Chapter 12
Home Up


Susan Smith1


I came to Brigham Young University in September 1986 to begin my university studies. My high school experience was unique. I had attended an all-girl, Catholic, boarding prep school in Europe. I, one of three Mormons at my school, was junior class vice president and, in my senior year, student council president. I was an honor student, a member of the yearbook staff, and on all of the schoolís sports teams. Both in high school and at BYU, I was a faithful, devout, and thoughtful Mormon. I graduated from seminary. My church attendance was exemplary. I prayed and read my scriptures daily, fulfilling a promise to myself that I made in seminary. Except for one "experiment" with smoking at age six, I never in my life broke the Word of Wisdom. At BYU, I studied hard, declaring a major when I entered the university and graduating in that field four years (eight semesters) later, the first grandchild on either side of my family to earn a college degree.

By every indication, I was a good person, a good Mormon, a good student, a good daughter. But in 1988, my junior year, my roommate and I fell in love. Her "goodness" credentials easily equalled and generally surpassed mine. Because she was a year younger than I, I stayed at BYU an extra year, entering graduate school with a full tuition waiver and a job as the universityís incentive to stay.

From the beginning, Nancy (a pseudonym) and I struggled with the knowledge that our sexual relationship was a clear, evident, and serious sin according to teachings that we had accepted all our life. The happiness we felt in our companionship was soured by this attitude. We kept our relationship secret and spent many hours in private trying to figure it outówhy it was happening, how to stop, what it meant about ourselves. I was just as puzzled as Nancy by how such a forbidden relationship could enter our lives when we neither sought nor wanted such a departure from the completely orthodox pattern we had accepted as our own. However, I never felt as sinister nor as guilty as Nancy.

In 1990-91, during my graduate year, the sexual component of our relationship virtually stopped because of school stress. I was taking thirteen graduate hours a semester. Nancy was a straight-A honor student in her senior year. It was a hard year. We fought a lot. We were both busy with school. She was consumed by guilt. I wanted to concentrate on what was joyful and fulfilling in the relationship and to leave the guilt-producing conundrums alone.

Her spiritual goal was to leave in autumn 1991 on a mission. During the last half of March 1991, she asked my permission to confess her/our sin to the bishop. I was stunned, knowing that such an action was loaded with dire implications; however, I knew her decision was based on a fervent belief in God and the hope of finding peace through the LDS process of repentance. I could not deny her a way out of the pain she was suffering.

As I expected, in her initial confession to the bishop, she was forced to confess for me, too. The bishop sent a verbal message with her to come see him, adding that both of us must also make separate appointments with the stake president, Lloyd Darwin, who taught in the universityís Church History Department. I was reluctant. It was my last semester at BYU, and finals were only a couple of weeks away. But I also had no choice. The bishop told Nancy that if I did not come in "willingly," I could not stay at BYU. He had referred her to President Darwin, and she went within the week. She returned with the message that if I did not go see the bishop immediately, I could not stay at BYU.

Reluctantly, I made the appointment and talked with my bishop. Despite my conflicted feelings, I recognized that my bishop seemed genuinely interested in my welfare; but he seemed uncomfortable with the topic and told me that "cases of this nature" must be handled by President Darwin.

My interview with President Darwin a few days later shocked, humiliated, and angered me. In contrast to my bishop, it was obvious that he was both experienced in and comfortable with sexual questioning. He asked both of us (separately) questions like: "Did your breasts touch?" "Did you climax at the same time?" "What parts of her body did you touch?" "What parts of her body did you kiss?" "Did you touch her genitals with your mouth?" etc.

Many of these questions were beyond the realm of our shy and inexperienced sexual experimentation. Some of his questions to Nancy were even more specific. She wouldnít even tell me what some of them were. I could tell she was in an agony of guilt and torment, but I was angry. I tried to deflect some of the questions by saying, "Didnít Nancy already answer these questions? Why do I have to repeat this information?"

President Darwin said he would discuss my case with a woman friend on the BYU Standards Committee who "knew about" these issues. He would get back in touch. Meanwhile, all physical contact was to stop and both of us were to have weekly interviews with the bishop.

The bishop passed on instructions from President Darwin that we were to stop living together immediately. We had both paid our share of the nonrefundable rent and were bound to a lease. A few days later, I moved in with a friend who was housesitting. The move was time-consuming and disruptive. We were both worried about money. The move added to my stress. And not being able to process the changes with Nancy except over lunch on campus made matters worse.

This state of affairs lasted for an unendurable three weeks while they were deciding whether we could stay at BYU or not. Nancy and I were both meeting weekly with the bishop. Nancy was also meeting weekly with President Darwin, and I was twice asked to drive to the bishopís workplace in Spanish Fork during the week to meet with him there. Nancy was overwhelmed and physically ill with the beginning of a stomach disorder. She had to bear the added stress, I found out later from a mutual friend, of hearing President Darwin discuss me. He told her that if I didnít become more repentant I would be expelled. The pressure on her was almost unbearable, She hadnít wanted to get me involved in this way and felt completely responsible for my exposure to all of this. The relief she felt from her confession was short lived as she saw my life fall apart because of it.

I did not attempt to hide my sense of violation and anger as I continued to meet with the bishop. He was inconsistentófirst threatening to hold a bishopís court, then changing his mind. I got the impression that he was mostly passing on instructions from President Darwin; but after the decision was made to allow us to stay, President Darwin dropped out of the picture, as far as I was concerned, and threats transmitted by the bishop stopped.

By this tine, we were in the middle of finals. The stress level was so high that I couldnít eat, couldnít sleep, couldnít study, and couldnít feel anything but severe anxiety. Although I felt betrayed by Nancy, my loving feelings were not suddenly shut off. In some ways, the threats made us closer emotionally. We were very concerned about each otherís welfare. But on the other hand, even the most platonic of hugs had become strained and unnatural.

I weighed only 110 pounds to begin with; my weight dropped to under 105 within a week. I was terrified at the prospect of getting kicked out of BYU. I was so close to my goal. And my thesis advisors and teachers had made such an investment in me. How could I let them down? And crucially, I wasnít prepared to come out to my parents as a lesbian.

As the days passed and I took my exams, wondering if they mattered anyway, I began to deal more resolutely with my feelings of violation. When I went in for about my fourth or fifth interview with the bishop, I began to lie. I feigned remorse, concealed my anger, and became more compliant. I didnít know that Nancy, during her weekly interviews, literally begged the bishop and probably President Darwin as well for leniency on my behalf, She told me these details later; but at the time, she said, "They know youíre not repentant because you havenít cried." I had tried over and over to explain how important school was to me, but that was irrelevant to them. So I cried for them. After about four weeks, the bishop announced that I would be permitted to stay if I abided by certain rules. Relieved, I readily agreed to every one. But I was exhausted and embittered by the process.

The first condition was that I could not see Nancy. Their reason for this rule was that they were treating us as if we were boyfriend and girlfriend. When boyfriends and girlfriends break up, they donít see each other anymore."

Second, I was on probation at church, meaning that I could not take the sacrament and had to see the bishop weekly. Nancy and I had never missed a meeting during the last three years, but this experience snapped any link between spirituality and the Church for me. As soon as I no longer needed ecclesiastical endorsement, I stopped attending church.

Third, I had to read my bishopís "favorite" book, The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball. I obediently read it, underlining in red all of the incredibly sexist and irrational sentiments it contained. The bishop wanted to discuss it, but he just told me I was too intellectual.

Fourth, I had to enter counseling. He strongly recommended a particular professional counselor who charged $70-80 an hour. I was willing to comply, but there was no way I could afford these fees. The bishop was slow to understand a student budget but finally settled for someone at the Counseling Center (not through student services). I requested a non-Mormon woman, and they tried to comply but could only assign me to a non-Mormon man. I felt that he was competent and the therapy was helpful because I was extremely depressed, but we didnít discuss my sexuality at all.

Fifth, I had to promise not to engage in any other lesbian relationship. This requirement made me feel the utter lack of respect they had for the love Nancy and I had shared for three years. I felt demeaned by their obvious assumption that lesbianism was "just sex." And I was stunned that they made so little effort to understand.

Sixth, I had to see the bishop every Sunday indefinitely. I followed this provision for the remaining few weeks I was in the ward. My coursework was completed and those finals were my last; but I still had a campus job through my graduate program and was writing my thesis and preparing for Ph.D. programs. When my lease expired, I quickly moved out of the ward and stake. Keeping these rules didnít bring about a change in my spiritual or emotional well-being, although there was some relief from the stress. Neither the bishop nor stake president made any effort to contact me after Aprilóout of sight, out of mind. In fact, when I needed another ecclesiastical endorsement in September because I was still working on my thesis, he could barely remember me and signed the endorsement quickly.

Both the bishop and President Darwin often said that they loved me, that Heavenly Father loved me, and that these rules would help assure me a happy life. I did not feel loved. Both men completely disregarded the pain involved in ending a three-year intimate relationship. I was devastated, but there was never even any acknowledgement that what they were asking us to do were hard. I do not remember ever being asked how I felt or what I wanted. Instead, they both concentrated on recreating me as a heterosexual woman. They counseled me to date men, wear more make-up, be less intellectual, and wear more "feminine" clothes. I remember that the bishop was particularly upset when I once wore a flannel shirt to an interview or, in another slip-up, a baggy sweatshirt. My clothing was always modest; yet even when it was very conservative, I knew that it failed to please them.

President Darwinís concentration on my sexuality was deeply offensive to me. I wondered why it was so important to him. While I was going through this experience, I met two other women, one in my ward and one in my stake, who had confessed heterosexual experiences to him. In both cases, he had asked the same kinds of explicitly detailed questions and imposed identical "repentance" stipulations. He told all of us that we were "dangerous" to the righteous students on campus and that we were unworthy to attend BYU.2

Nancy stuck to her plan and left on a mission the following October. After this grueling experience, we tried, unsuccessfully, to stay in contact. She wanted a platonic but deeply emotional relationship. I didnít see how it could work in either theory or practice; she believed the theory but the practice didnít work for her very well either.

She was convinced that she just fell in love with my personality, not with my body. I couldnít understand how this separation of me from my gender and sexuality was possible. She told me on several occasions that she wished Mormons could become nuns, and I think for her the mission came close to that experience.

Although it was very difficult and took much longer than I anticipated, I finally completed my masterís degree, feeling relieved that I could be free of the social constraints that did not allow me to express how or what I did nor did not want to be. I am still nominally a member of the Church but my closest and most supportive friends are a group of wonderful Mormons who have all been excommunicated. Itís hard for me to feel much identification with the Church any more. Rather I developed a new and positive identification of myself as lesbian. Ironically, the bishopís and President Darwinís invasion and lack of respect for me and my experiences helped in my self-actualization. Every now and then, a bit of a vengeful voice inside me wants to send them a thank-you note. But usually, I just wonder which young students, struggling to understand the sexual component of their personalities, are suffering in their interviews now.


1"Susan Smith" and "Nancy" are both pseudonyms, as is "Lloyd Darwin."

2Editorís note: In another incident a few months later, not known to Susan Smith, President Darwinís similarly detailed grilling of another student suspected of lesbian activity seemed similarly voyeuristic. He was released from his ecclesiastical position shortly after she withdrew from BYU. A friend of the student telephoned him, said she lived in his stake boundaries, and needed to talk to him about a moral infraction. He said that he had been released and referred her to her bishop. She said she didnít know her bishop very well and felt shy about talking to him. He insisted that she go to her bishop. The woman then commented, "Well, it involves this woman and meó" President Darwin immediately said, "Tell me more." When she hesitatingly said, "Well, we were roommates ... he interrupted, "Why donít you come straight to my office and we can discuss it in person. That will be better." He gave her instructions on how to reach his office, asked where she was calling from, and said that he would expect her within the half hour. She did not, of course, keep the appointment, but his suddenly eager reaction at the mention of her roommate, confirmed the feeling of both his former stake member and this friend that President Darwinís concern in lesbian sex was curious.