Brigham Young University’s Instagram page has become the center of a growing social media protest, with hundreds of commenters flooding the private religious school’s posts to speak out against its anti-LGBTQ policies.
“Gay lives matter! Gay students matter,” reads one comment. Another says: “Let same-sex couples kiss on campus!!”
A few cite verses from the Bible on the social media photo-sharing app. Scrolling through the replies, almost all include emojis of rainbows or Pride flags or hearts. It’s a colorful digital display.
Eleni Alicia López, a current student who has been participating in the campaign, said she hopes the Provo school’s administrators see the comments and contemplate how they could be more welcoming to gay students.
“This is something so small, but hopefully BYU is seeing how many people are doing this and it can inspire some positive changes,” said López, who said she has family and friends in the LGBTQ community and at BYU that she wants to support.
The university, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prohibits LGBTQ students from any kind of same-sex partnership or romantic expression, including dating, holding hands, hugging or kissing. That is considered against the Honor Code and cause for discipline.
The school is allowed to have those rules because it is a private institution. It was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education after complaints of discrimination, but federal investigators concluded earlier this year that the school was acting within its rights.
And BYU has since cracked down on demonstrations against its policies after a group of students lit the “Y” on Y Mountain above the school in rainbow colors several times in the past year.
The school has been holding the spotlight recently for its treatment of LGBTQ students, including after a gay student was called a Book of Mormon term associated with an anti-Christ and after a top-ranking apostle of the LDS Church criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage.
The comments on social media are a way to speak out against the school, putting some public pressure on it, as well as to show LGBTQ students that they have allies, said Rosemary Card, a 2013 BYU alumnus and a prominent Utah podcaster.
“We’re trying to show LGBTQ students at BYU an outpouring of love,” she said. “There’s more to be done, but this is just a little way to tell them that we see them and love them just as they are.”
LGBTQ students, Card said, often feel the school is not a safe place, and they have to hide their identities or risk possibly being expelled if they act on their feelings. She’s been encouraging others to join in on the comments.
It’s not clear who started the social media campaign, but the vibrant replies appear in the comment section of all of BYU’s Instagram posts from this year. The comments date back several weeks — aligning with the start of Pride Month — and more are added every day.
“I love that it keeps going,” Card said.
She wrote in her comment: “Happy pride month! Maybe BYU takes a proactive approach to becoming a safer place for ALL students.”
López said, too, “It’s what the Church of Jesus Christ and what Christ was all about, just loving everyone.”
When asked by The Salt Lake Tribune for a comment on the social media campaign, BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins said, “We’re aware of these posts; thanks for reaching out.”
The school has previously been heralded for its unique and innovative Instagram presence, often having students host takeovers of its account. It also used the app to discuss its failures in handling sexual assault — earning much acclaim for the approach, which came after The Salt Lake Tribune exposed that campus police were sharing information about victims with the Honor Code office.
On the other hand, though, the university often closes its Twitter posts to comments, which is likely why students, alumni and folks across the nation turned to Instagram for the recent campaign.
The commenters have been writing things like “God loves all His children” and “Love thy neighbor.” Sometimes they write an LGBTQ-supportive message that correlates with the topic of the photo that BYU posted on the app.
On one about a study abroad trip to Spain, someone wrote: “Amor es amor en España!!” (Translation: “Love is love in Spain!!”) On a photo of the flowers blooming on campus this spring, another person lightheartedly added: “You know who else loves flowers? The gays.”
And people have been joining from across the country.
Sergio Bolaños, who lives in New Jersey, posted rainbow flags and wrote “Happy Pride!” When asked why he added his voice, Bolaños said: “Because Pride is not just celebrating, it’s also about protest across the nation.” Ciara Waterman jumped in from North Carolina, advising BYU administrators to re-read Matthew 22:37-39 about loving your neighbors “as yourself,” which she said “applies to the gay neighbors, too.”
Maci Mueller, who lives in Florida and is a former Latter-day Saint, also posted hearts emojis in every color.
“What I hope happens is that people at BYU who are struggling will be able to see that support,” she said. “And someday I hope that everyone at BYU is able to be themselves.”
Mueller said after learning more about how BYU treats gay students, she wants to designate what she used to pay in tithing and start donating it to LGBTQ organizations in Utah.
Carolyn Gassert, who is the president of Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship — the unapproved club of LGBTQ students at BYU that is not allowed by the school to meet on campus — said she appreciates the display. But she encourages people to take more substantive action, like Mueller, to donate to organizations that help queer youth in the state.
“I think it’s a great expression of love and support, but we need more because queer students at BYU, who for whatever reason may be stuck there or want to be there, are still contemplating suicide because of the treatment and lack of protection at BYU,” she said. “Performative allyship doesn’t help us at all. People have to follow through.”
Some alumni hope that the comments will help. But if not, a few wrote that they’re willing to pull financial support if policies don’t change.
Howard Saavedra, who graduated from BYU-Idaho in 2020, said the campuses of BYU in Utah and Idaho are “homophobic.” He hopes the board of trustees at the school, which is made up of LDS Church leaders, will be prompted to reflect on how they might be harming some LGBTQ students.
Brittney Griffith, who graduated from the university in 2016, said when she was attending BYU, she was extremely conservative and shared many of the LDS Church’s beliefs.
Later, someone she knew who also went to BYU came out as LGBTQ and it changed her perspective.
“I’m ashamed to say that’s what it took to do so,” she said.
She has since left the church but wants to do whatever she can to support LGBTQ students. She said she was concerned watching the school in spring 2020 when it initially removed a controversial section from the rules that banned “homosexual behavior.” But then it backtracked after some students celebrated, openly coming out as queer after, they said, some school officials told them it was OK.
The school clarified a week later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited, even if the ban was no longer expressly written. LGBTQ students protested, with some saying they felt tricked into coming out.
“For me, that smacks in the face everything I have come to know and love about a loving God,” Griffith said.
She posted on BYU’s Instagram page: “Love will always drown out hate.”
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