A Brigham Young University graduate took a bold stand against the religious school’s opposition to same-sex relationships, flashing a stunning rainbow gown to her graduating class’ audience while accepting her degree on Friday.
Jillian Orr, who identifies as bisexual, opened her navy gown and revealed bright pride colors to protest the private school’s anti-LGBTQ policies and show support for others like her. Cameras captured the moment and displayed it on a monitor for all to see.
“I didn’t flaunt it in front of the faculty. My goal was just to be seen by everyone and ... to make a stand and to make a statement, a civil way to protest,” she told HuffPost of her act of defiance that was intended to encourage other BYU students struggling with their identity.
“You can make it too!” she wrote in a now-viral Facebook post. “Be authentic, brave, and unapologetically you!”
Orr said she felt liberated upon completing her degree after living in fear while taking classes at the Utah school that’s operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When she first enrolled at the school, she said she had believed through her church’s teachings that homosexuality was sinful and “if I give into temptation then I become this evil thing.”
“I had a lot of shame around it and a lot of avoidance,” she said of her struggle accepting herself, which began when she was a teenager. “It wasn’t until I found someone that I truly loved that I started to face it, and I was put up against myself.”
The private school doesn’t rule that one can’t be gay, she said, but there are repercussions if students physically act on those feelings, like holding hands or kissing someone of the same sex.
“People report you,” said said of the constant fear that looms over LGBTQ members at the school. “I know people who would turn me in so I couldn’t live an authentic life for years and that was so suffocating and heartbreaking because I felt like I couldn’t be myself. I couldn’t share the person who made me happiest because my degree that I worked so hard for was on the line.”
The school scrubbed a written ban on “homosexual behavior” from its code of conduct in early 2020 but has said that it continues to enforce its same-sex dating ban. The U.S. Department of Education back in January opened a civil rights investigation into how LGBTQ students are disciplined at the university. A representative with the school did not respond to a request for comment.
Orr, in an Instagram video Sunday, said that transferring to another school was also not a feasible option to escape the suppression as she would have lost two to three semesters’ worth of credits. BYU requires a large amount of religious courses to graduate.
“So when I was graduating, it was like, I couldn’t wait. I was waiting to be done, I was waiting to get out, I was waiting to be free,” she told HuffPost.
Orr said it was her younger sister who came up with the idea of sewing the pride colors into her gown as a tribute to the adversity she had overcome while earning her degree. In addition to living a life of secrecy, Orr also had to complete coursework that included writing papers and taking tests that opposed the LGBTQ community, she said.
Now that’s all behind her.
“There’s no cognitive dissonance,” she said. “I am able to live authentically and live the way that I feel is right for me and to be able to not hide or live in secrecy or try to avoid things with people and conversations.”
Others have thanked her for her act of bravery, as well, she said.
“I’ve had so many students reach out,” she said. “I’ve had students who are currently there, I’ve had students who graduated with me. They were like, thank you so much for making a statement and representing us.”
Orr graduated with a degree in psychology. She has a passion for public speaking and said her dream is to one day host her own motivational TED Talk while continuing to empower people to live authentically.