Schuyler Bailar reads the invitation glowing from his iPhone and tries to tamp down the nerves already rising like water. His racing mind spirals around the question sent to him in a text.
It’s the last week of October, and Bailar is in Provo, Utah, attending a conference at Brigham Young University. With his Harvard swimming season opener just nine days away, Bailar had inquired about accessing BYU’s pool, so he could squeeze in a workout. He expected to receive a window of hours the pool would be open. He did not expect to receive this: a personal message from a BYU swim coach with not only the pool’s hours, but also an invitation to join the team’s practice.
The kind gesture is loaded with complexity for Bailar, a transgender swimmer who was recruited to the Harvard women’s swim team before beginning his transition in 2014 and joining the men’s. He was wary to step onto the campus of BYU, the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is here because, for the first time, BYU is hosting Common Ground, a program sponsored by the NCAA that brings together people in sports from the LGBTQ community and the religious community for deep conversations — the kind that are rare in a polarized country where the two seldom intersect, much less interact.
Bailar knows about BYU’s stringent honor code, which forbids “homosexual behavior” and has been criticized by many in the LGBTQ community and beyond. So when the 22-year-old packed a couple of business casual outfits and his Speedo to board a plane for Utah, he also carried with him a web of preconceptions.
Those notions compound an already nerve-inducing experience for Bailar. Before diving into any new pool, he can’t help but worry: Will someone recognize him? Will they stare at his exposed body? Will they spew harsh words his way?
Now Bailar is faced with a choice. Will he swim alone, choosing to train at a time when the pool will be empty? Or will he join the BYU swim team during its practice?
Clutching his phone, he opens a new text message and starts to type.
The Common Ground participants are about to embark on a daunting task. Seated at round tables in a BYU ballroom, they are athletics directors from public and private schools, conference commissioners, student-athletes, lawyers, professors, inclusion experts and religious leaders. About 60 in all, roughly half of them identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. About half also practice a religion — including five people from BYU who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some are both LGBTQ and religious; some are neither.
The eclectic group has gathered for the fourth iteration of a think tank the NCAA started in 2014 — one designed as a platform for uncomfortable but needed discussion about deeply personal questions. Differences abound, but participants hope to remain focused on the one important thing they have in common: A shared goal to make college athletics a place where all student-athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or faith, can thrive. Together, they are undertaking this pursuit in an unexpected place. BYU is one of several NCAA faith-based schools that grapple with LGBTQ issues. Ninety-nine percent of the university’s students are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which places a heavy emphasis on the role of family built upon the marriage of a man and a woman. The church teaches that feelings of same-sex attraction are not a sin, but acting on them is. All students and faculty are required to follow the BYU honor code.
BYU’s involvement in this conversation almost certainly will invite conflict and more criticism — from people who think they are going too far and from others who think they aren’t going far enough. But hosting Common Ground here brings this crucial national dialogue to a campus at the heart of the struggle, and to students and staff who are actively seeking common ground of their own.
“Sports can be and historically has been something that brings us together,” says BYU President Kevin Worthen, welcoming the group to campus. “But there is now skepticism about sports and particularly about college athletics that didn’t exist 20 years ago. … There are people who are skeptical about the role of college athletics in higher education and its ability to do anything meaningful, let alone topics like this.”
As the sun shines through the ballroom windows and the Wasatch Mountains tower in the distance, Worthen explains that a core principle at BYU is that every individual is “created in the image of God” and that “each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”
He is not trying to proselytize, he clarifies, but instead seeks the participants’ assistance.
“Please help us,” he says. “Remind us of that truth that we believe in.”
For this group, there will be moments in the coming days when differences feel insurmountable. But in this room, for now at least, there’s hope.
Liz Darger, senior associate athletics director at BYU, speaks to a crowd of BYU students, faculty, staff and community members at a public panel about the Common Ground initiative.
In order to understand each other, they must speak the same language. That’s why the Common Ground facilitator has taped three dozen terms on one wall of the ballroom and asked participants to match them with a series of definitions.
One half of the wall features terms related to faith. “Sacred.” “Evangelical.” “Spirituality.”
The other half features terms related to sexual orientation and gender identity. “Misgendering.” “Allyship.” “Cisgender.”
A volunteer reads each definition aloud. “Any adds?” The facilitator asks the group. “Any clarifications?”
Steve Sandberg, BYU’s general counsel, grows anxious as the group inches closer to the paper on the wall labeled “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” That morning, Common Ground leaders asked Sandberg to review the definition that had been pulled off the internet for this activity. He felt an unexpected rush of pressure at the request. How could he, in just four or five sentences, encapsulate his church’s identity? How could he succinctly explain the beliefs that guide every aspect of his life?
Sandberg listens as a volunteer reads the definition he wrote aloud:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He was born of Mary, lived a perfect life, performed miracles, bled from every pore in the Garden of Gethsemane, died on the cross, rose on the third day, appeared again to His disciples, and lives and guides His restored church through living apostles and prophets. The Church also teaches that all human beings are beloved spirit sons or daughters of heavenly parents, and that the family is central to His plan for us. Sacred ordinances performed by priesthood authority, such as baptism by immersion, the laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and family sealings in temples, provide for all of God’s children to return to live in His presence.”
Sandberg understands some people outside the church hold critical views of his faith. In his legal role with the university, he was involved in discussions in 2016 about the possibility of BYU joining the Big 12 Conference. In response to the school’s candidacy for the conference’s expansion, LGBTQ groups spoke out, urging the conference to remove BYU from consideration because of what they viewed as discriminatory policies.
Around that time, Sandberg spoke with BYU Athletics Director Tom Holmoe about becoming more involved in the LGBTQ conversation that was happening elsewhere. Silence could no longer suffice, particularly when Sandberg knew of LGBTQ students on campus who were struggling. Holmoe, in turn, asked Liz Darger, the senior woman administrator in BYU athletics, to look into an NCAA inclusion initiative he had heard about.
When Darger inquired, the NCAA invited her to attend Common Ground. The program was just weeks away, but if Darger would accept, the leadership team would create a spot for her to represent BYU.
Darger was terrified. Before she stepped into Common Ground for the first time, she started the morning at a temple in Indianapolis. She had come to worship, to pray for understanding among the strangers she would soon meet. She texted Sandberg upon exiting the temple; he was praying, too.
Two years later, Darger and Sandberg marvel at their Common Ground journey, which has brought them to this room on their own campus, with people they both now call friends. Nerves persist, but in this group, they can talk openly about their faith and their challenges. They are among people who want to understand, and that makes all the difference.
Darger now serves on the 13-person Common Ground leadership team and spends a lot of time considering the complicated questions at the crux of the program. Is it possible to protect the rights of private, faith-based schools to set policy in alignment with their faith tenets while ensuring LGBTQ students are treated with respect, compassion and fairness? And is it possible to protect the beliefs and rights of people of faith in public schools while protecting the rights of LGBTQ students and staff on these campuses?
Darger prays for a win-win solution. She is a devout member of the church, and she also is charged with helping the university’s student-athletes reach their potential. A former basketball coach with long brown hair and a sincere smile, she knows of the pain of LGBTQ students on campus and longs to ease it in whatever way she can. But clarity can be elusive.
Outside the ballroom, darkness has cloaked the mountains that earlier dominated the view from the windows. The group has made it through half of the definitions, with nearly two dozen more to go.
“How many folks feel like they’ve learned something?” the facilitator asks.
Every participant raises a hand.
It’s 6 a.m. at the Richards Building pool, where about 20 men and women on the BYU swim team have gathered for a morning workout. Bailar has decided to join them.
“Hey, everybody. This is Schuyler,” the coach says to the swimmers gathered on deck. “He’s here from Harvard. Everybody say hi.”
Another coach tells Bailar he is welcome to follow his own workout or train with the team. “I heard about your story three years ago,” the coach adds. “Do whatever you need to do.”
Bailar can’t help but think back to the last time he was at this pool, when his brother competed at the Utah state meet during Bailar’s gap year after high school. At that time, Bailar was still presenting himself as female and was grappling with his identity. He was deep in an eating disorder and battled suicidal thoughts. He felt isolated in this state his family had just moved to. Years later, the memories still burn.
But this morning, before he rejoins his Common Ground cohort for a second day of dialogue, Bailar is ready for a new experience at the pool. It’s clear the BYU team knows Bailar’s story — one that has been shared everywhere from “60 Minutes” to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” — and they have welcomed him. That hospitality already has washed away any remaining nerves. He dives in and goes on to swim for an hour and a half. It’s the best workout he’s had in weeks.
Afterward, he stands for a photo between two BYU swimmers. On both sides of him, the swimmers drape their arms around Bailar’s shoulders and smile comfortably like new friends.
Bailar, who has become a leader in transgender advocacy and is a three-year veteran of Common Ground, pulls up the photo on Instagram and begins a caption:
“A reminder that belonging is two-sided: you must be welcomed by others, but you also must welcome yourself. And a reminder that people surprise you.”
Then he presses “share,” sending the post into the feeds of his nearly 70,000 followers around the world.
The Common Ground participants study terms related to sexual orientation, gender identity and religion that have been taped to the back wall of a ballroom in the BYU alumni center. The activity is intended to increase understanding within the diverse group. Rachel Stark-Mason / NCAA
Right now, Emma Gee has more questions than answers. But in this ballroom, the senior BYU cross country runner is not alone.
The Common Ground participants have been asked to write questions on Post-it notes and then stick them to the wall for everyone to see. Dozens of neon squares form a colorful mural. “What can I do as an out athlete to help those in admin positions?” one person wonders. “How can we help redeem some of the deep hurt the church has caused our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters?” another asks.
And still another: “Where do we go from here?”
Of the Common Ground cohort, Gee is among the newest to this conversation. She is a leader on BYU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and chaired the inaugural diversity and inclusion subcommittee. Through her involvement, she has become close with Darger, building a deep trust that, last spring, prompted Gee to open up to Darger about a piece of her identity she hadn’t shared with anyone.
Then several months later during fall camp, 3 miles into the first 6-mile tempo run of the season, Gee shared with teammates that she is bisexual. She hadn’t planned to come out then, but energized by the rhythm of the run, surrounded by teammates she trusts, the timing felt right. “Running with you guys is where I feel most at home,” she told them between breaths.
“We love you, Emma,” her teammates responded. And they ran on.
To Gee, the moment was perfect. But that clarity proved fleeting. She is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that acting on another piece of her identity, being bisexual, is a sin. Her spirituality brings her joy — she calls it her internal compass — but lately, it has also brought pain. The inner conflict breeds confusion, which, up until last year, Gee tried to bury deep inside.
Now, as she participates in Common Ground, she’s working on accepting all parts of herself, even the feelings she may not yet fully understand. She must do this for herself, she realizes, as well as for others. Gee is the only publicly out LGBTQ student-athlete at BYU. She knows some of her peers remain closeted.
“It’s almost like I felt a responsibility to come out, in a way, because I knew I would be OK,” she says. “A lot of it is to be honest with myself, but to also try and take a step closer to creating an environment where it’s normal to be who you are.”
The questions won’t all be answered before this iteration of Common Ground ends and the participants part ways. Seeking Common Ground is a process that spans years, not hours.
Still, here at BYU, where Darger, Sandberg and others have been working to improve the experiences of LGBTQ students, progress has been noticed. Change is slow, but the movement at least provides the LGBTQ community on campus something to hold onto.
“It seems like in the last year, there has been a lot of movement forward, and it feels like a lot of it has been connected to this Common Ground dialogue that’s happening,” says Michael Griffin, a BYU assistant math professor who identifies as gay and a member of the church. He attended BYU as an undergraduate and returned a year ago to teach, a decision he says was complicated yet deliberate. “I feel like these conversations like Common Ground, this is something I wanted to be a part of. I think it’s something that’s necessary, and it’s something that we’re finally getting ready for.”
For Griffin, the fact that the dialogue grew out of sports came as a surprise. This cross-campus effort, which started when Darger returned after her first Common Ground in 2016, provides hope for the Common Ground participants today who are facing similar strife at their own faith-based schools.
Darger came back to Provo full of emotion, ideas and a new resolve that this conversation about LGBTQ inclusion needed to occur at BYU. At a soccer game, she ran into President Worthen, who asked about her Common Ground experience. I’d love to tell you about it, Darger told him. When she met with him and senior university administrators weeks later, Worthen asked Darger and Sandberg to begin exploring how the school can better serve its LGBTQ students.
Darger and Sandberg put together a working group of faculty and staff that met every week and consulted with students, professors and experts on LGBTQ issues, including members of the Common Ground leadership team. The group eventually expanded to include seven LGBTQ students. Together, they pursued a variety of ideas, like faculty outreach and creating an on-campus organization for LGBTQ students.
One of those students on the working group was Liza Holdaway, a senior and president of the off-campus club for LGBTQ, same sex-attracted (a term commonly used at BYU) and allied students. Holdaway says a BYU-sanctioned on-campus club would reach more students.
“If we were on campus, it would signal to students: ‘Hey, this is a safe group,’” Holdaway says. “Because our group is not official, there’s a lot of fear that it wouldn’t be OK for them to go, like it wouldn’t be safe or maybe it’s morally wrong because it doesn’t have the approval of one of those authority figures in life, like BYU or the church or their parents.”
In March 2018, Holdaway served as student coordinator for the first campuswide LGBTQ and same sex-attracted event sponsored by BYU Student Life: a panel featuring four LGBTQ BYU students and moderated by Darger and Steve Smith, director of the Counseling and Career Center. The event, split into two sessions, drew more than 1,000 attendees.
Excitement among the working group members built as they talked through details of how a new on-campus organization would function. But many faced disappointment, especially the LGBTQ students, when the university decided not to move forward with the idea.
Still, graduate student Ben Schilaty, a gay member of the church who served on the working group and on the panel, says he is optimistic about the progress while recognizing barriers for the school he loves.
“At BYU, anything we do regarding LGBTQ issues is viewed by someone as wrong,” Schilaty says. “Because there are going to be people on the far right who say … ‘Why are you talking about this? You’re leading people to sin.’ And then there are going to be people on the far left who won’t be happy unless we allow same-sex marriages. So any steps we take are going to be viewed as wrong by both sides.
“I think there’s just a lot of fear that whatever we do, there’s going to be a lot of pushback.”
The working group members shifted their focus. To grow the conversation, they began organizing brown-bag lunches and more panel discussions. They took the conversation to academic departments and university units across campus. BYU asked two employees to coordinate these efforts as official university events.
Over the summer, the university established a new administrative department called Student Success and Inclusion, intended to provide support to marginalized and under-represented students, including LGBTQ students.
Blake Fisher, one of the employees who helped coordinate the LGBTQ outreach, was hired as a program counselor in the new department. The charismatic 31-year-old started his new job just two weeks before Common Ground convened on campus. A member of the church and a gay man, Fisher is in a pivotal position to help LGBTQ students at BYU. He was one of them just a few years ago. But relating to their pain so precisely also adds pressure.
Fisher doesn’t want his personal decision — to remain active in the church and follow the honor code by not engaging in a same-sex romantic relationship — to be the example others point to as the “right” way. Students must navigate their own decisions regarding faith and sexuality, he believes.
“These are real painful realities,” Fisher says. “Even in my own life, I don’t think there’s some easy solution to get rid of that dissonance.”
No, his job isn’t to provide answers, he says, but to protect and support students in any way he can.
“This is a process that can’t and should not be done in isolation,” he says.
On the final evening of Common Ground, the participants divide into four groups: people of faith, LGBTQ people, LGBTQ people of faith and people who identify with neither. They discuss ideas and vent frustrations among their like-minded peers. Then in the spirit of transparency and understanding, the disparate groups come back together and share, taking turns forming a circle in the middle of the room while those outside the circle listen.
One by one, participants recount their emotional conversations until it’s time for the final group, the LGBTQ people of faith. Gee and Fisher both enter the circle, along with eight others.
A man from a public university notes a statistic about LGBTQ youth not feeling comfortable coming out to their coaches. Another man from a faith-based college confesses his discouragement. “I feel really uneasy that we’re making everything too abstract,” he says. “These are young people who are sinking in plain sight of us. It’s not that complicated. If it was your own child, what would you want someone to do?”
Then it’s Fisher’s turn. The solemn conversation already has made the BYU inclusion program counselor’s eyes teary. The internal dissonance he has grown adept at managing daily has bubbled to an unharnessed boil. “Um, I’m not quite sure what to say,” he begins slowly, voice trembling. “I just kind of want to talk about where I’m at right now. My heart is hurting so bad.”
Through tears, he lays bare his confusion. He yearns to help students but sometimes feels he doesn’t know how. He fears his choices, his story, will be used to pressure other LGBTQ members of the church to follow his lead.
“I would never want my story to be weaponized against someone,” Fisher says.
He also prays it won’t be weaponized against his school or his church. While the tension between his faith and his sexuality creates pain, he wants people to know that both things also bring him joy.
Sitting across from him, Gee fights back tears. The inner conflict she feels is difficult to articulate for people who don’t share her faith and sexuality. But now, here is someone who understands, and who is courageously exposing the anguish she also feels.
Suddenly, the emotions overwhelm her. Gee jumps from her chair and darts for the door, burying her face in her sweatshirt to stifle a sob. Not far behind are Sandberg and others, who lunged from their seats to sprint after her.
For Fisher, the moment cuts deeper into an open wound. His tears keep falling.
After Bailar posts his photo with the BYU swimmers to Instagram, commenters voice their disdain.
“I don’t see how this crosses any bridges between people,” one person writes. “It’s just some hyper religious folks getting you to unknowingly push positive propaganda for them by appealing to your insecurities, mainly the need to be accepted by cis men & apparently religious individuals.”
Comments also attack BYU for its involvement in Common Ground. One person called the event “laughable.”
Bailar had hoped his post would represent love and acceptance and two groups coming together over a shared passion — the embodiment of Common Ground. So he was surprised to find that, for some people, his story seemed to worsen the divide.
Determined to clarify his intent, Bailar prepares a follow-up post. He explains the Common Ground initiative and stresses that the work is both hard and necessary. He urges his followers to acknowledge and celebrate steps forward, no matter how small. “Do not underestimate the power of this,” he writes.
Like a game with no tiebreaker, participants leave wanting more. They want happy endings, but there’s far too much work still to be done. So, as the Common Ground participants prepare to catch flights home, they’re reminded that they must continue the conversation there.
And that’s where the hardest work of all occurs.
The sun is shining on this quiet Friday morning, and Sandberg, the BYU lawyer, is picking up a few Common Ground leaders who are staying for one last conversation. They will travel an hour to Salt Lake City, the heart of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where they will eat lunch with a dozen church leaders. They will sit around tables on the top floor of the church headquarters in a room lined with windows overlooking the city, the mountains and the majestic spires of the temple. The church leaders and Common Ground leaders make an unlikely lunch party, and both groups are eager to see how it goes.
As he drives through the streets of Provo, Sandberg still has a lot on his mind from the night before. He worries about Gee and about Fisher. He felt torn when Gee ran out of the room as Fisher spoke from the middle of it. He couldn’t be by both of their sides at once.
Afterward, though, Sandberg saw a slew of others step in. Student-athletes at Common Ground surrounded Gee in conversation. Two LGBTQ members of the Common Ground leadership team approached Fisher to make sure he was OK. An evangelical pastor offered to give him a blessing, which the program counselor gratefully accepted.
Sandberg pulls up to a red light and slows to a stop. Then he sees them — a pack of young women in BYU gear running toward the crosswalk. It’s the cross country team, ranked in the nation’s top 10 and preparing to compete at regionals the next week.
Sandberg peers out his car window searching for Gee. But as the women move swiftly across the road, running toward the mountains, he can’t single her out. In the herd of swinging ponytails and steady strides, she blends right in.