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‘I thought I was alone, but clearly I am not’ — BYU students and Provo residents gather for LGBTQ festival

Attendees marched to show support for the LGBTQ community after the first week of the fall semester at BYU.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and friends march down the sidewalk to Kiwanis Park, during BYU Pride Night in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

More than 1,000 people gathered for a march, live music and speeches at the Back 2 School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday. Many of the Provo residents and Brigham Young University students in attendance draped rainbow flags, Trans Pride Flags or Bisexual Pride Flags over their backs like capes.

The festival was held at Kiwanis Park in Provo and was organized by The RaYnbow Collective, a student-run organization that works to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ students and allies at BYU.

Maddison Tenney, founder of The Raynbow Collective, started the organization last year after she saw some anti-LGBTQ flyers reading “Are you afraid of the rainbow?” posted on BYU’s campus. She made an Instagram account after seeing the flyers and began organizing events like the Back 2 School Pride night earlier this year.

“Our goal is to connect students to existing organizations, and to give spaces for students to feel safe on and off campus,” Tenney said. “That’s the goal of this event, to connect students and community members to each other so they can support each other and treat each other kindly. Because there’s so many resources out there.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anna wears flowers in her hair during BYU Pride Night in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

There were more than 30 canopies lined up throughout the park, offering artists and vendors space to sell their wares and for LGBTQ people to learn more about organizations that can support them. Community organizations, including Understanding Sexuality Gender and Allyship at BYU, BYUQ, Equality Utah and Flourish Therapy, passed out pamphlets with available resources for LGBTQ people.

Vendors sold jewelry, hats with rainbows embroidered on them, and artwork. One vender sold a T-shirt with a giant arrow pointing upward with the text “My gender is up here” surrounding it.

The event began with a march down 900 East next to BYU’s campus. Marchers cheered as automobiles honked and shouted their support from the road. One couple rode past on a motorcycle with a massive rainbow flag trailing behind them.

Many held signs aloft as they marched. “I’d rather be sent to hell than live as a bigot on Earth,” one sign read. There was chalk art and short phrases, including one reading “Love is advocacy,” drawn on the sidewalk along the path of the march.

Attendees returned to the park for an LGBTQ art show, speeches and musical performances.

Bradley Talbot, who helped organize the lighting of the “Y” in rainbow colors in March, spoke to the crowd about what his experience was like as a gay student at BYU. Talbot said he felt alone after a student in one of his classes asked why Latter-day Saints need to make a special effort to befriend LGBTQ people during a lecture.

“Four years ago, I thought I was alone,” Talbot told the crowd, “but I clearly am not.”

Talbot worked with his friends to light up the “Y” on the mountain above BYU’s campus as a statement after the school removed the section banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings” from its strict Honor Code, only to say that same-sex relationships were still “not compatible” with the rules at BYU weeks later.

Now, with the fall semester underway at BYU, Talbot said that seeing so many people at the festival was “so heartwarming and comforting and encouraging to feel like there are so many people, both in the queer community and outside of the community, that are here to listen, to support each other wherever we are in our journey.”

Talbot said the support was especially meaningful in the aftermath of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk at the school’s annual University Conference on Aug. 23, when he said BYU faculty and staff should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially “the doctrine of the family and ... marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

After Holland’s talk, a man dumped a bottle of water on chalk art messages drawn on a sidewalk across the street from BYU in support of LGBTQ students and shouted a homophobic slur at some gathered there on Aug. 27.

“It feels to me like we’re doing a good thing, because people are starting to notice,” Talbot said. “You don’t realize you’re doing good until people start to resist you and you get a little bit of pushback. So with Elder Holland, and with all the chalk and all that you can tell people are intimidated.”

Married BYU students Thea and Rimington Manning-Neal heard about the event on Instagram and decided to attend to show their support. Thea said that after Holland’s talk and the support it received from members of Deseret Nation, a group of Latter-day Saints who defend the doctrines and practices of the church online.

“We’re just all afraid,” Thea said. “And so showing that there are others here that don’t agree with that idea is really important.”

Rimington said there “needs to be larger push towards centering the focus of the gospel around love for all instead of the rigidity of commandments, because at the core of it, like this doctrine is the doctrine of love.”

The couple expressed concern about the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mantra that some members use to talk about LGBTQ people.

“That’s an idea that is horrible,” Thea said. “You can’t love the sinner, as the saying goes, if you hate a central portion of their identity, and so I want to just show that that is not how that works. You just love everyone no matter what.”

Kyle Ashworth, host of the “Latter Gay Stories” podcast that sponsored the event, said that, traditionally, Latter-day Saints who started to have questions about their sexuality were trained to keep them quiet. Events like the Back 2 School Pride Night create a safe space for those people.

“To see something like this on or adjacent to a BYU campus in Provo, kind of the heart of the lion’s den, is quite remarkable for the LGBTQ community,” Ashworth said. “This means that people are standing up and saying the church’s rhetoric doesn’t match the real, lived experiences of our gay or transgender family members.”

Ashworth said that it’s easy for members who are having questions about their sexuality or gender to feel alone in their experience because they can’t openly express those thoughts. He had a message for LGBTQ members who might be feeling that way.

“Events like this show that there is a community of people out here who support you, that your unique circumstances that you thought were individual to you only, are shared by so many.”

That’s why Ashworth, who is a returned missionary and was married in the temple before coming out as gay, started the “Latter Gay Stories” podcast. He wore a custom printed T-shirt depicting Otto Pankok’s painting “Christ Breaks the Rifle,” but the aura surrounding Jesus is rainbow colored.

He encouraged members of the church to attend events like the Pride Night so that they can “get in front of the queer experience.”

The RaYnbow Collective will host a free diversity and equality training for all BYU students, faculty and staff members in partnership with Equality Utah “the next few months,” said Tenney, who is working to gain nonprofit status for the organization as it plans future events for LGBTQ people and allies.

Tenney wanted LGBTQ students to know, “there’s a community of people that love them and want them here at this university and in this church. And they deserve to be here if they want to be here. And if you want to stay [in the church], we’re going to support you, and we’re going to take care of you. If you don’t want to stay, we’re going to help you wherever you’re at in your journey.”

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