In response to threats of an anti-LGBT protest of the RaYnbow Collective’s “Back to School Pride” event, welcoming LGBT BYU Students at the beginning of the school year, several people donned themselves in angel wings to separate the negativity from the event.
In the end, says Ryann Combe who was photographing the event, love won out.
“Protestors showed up with hate but as I was capturing it all. I can fully tell you that love wins in the end,” she wrote on Instagram alongside photos she took. “People from our event immediately took action. They all stood up, held hands, and built a human chain full of love to block out such negativity. The angels emerged right before our beautiful drag artists performed — blocking the hate from emerging into the safe open space that was built.”
Utah County conservatives were riled into action when ultra-conservative online magazine The Federalist publicized the group’s event, focusing on children and the risque names of some of the drag performers.
“A Utah nonprofit is sponsoring a ‘Back to School Pride Drag Extravaganza’ on Saturday with performers whose names sound like ‘anal leakage’ and ‘genitalia’ when pronounced,” the story started. “The Provo-based LGBT group, ‘RaYnbow Collective,’ is promoting the performance as an ‘ALL AGES, Family-Friendly Drag Show’ on its flyers. The RaYnbow Collective did not respond to The Federalist’s inquiry about how the organization can guarantee the show will be ‘family-friendly.’”
The group’s social media posts about the event were inundated by hateful comments and borderline threats of violence.
RaYnbow Collective organizers changed the social media graphics to remove the “offensive” names, but the swell against the event was too far along. The group decided to go ahead with the event, notifying Provo police of the threats against them.
About 100 protestors showed up at the event, shouting homophobic epithets, “pedophile,” “groomer,” holding up anti-LGBTQ+ signs, and yelling quotes from the Book of Mormon at the attendees.
In the week prior to the event, BYU officials tossed the group’s pamphlets for incoming freshmen that contained LGBTQ+ resources after originally agreeing to include them in a welcome pack. The group promised new pamphlets would be handed out at the Back to School event.
Organizers told the press that the event was meant to connect students with LGBTS-friendly businesses, organizations, and resources.
“[The event is] really inclusive, so we encourage Provo community members to come join. Anyone who is queer is welcome, anyone who has family members who are queer, or if anyone’s just curious to come check it out,” said Maddison Tenney, founder and executive director of the RaYnbow Collective. “We worked really hard to make sure it’s safe with Provo police, and that it’s really family friendly.”
In the past year, countless protests against similar “family-friendly drag shows” have touched off elements of far-right groups opposed to LGBTQ+ equality and people, most of which have been spurred on by the infamous Libs of TikTok account targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
The angel costumes are 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 October 1998 after being attacked for his being gay. Shepard died six days later.
The Angel Action Wings Project blocked signs held by members of the Westboro Baptist Church led by Fred Phelps who protested outside the Albany County courtroom in Laramie, Wyoming with signs that said “God hates fags.”
Several groups have since replicated the display, including at the funerals for the victims of the Orlando, Florida mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016.
“Religion has been weaponized against the queer community for a long time,” Tenney told The Salt Lake Tribune . “But that needs to end. I believe there’s nothing more divine than who I am as a queer child of God.”