PROVO — Matt Easton spent Monday talking to national news reporters, the last thing on his mind when he nervously stood Friday as a valedictorian and spoke during a BYU college convocation at the Marriott Center and said, "I stand before my family, friends and graduating class today to say that I am proud to be a gay son of God."
It was the first time Easton, 24, who earned a 4.0 GPA on the way to a political science degree, had come out publicly. Over the weekend and into Monday he became the subject of national headlines in publications ranging from the Washington Post to Fox News.
One reason for the national attention is the supportive cheers and applause that broke out in the Marriott Center and interrupted his talk.
"I mean, the reaction was better than what I could ever have imagined," said Easton, of Cottonwood Heights. "Four years ago it would have been impossible for me to imagine that I would come out to my entire college. It is a phenomenal feeling and it is a victory for me. I wanted to make sure that my speech and what I was saying, I was doing it for myself and not to push someone else's agenda. … I just wanted to be true and authentic to myself."
Easton spoke Friday morning at the college convocation for the 1,135 graduates of BYU's College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. He was one of a more than a half-dozen valedictorians of different programs within the college but was selected to speak by faculty after answering a questionnaire about his college achievements, which included undergraduate research that resulted in a paper that may be published and time spent in the a cappella group "Beyond Measure."
Some media incorrectly reported that Easton spoke at BYU's commencement, but that larger event for all of the university's 6,960 graduates from the entire school year — a record — took place on Thursday.
Easton said he had to submit his remarks to the dean's office for approval. The remarks were approved, confirmed the college dean, Ben Ogles, who made news last year when he said in a campus devotional that the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints repudiates sexual assault and requires consent for all sexual contact.
The convocation's main speaker on Friday was former Apple vice president Greg Porter, who returned to BYU this year to finish his degree and graduated with his son. Easton said his experience during the speech and since has been a pleasant surprise. He has been contacted by CNN, the New York Times, Good Morning America and others.
"To give that speech and have the amount of support that has flooded in for me — and the love — has just been overwhelming," he said. "My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to fulfill obligations for others and this speech is the first step in learning how to take care of myself and listen to what's important to me."
Easton served as a Latter-day Saint missionary speaking Korean in the Australia Sydney Mission. He said he postponed thoughts about his sexuality until he returned and began school at BYU amid questions from others about dating, marriage and family.
He called BYU a mixed bag for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. He shared his same-sex attraction with some friends and faculty and found support but said he also hurt when he sometimes heard an off-hand comment from another student.
Another reason for the national attention is the reputation that comes with BYU's annual rank among the nation's most LGBTQ-unfriendly schools in the Princeton Review. Easton said the lack of a campus LGBT club sends a signal to others.
"That kind of rhetoric can be harmful and confusing and lonely, and I definitely experienced that," he said, adding, "I wasn't always certain that I could share that part of myself with other people for fear of how people would react."
Still, Easton said BYU was a net positive for him.
After he shared his mother's terminal cancer diagnosis and other stories of struggle during his speech, he told his fellow graduates, "I hope that my stories can serve as a reminder that BYU has given us the foundation to face difficult problems, both secular and spiritual, and that with the Lord, all things are possible."
"I am not broken," he added. "I am loved and important to the plan of our great creator. Each of us are."
Over the past year, Easton interned for Mitt Romney's U.S. Senate campaign and engaged in a news-making mentored research project with political science professor John Holbein on the "Democracy of Dating" and helped present the paper at a conference in Chicago. Holbein and Easton are in the process of submitting their research on political party and dating preferences for publication.
"From the chance that I've had to be teaching assistant to a research assistant, opportunities that are usually only available for grad students, there are a lot of resources at BYU, academically, and a lot of support spiritually — weekly devotionals and chances to incorporate spiritual ideas into education are a really integral part, I think, of learning how to face spiritual challenges."
BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcome LGBTQ students and members. BYU's Honor Code prohibits "homosexual behavior," including any same-sex sexual relations, and prohibits heterosexual sexual relations outside of marriage. The church also proscribes acting on same-sex attraction.
The university has attracted headlines the past few months.
In February, one of the students acting in the role of the BYU mascot Cosmo this year came out publicly in a guest opinion he wrote for the Deseret News. That man, Charlie Bird, also received national attention.
In early April, hundreds of students staged a rally against what they said is sometimes unfair, harsh or intrusive enforcement of the school's Honor Code. The protest was not an effort to change the honor code, but to draw attention to how the Honor Code Office interacts with students.
The new director of BYU's Honor Code Office, Kevin Utt, responded with a Q&A published by the university saying that he had met with student advocates and would meet with more.
On April 4, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU, updated its policies to allow for baptism and baby blessing of children living with LGBTQ parents without First Presidency approval. Now a local leader can authorize the blessing and baptism, which is the same procedure for heterosexual parents. It also removed the label of apostate from those who enter same-sex marriages.100 comments on this story
Support for Easton also resonated on Twitter. Singer-actor Kristin Chenoweth, who has performed multiple times at BYU and with the Tabernacle on Temple Square, tweeted "I’m very proud of you. As a straight Christian woman, i stand beside you!! I say to you: YOU ARE LOVED!!!!!"
More important to Easton were the tweets from Latter-day Saints who identify as LGBTQ and felt supported by his comments.
"Some people say I've gone too far," he said. "Other people say I haven't gone far enough. Ultimately for me, it just came down to what I felt was right for myself, and I feel like I've done that. I hope other people see that and be inspired by what I've shared."