'I was proud of what I learned about myself, but it was painful to be in an environment that taught something that was against what I knew is true.'
A former Brigham Young University student who went viral for flashing a pride flag at her graduation is opening up about the message she wanted to convey through her actions. Twenty-eight-year-old Jillian Orr blew up on social media when a video of her standing on the graduation stage with her graduation gown spread open to reveal the rainbow flag underneath was viewed over three million times on TikTok. The incident drew more attention to the anti-LGBTQ policies at BYU—a school that was founded and remains financially supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—when Orr wrote about her demonstration in an in-depth Facebook post.
"It's hard being gay at BYU. I didn't know I identified as bisexual until halfway through and it's scary to live with the fear that at any moment they could take away your degree. You can't be in a relationship unless you're hetero and most of my classes spoke of the 'evil' that I was born into. Today I took a chance and sent a message to other students—you can make it too! Be authentic, brave and unapologetically you," she wrote. According to TODAY, BYU restricts LGBTQ students from dating or showing signs of affection while enrolled at the university. Those who do so in violation of the school's policies can be reported to school officials and are at risk of being disenrolled.
Speaking to Good Morning America, Orr revealed that she used to be a devout Mormon and that she chose Brigham Young to further her social work career due to its religious ties. "I was like, 'Oh, let's go to BYU' because they have the best psychology program in the state. It's the most affordable for those who are LDS members. It's cheaper for those of that religion. And so I started going to that school and I actually had a positive experience," the Bluffdale, Utah, resident said.
"I had really good professors and it was a pleasant environment. It's a prestigious school. And then halfway through my experience, I started to discover more and more about my sexuality of being bisexual and having and falling into this relationship with this girl that I really loved,” Orr continued, revealing that she started realizing she wasn't straight in the spring of 2020. "I was confident and I was proud of what I had discovered and learned about myself, but it was painful that I was in an environment that taught something that was against what I knew is true and what our basic rights were."
Although Orr came out to her family at the time, she chose to keep her true identity hidden from others at school and in her local community out of fear. Switching to online classes when the COVID-19 pandemic began, she said, felt like a blessing in disguise. "It was hard to be on campus with that knowledge and knowing my lifestyle, but I wasn't even allowed to live that lifestyle outside of BYU for fear of other church members who would turn me in and so it was really a secret for just me and my family," Orr explained. "I realized that BYU does not - it's against their policies and against their rules, their codes for homosexual individuals to act on those feelings, and to be in relationships. And if you do, they will threaten to kick you out of the school or remove your degree from you and so it's really scary to be in that situation of potentially losing everything that you've worked for."
Speaking of deciding to let her true self shine at the graduation, Orr said she had no idea how those in attendance would react. "I didn't know what was gonna happen, if I was gonna be escorted off. I didn't know if I was gonna be tackled and I mean, I am putting a lot of things at risk right now. I'm putting a lot of things on the line and I understand that," she said, adding that she suspects she may receive backlash from other Mormons and friends she used to be close with. "It's just sad to see that other people in the church have a limit to their love when the church says their love is endless."
Despite the possible repercussions, Orr revealed she is happy with her decision to come out. "It has been a super rocky road of trying to navigate everything happening and trying to identify how I will navigate how things are but honestly, I feel so much happier now and so much more free because I can finally live authentically," she shared. Orr dreams of becoming a public speaker in the future and hopes others in the LGBTQ community will be inspired by her defiant act. "We often let fear drive our actions... but the moment that you start making your decisions by what you feel is right and true to your heart, you are able to live a happier life. When you start running at fear and you take it down and you face your demons, that's when you recognize that it is your power and your strength and that's when you recognize that you will be freed and live such a happier life when you're authentic," she said.