In ‘A Long Way From Heaven,’ two Utah filmmakers capture the experiences of LGBTQ students at BYU

‘A Long Way From Heaven’ has been in the works for more than three years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU student David Sant, left, and former UVU student Tayler Pace pose for a photograph at the trailhead for the "Y," on Feb. 10, 2024, as they reflect on their work-in-progress documentary about the experience of LGBTQ students at BYU and of the 2021 lighting of the "Y" on the hillside above campus.

For more than three years, David Sant has been directing a documentary that his family doesn’t know about — and when they find out, he said, it most likely will be “very disruptive.”

Even so, Sant said, “I am personally making this film, yes, because I want to — but more so because I feel like I have to.”

The film that he and producer Tayler Pace are making, ”A Long Way From Heaven,” aims to capture the experience over the last few years of LGBTQ+ students at Brigham Young University — the higher education institution owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sant is a BYU alumnus and member of the LGBTQ+ community; Pace went to nearby Utah Valley University.

Sant said they’re making the hourlong documentary — which they hope to enter into film festivals over the next year — because they have been involved intimately in the story they’re telling. They believe, he said, they are the only people who can make the movie.

“There is literally nobody else in a position that has had the experiences we’ve had, has the skill set that the two of us have put together, and has the life position in which they even take this project on, without destroying their lives,” Sant said.

It’s been a long journey, Pace said.

“There’s been moments where we weren’t sure if it was going to happen, moments when we weren’t sure if we were going to get to do what we wanted to do,” Pace said. “And then there were moments where we thought we were done and then we focus-grouped it and we’re like ‘Dude, we’ve got more work. This isn’t done.’”

A message in light

On March 4, 2021, Sant said, he walked out of his apartment and saw what most of Provo saw: The “Y” on the mountain overlooking the BYU campus was lit up in rainbow colors.

“I’m, like, freaking out because, at this time, I am still a closeted queer person, so I originally thought that that was BYU doing a show of solidarity towards the queer students,” Sant said.

BYU was doing no such thing. Some 40 students did it, to mark one year since Latter-day Saint leadership sent out a letter clarifying its stance on same-sex romantic behavior, saying such relationships were “not compatible” with BYU’s rules.

The letter came a month after the school quietly removed a section of its Honor Code that banned “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings” — a move LGBTQ+ students at BYU celebrated as an apparent sign of acceptance, before the church’s letter closed the door to that possibility.

A couple weeks after he saw the “Y” lit up, Sant ran into Pace, a longtime friend — and learned that Pace had been one of the students involved in that first lighting.

“[Pace] was like, ‘We’re going to do another lighting in September of 2021. Why don’t you come and film it, since you’re a film major?’” Sant did, and after editing some of the footage and showing it to Pace, Sant said, they agreed they had a bigger story to tell.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) The Y on Y Mountain east of Provo is lit in rainbow-flag colors to show support for the LGBTQ+ community on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

From there, the two said, the film kept snowballing. Their first idea was to make a short, about 15 to 20 minutes, about the history of LGBTQ+ BYU students.

But as Pace puts it, “then BYU just kept doing things that were not cool.”

Sant said he felt some hesitancy about making the movie — and contemplated publishing it under a pseudonym, or just editing the project and handing it off to Pace.

Then, in August 2021, Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland gave a speech at BYU criticizing those who challenge the church’s teachings on same-sex marriage. Holland urged BYU faculty and staff to take up intellectual “muskets,” and called internal criticism of the church “friendly fire.”

That talk, Sant said, “fundamentally changed everything about the way I felt about the project and about me as a person. … That represented a 180[-degree] shift in literally who I was.”

Since then, Sant said, he’s been like a steam engine, moving forward because he “realized not only will the people with the top never help us, they will try to hurt us.”

In 2022, one year after the first rainbow lighting, BYU limited access to the “Y” mountain, with fencing and with signs that said demonstrations were prohibited.

(Cortney Huber) Pictured is the entrance to Y Mountain blocked off by orange fencing, with signs posted prohibiting protests, on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

How to tell the story

Sant’s footage of the September lighting of the “Y” provides a raw on-the-ground look at the event — and captures a lot of unfiltered joy, in the smiles and laughter exchanged among those involved.

The documentary features Bradley Talbot, founder of the Color the Campus campaign and “Rainbow Day,” talking about the planning and execution of the March 2021 lighting. Talbot tells the filmmakers that the lighting was planned through a Google document, and people were encouraged to only write their initials – so, in case someone was caught, no one would be able to disclose anyone else’s name.

One interview subject was John Valdez, executive director of The Out Foundation, an nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ alumni and current students at BYU. He talked about the importance of finding other LGBTQ+ members of the Latter-day Saint faith — particularly when facing such common refrains as “if you don’t like it, then leave.”

Another person interviewed was Dr. Kimberly Applewhite, a former BYU Counseling and Psychological Services therapist. Applewhite, Sant said, was a participant in what he calls a “queer underground” at BYU, because anything said during CAPS sessions doesn’t need to be reported to the Honor Code.

(Applewhite, who is straight and an active Latter-day Saint, told The Tribune she is “really honored that people see me as a valuable and safe resource within the LDS community.”)”

(Editor’s note: Salt Lake Tribune photographer Trent Nelson, who covered the May 2021 lighting, is also interviewed in the film.)

There’s also collected footage of LGBTQ BYU alumni who have made headlines, such as Matt Easton, who came out during his 2019 valedictorian speech, and Jillian Orr, who sewed a rainbow flag into her gown for her 2022 graduation ceremony.

(Jillian Orr) Jillian Orr poses in her graduation gown for Brigham Young University before the ceremony on Friday, April 22, 2022. Her sister, Rachel Orr, sewed a Pride flag inside of it for Jillian to express her identity on stage after years of feeling like she had to hide being bisexual at the church-run school.

Sant and Pace estimate they went through six rounds of interviews, because they kept finding more people — mostly through grassroot connections they had formed in the community — who wanted to talk.

“One of the things that we wanted to do was, basically, make sure that we collect the voices that haven’t been heard yet,” Pace said. “We were being very conscious about who hasn’t been able to share their story, whose perspective we haven’t heard.”

The film also features animation done by volunteer queer artists — and, as the trailer shows, montages of news articles, Discord chats, tweets and other media. Sant estimated there are some 1,100 pieces of media in the film, most of it Sant has been collecting for years.

“We figured that was the only way to tell the story because it’s so decentralized,” he said.

Sant and Pace also try to put the lighting events, and the Honor Code decisions that prompted them, into the context of the long history of queer students at BYU. The timeline includes conversations sparked by the TikTok group The Black Menaces and a 2022 anti-LGBTQ protest obscured by queer defenders wearing angel wings.

The timeline also includes incidents in the 1970s of electroshock therapy of queer students — which Sant said was the hardest thing in the film for him to stomach.

“We didn’t want to end with the rainbow ‘Y,’” Pace said, “Like, it is invigorating, electrifying. How cool to just be with these kids trying to do something really special? But it would be remiss of us if we left it at that, just because there’s been things that have happened.”

Pace continued: “It’s a constant back and forth. To say ‘This was this big win that queer students now have at this place at BYU,’ it would just be inaccurate and dishonest, [because] it’s still ongoing.”

The emotional toll

Making the movie has taken an emotional toll on Sant and Pace, they said — particularly with a section of the film that focuses on student suicides at BYU.

The film mentions 15 students who, Sant said, took their own lives because they were queer or because of queer-related issues. One such student was Harry Fisher, in 2016. Easton spoke about Fisher in his valedictorian speech, and Fisher’s father wrote an open letter to the church’s First Presidency that was published in The Tribune in 2018.

Pace said that while it’s exciting to be a part of this documentary, “it’s also really hard to be with each person for about an hour, hour and a half, and understand the depths of what this is and how it’s affected them.”

Pace is a social worker, and deals with the topic of suicide frequently. He also said he grew up conservative, but became involved in queer activism in 2017, after he moved from St. George.

“I was LDS at the time, and I was wanting to be a therapist, … I was, like, ‘Well, if I want to be a therapist, I need to understand different people,’” he said.

Pace was in one of the first rounds of volunteers at the Provo location of Encircle, the LGBTQ youth support organization. As he continued to interact with the queer community, he said, “it just became apparent that there’s something that definitely needs to be done.”

Even in the roughest moments in the making of the film, they said, they found ways to keep going.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former BYU student David Sant, left, and former UVU student Tayler Pace, visit the statue of Brigham Young on campus as they reflect on their recently finished documentary about the experience of LGBTQ students at BYU and of the lighting of the Y on the hillside above campus on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.

Pace said that every time something happened related to BYU and the LGBTQ community, a group of friends — including one who is a notary public — would get together at Pace’s apartment, do a few shots, and help people get taken off the church’s membership rolls.

“We helped like 16 people leave the church,” he said.

Keeping it a secret

The one entity Sant and Pace haven’t reached out for comment yet: BYU itself.

Sant said he’s “terrified” to contact the university, which he compares to a “sleeping bear.”

While he was attending BYU and a student of the film program, Sant worked on a documentary about furries within the Latter-day Saint faith. Sant said he wanted a statement from BYU’s Honor Code office, “and that is when they took away my funding, that is when they threatened me with the Honor Code office.”

The filmmakers, Sant said, “have done everything we could to keep this film secret from BYU. We’ve never touched campus.” Any footage of the campus, he said, was purchased online. “We’ve covered all of our legal bases, [so] that BYU wouldn’t find out about this project too soon.”

In a statement from BYU for this story, a spokesperson for the school said: “At BYU we want all our students, including our LGBTQ students, to feel both the love of the Savior and the joy associated with living His commandments as part of a covenant-keeping community. We believe that we have a shared primary identity as sons and daughters of God. We welcome LGBTQ students and are grateful for all those who choose BYU because of its environment of covenant belonging.”

The spokesperson said they had not heard of the incident with Sant’s previous documentary.

In early January, the filmmakers announced a Kickstarter campaign, which set a $6,000 goal and, as of Tuesday, had surpassed $10,000. However, after the announcement, someone dropped out of the project, Sant said, because they were “too scared of what BYU was going to do to them.”

Both Sant and Pace say they want their intentions with the film to be clear. Sant said, “this is far, far from an anti-Mormon, anti-BYU film. It’s actually seeking to help.”

Sant continued, “The main thing we want people on the ground level to take away from this film is that you can love something and recognize that it is massively flawed and needs change. Those things can exist in the same place. I am still a person who loves BYU as much as I hate BYU.”

The viewing experience, Pace said, doesn’t end on a happy note — and that’s deliberate.

“The last frame of our film is an article that came out last August about how BYU quietly replaced that language, so many years later, and there wasn’t any national news about it,” Pace said. “There wasn’t anything that happened about it. It was just a newsroom church press release and that was it.”

The movie’s title comes from a quote from Applewhite, the therapist, who says, “There is more to come, there is more to go… we’re a long way from heaven.”

When Sant heard that, he said, “I thought, ‘What a fantastic way to flip the expectations on our audience — members of the church primarily, and the rest of the world as well?’”

People within the Latter-day Saint faith, Sant said, “inherently view queer people as a long way from heaven — that it’s a trial, a barrier that is something they must overcome. But what we are saying is, ‘How could we possibly judge another person’s position in relation to heaven when none of us have ever been there?’”


How to see the film

At the moment, the filmmakers are only releasing “A Long Way From Heaven” to friends and Kickstarter backers on Monday — the third anniversary of the first rainbow lighting of the “Y.”

A full release to the public will wait, Sant said, until they try to get the film onto the festival circuit.

A work-in-progress screening is planned for Friday, March 15, at 8:30 p.m., at the Megaplex Theatres at Thanksgiving Point, Lehi. “Anyone who donates $1 or more to the finishing of the film can receive a ticket, as long as tickets last,” Sant said. Donations can be made via Venmo @rainbowyfilm, at the door, or by contacting alongwayfromheavenfilm@gmail.com.

Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24-hour support.

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