Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.
I was the only person in the room to step forward. I felt vulnerable. But I wanted to be there to learn and to take part in the conversation. The year was 2016, and I was participating in my first meeting with Common Ground — an NCAA initiative that brings together athletic administrators and LGBTQ advocates with the goal of creating inclusive environments for athletes of all sexual orientations, all gender identities and all religions. It’s a lofty and noble goal.
Being there as the lone representative of Brigham Young University — a school known for its religious-based honor code — I wasn’t sure how I might be received.
Early in the two-day conference in Indianapolis, a group facilitator had us all get into a big circle. She then asked people to take a step closer into the center of the circle if a certain statement she said applied.
The idea was for us to see who else was literally standing on common ground. After some time, the prompts grew more personal. Step forward if you consider yourself spiritual or Christian. Then the facilitator asked those who are “Mormon” to step forward.
I was the only one. I began to feel anxious, and my mind raced with questions. “What are these people thinking about me? How are they judging me and misjudging me?” I felt utterly alone.
Later, during our substantive conversations, someone mentioned Brigham Young University in a comment. And though I was in the back of the room, right then just about every eyeball turned to me, expecting a response.
I explained a bit about Brigham Young University, our honor code and our student athletes. During my comments, however, a different participant grew vocal and even angry. I tried my best to listen despite the interruption.
I offered a silent prayer to know how to respond. I did my best to thank him for expressing his sentiments, even though I was a bit shaken by the exchange.
I was surprised by what happened next. A woman raised her hand. I recognized her as the director of inclusion for the NCAA, and who happens to be a member of the LGBTQ community. I had only met her through email. She said, “I think there’s something important for the group to remember. We didn’t invite BYU. They asked to be here.” She continued by saying, “I think that says something about BYU’s intentions that is worth keeping in mind during these conversations.”
I was blown away. She used her position of privilege, in that situation, to speak up for me in a way that I couldn’t for myself. And she taught me an important lesson about what it means to be an ally. As the facilitator moved on, a different woman, who others had referred to as the godmother of lesbian rights in athletics, turned around in her seat to face me, looked me in the eye, placed her hand on my knee and asked, “Liz, are you OK?”
I suddenly went from feeling alone to having allies and to feeling respected and valued. In a remarkable turn of events, Common Ground went on to hold its 2018 meeting in Provo, Utah, on the campus of Brigham Young University. BYU President Kevin J Worthen addressed the gathering and spoke about BYU’s mission statement and our belief, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that every person is a beloved son or daughter of heavenly parents. He encouraged the attendees to hold us to that high standard in how we treated them.
I learned that sometimes it takes standing alone to appreciate just how much common ground we share.
Liz Darger is the senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator at Brigham Young University.