For the first time last June, residents in Heber City, Utah, saw their downtown adorned in rainbows.
Sky Elizabeth Smith, 15, remembered driving with her family through the tiny Rocky Mountain town in northern Utah where she grew up, and finding herself surrounded by dozens of rainbow banners on both sides of Main Street.
“It made me feel really, really happy,” she told NBC News.
Smith, a high school student who identifies as pansexual, attempted suicide last year after what she described as routine bullying from classmates. Some classmates, she recalled, told her that Jesus was going to return and kill anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
When Smith’s mother, Elizabeth Gale Seiler, a day care worker and lifelong member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, saw her daughter’s reaction to the banners, she was overcome with emotion.
“She looked at me, and she said, ‘I’m not alone here,’ and I just started to cry. In fact, I’m going to cry right now,” Seiler, 35, said. “It was the first time in this valley that she has felt accepted.”
A devastating trend
Youth suicide rates have tripled in Utah since 2007, according to the most recent data available from the Utah Department of Health. The problem is so severe that Republican Gov. Gary Herbert spearheaded a task force to combat the issue.
Nationwide, youth suicide skyrocketed 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to a newly released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it’s unclear what’s behind the increase. LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, according to the Trevor Project, a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth.
Many advocates believe LGBTQ youth represent a large portion of suicides in Utah, but because public health data do not track sexuality and gender identity, there is no data that confirms their suspicions, according to Hillary McDaniel, a manager for the Utah Pride Center, Utah’s largest LGBTQ organization.
“When someone dies by suicide, their family often knows by a note or just knowing them that that was the issue, because they were gay, or lesbian, or transgender, bisexual, and they didn’t have that support or were being bullied,” McDaniel said.
Even as its suicide rates soar, Utah has managed to make some progress on LGBTQ issues, according to Samantha Allen, author of “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States.”
Ironically, Utah’s large population of Mormons, who represent about 61 percent of the state, have become increasingly lenient on the issue, Allen said, with more and more Mormon leaders showing a willingness to work with LGBTQ advocates.
“If you look at public opinion polling, Mormons fall somewhere between white evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants on LGBTQ issues,” Allen said. “So it means that Mormons aren’t going to be quite as hard-line as maybe religious folks in the Bible Belt and parts of the Deep South, but they aren’t going to quite go to West Coast levels of LGBTQ acceptance just yet.”
In 2015, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed “the Utah compromise,” a law that made Utah the only solidly conservative state to pass some protections in housing and employment for LGBTQ people. Two years later, Utah became the first of eight conservative states to repeal a “No Homo Promo” law that prohibited discussing LGBTQ issues in schools. And after an attempt to ban conversion therapy failed in the Legislature, the state’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing issued a draft rule to prohibit therapists from practicing conversion therapy on minors. If Herbert adopts the rule without changes, Utah will become the 19th state and the first reliably conservative state to ban the practice.
However, in a statement released last week, the politically powerful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed the proposed ban, stating that the rule would interfere with psychologists’ religious beliefs, and said the measure “does not account for important realities of gender identity in the development of children.”
Small towns divided
Not everyone in Heber City was pleased to see Main Street bedecked in rainbow banners. Like many small towns in Utah, the population is largely Mormon, and is divided over LGBTQ issues, according to Mayor Kelleen Potter.
On June 4, a day after the banners were installed, Heber City residents gathered for a City Council meeting to voice divided opinions over the flags, Potter said. Some threatened to tear them down, she added, while others were overjoyed.
“There were a lot of really tender stories of people contacting me, telling me they’ve grown up in Heber, some of the difficulty growing up as an LGBTQ person in that community, and how they never believed that they would see something like that,” Potter recalled.
In the following weeks, Potter fielded angry phone calls and emails from community members who felt the flags were inappropriate. She said some people saw them as an attempt by LGBTQ advocates to use city-owned property to send a “political” message, an idea she dismissed.
“There is no one advocating for any legislation, or anything,” she said of her city. “This is a civil rights issue. It’s just a message of love and inclusion. It’s good for our community.”
Allison Phillips Belnap, 46, a local real estate attorney, raised $3,553 through a GoFundMe campaign to purchase the rainbow banners for Heber City. Phillips Belnap left the Mormon Church in 2017 after coming out as a lesbian. As one who had attempted suicide, she said she purchased the banners because she wanted to show other members of the local LGBTQ community they were not alone.
After the flags were installed, residents began reaching out to Phillips Belnap on social media to say thanks. One message was from Elizabeth Gale Seiler, still distraught over her daughter Sky’s suicide attempt.
“I think that’s what makes it worth it,” Phillips Belnap said. “And it meant more to me than I ever would have anticipated starting out. I didn’t realize what a big effect it would have on individuals and the community.”
A similar debate erupted in St. George, a small desert town in Utah’s southwest corner, almost 300 miles from Heber City. During the early weeks of September, commuters there were greeted by rainbow banners on either side of St. George Boulevard, a main thoroughfare that cuts through the city center.
Pride of Southern Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, paid for the banners, which were installed on about 30 lampposts along the boulevard. The group also installed banners in the towns of Cedar City and Hurricane.
Inspired by the banners in Heber City, Pride of Southern Utah raised more than $6,100 on GoFundMe to purchase the banners.
“Within 20 hours, we had more than twice as much as what we needed,” Stephen Lambert, director of Pride of Southern Utah, said. “It was very humbling.”
The group filed for a permit to install the banners, which were part of the group’s Pride Week celebration spanning a week in mid-September.
The banners set off waves of approval and outrage from residents of St. George. In an email circulated on social media, a councilwoman referred to the flags as “political statements,” igniting a debate over whether an ordinance surrounding public signage should be reevaluated.
Lambert refuted the idea that his group has political motivations.
“Pride of Southern Utah is not a political organization,” he said. “We are not out there trying to change policy. Our purpose is to be a support group for the LGBTQ+ community, to be a resource for them, to be a safe place for them. That’s all.”
As the controversy mounted, city officials received at least two informal inquiries from groups interested in installing their own banners on the city-owned lampposts, according to St. George Mayor John Pike. Pike declined to specify the names of the organizations, but he said one was a white supremacist group and the other was interested in installing flags with President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
St. George put a moratorium on applications for city lamppost banners until officials could revisit the city’s policy around what can be displayed on city-owned property, according to Pike.
The rainbow banners in Heber City prompted similar inquiries, according to Mayor Potter. She said at least one group inquired about installing anti-abortion banners on city-owned lampposts. While Heber City has not placed a moratorium on flags, Potter said the town will likely need to create an official policy that specifies what kinds of messages can be displayed on city-owned property.
Rainbow flags vandalized
Throughout Utah this year, rainbow flags adorned more than city lampposts. From summer through fall, flags were staked in the front yards of hundreds of homes in urban and rural neighborhoods.
Behind the effort was Project Rainbow, a small Salt Lake City-based nonprofit.
For $15, Utahans could rent rainbow flags from Project Rainbow during the duration of their city’s Pride festivities, which took place at various times throughout the summer and fall. Volunteers from Project Rainbow traversed the state to stake flags in customers’ front yards on PVC poles.
This year, the group raised $17,000 for the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, and several thousand more for smaller LGBTQ groups throughout the state, including Pride of Southern Utah, according to Lucas Horns, who founded Project Rainbow in 2017.
Horns, 25, a professional ballet dancer who lives in Salt Lake, said the group staked 1,400 flags in the city and hundreds more throughout Ogden, Logan, St. George and Provo — more than doubling the number from last year.
Horns said Project Rainbow received backlash in response to the flags on social media, with some people accusing the group of “forcing their beliefs” on local communities. He estimated that about 10 percent of the flags Project Rainbow staked throughout Utah were stolen or vandalized.
“It’s sad that it’s been turned into a political symbol,” Horns said. “People have roped it into the dichotomy of our nation and I don’t think it has to be.”
Shally Sorensen, 46, a hair stylist who lives in St. George, came home one day in mid-September to see that her rainbow flag had disappeared from her property.
Sorensen, a mother of four, said she ordered the flag from Project Rainbow to show support for her nephew, who is gay. A few of her neighbors’ flags had also been thrown down or vandalized, she said.
“My girls and I, all of us cried, because we had a lot of sadness that week,” Sorensen, who has teenage daughters, said.
Days later, in an empty lot next to Sorensen’s house, a friend discovered a rainbow flag in a porta potty, soiled and partially burned. Instead of calling the police, Sorensen invited family and neighbors to her home to draw “messages of love” in colorful chalk on her driveway. About 40 to 50 people showed up, she said, including the local news media.
“It was beautiful to see that many people come together just to show love and support,” she said.
Sorensen washed the flag and put it back in her yard. Six days later, the flag vanished for the last time.
“I do know that I think there was a lot of good that came from all of this despite the yucky that came out,” Sorensen said. “It caused a lot of people to have conversations about what the flag means and that was really a good thing.”
‘Then came the flags’
Despite some backlash against the flags, advocates say Utah is warming to LGBTQ rights.
In recent years, a burgeoning online network of Mormon mothers known as the “Mama Dragons” emerged to help parents in the Mormon community understand their LGBTQ kids. Founded in 2014, the group has grown to more than 3,000 members throughout the country.
“I think it’s really telling that Mama Dragons came out of Mormonism,” Allen said. “You have these amazing moms who decided they were going to be really vocal and stand by their kids.”
Both Potter, who has a gay son and a transgender daughter, and Elizabeth Gale Seiler are proud members of the group.
“They’ve really helped me with some struggles I have with balancing how to help Sky through the struggles she’s been having with the bullying situation,” Seiler said.
Sky Elizabeth Smith has joined a newly formed a gay-straight alliance at her high school, and is doing much better, according to her mother.
“It’s been a real struggle,” Seiler said between tears. “But we make it through. She makes it through. She’s proud of who she is. She doesn’t hide who she is.”
Smith said the bullying she endured at school last year was “really bad.” One boy, she said, told her to “kill myself.”
“Then came the flags,” Smith said, recalling that day in June when she was surrounded by rainbow banners in downtown Heber City. “It just made me realize that there are people in this town and out there that actually care about us.”