BYU Yanks, Then Restores Gay Photography Exhibit

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On Dec. 5 Brigham Young University officials pulled photographs of gay BYU students from a class exhibit in the school’s fine arts building. 

Four days later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-owned school restored the photographs, blaming their removal on a “miscommunication.”

The pictures in question were taken by student J. Michael Wiltbank, a 28-year-old Mormon photography major. As part of a project in BYU professor Paul Adams’ class, Wiltbank took portrait photographs of BYU students who identify as gay. He placed each photograph alongside a portrait of a supportive (and not necessarily straight) family member or friend in that student’s life.

Only, Wiltbank did not identify the sexuality (or names) of either individual.

“I feel that labels only create separation and division and further ungrounded stereotypes,” wrote Wiltbank in a Dec. 5 post to his blog at jmichaelwiltbank.blogspot.com. “We never know who may identify themselves as homosexual and I felt that not labeling these images would force us as a society to question what it is to be homosexual.”

In the same post, Wiltbank wrote that he was surprised and saddened that officials had taken down his work. Indeed, he wrote that he only found out when a friend alerted him that the pieces had disappeared and other works in the exhibit had been “rearranged” so that nothing appeared to be missing.

“While I knew this topic would be controversial (in fact I expected that this would ruffle some feathers) I never thought that they would bring it down,” Wiltbank wrote at the time. “Also I wish that they would have asked me to remove it, or at least had the courtesy to ask that I remove it or discuss it with me prior to its removal.”

Four days later on Dec. 9, the school returned the photographs to the exhibit, citing a “miscommunication among administrators of BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications” for their removal.

“When that action became apparent after the weekend, college administrators reviewed the decision. Because the project does not violate BYU’s Honor Code, the photographs were re-hung with the student’s permission Tuesday afternoon,” the school said in a statement released the same day.

BYU revised its honor code — the moral guidelines by which all students must abide — in April 2007 to clarify its position on homosexuality. Currently, students cannot be disciplined for merely identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual, but students of any orientation can get in trouble for having sex outside of marriage.

“Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards,” the code reads. “… One’s stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity.”

Before the restoration of the photographs, Wiltbank wrote that he intended to finish his degree at BYU and to abide by the honor code he had signed.

“This is the ethical and honest thing to do,” he said.

Still, he added that he was “pleased” at the university’s decision.

“The whole point of my project and the exhibit was to promote dialogue and discussion and, I hoped, increased understanding among those who might otherwise feel their differences were too great to overcome,” he said. “I think the administration’s action has been a good example of that increased understanding.”

Although the photos’ temporary removal drew much criticism across several gay rights activists’ blogs, including those of Washington, DC-based blogger and writer John Aravosis and sex advice columnist and journalist Dan Savage, Wiltbank said he didn’t harbor any grudges.

“What I wrote on my blog about the removal has been construed as bitter, but I didn’t think it was,” he told the Deseret News. “I think what some said on the Internet went against what I was trying to do with the exhibit.”

To read more about Wiltbank’s photography, including his artist’s statement for the exhibit, visit jmichaelwiltbank.blogspot.com.

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