Rainbow flags, tears and laughter were all around City Creek Park on Saturday night as members and allies of the LGBTQ community gathered for a candlelight vigil of LGBTQ hope and faith.
The vigil provided a place for LGBTQ activists and individuals, along with former Brigham Young University students, to speak and be heard — a week after an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged individuals at the school to take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend the church. Jeffrey R. Holland said it is especially important to defend “the doctrine of the family and ... marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
Holland also called out BYU valedictorian Matt Easton in his speech, an alum who came out as gay during his 2019 commencement address. Easton spoke at the vigil.
“It has been a very, very crazy week for me,” Easton told the crowd. “It’s been tough.”
He recounted a story from his first year at BYU, right off his Latter-day Saint mission and “bright-eyed.” He remembered a classmate named Harry Fisher, who used to sit in front of him in one of his classes.
“I didn’t know Harry very well,” Easton said. “I went online, and I learned that Harry had come out as gay just a few weeks before. And because of the response that he got, and the struggles that come with, with, you know, how our community reacts, he ended up taking his own life.
“I think it’s safe to say that probably a lot of us who are here, especially who identify as queer, have been in that same sort of place. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Easton said when he got a chance to give his graduation speech at BYU in 2019, he was inspired to show other kids like himself that “there is a place for us,” which garnered cheers from the crowd.
“That we do belong, and that places like BYU and our communities — it’s not just that they can learn to tolerate us, but they need us,” Easton said. “They need our voices and our ideas and our creativity and our complaints. They need every part of it because that is what makes a community beautiful. That is what makes a community meaningful.”
He said it was a “wonderful experience,” coming out in his speech, and that he’s come a long way in the two years it’s been since he gave it, so he was thrown off by Holland’s words about “commandeering” his graduation.
Especially when his speech was preapproved two weeks before by the university, with notes in the margins on how he was coming out and why — even linking to a previous talk from Holland.
“I know that the faculty who approved my speech. They approved it not because they were scared of the backlash that I was going to give them, not because they thought that they had to, but because they knew that it was an appropriate place,” Easton said. “And they understood the message that I was sharing of hope, and inclusion and of a future. Tonight, I just I want to reiterate that — that nobody can take away our future. Nobody can take away our worth. And nobody can take away our dignity.”
Karly attended the vigil with her wife, Marianne, who is transgender, so they could feel supported and “not feel alone” after Holland’s talk. Karly, who is a current student at BYU, and Marianne are only identified by their first names because they feared retaliation from those against LGBTQ individuals in the LDS Church.
Karly came out in December, and she and Marianne married that month as well. They have been trying to be members in the church, but “with Elder Holland’s talk, it’s been really difficult.”
“I mean, there’s been a lot of other things that have been said,” Karly said. “Mostly we’ve had good personal experiences with local leadership. I’ve obviously got endorsements for my bishop and stuff to be able to keep going on at BYU, ecclesiastical endorsements. I don’t know. I love Elder Holland, but we came to feel like we had people that we can turn to.”
Karly has already been apprehensive about the return to BYU, since this would be the first time the school would be back in person since the pandemic and since she came out.
“The things that Elder Holland said, just the way he said them, were really hard to hear,” Karly said. “It’s really hard to hear somebody that you love and admire say stuff like that, like they don’t even know you and understand you. I don’t know. He’s had a talk in the past that really helped me; he’s like spoken out about mental illness, and it really helped a lot of people. And to have something that’s just the complete opposite, that kind of wrecks people with mental illness that are already a marginalized group — it’s really hard.”
She said the atmosphere at the vigil felt really safe, surrounded by a community of others who were dealing with similar emotions — versus walking around Provo, “it feels like somebody is going to hurt us in some way.”
“I’m just really grateful [the vigil] is happening.”
Ryan Marra, a former BYU student who is now at another university, also shared his story during the open mic period of the vigil. He said being a student at BYU for two years was “what you would expect,” but he met a group of queer people who helped provide a community of support.
“It’s this community, this love that we have here, that gave me the hope that I have now, the hope that I pray I can share with everyone that comes to me,” Marra said. “I had devoted my life to serving the Lord as a full-time missionary. And I know [conversion therapy] is not what God wanted for me, because I know, I know that my creation was not a mistake.”
Marra told attendees that it is time for allies to listen, and hear what members of the LGBTQ community are saying, because they are “crying out” for support and loving arms.
“The larger our community is, the larger our support system is, the more other people can feel that hope, the more that they can see that light that we have today,” Marra said. “And I hope that as we go out tonight, as the candles are blown out, that our light still shines, and that we can be the people that we are here to be.”