Utah’s Brigham Young University is under investigation after it ended gender-affirming speech therapy for trans students earlier this year.
The Mormon-based institution in Provo, Utah discontinued the services in February, part of a master’s program in speech-language pathology, after determining that transgender people using it to modify their voices to align with their gender identities wasn’t consistent with church guidelines to “counsel against social transition,” according to C. Shane Reese, the university’s academic vice president.
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The church defines social transitioning as changing one’s dress or grooming or name or pronouns to present oneself as other than his or her sex assigned at birth.
The Council on Academic Accreditation launched an investigation in the spring to determine if the program remains in compliance with accreditation standards. That investigation is ongoing.
Three trans individuals were directly affected by the end of the program.
“The whole time I was there, everyone was nice and affirming,” said one trans client. “Everyone I directly interacted with was wonderful.”
ASHA, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, says ending gender-affirming services for transgender clients “is in direct opposition” to the practice expected of its members.
“ASHA recognizes gender-affirming voice and communication services for transgender and gender diverse populations within the speech-language pathology scope of practice,” the association said in a statement.
“Therefore, BYU is putting its certified speech-language pathologists in an untenable position.”
R.J. Risueño, a former BYU undergraduate, is now a licensed speech-language pathologist working with transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Arizona. He sees the decision at BYU as discriminatory.
“By denying services to transgender individuals, BYU is preventing their student clinicians to embrace a core component of the gospel of Jesus Christ: loving their neighbor,” he said. “In return, a community in need is left without access to essential services.”
Because it is controlled by a church, BYU has religious exemptions under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization when application of the law would be inconsistent with its religious tenets.
Speech-language pathologists in private practice from around Utah offered to provide services for the trans students, including the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and Rocky Mountain University, a private school in Provo.
“We will gladly accept anyone who was affected by BYU’s policy change,” said Dr. Brett Myers, director of clinical education in speech-language pathology at the University of Utah.
That institution has 25 transgender clients receiving gender-affirming speech therapy, one of the largest providers in the country.
Wendy Chase, the director of clinical education and an assistant professor in the speech program at Rocky Mountain, said she is also happy to take on the BYU clients and “continue the work that’s already been done.”
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, said the civil rights organization is monitoring the situation at BYU.
“We are closely monitoring it because there is a large LGBTQ+ student population at BYU. … There are a number of alumni that are LGBTQ+ and we’re seeing a lot of pressure from a number of areas,” Southwick said. “We believe that right now, BYU has a system of discrimination that is on the brink of collapse.”
In a speech last fall at the university, Latter-day Saint Apostle Jeffrey Holland said the school and students should defend the tenets of the faith, specifically “marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” even if that costs the university some “professional associations and certifications.”
And in February, the Department of Education dismissed an investigation into how LGBTQ students are disciplined at BYU, saying it doesn’t have enforcement authority at the private religious school.
That complaint came after the university said it would continue to enforce a ban on same-sex dating even after that language was removed from the written version of the school’s honor code.
The university has also tightened rules against dissent, after students lit the “Y” in “BYU” on the mountain above the school in rainbow colors.
“It’s one thing after another,” said one of the affected trans students. “It’s destabilizing and makes you worry about what’s coming next. Losing this therapy is especially hard.”