Rainbow Day at BYU draws hundreds of students

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Ramirez snaps a photo of Joslyn Empey, Halia Kealoha and Ciera Galbraith as they gather together for Rainbow Day on the BYU Campus, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

It was the third Rainbow Day celebration at Brigham Young University to support the LGBTQ community — and this time, unlike the few before, hundreds of students showed up.

They filled the campus quad with rainbow flags and signs. They shouted, “Love is love,” at anyone who walked up to their table. And they hugged and kissed and high-fived in excitement.

It’s the first time many have felt like they could.

“All of us who are out can now be free to be ourselves,” said student Erin Berglund, who identifies as lesbian. “It’s a relief.”

The Wednesday event had been planned for months. But, by coincidence, it came shortly after the religious Provo school first publicly acknowledged that it had removed the longstanding ban on “homosexual behavior” from its Honor Code. The strict set of rules at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had previously prohibited “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings." Those who acted on such feelings before could be punished or suspended.

Anna Stevenson said she used to worry about wearing or saying anything in her classes that might out her as gay. On Wednesday, though, with the policy change, she no longer felt like she had to hide. She pulled on a pair of rainbow socks and a pride T-shirt and carried colorful flags in each hand. And she stood out and proud in front of the campus library.

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“I could have been kicked out of school for this before,” she said. “But now I don’t have to worry about that.”

Many students who came to the celebration of Rainbow Day said they, too, feel like they can be openly LGBTQ on campus — though what the policy update means exactly remains a little fuzzy.

Since the change, some students have said that staff in the Honor Code Office told them it meant they would no longer be disciplined for dating, holding hands with or kissing people of the same sex. But BYU officials said there “may have been some miscommunication.” The school’s official Twitter account posted: “Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.” It then declined to give specific details, saying relationships would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Berglund said she isn’t going to wait to be told, “No.” She danced and cheered Wednesday in a rainbow sweater. Other students pinned rainbow flags and ribbons to their backpacks. At times, more than 50 students gathered around, coming and going, during the four-hour event. A few waved signs that said, “I am a child of God.”

Alyssa Mingorance, a freshman who is bisexual, said she can openly celebrate “that part of myself” that she couldn’t before.

“If we’re doing our best to be like Christ, that means including everyone,” said Carolyn Gassert, a junior who identifies as lesbian. “My freshman year, I thought I was the only gay person at BYU. But there are so many of us here.”

It was a sunny day on campus as the group reveled outside. But the change hasn’t come without some pushback. On Wednesday, one student stood nearby, passing out copies of the LDS Church’s “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that says that gender is “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

It didn’t faze those celebrating too much. Danny Niemann, a sophomore, said when he first came to BYU he wasn’t “willing to confront my identity as gay.” It wasn’t until he met other LGBTQ students that he felt comfortable doing so.

“I don’t think we could have done this a year ago,” he said. “We were too afraid to.”

Some students who didn’t stop at the table wore shirts and bracelets in solidarity. And inside the nearby student center, they covered a wall with colorful Post-It Notes of support, writing, “We want you here,” “I love you as you are,” and “You make campus better.”

Bradley Talbot, a gay student who started planning the Rainbow Days, calling it “Color the Campus,” said he didn’t expect so many to come to the celebration. At the two events last semester, there were maybe five or 10 people there at a time. With the change, he believes, more felt comfortable enough to attend.

Talbot said: “It has been comforting and relieving to know how much love this campus really does have to offer if you can just provide opportunities for them to show it.”

He hopes to plan a fourth Rainbow Day soon.