100 protesters yelled slurs in Provo as LGBTQ students at BYU celebrated coming back to school

Allies shielded students with the same type of wings that blocked anti-gay protesters during the 1999 trial for Matthew Shepard’s killers in Wyoming.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People dressed as “angels” arrive for the RaYnbow Collective’s Back to School Pride Night for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo in an effort to block counterprotesters on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Provo • The angels stood quietly while protesters yelled “pedophile” and “groomer” and pushed signs quoting the Book of Mormon toward their faces.

“You’re going against God,” one man spat. Another told them to “stop protecting the homos” at Brigham Young University.

The dozen people dressed in white didn’t flinch. Hand in hand, they formed a shield between the 100 people rallying in front of them and the LGBTQ students, alumni and friends from BYU who gathered off campus to find and show support for each other Saturday night.

The angel’s wings, made of white sheets draped over PVC pipe that extended 3 feet above their shoulders, blocked most of the posters at the “Back to School Pride Night” at Kiwanis Park in Provo.

“I’m doing this because I want our LGBTQ community to feel like they can be themselves and know we have their backs,” said Sabrina Wong, a BYU student and ally who stood as one of the angels at Kiwanis Park in Provo.

Clubs for queer students who attend BYU are not allowed to meet on campus; the school operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints forbids it, as well as any same-sex romantic partnerships or displays of affection among LGBTQ students.

So the RaYnbow Collective, a nonprofit that supports the BYU queer community, holds an annual gathering at a park at the start of every school year. This year, they went bigger than ever before, planning what they billed as a family-friendly drag show — which included current and former BYU students as performers.

But several conservative groups vowed to show up to object, saying it was inappropriate for children and they had to defend their town. Some BYU students were among the protesters.

“This shouldn’t be at a public park,” said Thomas Stevenson, a BYU senior and the co-founder of the informal BYU Conservatives group, which has no restrictions for meeting on campus. He said there is “an element of social contagion with gender dysphoria” which is why they were protesting kids being at the show.

Protesting BYU students wore blue BYU T-shirts and baseball hats, in contrast to their classmates wearing rainbow gear on the other side of the angels. Some protesters openly carried handguns on their hips as they waved American flags and chanted, “Christ is king” and “Stop grooming our children.”

“Drag is a sexual fetish,” said Brad Bartholomew, a Utah County resident. “This is sexualizing children.”

The protesters said they were concerned about the stage names of the drag performers, including “Jenna Tailia,” meant to sound like “genitalia.” They argued the show didn’t align with the values of the LDS Church and BYU.

Maddison Tenney, founder of the RaYnbow Collective and a senior at BYU, said she knew there would be protesters, but she became concerned when Provo police told her to expect a large crowd pushing back.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People dressed as “angels” form a wall in an effort to shield counterprotestors as the RaYnbow Collective hosts a Back to School Pride Night for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

That’s when, she said, her group decided to use angel costumes — a strategy famously used by the friends of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1999, when the two men accused of killing him went on trial. Shepard, 21, was beaten, tortured and left hanging from a wooden prairie fence in 1998 after the men attacked him for his sexuality. He died six days later.

Angels blocked signs held by members of the Westboro Baptist Church who protested outside the courtroom with signs that said “God hates f--s.” Several groups have since replicated the display, including at the funerals for the victims of the Orlando shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in 2016.

“Religion has been weaponized against the queer community for a long time,” Tenney said Saturday. “But that needs to end. I believe there’s nothing more divine than who I am as a queer child of God.”

Following Beyoncé's advice

The protesters were outnumbered by those who showed up for the queer community.

That included members of the Black Menaces, who have been working to fight prejudice on BYU’s campus. The university has been under national scrutiny after a Duke student said a racial slur was yelled at her during a volleyball match on campus last week. BYU has said the incident is still under investigation, but another school has pulled out of competing against the university over it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Garvin, left, tries to block a counterprotester from moving in on the performance stage as the RaYnbow Collective hosts a Back to School Pride Night for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Jillian Orr also was at the gathering in the park; she is bisexual and graduated from BYU this spring in a rainbow gown that went viral.

There were roughly 300 people in colorful clothes, clapping along to the drag show. Kids belted out the songs from Ariana Grande and Cyndi Lauper, sitting in the grass below the stage.

John LeSueur brought his 2-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to see the performances — feeling the opposite of the protesters about kids seeing drag. “I just thought they’d enjoy a good show,” he said with a smile. His daughter “oohed” and “aahed” as the drag queen Kitty Kitty spun in front of her.

Drag queens and kings twirled and dropped on stage in sequins and feathers and fringe. One had a beard made out of rainbow beads. Another had a skirt fashioned out of acrylic nails. The host queen had a blue ballgown and rainbow sash. They all wore the highest high heels.

A queen by the stage name Jaliah Jambalaya hand-bedazzled a BYU sweatshirt in orange and green and blue. She added red lips and gold hoops to the cougar mascot.

She lip-synced to Beyoncé's “Single Ladies,” putting extra emphasis on the line, “Don’t pay him any attention” as she looked out over the demonstrators.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaliah kicks off the start of the showcase drag show as the RaYnbow Collective hosts a Back to School Pride Night for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Another performer, with the stage name Lexi Gold, said performing in drag has allowed her to “really come into myself.” She once was a student at BYU where, she said, she felt she had to hide.

The performers aren’t groomers; they are there to show how to embrace who you are, Gold said — every glamorous part.

“This event just means so much to us,” she said, standing by the stage in a shimmering pink raincoat and a tall blond wig. “I wish I saw more of this when I was at school. It’s so affirming.”

All 12 of the drag performers faced threats, Tenney said, before the show, receiving violent messages on social media. She paced the entrance to the stage, making sure they were safe during the show.

A few police officers also monitored the crowed, breaking up a handful of clashes between the two groups.

‘We can protect each other’

Carolyn Gassert, the president of Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship, or USGA, a group for LGBTQ BYU students, said most of the queer students at BYU are used to the vitriol.

“This is the kind of stuff we have to deal with here,” she said. “It’s not just tonight. We hear these comments in the classroom.”

Logan Bushman, who graduated from BYU in the spring as an openly gay student, pulled together the angel costumes. Building them, he said, was a way for him to protest, in part, BYU’s change to its Honor Code in March 2020, an episode that left some gay students feeling gaslighted.

The university quietly removed a section banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” LGBTQ students celebrated what they hoped that meant 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 leaders clarified three weeks later that same-sex relationships were still “not compatible” with the rules at BYU. Bushman said he hadn’t felt comfortable protesting while he was still a student; he was worried about discipline and also where he fit in. Now, he knows he wants to help make his community safe.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this, to be honest,” he said. “It’s a lot to see these protesters who don’t like who I am.”

At the park, Tenney told the crowd: “I know that there are more standing with us than those against us,”

Where there were gaps in the line of angels, students filled in by waving rainbow flags above the protesters’ signs that peeked through. Some locked arms and joined the angels.

Gassert watched as nearby a mom took her daughter’s photos by her favorite drag queen. And she joined in as everyone got up to dance together to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” at the end of the show.

“At least we can protect each other,” Gassert said.

The angels jumped in with the crowd, too, their wings bobbing up and down as the music and the cheers drowned out the few left shouting into the megaphones behind them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kitty shows the love towards the fans during a drag show for the RaYnbow Collective’s Back to School Pride Night for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, with a drag show at the end of the event.

Clarification • 3:15 p.m. April 14, 2023: This story has been updated to further clarify the reason Thomas Stevenson described for the protest.