Provo • At first they looked like colorful sparks.
Bright bursts of blue and green and red flashed Thursday night on the dark mountain that stands over Provo. An orange one would shine for a second and then extinguish. Another in purple would strike up a few feet away before flickering out.
And then, just a few minutes before 8 p.m., they seemed to catch fire. Dozens of the little lights all ignited at once.
In rows of rainbow colors, they took a distinct shape: The lights illuminated the letter “Y” on the mountain above Brigham Young University.
The powerful display was planned by a group of LGBTQ students at the private religious school. And while Bradley Talbot, a gay student who organized the event, said it wasn’t a protest, he acknowledged that it was meant to send a message.
“We’re here,” he said. “And we’re part of this institution. We should have a place at the Y.”
On Thursday, the students claimed their spot on the concrete letter.
‘That day felt like a betrayal’
The lighting of the iconic “Y” in rainbow colors came on the anniversary of when the school, along with the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that owns it, sent out a letter in March 2020 clarifying its stance on same-sex romantic behavior.
A month earlier, the university had quietly removed the section banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings” from its strict Honor Code, which outlines what behavior is allowed by those who attend the conservative school.
LGBTQ students had celebrated what they hoped that meant, kissing in front of statues at BYU and holding hands. And many said they came out as gay only because they believed — and were told by some Honor Code staff — that the school now allowed it.
But they say that was ripped away with a painful reversal when leaders said three weeks later that just because the section was taken out of the code, it didn’t change anything and their relationships were still “not compatible” with the rules at BYU.
Talbot, a senior, said the event Thursday was both a commemoration of that day and a condemnation of it. Many, he added, still feel gaslit.
“That day felt like a betrayal for a lot of LGBTQ students,” Talbot said. “It was traumatic. So this was a day for us to reclaim that and try to turn it into something positive.”
About 40 students and allies took part in lighting the “Y.” The group spent days mapping out the 380-foot tall letter and determining where they would need to stand along its borders to light it up.
They met at the trailhead after dark Thursday for the one-mile hike, a faint outline of the snowcapped mountain and the white letter on its side barely visible. Only a few houses and street lamps were lit up below. Most of the students were bundled tight in coats and hats and gloves.
“If BYU won’t show their love to us, we’re going to make sure our love is visible to them,” Danny Niemann, a senior and gay student at the school, said before starting the climb.
The participants were assigned a color and a spot on the “Y” to hold their light so that the letter would appear in rainbow stripes from red at the top to purple at the bottom. When they turned on the flashlights — 76 in total — and turned them toward the concrete, the result could be seen across Provo, with people commenting and posting pictures on social media from miles away.
With the growing attention, the school sent out a brief tweet noting: “BYU did not authorize the lighting of the Y tonight.”
Some students who participated said they worried about backlash from the school and potential discipline for joining in the event. Many who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune asked to be identified by only their first names for fear of being expelled from the private school, which can legally prohibit same-sex couples from dating.
“BYU is a hard place for queer kids to feel love and accepted,” said Allison, an LGBTQ student there.
She said she hoped the display would show the school that they’re not going anywhere and help other LGBTQ students know there are more like them. “You’re not alone,” she added. “We’ll stand up and say that, no matter what.”
Talbot noted, too: “It’s a display. We’re not vandalizing anything. We’re not breaking the law.”
The students held their lights on the “Y” for an hour, as planned, wrapping up at 9 p.m. When they returned to the trailhead, there were some police cars from the university in the parking lot. But no individuals were stopped or questioned.
The trail and the letter are owned by BYU (though it must, as a condition of its purchase of the land, provide public access). And the school added in a later tweet Thursday that “any form of public expression on university property requires prior approval.”
Still, the display had so much support that the students were also greeted on their way down by fans, who circled in their cars blasting songs, including “Born This Way” and “I Kissed a Girl,” from their speakers.
The students had kept their event largely secret Thursday until the lights went on, both to keep the school from stopping them and to avoid attention from far-right groups, including DezNat, which have pushed back against LGBTQ students recently. Some students said they have been threatened for supporting gay rights on the campus.
Allison and others dressed up in rainbow colors earlier in the day to attend classes and celebrate what they’ve adopted as “Rainbow Day.” And there were a few counterprotesters who showed up to read the LDS Church’s official proclamation on the family, which teaches members of the faith that gender is an “eternal identity” and which BYU cited to support its clarification of the Honor Code last year.
But those opponents were far outnumbered by students decked out in pins and tie-dye shirts, waving flags and passing out ribbons in support of the LGBTQ community.
In the days after the change to the Honor Code, LGBTQ students and allies held several protests on campus and at the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City. They conducted sit-ins outside of the Honor Code Office, too. But their efforts to challenge the policy were largely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a few wearing rainbow masks Thursday night as a reminder of that.
Abigail, a bisexual woman who transferred from BYU last year after the reversal, participated in the event at the “Y” as a way, she said, to let the school know that many remain upset.
Last year, shortly before the update to the Honor Code, she had come out. When the church upheld the rules prohibiting same-sex relationships, she noted, she was heartbroken.
“When BYU took that back,” Abigail said, “it took my world away from me.”
She left the school because of the pain the decision had caused her, she said, though she still lives in BYU-approved housing and fears being evicted for speaking out. She also has friends who have stayed at the university, and she wants to support them and make it a more inclusive place for all moving forward.
Abigail held a red light to shine on the “Y.” In a way, it was sort of like a flare. She hopes the school will see the signal and take urgent action to help protect LGBTQ students so that more don’t leave.
The event was symbolic in other ways for Niemann. He said that as LGBTQ students, “Our lights have been dimmed for a lot of our lives.” He saw it as a chance to shine and not hide who he is.
The “Y” has white lights installed on it, which the school traditionally lights for Homecoming or a win for its football team. Some said this was a “win” for queer kids. A few said BYU is their home. One saw it, too, as a rainbow pointing the way for BYU. The sign at the top of the trail to the letter even notes, “You made it!”
Others noted that the event showed that LGBTQ students have been forced to make their own light at BYU, and they carried the burden of holding the flashlights for an hour. But it was also an opportunity for them to come together as a community, said another, and show strength in numbers.
Whatever else, on Thursday night, they definitely lit a spark.