You can find Andrew Evans’ memoir, ‘The Black Penguin,’ on Amazon.
Growing up Mormon, BYU football was just as much a part of our religion as family prayer, daily scripture study, and three-hour church on Sunday. My father woke us every morning with the Cougar fight song “Rise and Shout!” His moods followed the dips and dives of the BYU football season.
I never understood how any intelligent man could fall into such deep depression after a single incomplete pass, but I dutifully cheered alongside him and tried desperately to care about whether it was first or fourth down.
Like my parents and my siblings before me, I applied to only one college, and long before I registered for classes, I bought my BYU football season tickets. I attended every home football game covered in blue and white face paint, and like all good gay sports fans, I threw elaborate tailgate parties.
I loved BYU, and I loved being part of that crowd, up in the stands, screaming for victory.
Outsiders will never appreciate the heart-thumping loyalty of BYU fans, because our commitment is rooted in spiritual devotion. As Mormons we see the BYU football team as our very own warrior class clashing against the sinful world. As a misunderstood and much-maligned religious minority, we can still be strong, surprising, and achieve victory.
LDS adoration of BYU football is perhaps best expressed in John 15:19: “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”
BYU fans feel chosen, and we acknowledge the world hates us—it’s almost a badge of honor, a modern metaphor of the glorious struggle our own ancestors endured as Mormon pioneers in early America. The us-versus-them mentality feeds our unstoppable solidarity—in church, school, and sports.
It feeds us until we are deemed “other” by fellow Cougars and crossed out from their midst, like I was.
It was my roommate who turned me in, during my junior year of BYU. He saw me kissing my boyfriend goodnight at the door. Within days I had been summoned to the vice president’s office. BYU administration treated me like a dangerous enemy. They threatened me with academic execution—immediate expulsion and freezing my transcripts, so that none of my three years of college credits would ever transfer to another university.
That was Option A, they explained, but nudged me towards Option B:
“Cooperate with us,” they said, “and you can be saved.”
Cooperation meant weekly visits with my bishop to work out my long and arduous repentance process before God; it meant compulsory “reparative therapy” until I was heterosexual and “safe” to interact with other students; it meant signing a legal waiver that released my therapist from any confidentiality—my church leaders would receive full reports of my weekly sessions and discipline me accordingly. Cooperation also meant never again associating with any known homosexual persons on- or off-campus; and perhaps worst of all, it meant submitting a list of all the homosexuals I knew at BYU.
I was young, naïve, and cornered, so for the sake of my own college degree, I acquiesced to the administration’s demands. I went to the bishop every week until he decided that I was worthy. I brushed past my former friends on campus and deleted their emails—the administration was checking my college email account.
I underwent a year of reparative therapy—hours upon hours of circular conversation with an enlightened therapist who confided in me that while his professional duty was to help me out of the closet, we both understood “what we had to do, because this is BYU.” Conversion therapy included obligatory dates with women, once a week, which I reported on like school assignments. And like a good solider, I turned over a list of names to the administration—though it was grossly incomplete. I refused to out anybody still in the closet, and so I only submitted the names of BYU students who were already out, along with the names of non-BYU students.
I left BYU the day after graduation, then moved to Europe, where I entered graduate school, joined the rowing team, and met the man who became my husband. This all happened 20 years ago. Though I have grown up and found my own happiness, I will never escape all the little reminders of those traumatic moments.
Today, active Mormon friends ask me to leave the Church alone, but the Church can never seem to leave us gays alone. Directed by the highest LDS leadership, Mormons bankrolled Prop 8 to overturn same-sex marriage in California. Following the eventual federal recognition of same-sex marriage, LDS Church leaders secretly instruct that all same-sex married couples be excommunicated as “apostates”, even barring the children of any LGBT person from baptism.
Meanwhile, young LGBT Mormons are committing suicide at an alarming rate—I have lost friends—and yet the church deflects and reacts with a callous shrug. No matter their efforts to make the public believe otherwise, the LDS Church clings to the ugly banner of anti-gay bigotry, which they now justify with the rallying cry, “But religious freedom!”
Last year, when BYU was passed over for membership in the Big XII conference, BYU fans cried “religious discrimination” and circled the wagons against the big, bad “anti-Mormon” world, donning the victim’s cloak which they wear so well.
“The world will never accept us,” said the injured fans.
“This is LGBT retaliation for Prop 8,” said others.
For months, I followed the dispute online, lurking silently, and watching the culture war fought out in thousands of rabid comments, all the while wondering where I fit in—pro or con, friend or foe?
The fact is, I still love BYU and their football team. I still check the scores online and wear my BYU T-shirts to my super gay gym. If you ask me privately, I will tell you: I wanted BYU in the Big XII—it just makes sense, and as a BYU fan, I think they would kick serious butt.
Furthermore, I cannot deny that I received a remarkable education at BYU—one that made me smarter and better at life.
Alas, BYU also taught me less-noble skills, like how to lie, and that it was better to hide my own true self from the world. BYU taught me that honesty is not the best policy, that I was less of a person, that as a gay man, I was damaged, diseased, and ineligible for the same life and happiness as my heterosexual colleagues.
That is why, when the BYU alumni office hits me up for money, I have to throw away the envelope, or reply tersely on the phone, “As long as your LGBT students deal with the same discrimination I experienced, I cannot contribute.”
That is why, when BYU is playing at a nearby stadium and a posse of gay Mormon friends—all BYU alum—invite me to come along, I have to decline.
That is why I cannot even bring myself to buy their T-shirts anymore.
Brigham Young University, and the LDS Church that underwrites it, cannot have it both ways. They cannot have their religious freedom—which, they say, distinguishes their discrimination as personal belief—and then ask to play ball, as it were, with those universities that follow a higher standard of inclusion, non-discrimination, and good sportsmanship.
As a gay BYU alum, let me assure my fellow BYU fans that exclusion from the Big XII is not retaliation for Prop 8, nor is it because gays are “anti-Mormon” or that Satan’s minions are attacking the most righteous football team in God’s universe. Any exclusion, present and future, comes down to the fact that as an athletic franchise, BYU has become a toxic asset. They are Kim Jong-un at the United Nations—or for a gayer example—Mel Gibson at the Oscars. When BYU’s anti-gay track record is more consistent than its football team, it becomes a problem.
The fact is BYU needs its gay students, its gay athletes, and even its gay fans. Whether or not they acknowledge that we exist; we are part of the team—we have always been part of the team. We play in the band, we launch cheerleaders in the air, or else we are the cheerleaders in the air. We sell tickets and concessions, we sing the fight song in the stands, we clean the stadium, and yes, some of us even play on the field and hit the showers with the guys afterwards.
Deal with it.
Until BYU corrects their own attitudes, policies, and practices towards the university’s LGBT student body, the football team should be excluded from joining any conference at all. Indeed, BYU should not be surprised when fellow athletic teams begin to boycott them, just like Stanford and Wyoming did in protest of the racist policies of the LDS Church in the 1970’s. This LGBT situation will not go away—we do not disappear.
As a young Mormon kid, BYU football gave me validity and hope. It showed me that despite all the horrible things people said about us, Mormons were OK, we could survive in the world, and that we could achieve anything—even win a bowl game or a Heisman Trophy. But as a young gay man, BYU taught me the opposite—that I was not OK, that I needed to be fixed, and that I was a failure and disappointment to my family, church, and university.
No college student should ever feel what I felt back then—no BYU student should be forced to undergo the Orwellian experience of my college years. Today, BYU wants us to believe things have improved for LGBT students—you can “be gay” as long as you don’t “act gay”, which includes anything from holding hands, kissing, or dating a partner of the same sex. Their current policy is the romantic equivalent of a star quarterback being benched for his entire football career—suiting up, game after game, but never being allowed to play—or even practice.
Such is the future of BYU football—unless, somehow, something changes for the better. None of us gay BYU fans are holding our breaths, but it doesn’t mean we have given up hope, nor does it mean that we will ever forget the words of the BYU fight song: “Rise and Shout, the Cougars are Out!”
Because we are out—at least some of us are—the out and proud Cougars of BYU.
Andrew Evans is a travel writer and author based in Washington, DC. His memoir, “The Black Penguin,” was released earlier this year. He is on a book tour through Pride Month, and you can find his tour dates here.
For more BYU sports news and notes, check out Vanquish The Foe.