A few weeks ago, Brigham Young University student Matt Easton had told but a handful of people — very close friends and immediate family — that he is gay. Today, he’s taking calls from media around the world, getting high-fives from national celebrities, and taking time to talk to me at QSaltLake Magazine. As valedictorian of BYU’s Department of Political Science, Easton spoke to a full Marriott Center for the convocation of BYU’s Family, Home and Social Sciences College. But it was the words “I am proud to be a gay son of God” during the speech that caught the world’s attention.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Easton said of the phone calls and social media posts he has received since the speech.
Easton began his speech congratulating those who had “tackled” challenges while attending BYU.
“I’d like to begin by saying congratulations. Congratulations to each of you for making it here; for pushing through an incredibly difficult, rigorous, and impressive degree at BYU. Congratulations to those that seriously considered dropping out but stuck with it,” Easton started his speech.
Congratulations to those who at some point have felt alone, or afraid, or uncertain while here. To those of us who have struggled with our faith, and to those who have strengthen it. Congratulations to my siblings of color, my LGBTQ friends. To students who are walking with mental illness. To all those who have constantly have stood in the face of adversity to make our campus better for future generations. You are seen, you are loved. And today you are here to celebrate.”
What Easton didn’t know was that the reaction to him saying “LGBTQ friends,” was a whoop and applause from the crowd that would stop his speech.
“I wasn’t really expecting any sort of response,” Easton said. “For me it was important to say these things, for me and the other gay kids, I needed to do this.”
“It was very overwhelming to me, in the best way possible,” he said.
“For me, I am celebrating a few of my own personal victories,” Easton continued in his speech. He regaled a story about being knocked to the ground as he was walking to class … by a deer, then becoming known in the school as “The Deer Boy.” “But I’d like to tell that deer that it didn’t get the best of me. I’m still here and I’m still hungry for venison.”
He then talked of his mother being diagnosed with terminal cancer and the family’s victory that she was in the audience to watch his speech.
“We don’t know what awaits us, or her, but we are learning to celebrate the time we have left.
Easton told the Book of Mormon story of Enos and his battle before God in prayer, then shared his own battles “in prayer with my Maker.”
“It was in these quiet moments of pain and confusion that I have felt another triumph, that of coming to terms, not with who I thought I should be, but who the Lord has made me to be.
“As such, I stand before my family, friends, and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God.”
The audience once again erupted in screams and applause and some who stood.
“I am not broken. I am loved and important in the plan of our great Creator. Each of us are,” he said.
“Four years ago, it would have been impossible for me to imagine that I would come out to my entire college,” Matt said. “It is a phenomenal feeling, and is a victory for me in and of itself.”
He then turned his attention to others in the audience who may be traveling the same path.
“Perhaps there are those of you here today who are afraid or uncertain about how to deal with unique challenges. I hope that my stories can serve as a reminder the BYU has given us the foundation to face difficult problems, both secular and spiritual, and that in the Lord, all things are possible.”
The coming out process
As a young man, Easton thought he knew he was gay, but “pushed it to the back of [his] mind.”
“I said to myself that I’ve got to get through high school and my mission, so I’m not going to think about it,” he said in an interview. “But when I got to college, people started asking me, ‘who are you dating?’ ‘when are you going to get married?’ ‘how many kids are you going to have?’” he said. “These were questions I couldn’t dodge anymore. As I laid in bed thinking about these things, I just decided I couldn’t hide anymore.”
“But I was in an environment where thinking about those things and vocalizing them, there’s not really space to do that,” he said. “It was only two years ago that I came out to my parents. Their first concern was, ‘are you in jeopardy at BYU?’ They were very supportive and advised me to be very careful.”
He found a group of friends at the college who would listen and not “pressure me in one way or another. Then slowly, in just the past year, I began to come out to my closest family members and friends. I had written about it in class, so I guess some of my professors knew.”
Then, a few weeks ago hundreds of students protested on campus about how BYU enforces its honor code.
“Almost on a whim, I think I channeled Henry David Thoreau or something and I made a poster that said, ‘I’m here, I’m queer and I deserve to feel safe.’”
The Salt Lake Tribune snapped a shot of Easton waving the banner and put it on its website.
“That was my first taste of what it would be like to be open. It was equal parts terrifying, and incredible. It was this juxtaposition of being so totally vulnerable and afraid, and feeling so totally liberated.”
“So I kind of came to this thought where I’m graduating in three weeks, I’m starting this new chapter in my life, and I’m so, so afraid I’m going to keep hiding in this closet,” he said. “So I think that’s where the idea first sparked in my head. I wanted to take any opportunity I can to be really true to myself and put myself out there.”
“So when I got offered the chance to speak at graduation, I thought this might be a good chance to come out in a way I can’t take back,” he said. “I saw my own struggle and those of my fellow classmates and I thought it would be great to take this platform and tell people that we are here, and we’re not pariahs, that we can have value and do meaningful work and be gay.”
It may surprise many to know that Easton’s speech, in its entirety, was approved by the deans of the Political Science department.
“I put my name in as one of the eight or so valedictorians in the department who wanted to speak and was chosen,” Easton explains. “So they sent me an email with the guidelines of the speech, like the theme of celebration for all, like remember to write your speech as if a general authority was present, and your speech needs to be approved two weeks before.”
“I wrote the speech being very inspired by Ellen [Degeneres]’ commencement speech, by Pete Buttigieg’s speech, Charlie Bird the Cosmo Cougar mascot who just came out. I went through a lot of role models,” he said. “I kind of had it in the back of my mind that it might be flagged as too controversial or maybe not appropriate for the graduation ceremony. So I thought I’d just throw it to them and see what they’d think.”
“To my surprise, they emailed me back saying, ‘This is great. It’s right in line with what we are wanting to say, so go for it,’” Easton said. “At that point I was so in shock that the dean’s office would be okay with giving this speech. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, now I have to give it.’”
“So, when I came out on the stand and people started cheering and applauding and some people stood up, I was just taken aback,” he said. “This community that I had so long been afraid of rejecting me, hating me, were now sending me this audible form of love and support.”
He wasn’t quite ready to go to his home ward the following Sunday, so he met up with a number of high school and other friends and went to a singles ward.
His extended family, though, has been incredibly supportive.
“We had our normal Sunday dinner with the family, and some of my aunts showed up. We pulled up some of the stories written about me and laughed about them, so it was real nice.”
“Everything I’d been so afraid of … I was afraid my family would look down on me, and they haven’t,” he said.”
The public comments through social media have varied from he went too far to he didn’t go far enough.
“Ultimately, though, I’m at peace with what I did and I think it was a very important step.”
The list of celebrities who have congratulated Easton for his speech continues to grow as nearly 200,000 people have viewed it on Youtube.
Kristin Chenoweth tweeted, “I’m very proud of you. As a straight Christian woman, I stand beside you!! I say to you: YOU ARE LOVED!”
Both Pete and Chasten Buttigieg tweeted their approval, with Chasten saying, “’I am not broken.’ Bravo, Matthew! 💪”
Jamie Lee Curtis wrote, “A valedictorian. A hero of faith and family. A ‘deer’ boy. (watch the clip) a DEAR boy. A good man. Everything we would want in a son, sister, father, mother. Just WOW! #freemomhugs”
Billie Jean King tweeted, “Living an authentic life takes strength and courage. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish now, Matthew Easton! 👏🏳️🌈 #LoveAll”
Daniel Tosh of Tosh2.0 wrote, “if that out & proud byu valedictorian wants a job at #tosh, i will hire him, sight unseen. he’ll fit right in — we’re probably the only show in hollywood that already has a mormon on staff!” to which Easton replied, “Tell me when I start @danieltosh and I’ll be sure to bring you some @BYU fudge.”
And yes, Ellen DeGeneres with “I’m proud of you, Matty. ❤”
Pete Buttigieg told BuzzFeed News he looked forward to calling Easton.
“I know that kid is going to make it easier for somebody else,” Buttigieg, told BuzzFeed News. “Imagine if you’re a terrified closeted kid in that audience at BYU and what it does for you to have that student lead that way.”
Asked about his future plans on relationships, his church, and his career, Easton says he is taking it one day at a time.
“Right now I’m focusing on my relationship with my God and my family and what the next steps are, like will I go for a graduate degree.”
He hopes that, like him looking for examples of mentors and people who inspire him through the way they run their lives, others might hear or read his words and “feel a little less alone.”
“I hope my speech can inspire other students,” he said. “I didn’t know there were so many people waiting in the wings to love and support me. When I decided it was time to do that for myself, that’s when I found out they have been here all along.” Q
See the video at youtube.com/watch?v=rLeMVykzvKY