An inflatable rainbow arch framed the driveway of a Provo home about a mile from Brigham Young University’s campus. People trickled through the arch to a lawn set up with dozens of chairs.
Former BYU professors Roni Jo Draper and Daniel Barney walked to the front of the crowd. Draper wore dangly earrings that say “BOLD” on one ear and “LOVE” on the other.
“We're just coming to you in our full queerness to celebrate the folks who are graduating from BYU this year who are LGBTQ and also allies,” Draper told the crowd of roughly 20 graduates, along with their friends and loved ones.
Ahead of Brigham Young University’s official graduation ceremonies set for the end of April, Barney and Draper held a Lavender Graduation on April 15. It’s a ceremony that honors LGBTQ students as they finish their schoolwork.
“We believe that the mere fact that you survived — perhaps, maybe even some of you thrived, I’m not gonna put all that pressure on you, though — your studies at BYU as an LGBTQ+ human,” Draper said. “For that alone, you deserve high honors.”
Barney read off each graduate’s name and a short bio. When it was read aloud that one student will be getting “gay married” later this year, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
Draper gave each student a purple and white cord to wear with their graduation gown and cap, and wrapped some of them in a hug.
Unlike at some schools where Lavender Graduations are official events held on campus, this event was not sponsored or endorsed by BYU. The university is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage, and “same-sex romantic behavior” is against the school’s Honor Code.
The fear of being reported to the Honor Code Office is just one thing that can make being a queer BYU student difficult.
“It was really sad and hard to not be able to share my life and my love with some of, you know, the people in my life that I really appreciated and loved at BYU,” said Julia Sasine, who graduated in December with a degree in sociology and is the president of the Cougar Pride Center.
Being openly out on campus also meant lots of questions from people at school or church, Sasine said. Questions like ‘what’s it like being queer at BYU?’ or ‘what it's like going to church as a queer person?’
For Sasine, getting those questions day after day for years was tiring because her answers included traumatizing and sad experiences. “And to have to tell those stories and be reminded by it every day when you’re on that campus, it becomes a lot.”
But the lavender ceremony didn’t dwell on students’ painful experiences or ways they’d like to see the school change. It focused on recognizing their accomplishments and futures.
Rin Butler, a biology major, is literally counting down the days until graduation. A couple of months ago, they created a paper chain representing how long they have left at BYU, and each day they rip off one of the links.
Butler said there were times that they didn’t feel safe in their apartment or on campus. One time, Butler said they were hanging out at their apartment with a queer friend. Their roommates assumed the two were on a date.
“They sat me down in the kitchen that evening and they were like, ‘So Rin, you can’t bring home girls, you can't be dating. Like, we're not going to turn you into the Honor Code Office this time,’” Butler recalled.
Butler said they will be walking during BYU’s official graduation, but only because their parents will be in town. The Lavender Graduation, on the other hand, is the ceremony that actually matters to them because they felt like they were seen as a whole person.
Being recognized as a whole person also stuck out to Maddison Tenney, a graduating student and founder of the RaYnbow Collective.
“I think that’s been the most heartbreaking part about BYU is being forced to separate all the parts of myself. I’m both a queer person and a queer person of faith, and I want to be able to hold those as one,” Tenney said. “To have something like this where you just get to be 100% you, it feels like what it should be. It feels like what BYU should be. It feels like what the church should be.”
Tenney enjoyed seeing her LGBTQ friends celebrate each other’s accomplishments and hearing what they have in store.
“Sometimes you can believe that because you’re queer, you won’t do good things after graduation, that you’re not worthy of good things. But I think something like this just reminds us that we’re all worthy of such love and such success,” Tenney said.
Psychology student J.J. Seo said he felt he had to censor himself at times while at BYU. Seo is excited to have more freedom in their expression.
“I no longer want to be like ‘palatable queer,’ or what BYU finds as like ‘You can be gay, but not that type of gay,’” Seo said. “For me, once I graduate, it’s like ‘Oh, I’m going to be that type of gay.’ I am going to speak up. I’m going to become a problem for you guys. I’m going to be the thorn in your side because I never got to do that while at BYU.”
When the students walk across the stage during their official BYU graduation ceremony, Draper hopes they wear the purple cords they were given proudly — and then go “do amazing things with that education.”
“Just light the world on fire,” Draper told the students at the Lavender Graduation. “You know what I'm talking about? Not talking about this like baby fire. I'm talking about, like, ‘queer fire’”