Protesters at an LGBTQ event for BYU students blocked by ‘angels’

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Province • The angels stood quietly as protesters shouted “pedophile” and “groomer” and pushed signs quoting the Book of Mormon in their faces.

“You are going against God,” spat one man. Another told them to “stop protecting gays” at Brigham Young University.

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

The angel’s wings, made of white sheets draped over a 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 that we have our backs,” said Sabrina Wong, a BYU student and ally who was one of the angels of the Kiwanis Park in Provo.

Clubs for gay students who attend BYU are not permitted to meet on campus; the school operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibits 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 queer BYU community, holds an annual park rally at the start of each school year. This year they went further than ever, planning what they presented as a family drag show – which included current and former BYU students as performers.

But several conservative groups have vowed to come forward to oppose it, saying it is inappropriate for children and that they must defend their city. Some BYU students were among the protesters.

“This shouldn’t be in a public park,” said Thomas Stevenson, a BYU senior and co-founder of BYU’s informal curators group, which has no restrictions for meeting on campus. He described a “social contagion with gender dysphoria”, which is why they were protesting children’s participation in the show.

The protesting BYU students wore blue BYU t-shirts and baseball caps, unlike their classmates wearing rainbow attire on the other side of the angels. Some protesters openly carried handguns to their hips as they waved American flags and chanted “Christ is King” and “Stop grooming our children”.

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

Protesters said they were concerned about the stage names of drag performers, including “Jenna Tailia”, meant to sound like “genitals”. They argued that the show did not align with the values ​​of the LDS Church and BYU.

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

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People dressed as “angels” form a wall in an effort to protect counter-protesters as the RaYnbow collective hosts a Back-to-School Pride party for BYU students at the park Kiwanis in Provo on Saturday, September 3. 2022.

It was then, she said, that her group decided to use angel costumes – a famous strategy used by the friends of a 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 meadow fence in 1998 after men attacked him for his sexuality. He died six days later.

Angels blocked signs held by members of the Westboro Baptist Church who demonstrated outside the courtroom with signs saying “God hates f–s.” Several groups have since replicated the display, notably at the funeral of 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 this must stop. I believe there is nothing more divine than who I am as a queer child of God.

Follow Beyoncé’s advice

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

This included members of the Black Threats, who worked to combat prejudice on BYU’s campus. The university has come under national scrutiny after a Duke student said a racial slur was shouted at him during a volleyball game on campus last week. BYU said the incident is still under investigation, but another school pulled out of competition with the university over it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Garvin, left, tries to stop a counter-protester from entering the show stage as the RaYnbow collective hosts a back-to-school pride party for students in BYU at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, September 1. 3, 2022.

Jillian Orr was also at the rally in the park; she’s bisexual and graduating from BYU this spring in a rainbow dress that went viral.

There were about 300 people dressed in colorful clothes, cheering on the drag show. The children sang songs by Ariana Grande and Cyndi Lauper, seated in the grass under the stage.

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

Drag queens and kings swirled and fell on stage in sequins, feathers and fringe. One had a beard made of rainbow beads. Another had a fashioned skirt with acrylic nails. The host queen had a blue ball gown and a rainbow sash. They were all wearing the tallest high heels.

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

She lip-synced to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” putting more emphasis on the line “Pay him no mind” as she stared at the protesters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaliah kicks off the showcase drag show as the RaYnbow collective hosts a back-to-school pride party for BYU students at Kiwanis Park in Provo on Saturday, 3 September 2022.

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

Performers are not groomers; they’re there to show how to embrace who you are, Gold said — every part glamorous.

“This event means so much to us,” she said, standing near the stage in a sparkly pink raincoat and large blonde wig. “I wish I had seen more when I was in school. It’s so affirming.

All 12 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 policemen also watched the crowd, breaking up a handful of clashes between the two groups.

“We can protect ourselves”

Carolyn Gassert, President of Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Alliance, or USGA, a group of LGBTQ BYU students, said most gay students at BYU are used to vitriol.

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

Logan Bushman, who graduated from BYU in the spring as an openly gay student, collected 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 college students feeling shocked.

The university quietly removed a section prohibiting “all forms of physical intimacy that express homosexual feelings”. LGBTQ students celebrated what they hoped it meant and many said they were gay only because they believed – and some honor code staff said so – that the school allowed it now.

But executives clarified three weeks later that same-sex relationships were still “not consistent” with BYU rules. Bushman said he did not feel comfortable protesting while still a student; he worried about discipline and his place. Now he knows he wants to help make his community safer.

“I wish we didn’t have to do that, 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 there are more supporters with us than people against us’

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

Nearby Gassert saw a mother taking photos of her daughter by her favorite drag queen. And she joined us 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 also jumped with the crowd, their wings swaying up and down as the music and cheers drowned out the few remaining shouts in the megaphones behind them.

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

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