"Mississippi" and "liberal" are not two words normally found in the same sentence. But for Michael, a 23-year-old virgin who was raised a Mormon and spent three years at BYU, Mississippi was Baghdad by the Bayou compared to Provo, Utah.
Michael, briefly on BYU's football team and a star on its track team, graduated from the school in Provo in 2003 and headed to Mississippi State to pursue his masters. He quickly lost his celibacy and had his first drink, making up for years in the closet and living what he calls a very sheltered life.
"You wouldn't think that going from Provo to Mississippi would be a change as far as liberal culture goes, but it actually was for me. Mississippi was much more liberal," said Michael. He quickly met a member of the Mississippi State track team who was gay, got invited to a party and met a man whom he dated for nine months.
"As soon as I left BYU, I decided I was finally done with the [Mormon] church, kind of done with the old way of doing things. ... It was almost surreal to be at this party where everybody or almost everybody was gay and not have to worry about the fact that somebody from the university might find out about it."
BYU has been in the news after it suspended star basketball player Brandon Davies this winter for admitting to having premarital sex with his girlfriend. That's a no-no, according to the school's strict honor code, which all students sign. It prohibits premarital sex and drinking, among other things. While saying you are gay is no longer automatic grounds for a violation (it was when Michael was a student), acting on being gay is.
Michael is an articulate and intelligent man who has thought a lot about his upbringing as a Mormon and what it meant to his sexual identity. He knew he was gay when considering BYU and knew full well what he was signing with the honor code.
"It's explained to you, you read it over, you know what you're signing and I knew what BYU would mean to me and I was aware of myself enough at that point that I knew I was not going to be an out individual at BYU," he said.
"Part of the admissions process to BYU is you have to sit down with your local bishop -- they call it an ecclesiastic endorsement -- and signing the honor code and going over it is a part of it. I think you do it once a year. It's something that is not hidden and it's reiterated every year."
Michael grew up in a small town in Central California, a region called the "Nation's Salad Bowl" for its agricultural industry. He was raised Mormon by parents who were teachers, and his dad was also the football coach at the local high school. He had his first gay memory when he was 9 or 10.
Michael said he was not tormented during adolescence by his attraction to men, since he buried that side of himself and directed his energies to sports, where he excelled at track and football and also played on the golf and basketball teams. Homosexuality was not something discussed in his conservative rural town.
Things changed when the Internet finally arrived to his town when he was a high school junior. He started connecting online with other gay people, and set up a separate email account for his communications. Still, he never met anyone in person and his sexuality was something that remained repressed.
Why go to BYU?
In explaining why he chose to go to BYU knowing he was gay, Michael reflects on the prominence the school has for anyone growing up Mormon.
"I think anybody else who's Mormon would tell you, going to BYU is kind of something you just grow up with," he said. "Everybody in everybody's family [his parents are an exception] went to BYU. You grow up rooting for the Cougars. I don't want to say it's like being a Notre Dame fan and being Catholic, but it's similar. That's where people want you to go and that's where you want to go from a very early age.
"People want to grow up going to BYU and they have this internal roadmap in their head. They go to BYU, they go on a mission, they get married, they have kids. It's like that checklist they go through. That's certainly something that's promoted through families who are Mormon and through the Mormon Church. That's the ideal and when you're 6 or 7, everybody's striving for that ideal because you don't know any better."
Until he was a senior at BYU, Michael never had an issue with the honor code. "I was willing to sacrifice other parts of my life in order to see where I could take sports," he said. Working out and practicing for up to six hours a day, along with his studies, didn't leave Michael much time for anything else. He does admit, though, to breaking the Mormon Church rule against masturbation ("you're recklessly using the powers of procreation'), even though it's not in the honor code. But he is certain that some of his roommates did not even go that far, saying, "there are some pretty pious people at BYU."
Michael excelled in field events for BYU's Top 20 track program, earning several honors and even securing an invitation to the 2004 Olympic trials. He was so focused on sports that it was easy for him to abide by the honor code. At the same time, he wasn't going to lie. He did not go on a Mormon mission because the interview process asks about homosexuality.
He has a nuanced view of the honor code and explains why he never broke it.
"I believe in keeping my word," he said. "I signed the honor code and understood what I was signing and did my best to live up to that. I always had the attitude that these guys are paying for my education because I was on a scholarship and I'm coming to their university. I had the opportunity to go to other universities but I chose to go there and it's their money, their rules."
He said he has no sympathy for people who willfully break the code, but does empathize with those who feel they just don't fit in at the school.
"I found BYU to be an incredibly lonely place," he said. "Everybody there has this internal checklist of how life is supposed to go and if you're not working off that same checklist it can be an incredibly lonely place. ... It was incredibly difficult to form friendships there if you didn't follow along in that same path as everybody else. I can see and understand how people who go to BYU and who are not following that same checklist, then reach out for whatever is there and easily fall into the situation where they break the honor code."
He also decries what he terms hypocrisy in enforcing the code and what he says is "both an explicit and implicit push to have students tattletale on one another."
By his senior year, Michael realized that he had no close friends at BYU, which he attributes to knowing he was different and not following the path chosen by most. He turned to the Internet and met his first gay person that year.
"I was a fairly naïve individual when it came to - I know it sounds clichéd - the gay world. So I was really, really lucky. The first people I ever met who were gay were an older couple who had lived in Provo for 20 years. I was really lucky in that there was nothing sexual between us, purely a friendship. They sort of introduced me to gay people."
He then began his coming out process. His dad, who meant the world to him, was ill and Michael told him he was gay before he died. He also came out to his mom and sister. He enrolled at Mississippi State so he could be himself and not have an honor code to abide by. He no longer considers himself a Mormon.
"Anybody who goes to a religious university feels this pressure to keep up with the Joneses," he said. "You see all these people who are living what at least on the surface you would consider great lives, doing all the right things, and you are always trying to live up to the expectation. It was pretty neat for the first time to not feel the burden. At 23, it was my first experience of actually doing what I wanted, to figure out what I wanted to do." Even a little choice like picking your soda is restricted at BYU, he added, since caffeinated soft drinks aren't sold on campus.
Now 30 and single, Michael is a PhD candidate in psychology at a midwestern university. He plans on specializing in pediatric neuropsychology, working with children who have seizure disorders and tic disorders. In addition to his family, he is out to his closest friends.
He still roots for BYU in sports and said that the school was "a neat place to go to in many ways." Sports, both intramural and competitive are very popular, which Michael attributes to the strict nature of the school, since sports are about the only acceptable outlet for students. He is philosophical about his time there.
"I don't have any regrets but I would never go back. I got a fantastic education there, which I am extremely grateful for. They paid for college, so I left college with no debt and the BYU track program is a top-notch track program.
"But knowing what I know now, I wouldn't want to repeat it."
Editor's note: Michael is the pseudonym for a BYU athlete who attended the school from 2001-2003. Outsports has verified his identity and he freely shared details of his story. He has chosen to remain anonymous because he will soon be getting into private medical practice and does not this story to be the first thing prospective patients see if they do an Internet search.)