A year after rainbow ‘Y’ lighting, BYU cracks down on protests

The school has limited access on Y Mountain, and it also asked LGBTQ students handing out pins Friday to leave campus.

Brigham Young University has fenced off the iconic “Y” on the mountain above the school and added signs warning that demonstrations there are now prohibited.

And on Friday, the school also kicked off campus a group of LGBTQ students wearing rainbows shirts and handing out rainbow pins, saying they didn’t have permission to gather.

The moves come on the one-year anniversary of when gay and queer students at the private religious college in Provo drew national attention for lighting the “Y” in rainbow colors to call out the university’s ban on LGBTQ relationships.

(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.

Students said they got together Friday to commemorate that event and celebrate what they call “Rainbow Day.” The point, they said, is to show the school that they exist and aren’t going away.

“The rainbow is not offensive,” said junior David Shill, who is LGBTQ. “We’re not here to challenge anything. We’re here to just be visible.”

But since the prominent display in March 2021, BYU has responded by cracking down on protests and unapproved gatherings. And the school, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, enforced its new policies this week.

That started with the fencing off of the “Y.” The university had already updated its rules for demonstrations in December to expressly ban any rallies on Y Mountain.

But it has since had workers surround the white concrete letter on the hillside with orange mesh fencing and signs.

Cortney Huber, a BYU alumna, went for a hike up to the “Y” with some friends Thursday morning. As she climbed up the dirt path, a UTV passed her with the back filled with plastic fence material. She thought it was strange. But when she reached the letter, she noticed the same fencing covered the perimeter, roping off access.

“It was clearly meant to keep people from going to that part of the trail,” she said. Even a bench had been enclosed inside the off-limits area.

There were also new signs tied to the fence and a few posted into the ground around the “Y.” They read: “Demonstrations are prohibited on the Y and university-owned portions of Y Mountain. Violators are subject to criminal citations for trespassing.”

Huber believes the school did it in anticipation of Rainbow Day and the anniversary of the lighting, to ward people off and to avoid a repeat event (a second lighting of the “Y” also occurred in September 2021). She said it feels targeted toward silencing only LGBTQ students, who are not allowed to date at the church school.

“It’s just so sad to me that BYU would rather comfort the comfortable than offer a voice to those who feel marginalized,” she said.

So, in solidarity and in place of the students who couldn’t do their light show, Huber and others in the community went up to a spot on the mountain not owned by BYU and held up colored lights under small tarps in a smaller display.

(Jack Ricks) Pictured is the smaller light display by community members near BYU on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Blocking off the mountain

BYU owns the trail up to the concrete “Y” and the surrounding property.

School spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in a statement Friday that the fencing and signs in the area were added because the university wants people “to understand that this is private property.” She has previously said that prohibiting demonstrations there was about ensuring safety on the steep terrain.

Some have noted that the university hosts hikes up to the “Y” each year for homecoming, as well as other events on the property.

And, according to a 2014 congressional bill, which allowed the school to purchase the land from the U.S. Forest Service, BYU is supposed to provide public access.

In a 2018 news release announcing the finalized purchase, BYU President Kevin Worthen said at the time: “We look forward to sharing Y Mountain with our neighbors, friends and visitors.”

Still, the school has the authority to enforce restrictions. And the signs are part of policing that and making anyone liable for proceeding anyway with a demonstration there.

An individual who violates the rule could be disciplined or arrested. The charge would be a class B misdemeanor for trespassing. A conviction could land a person in jail for up to six months and include a $1,000 fine.

(Cortney Huber) Pictured is the ATV that Cortney Huber said she saw on Y Mountain that carried orange fencing and signs prohibiting protests on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

(Cortney Huber) Pictured is the "Y" on Y Mountain blocked off by orange fencing, with signs posted prohibiting protests, on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

Huber said she feels the school says it’s welcoming to LGBTQ students but then puts in place a policy that seems aimed at silencing them.

She said seeing the lights on the hill from her home in Provo last year made her feel hopeful and happy.

That’s why, Huber said, she decided to participate in the smaller light show Friday.

The original March 2021 display came one year after after BYU had put out a statement in March 2020 clarifying its stance on same-sex romantic behavior. The organizer said at the time it wasn’t meant to be a protest but a message about how LGBTQ students felt about what he called the “Honor Code betrayal.”

In February 2020, the university had quietly removed the section from its Honor Code, a set of rules students are expected to follow at the Latter-day Saint school, banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

LGBTQ students at the time celebrated what they hoped that meant, kissing in front of statues at BYU and holding hands. But many say that was ripped away when leaders later said that just because the section was taken out of the code, it did not mean LGBTQ relationships were now “compatible” with the rules at BYU.

About 40 students and allies took part in lighting the “Y” in response a year later. The participants hiked up at sundown and each carried a color light, so that the letter would appear in rainbow stripes, starting with red at the top down to purple at the bottom.

Amid the growing attention that evening, the school sent out a brief tweet noting: “BYU did not authorize the lighting of the Y tonight.”

Told to leave campus

The school said Friday that it also did not authorize the Rainbow Day gathering on campus and confirmed that it asked those participating to leave.

About 20 students had met outside in the plaza near the library and student center. Many wore rainbow T-shirts, carried rainbow umbrellas and handed out rainbow pins.

According to the school’s updated demonstration policy, that counted as a rally and they were supposed to get permission first.

Under the changes, BYU defines demonstrations as “an event that occurs on university property that is not sponsored by the university in which two or more people gather to raise awareness about, or express a viewpoint on, an issue or cause.”

That can include marches, memorials, parades, picketing, leafletting, signature-gathering, rallies, sit-ins and counterdemonstrations, according to the school. When previously asked if supporting the LGBTQ community counted, Jenkins, the BYU spokesperson, told The Salt Lake Tribune that “if the intent is to form a gathering, then this policy would apply.”

About Friday’s event, she said: “Some individuals who had not secured permission to demonstrate on campus today were asked to disperse or move their demonstration off campus.”

Maddison Tenney, the founder of the Raynbow Collective, an off-campus nonprofit that supports BYU’s LBGTQ students, organized the event.

In the past, Tenney said, the group has had “a fantastic relationship” with BYU and administrators there. That changed Friday.

“I was sad to see their first response was to kick us off,” Tenney said.

Tenney acknowledged the new protest policy, which requires groups to apply five days in advance now to hold an event, and said the dean who asked them to leave was polite. But she said she wishes the school cared more about supporting marginalized students.

President Worthen, she noted, has put out a statement in support of belonging. Being told to get off of campus, she said, doesn’t feel like it accords.

“These students want to be part of BYU,” she said. “They want to have a place here.”

The group ultimately followed the directions and moved to a sidewalk across the street, owned by Provo city.

It was a little funny, noted one student who participated. The administrators who told them to leave said they couldn’t have parades either, so they needed to “not look like a parade” when they marched off campus.

As the group left in their rainbow attire and flags, some of the participants shouted at students passing by, “We’re not a parade.”

The student, who The Tribune agreed not to name because he fears repercussions for being LGBTQ, said he was proud of the students. But he also said he’s never felt more hated on campus.

‘Queer people will be visible’

A few students who were sitting near the Rainbow Day event but weren’t participating said they were lumped into the demonstration and also told to leave or face repercussions.

Under BYU’s protest policy, those who do not follow the rules are subject to disciplinary action at the school, including being suspended, expelled or banned from university property.

One of those students, Isaac, said it felt like anyone wearing rainbow attire was told to leave, even if they were not engaging with the event.

Jenkins said that wasn’t the case. “They were not asked to disperse simply because of what they were wearing,” she said.

Isaac also asked to be identified only be his first name because he worries about BYU disciplining him as an LGBTQ student on a scholarship. The Tribune confirmed his enrollment at the school.

“There were two organizers there and the rest of us were just hanging out,” he said. “All of us were told to leave campus.”

Isaac said he disagrees with the university’s definition of a demonstration. “All we were doing,” he said, “was being with each other at a school that doesn’t look kindly to its queer students.”

Shill, an LGBTQ junior who was participating, said even with the efforts by BYU to limit demonstrations, he doesn’t think gay and queer students will stop trying to be seen and improve how they’re treated.

“They consistently crush these efforts,” he said. “But they can’t be crushed because queer people will be visible. Queer people will continue to fight to have a space on BYU’s campus.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University students participate in last year's Rainbow Day in Provo on Thursday, March 4, 2021.