BY KIRSTEN STEWART
(c) 2001, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
Richard "Ricky" Escoto, a gay Mormon and Brigham Young University student, always considered the LDS Church's stance on homosexuality to be benevolent, even accepting.
"I figured as long as I remained chaste the church would welcome me," he said.
But Escoto has found it is not that simple.
BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently suspended Escoto under the university's honor code for violations related to disputed allegations of homosexual conduct.
According to Escoto, as well as another gay BYU student suspended two weeks ago, being gay without engaging in homosexual activity may be permitted at the Provo school, but students risk being sanctioned for even talking about same-sex attraction or associating -- however chastely -- with other gays or lesbians.
On March 13, the school suspended Escoto, a sophomore from Los Angeles, Calif., on four counts: that he received gifts from other men, visited gay-oriented Internet chat rooms on his home computer, was seen on "dates" with at least three different men and was found "making out" with another male in his apartment. The two-semester suspension begins April 25.
Escoto, 21, disputes the allegations. He says the school has "no proof of anything," but instead relied on the false testimony of "bigoted" roommates.
His only crime, he says, was confiding his "issues with same-sex attraction" to a roommate with whom he was particularly close. Word quickly got out among the other roommates who turned him in to BYU's Honor Code Office, he said.
BYU's strict honor code, which must be signed by all students, lists "homosexual conduct" among other prohibitions under the heading "sexual misconduct." The reference to homosexuality, added in the late 1990s, doesn't elaborate.
"The Honor Code is not a laundry list of do's and don'ts," said Carri Jenkins, BYU spokeswoman, who confirmed Escoto's suspension but declined to discuss details. "It's not going to go through and spell out everything involved. Students have the maturity to decipher that and listen to what church leaders are telling us."
Less than 2 percent to 3 percent of BYU's 30,000 students are referred to the Honor Code Office annually, most for minor dress code violations. Jenkins would not say how many referrals are related to homosexual conduct or result in suspensions.
"But it's not many," she said.
Contrary to what some students believe, "There are no sting operations. No one is going out and asking students their sexual orientation. It's not something they ask when they apply to the university," said Jenkins, referring to news stories in the '60s and '70s about campus police spot-checking gay dance clubs for license plates of BYU students, or posing as gay men and soliciting sexual favors from male stu- dents.
The school's policy follows church guidelines that differentiate between homosexual tendencies and homosexual acts, Jenkins said.
There is some confusion among students, however, about what precisely constitutes a homosexual act.
"They don't spell it out in the honor code. I just thought it meant no sex," said Matthew Grierson, 21, who was told March 12 to either withdraw from the university or face a two-semester suspension. Grierson, a senior from Dallas, Texas, who was on a full academic scholarship at BYU, withdrew.
Grierson said he was reprimanded for allegedly kissing a man on campus and holding a man's hand at a Provo mall. He admitted only to the latter.
Escoto submitted a formal denial of his roommates' allegations and included character reference letters from fellow students and a former BYU professor living in California.
But in the end, he said, school officials took his roommates' word over his.
"Their official stance is they don't need further proof. They just need to determine it to be more probable or not," he said.
Escoto contacted the American Civil Liberties Union but was told he has no case against the private institution.
While the Honor Code may not spell out what behavior is unacceptable, a list of conditions Escoto and Grierson must meet to be readmitted does.
The eight provisions detailed in Escoto's March 26 letter from Lane Fischer, BYU's associate dean of students, include: meeting regularly with religious leaders and a professional counselor approved by the Honor Code Office, who will attest that Escoto has refrained from engaging in "inappropriate same-sex behavior, including but not limited to dating, holding hands, kissing, romantic touching, showering, clubbing, etc., as well as regular association with homosexual men."
The letter also reminds Escoto it is "inappropriate for a BYU student to advocate for the [homosexual] lifestyle, speak or write papers for public consumption, demonstrate in a public forum, or advertise your same-sex preference in any other public way."
Grierson's letter of reprimand mostly reiterates these points, and reminds him that "it is inappropriate to demonstrate intimate affection for a person of the same gender."
Jenkins said an authorized counselor does not have to be LDS or affiliated with LDS Social Services, which operates a counseling center on campus, nor are students required to undergo reparative or conversion therapy.
That's not exactly true, said Grierson, who has seen a counselor at LDS Social Services for more than a year.
"They don't call it reparative therapy, but that's what it is. The goal was to get to a place where my counselor could testify I was making progress," he said. "It was nice to have someone to talk to, but it wasn't like I was making progress being straight."
The church's continued insistence on changing a person's sexual orientation irks some church members, particularly parents of gay children.
Mac Madsen, a Mormon and BYU alumnus whose daughter is a lesbian, says, "Ultimately [church leadership] will have to relent the belief that homosexuality is a learned behavior."
But, according to LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills, the approach is in keeping with church practices and the messages delivered to members by its leaders.
"Church leaders compassionately assist those who struggle with same-gender attraction. Professional counseling may be a part of that assistance," he said.
Bills pointed out that during an October 1998 General Conference LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said the church welcomes gays and lesbians as "sons and daughters of God," who like any other faithful member must refrain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage or be subject to church discipline.
Until now, Escoto has not openly admitted to being gay, telling school officials and friends instead that he has "issues with same-sex attraction," or "SSA" as it is commonly referred to on campus.
But Escoto, who hesitated to "come out" because of what he perceives to be the church's anti-gay stance, told The Salt Lake Tribune, "Yes, I'm gay."