Monday, July 27, 2020

I Work in Building Named after a Man Who Said Homophobic Things

Me in front of the Wilk in 2018

Disclaimer: Like all my posts, I speak only for myself here. I do not speak for my employer nor do I speak for other queer people associated with BYU. And I certainly don’t speak for the many people who are calling for buildings to be renamed and monuments to be removed. You have not yet understood my message if you attempt to use my words to silence or diminish the voices of those who are expressing pain and hurt and are asking for change.  

 

“Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” I read the first question from the 36 Questions that Lead to Love to my brother. When it was my turn I responded, “Ernest L. Wilkinson.” 

 

“Who?” my brother asked.

 

“He was president of BYU in the 50s and 60s, and he said some pretty homophobic things. I think if he got to know me, I could change his mind.” 

 

Despite spending nine years of my life at BYU, I really know very little about Ernest L. Wilkinson. Most of what I know about him I read in a biography about someone else. During my eight years as a student I was in a building named after him almost daily. And now as an employee, I sit in an office in a building that bears his name. 

 

It occurred to me one day while I was sitting in my office in the Wilkinson Student Center, that I was sitting in building named after someone who I don’t believe would have supported the hiring of an openly gay person like me. I tried to sit with this feeling and explore it. As I sat in my office chair, swiveling back and forth, I recognized that the feeling I was experiencing was hope. 

 

I don’t know how all the LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff at BYU feel about regularly entering a building named after someone who said homophobic things. In fact, I’m confident that others feel quite differently than I do—and that’s okay. But to me, working in a building named after Ernest L. Wilkinson feels like a victory. It feels like progress. And it feels like a small bit of redemption.

 

Not everyone was homophobic in Wilkinson’s day. It would be unfair to dismiss what he said because of the time he lived in. I believe he could’ve been more kind and I wish he had been. From a quick Google search, I learned that he died six years before I was born. We didn’t even get the chance to know one another. 

 

When I review my journals from my early 20s, I find a lot of homophobic things that I believed and wrote. It’s frankly quite disturbing the things that I believed about homosexuals, and I’m the gay one. Had I died at 23, the only writings I would have left on LGBTQ issues would have been rather embarrassing. My views on same-sex attraction didn’t start to seriously change until I neared 30. That’s when I really started to get to know some gay people. I could hate myself just fine, but once I started to really get to know LGBTQ folks, my heart shifted and changed rapidly. In the last seven years I have experienced a monumental shift in my thinking simply because I really got to know people that I had judged and misjudged. Ernest L. Wilkinson died 42 years ago. I wonder how his heart would’ve changed with an added 42 years of growth and experience. 

 

I believe in redemption. I believe that most people, when given the chance, will do better and be better (I mean, that’s the whole message of The Good Place). I’ve seen this happen again and again. I don’t ever ask for it or expect it, but a lot of people have apologized to me since I came out. They apologize for things they said or did that I usually don’t even remember. But they remember, and they want me to know that they’re sorry and are going to be better. I don’t know exactly what dinner with Ernest L. Wilkinson would look like, but I imagine there would be some sacred moments of growth for both of us. 

 

The lyrics from this short song from Steven Universe encapsulate the message I would have for the man that the building I work in is named after:

 

I don't need you to respect me, I respect me
I don't need you to love me, I love me
But I want you to know you could know me
If you change your mind
If you change your mind
If you change your mind
Change your mind

 

I’ve spent so much time in this building. As a gay student, I sat on a stage in the Wilkinson Student Center with three other LGBTQ students as we shared our experiences as sexual and gender minorities. As a gay student, I sat in the Wilkinson Student Center as a panelist at BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review and spoke about being LGBTQ at BYU. As a gay employee, I’ve sat in my office in the Wilkinson Student Center with numerous LGBTQ students as I have heard their stories. And as an openly gay employee working in the Wilkinson Student Center, many people have now had the chance to get to know me. 

 

Fun photos, huh?

Even for the students who don’t get to know me personally, I have tried to make the Wilkinson Student Center more welcoming and beautiful. The hallway leading to my office was just bare, white walls when I was hired last August. At the end of last year, I volunteered to choose pictures to be hung on the walls. I chose seven stock photos of BYU campus that I thought were beautiful and fun. My hope is that the pictures will bring a smile to the faces of the students who walk down the hall. This corner of the Wilkinson Student Center is a little better because I work here, and that feels like a victory to me. I believe that as more openly LGBTQ people are hired or come out at BYU, and as all of us who work and study at BYU, whether we’re LGBTQ or not, try to make campus more beautiful and welcoming, that the campus will be more and more enriched. And I believe that if Ernest L. Wilkinson could get to know all of us, and in particular learn how integral to our BYU community our LGBTQ members are, that he would be thrilled to have us working in a building that bears his name.


I was unaware of the homophobic things that Ernest L. Wilkinson said until just a few years ago. It was painful to come across and read his words. I hurt for the LGBTQ students who heard him say those awful things back when he was university president. And I felt grateful that those words were no longer being said. I also wondered if his homophobic words were better kept hidden in the past or if it would be best to bring them to light again. I’m still not sure, but I purposefully haven’t shared them here. 

 

Now, as I think about Ernest L. Wilkinson regularly, I don’t feel a need to rename the building I work in (although there is no building I’d rather work in than the Jane Elizabeth Manning James Building). Personally, working in the Wilkinson Student Center reminds that I need to let people know me and that I need to be seen. I need to share my own story and experiences as a gay person and I need to elevated the stories of other LGBTQ people at BYU. I believe that most people who say homophobic things would change their minds if they took the chance to get to know us.  

9 comments:

Becky said...

You are amazing and I have no doubt that you would have changed President Wilkinson’s beliefs.

Nate Voorhies said...

Ben to know you is to love you.

Becky Edwards said...

Ben, Your article brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your wonderful perspective. And I would LOVE it if they named a building after Jane Manning James!

Treble Clef ♪ said...

Excellent as always Ben!

Becky Edwards said...

What a beautiful article, Ben. It brought tears to my eyes. Yes, I think getting to know you would definitely change Wilkinson's mind. And it is gratifying to see how far we have come.

And I would LOVE to see a building named after Jane Manning James!

Halvorsen Family said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. Beautifully said. You are making a vital difference:

Kathy Alexander said...

Very well put! I always enjoy reading what you write. It makes me think and gives me a different perspective, which I like! Thank you.

scott.jones48@gmail.com said...

I really do appreciate the hopefulness of your blog post and your willingness to think the best in people. I really do hope that the progress you mention becomes a reality and applaud the redemption you feel. I will say that 40 years ago, I was approached by BYU with a wonderful offer to do a joint Law Degree and MBA. While considering which University to attend for graduate studies, I was reading as much as I could about BYU and what it was like to attend school there. I ran across a talk by Ernest Wilkinson about homosexuals where he stated that campus was "contaminated by your presence" and asked that they leave school following the assembly and he would be happy to refund their money. I was so upset by this talk and others and the honor code that enforced these prior statements that I scheduled personal meetings with both Deans of the Law School and the Business School. I rejected their offer and told them both that I could not attend a University that harbored such open hostility towards its own students. I have considered myself an LGBTQ ally since high school. Attending BYU really was not an option for me given my strong feelings.

Kastle said...

Well said as always. Thank you, Ben!