didn’t want to leave these people for the same reason they didn’t want to leave me: we’d already been abandoned enough.
BYU Life After My Transition
Something that few people mention is that closeted ex-LDS students at BYU still follow the Honor Code. We don’t drink, smoke, or have sex (unless we’re married); I didn’t even touch caffeinated drinks while I was still a student. And we still fulfill the requirements for our ecclesiastical endorsements. This means that we still go to church and fulfill our callings. Even after my faith transition, I went visiting teaching every month though I had to evolve visiting teaching messages into something my conscience could bear sharing. Ironically enough, I was a ward missionary, but I still fulfilled my calling by making everyone in my ward boundary feel welcome and accepted. I still attended church even though literally every week I went, I had to excuse myself to cry in an unoccupied room or bathroom stall. I had panic attacks while at church, which I had never experienced before my faith transition. And though my church-driven depression eventually convinced me into seeking help from a psychologist, I did everything I could to fulfill my responsibilities.
What I can appreciate about my story is that I have always been as honest as I could be. Never did I tell anyone that I believed in the Church when I certainly did not. By the middle of my faith transition, I only had one ecclesiastical endorsement interview left before graduation, so when my bishop asked me if I had any concerns, I told him I was having doubts about the Church. The next week, I met with him again and when he asked if I believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, I told him my honest truth. That same day, I told my bishop that I had stopped wearing my temple garments, which resulted in the fair loss of my temple recommend. I had an angel of a bishop though and was lucky that he didn’t report me to the Honor Code Office then and there.
In my BYU classes, I always acted as an advocate for the LGBT community (partly because I’m a member of the LGBT community), so people just assumed I was one of those quirky liberal Mormons. I guess that was half true. And my fellow students, rather than asking me about my spirituality, saw me as someone to confide their more liberal opinions in. I, of course, disclosed no information about my personal testimony. But never did I tell a straight lie to anyone that asked what my testimony was. And surprisingly, I’ve gained more strength from that honesty than anything else in this trial. I never thought integrity was a quality that could save me. But when I see internet comments that call me dishonest or hear people call me names for my involvement with FreeBYU, I can cheerfully say that their hurtful remarks don’t define me. Integrity has surprisingly lifted me from the depression that I encompassed around myself when I thought I was the last person worth saving. Integrity, I feel, has become my personal atonement.
Why This Policy Must Change
I think there’s a stigma at BYU that if you’ve left the LDS church, you’re an anti-Mormon. This might be the reason for the expulsion policy of ex-LDS students that’s been active since 1993. Lucky for many ex-LDS people however, this is simply untrue. Though we may not agree with the LDS Church, we can coexist with them if we can simply be ourselves in the process.
But being our ex-LDS selves simply isn’t accepted at BYU. By fostering a system where one can lose his/her enrollment, housing, and job by simply leaving the LDS Church, BYU puts itself in the driver’s seat of a student’s life, with the detonator button to his/her education in one hand and a diploma in the other. We are scared to share even the most liberal of opinions, for fear that we could be reported anonymously by a fellow student, professor, or bishop. And even though we disagree with LDS tenets, we’re still committed to living the Honor Code standards and living moral lives. If we could pay the higher rate of tuition, we would. I can personally testify that if higher tuition meant going into debt, I would still happily choose that alternative over a life full of depression, anxiety, and pain. If BYU simply acknowledged this premise, I guarantee that this university would gain a higher grade of learning, of acceptance, and of love.
Article of Faith 11 states that “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” I hope this can be a reality in the future and that all students, even those who are different, may worship how and what they may.