Utah State lights up Old Main in rainbow colors to show solidarity with LGBTQ students at BYU

Students at the Logan school mirrored an event at Brigham Young University, where a group had similarly illuminated the “Y.”

(Eli Lucero |Herald Journal) Old Main on the campus of Utah State University is lit up in rainbow colors on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Logan.

It was a colorful show of solidarity.

On Tuesday night, students at Utah State University grabbed flashlights and pieces of plastic film in red and yellow and green and purple. And they held them up together to illuminate the base of the iconic Old Main building on campus in the colors of the rainbow.

The display looked similar to the “Y” on the mountain above Brigham Young University in Provo last month, when students lit up that letter to say that LGBTQ individuals should be welcomed at the private, religious school.

And the imitation was the point.

Cameron Moellendorf, a gender and sexuality intern for the USU Inclusion Center, said that Utah State students wanted to light up their campus in the same way to show “our BYU family that we’re here for them and we saw them.”

“We commend them for what they did,” Moellendorf said. “And we’re supporting them here from Logan.”

The lighting of Old Main at USU started at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and lasted for about an hour, with students taking turns holding up the lights. It was organized by the school’s queer student association, which Moellendorf also serves as the liaison for, and about 200 students participated.

Moellendorf, who uses they/them pronouns, said they and others at the school in northern Utah back BYU students’ fight for equality.

“Being in Utah and with the demographics we have, each university has different challenges for LGBTQ students,” they added, noting that while USU is a public school and has a center for support, it still has hurdles to address with community acceptance.

Earlier in the day, for instance, a student cut down a pride flag to cheers from his classmates at a nearby high school in Millville. Cache County School District has condemned the incident.

“But the BYU students,” Moellendorf said, “are probably facing it the hardest.”

(Eli Lucero | Herald Journal) Utah State University students Jena Austin, center, and Katie Siesel, right, shine lights onto the Old Main building to illuminate it in rainbow colors on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Logan.

(Eli Lucero | Herald Journal) Macy Keith, advisor for the Queer Student Alliance at Utah State University, shines a light onto the Old Main building to illuminate it in rainbow colors on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Logan.

Brigham Young University, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has long faced pushback for its policies on LGBTQ and same-sex relationships. Then, last year, it quietly removed a section from its campuswide Honor Code that banned “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

LGBTQ students celebrated the change, which they believed meant that they would be accepted. Some kissed in front of statues at BYU and openly held 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 church leaders clarified 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.

The conservative school went back to the way things were. And some students said they felt they had to “return to the closet” and continue hiding who they are — or face possible punishment, including expulsion.

The rainbow light display on the “Y” by BYU students came on March 4, the first anniversary of that reversal.

(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.

Bradley Talbot, a gay student who organized the event, said it wasn’t a protest, but was meant to send a message. He said he wanted the school to recognize that LGBTQ students exist, and they should be loved and welcomed. And it was the biggest ever rallying cry from the gay and queer community there, garnering national attention.

“We’re here,” Talbot said at the time. “And we’re part of this institution. We should have a place at the Y.”

On Tuesday, he thanked Utah State’s queer student association and inclusion center for putting on the solidarity event as BYU students continue to push for change.

“It’s just amazing,” Talbot said with a smile. “That was the whole purpose behind what we did. And we appreciate them saying, ‘We stand with you and we will be with you no matter what.’”

Danny Niemann, a gay senior at BYU who participated in lighting the “Y,” also said he’s happy to see other schools join in. The University of Utah also recently wrapped its block U statue in the colors from the Progress Pride Flag in honor of Pride Week.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The U on the University of Utah campus, painted with rainbow colors for Pride Week on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

“Hopefully other Utah schools will set an example of how to create supportive environments for queer students,” Niemann said. “I think this could put pressure on BYU because it shows where we’re lacking and how we could do better.”

BYU, for instance, doesn’t allow the club of students called “Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship” there to register or meet on campus. And it doesn’t have an LGBTQ support center, like the U. or Utah State, where Moellendorf said the school makes an effort to support all students and push for equity.

BYU also quickly distanced itself from the lighting of the “Y” in rainbow colors, saying it “did not authorize” it.

Niemann noted: “I think a big measurement of a school’s quality is the effort it takes to ensure all students are included and safe, and BYU ought to be judged by the discrepancies we see when it comes to the treatment of queer students here.”

He said he hopes the solidarity event at Utah State shines a bright and colorful light on that difference.