It took half an hour, a spool of thread, one Pride flag and her sister’s expert sewing skills to transform Jillian Orr’s graduation gown into a statement.
On the outside, the blue polyester robe from Brigham Young University looked just the same as everyone else’s. But on the inside, the rainbow stripes popped out against the dark fabric.
Orr was nervous about her idea but felt she had to do something during the Friday ceremony.
“I knew I wanted to protest my time at the school,” the 28-year-old said, “after so many years feeling like I had to hide myself.”
And so, when she crossed the stage to collect her diploma and as she appeared on the large video screen at the Marriott Center, she threw open the gown, revealing the colors stitched into it for all to see. The psychology major considered it a quiet demonstration against the conservative school and a loud declaration of who she is.
Orr is bisexual. And she hid her relationship with another woman while she was attending BYU, she said. She constantly worried that if anyone found out about it, she would be disciplined and possibly expelled from the private religious university.
BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prohibits students under its Honor Code from being in same-sex relationships, enforcing the faith’s stance on romantic partners. A spokesperson for the school declined to comment on this story.
“I was always on edge that someone would find out or someone would turn us in,” she said.
Orr said she was frequently reminded of that in classes. In one, she had to take a quiz that asked her what those who truly love the LGBTQ community should do. The correct answer was: “love them unconditionally, while understanding they’ll never be as happy as those who follow the gospel.”
“That hurt,” Orr said. “That was so painful to me.”
She was also instructed to turn in a paper on “why it’s God’s plan that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.” She declined to write it and took a lower grade as a result.
Orr said she is a strong believer in the LDS Church, a faith she was born and raised in, but she doesn’t think her sexuality should be at conflict with her spirituality. She loves them both.
And that’s when she got the idea for her graduation gown.
She had been talking with her younger sister, Hope Orr, about what to wear to graduation. Hope had encouraged her to be authentic, suggesting maybe a rainbow dress.
They both knew anything conspicuous outside of the gown would catch attention and possibly lead administrators to pull her out of the ceremony before she could walk. But a rainbow dress didn’t feel right to Jillian Orr.
Her sister, who is a big fan of “Cruella,” kept envisioning the scene in the Disney movie where Cruella de Vil’s dress transforms, changing to a vibrant red when it’s set on fire. That spurred the thought of the Pride flag inside the robe — a transformation that felt true and “a little bit sneaky,” Orr said with a laugh.
Orr’s older sister, Rachel Orr, offered to sew it in. And it turned out perfect, Jillian Orr said.
She nervously stood backstage during commencement, counting the rows left to go until they called her up. Four, three. Two.
She started to wonder if they’d tackle her on stage or escort her off the premises or rip up her diploma.
Her oldest sister, Megan, texted her from their seats in the auditorium. “If you get down there and you decide it doesn’t feel right and you don’t do it, we still love you and we still see you,” she said.
Orr said that steadied her emotionally, though her hands still shook as she handed a piece of paper with her name to the announcer.
And then she did it. In an image that has since been shared nationally — appearing on a segment of Good Morning America, USA Today and the Huffington Post — Orr stands on the stage, opening her gown like colorful wings under her arms.
“I wanted as many students to see as possible,” she said. “This was for all of us who are LGBTQ here.”
The moment was so fast that Orr jokes that she doesn’t remember much of it now after shaking hands with the dean. In a daze, she texted her sister back once she was backstage again. “Did I do it? Did it happen?”
Orr smiles thinking about it, relying on the pictures from her sisters to prove she did, in fact, do it. No one from the school stopped her or said anything afterward. And she’s gotten mostly positive comments since, with her Instagram feed blowing up where she posted a video of making the gown.
Her rainbow display isn’t the first sort of graduation statement at BYU. In 2019, Matt Easton publicly declared himself “a gay son of God” in his valedictory speech.
But Orr’s fashion protest comes after a few particularly rough years for LGBTQ students at the school, she acknowledged.
In spring 2020, the university removed a controversial section from the rules that banned “homosexual behavior.” Some students celebrated, openly coming out as queer after, they said, some school officials told them it was OK. But a few weeks later, the school clarified that same-sex partnerships would still be prohibited, even if the ban was no longer expressly written.
LGBTQ students protested, with some saying they felt tricked into coming out.
In a rally against the policy on the one-year anniversary, some lit up the “Y” on Y Mountain in rainbow colors. Then, the school updated its rules to forbid that, too, and tighten down on demonstrations.
And last fall, a top-ranking apostle of the LDS Church came to campus and criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage. He said they should instead take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend “the doctrine of the family and ... marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
Orr said she felt she couldn’t speak out against those actions from the administration until she had her degree in hand.
But now that she does, she’s ready to make a statement.
She said: “I’m really happy that I was finally able to be seen.”