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Back to School Pride Night in Provo demonstrates embrace of LGBTQ+ people

By Nichole Whiteley - | Sep 19, 2023
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Rebecca Watson, Utah chapter leader of Free Mom Hugs, gives a hug to someone attending the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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Audience members light up their phones during Lizzie McQueen's drag performance at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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Crystal Black, wearing a Pride flag and headband, talks to people at a vendor booth at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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People attending the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, hold signs to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.
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April Flowers, a drag performer, holds a nonbinary Pride flag above her head during her performance at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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Live music is performed by several bands at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, September 16, 2023.
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Liam Manchesthair, a drag king, takes a $5 bill given to him by someone in the audience during his drag performance at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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Crystal Black wears a Pride headband and flag at the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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From left, drag performers Liam Manchesthair, Charity Heels, Lizzie McQueen, April Flowers, Lexi Gold and Jaliah J. Jackson answer questions during the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
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Students and community members hold signs supporting the LGBTQ+ community as they participate in the Pride march to start off the Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.


Over 2,000 people including students from BYU and other colleges, children and adults attended the RaYnbow Collective’s Back to School Pride Night in Provo on Saturday to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. Many were decked out with Pride flags hanging on their backs, painted on their faces or held in their hands.

The event is unaffiliated with BYU, but many university students attend and volunteer for the event.

The first year of Back to School Pride Night saw over 5,000 people attend. Rachel Billings, a BYU student and vice president of the RaYnbow Collective, said in previous years there have been protesters and even threats of violence, but no disturbances this year. “We’re really just stoked to have a safe — physically, mentally and spiritually — event,” Billings said.

Billings remembers her first time attending Back to School Pride Night before she came out. She said it was easy to feel like the only queer person at school and in the community. But when she attended Pride Night, she realized there were many resources and groups available to her, and also many people like her.

She said she cried the first time she attended Pride Night because “I was so happy, that I wanted to be in those spaces. I wanted to be out and I just wanted to feel safe and accepted all of the time. And I was really deeply worried to think I would feel so happy one day (expressing) my queer identity that I would come out and I would ruin my life.”

However, as she has come out to different people over time, she said she realized that she could be happy in her identity without ruining her life. Her parents, brother and several other family and friends attended Pride Night this year to show their support for her and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

Next year’s Back to School Pride Night will again be put on by the RaYnbow Collective and will be on Sept. 14, 2024.

Support all around

The RaYnbow Collective, Cougar Pride Center, Brigham Young Universtity Antiracism Club and USGA (Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship) at BYU are all groups that support queer BYU students. At Pride Night, they had booths to inform people of the resources they provide for students and invite students to join.

BYU student Juno Heath said these groups are vital to the Provo community because they create an accepting environment with friends, which is what she says she found by joining the RaYnbow Collective after moving to Provo.

A new addition to the event this year was the Human Library, where volunteers were stationed ready to answer questions and share their stories. Heath, one of the volunteers sharing their story and in charge of the Human Library, said this gives people who may think their question is awkward or have not had the chance to ask it the opportunity to receive answers in a nonjudgmental environment.

Many in the LGBTQ+ community report a lack of support from family and friends, often due to differences in religious beliefs. However, at the Pride festival, more than 72 volunteers, many BYU students, could be seen around Kiwanis Park where the event was held wearing shirts that said “Space on my Pew.”

Rebecca Watson, Utah chapter leader of Free Mom Hugs, said that with judgment constantly placed on those who are queer in Provo, loving embraces are especially needed.

Free Mom Hugs is a nonprofit organization with a chapter in all 50 states. Volunteer moms attend events similar to Pride Night and offer free hugs and a listening ear to anyone in need. Watson started the group’s Utah chapter after her daughter came out about two years ago.

Watson said being an ally of the LGBTQ+ community is not something someone can simply label themselves as. “It’s the community that gives you that label. What do you do for us? Have you volunteered? Have you reached out? It’s a verb, it’s just not a noun,” she said.

Watson quoted a speaker at a conference she attended for the organization last week explaining what Free Mom Hugs is: “It’s a group of moms trying to keep queer kids alive.”

“If we can save lives, and if we can let kids know at least somebody loves me, and they can go home, going ‘I was hugged at that event by some strange lady who didn’t even know me but still loved me,’ then we’ve done our job of keeping them alive,” she said.

This was Crystal Black’s first time at Back to School Pride Night and she came with her friends who attend BYU. She said during her time at the festival, she felt “belonging” as she surrounded herself with people in similar circumstances to her with little support at home. “We all know that we’re all going through similar experiences, especially living around here.”

Black said when she got a hug, “I kind of broke down and cried in someone’s arms. So that was so nice to have that; it was very emotional. … Having that acceptance, it really just fills my heart with a lot of happiness.”

Drag Q&A

For the first time since the Back to School Pride Night began in 2021, drag performers participated in a question-and-answer session before their performance.

“Drag is not a bad thing; drag is an art form,” participant April Flowers said during the Q&A.

Just before the drag queens and kings took the stage to an eruption of cheers, applause, hollers, laughs and dollar bills, the performers were asked questions about why they do drag and what goes into their shows.

“We all were born naked and the rest is drag,” said Lizzie McQueen. “What you chose to put on today is your drag because you’re choosing this outfit specifically to show out who you are to the world. Some people just do it more heightened, and everybody is capable of doing that.”

Anyone can do drag, McQueen said, adding that for anyone wanting to experiment, the first step is to take that step and do it. “Nothing can hold you back other than your own fears.”

Each of the drag performers started for different reasons. Some wanted to see themselves onstage and others were introduced to it by a friend. Jaliah J. Jackson said she started watching drag as a way to overcome internalized homophobia, which came from being bullied and punished by her family for being feminine as a child. As she watched the drag shows, she explained, she ended up falling in love with drag and started doing it about a year and a half ago.

The performers’ process of getting ready ranged from 45 minutes total to three hours for just makeup and an extra 45 minutes to an hour to apply costumes and wigs. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Lexi Gold said.

Listening to the answers to “What is drag?” from each person, the audience learned that drag has a different definition for each drag performer. Liam Manchesthair said, “For me, it is playtime. I get to be creative. I get to do things that I wouldn’t normally do in my personal life. Whatever I can’t do in my life, Liam can.”

Some of the other performers agreed that it is a time to dress up, feel pretty and be creative. For others, drag is part of their transgender experience.

Flowers said, “For me personally it is kind of an extension of my transness. It’s the expression of myself through gender in ways that I can’t (do) in normal, everyday society. Which I probably would anyway but this is just a fun spot to do it and get attention for it. It’s heavily influenced by who I am and my gender expression. It’s really amazing for me.”


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