A truck squealed across the intersection, a passenger hanging out the window broke the silence with a scratchy scream, “penises belong in vaginas, queerbags!”
The one hundred or so queer students and allies, myself included, remained silent and unmoved, sitting on the sidewalk outside of Brigham Young University-Idaho. Determined to honor the queer victims of suicide and hate crimes we were holding a ten-minute moment of silence. Clearly our friend in the truck had missed the memo.
It had been almost a month since changes to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint owned university’s “Honor Code” were made to remove language barring “homosexual behavior.” Many students cautiously, yet optimistically, concluded what may seem obvious to others, that removing language banning a certain behavior meant you would no longer be punished for said behavior.
“We finally felt safe” a queer student who wished to remain anonymous told me when he heard the news about the language being removed. A sentiment shared by many on social media and in the press that initially surrounded the changes.
Still it seemed too good to be true and there were mixed messages about the ambiguous changes. But nothing further was said. For weeks. As a result students came out to friends and family, even publicly. Queer students started to feel safe and included. The school and the Church that owns it benefited from weeks of positive national media attention.
Then more than two weeks later the Church Educational System, or CES, which oversees all LDS owned universities sent an email to every student stating the homosexual behavior was still punitive because it “cannot lead to eternal marriage.”
“It felt like we had freedom and then we didn’t,” said Nate, a gay student at BYU-I who is preparing to go on a Latter-day Saint mission for two years. “I felt like I might be able to be safe on campus after that, and then that [Email] happened and I didn’t feel safe anymore”
Nate decided it was time to do something. He used his twitter account to organize a protest within a few hours of the CES email being sent out. 12 people showed up.
Grey Woodhouse was one of the original 12 protesters, and when she saw the small numbers that came the first day she was told that it probably is the most they could get. When she heard that she said: “No, we can do better.” After starting a twitter and Instagram account (@restorebyui), she reached out to the off-campus Progressive Student Society and USGA Rexburg which is an LGBTQ+ support group, to help mobilize people to come out the next day. Grey was instrumental in organizing the ensuing protests and events. She was there, every day with a megaphone and a rainbow flag tied around her like a cape hyping up the crowd, dancing, leading chants, fielding questions from passersby and overall just exhibiting big-AOC-energy. She truly transformed the protests into a movement.
The next day the number of protestors more than doubled as 30 people came. The day after it doubled again, this time with over 60 protestors. The campus started to take notice of the colorful rainbow clad group of protestors on the corner in front of the school.
Almost every class I had people were talking about it.
“It’s pathetic,” One girl said.
“It would be different if they were victims to actual hate crimes,” I overheard one student say, as he walked across campus holding his girlfriend’s hand, “They’re just doing this for fanfare.”
“The CES email was so uplifting and they just freaked out,” scoffed one kid wearing a MAGA hat.
Other students took to social media. Many talked about the “courage” to stand up to the protestors and tell them that if they didn’t like it here they should just go somewhere else. Alt-right Mormon groups and other students decided to hold a “counter-protest” to “defend traditional marriage and the family.”
But as the opposition grew, so did the support. Allies from Utah came to provide support providing rainbow flags, food, donations and speakers. A dinner and “family” gathering was organized for queer students that were catered by allies from out of state who wanted to do their part. No protests were held during the weekend, allowing people to spread the word, organize and get ready for another one on Monday.
A Movement of Radical Love
The scheduled time for the protest on Monday came and with it a movement truly began to take shape. Event organizers estimated over 150 showed up at various points throughout the two-hour protest, but it wasn’t just the sheer numbers. We now filled two street corners at the busy intersection in front of the university, rainbow flags of all sizes were waving. Speakers blared Whitney Houston’s iconic “I Wanna Dance.” People sang, danced, painted (literally, I’ll attach pictures, it was amazing) and hugged each other.
I watched as tears of frustration and hurt that had been caused by the school boiled over, but I also saw others rush to wipe away those tears, to uplift, support and empower each other. There was a tangible feeling of joy, welcoming and belonging as so many marginalized people realized how beautiful they could be, how welcomed they were and perhaps for the first time realized they were not alone. One student identified himself to me only as “Jared” and said he was afraid to actually join in the protests, but whenever he saw all those people on the street corners it gave him hope. “Every time I saw the protestors it made my day and just fills my heart with joy and feel like I’m not alone and just makes me feel love, and the love of God,” he told me.
Food was passed around, one lady offered “mom hugs” to students who had been estranged or disowned for coming out, some protestors offered candy to people as they walked by, even when they were adversarial. People who had been complete strangers sang and danced with each other or cheered when someone honked in support as they drove by, a tight-knit community had formed that was open to any who wanted to be a part of it, even when slurs were shouted or we were flipped off I would always hear someone, usually, Nate, shout “I still love you!”
On the other side of the street stood a handful of so-called “counter-protestors” almost all were white males and while the signs on our side said things like “Love One Another,” “Discipleship = Allyship,” “Love is Honorable,” “Love more. Hate Less,” “Love thy neighbor,” “Jesus was an ally,” and “If God hates us why are we so cute?” this group held signs that included things like “Girls are hot, u are not,” “There are no homosexual members of the Church,” and “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” There was no dancing, singing or hugging. Members of their group came over to our side calling us cowards because several gay students refused to engage with the debate they requested. People yelled obscenities toward us and a myriad of homophobic slurs while they drove by. One student walked by and shouted “Being gay is a mental disorder.”
Even still, Grey and Nate both with rainbow flag capes flowing in the insufferable Idaho wind like literal superheroes, crossed the street to introduce themselves and shake hands (an offer several refused). They repeatedly reminded the rest of us to not fight hate with more hate but to always show love.
The defining contrast between the two groups came as a truck drove by and dumped thick black exhaust all over the protestors. Grey, Nate and others leading the protest rushed to make sure everyone was okay and to keep spirits up, I happened to glance across the street as the smoke dissipated and saw one of the counter-protestors, holding a sign with a message about how “God needs the family” literally leaping up and down with excitement and pleasure as he watched the queer students cough and choke on the exhaust. I was struck with amazement at how much hate must fill someone’s soul to take such pleasure in something like that.
“A Spiritual Experience
There was a total of six protests that lasted the span of a week. As each new protest came, so did hostility, hate, harassment and threats. Grey had organized a short march around the campus on the last day of the protests, once word got out about the march anonymous Instagram accounts messaged Grey threatening to spray those marching with water guns filled with urine. This was one of many threats Grey, Nate and there’s received over social media or by anonymous accounts. Despite all of the negativity, the sense of community and love was palpable. These were not the anti-religion-making-a-scene-just-for-clout-wayward-youths that so many people wanted to paint our movement out to be. In fact, one of the most common things people told me they felt during those six days was a closeness with God.
Rachel Clarke another BYU-I student who identifies as queer, participated in the protests and described it to me as a “spiritual experience.” She was moved by the amount of love and understanding she felt. “There is more of us and we have a voice to tell people that all we want is just to be loved and to be understood and listened to. I think we’re listening to the other side but we don’t feel listened to.”
“The closest I’ve felt to God in a long time,” a queer student voiced during one of the protests. For many, this was one of the most faith-promoting experiences they had experienced at this private religious institution. The last day of protests, after the march and the ten minute moment of silence, the entire group of 100+ queer students, allies, and members of the community sang the LDS hymn “Love One Another,” even as the handful of “counter-protestors” on the other side of the street blared extremely vulgar songs and shouted things into a megaphone like “I just want to make out with a girl.” At the end of our moment of silence, Grey again attempted to reach out to the other side and offered to let them join us in dancing to one last song. They refused instead wanting a dance competition which Grey declined to indulge in participating with (while I’m sure exercising an obscene amount of self-control not to roll her eyes).
A common theme among skeptics was that if queer students wanted to experience what it was like to go on a date or to hold hands that the ownness was on them, “if they don’t like it they should leave,” after all they came to this school “knowing what they signed up for.” Not only is that argument jaw-droppingly ignorant and callous but, it was extremely apparent during those six days how misinformed most people were about these students. Certainly for some students changing universities would be beneficial or even necessary, but for so many this is where they wanted to be.
What so many, especially in the LDS and Christian communities, fail to understand, is that queer people are extremely complex and nuanced individuals. Often, once someone comes out they are placed in a new box, immediately othered, and told they no longer belong in the old box. So many queer Mormons want to stay, either in the church, at the school or both, but no one seems to put in any effort to make room for them to stay (other than celibacy or conversion therapy maybe). So for those who do not wish to stay (either in the church or at the school) how can that come as a surprise to anyone?
In the queer community, feeling safe and welcome on this campus is something very foreign, and to have that dangled in front of them with false hope for weeks, only for it to be ripped away, was devastating. So many of them devote their lives to the university, the Church and to being a follower of Jesus Christ but are so hurt as the more they try to pursue those desires the more they feel excluded, shamed or hated.
What these protests finally offered, was the love, acceptance and welcoming so many had been chasing so desperately. “I felt like I belonged somewhere,” a queer student who wished to remain anonymous told me. And when asked for one-word responses to how the protests made them feel, dozens of queer students responded with words like happiness, love, belonging, hope, peace, compassion, friendship, unity, empowerment and home.
We don’t know what will happen to the school because of these protests, especially now that this pandemic has consumed everyone’s attention. We don’t know if discriminatory policies will change or not, if the CES will apologize, listen to or even just acknowledge the thousands of queer students at its institutions. But the family that had been created on those street corners over those six days and the healing already taking place because of these protests is real. And there is no email that can take that away from us.