LGBTQ students at Utah Valley University say they are fearful and frustrated by their school’s choice for commencement speaker this year — and some say they will not be attending the ceremony because of it.
They don’t want to hear from Wendy Watson Nelson, a former nurse and professor and the wife of Latter-day Saint Church President Russell M. Nelson, who has published works where she suggests “homosexual activities” hurt the institution of marriage and labels gay relationships as “distortion and perversion.”
Arty Diaz, a graduating senior who identifies as queer, said it’s supposed to be a day where he celebrates finally getting his diploma. Instead, he worries that having Nelson on campus could be triggering.
“It’s just particularly hurtful to choose her,” said Diaz, who uses both he and they pronouns. “Having her talk is an explicit endorsement by the university of that rhetoric. And I thought this was a safe space.”
Since the selection of Nelson was made, queer students and faculty at the Orem university have been pushing back. They’ve asked that she be uninvited. They’ve requested an apology from the administration. They’ve written letters and signed petitions.
Diaz, who works as an intern in the president’s office at the university, said he’s made every plea he can.
He transferred to UVU from nearby Brigham Young University in 2018. BYU is directly owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and bans students under its Honor Code from engaging in any same-sex romantic relationships. While there, he said he felt he had to hide.
Diaz said his decision to come to UVU was to get away from that. But the commencement speaker feels to him like being right back there, even though Utah Valley is a public school and pledges to cater to students of all identities.
“This is someone who has openly expressed anti-LGBTQ views,” he said. “I don’t feel safe.”
Despite the concerns, the school has continued to stand by the decision to welcome Nelson as the keynote for the ceremony this Friday, which will be held in drive-thru style due to the pandemic.
“As a university, we invite a variety of experts and leaders to speak to the students, faculty, and staff every year,” said UVU spokesman Scott Trotter in a statement. “These voices and perspectives are what creates a rich, beneficial college experience. When inviting speakers, we do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or sex.”
But those opposed to the choice say it’s not about Nelson’s LDS faith.
They point out that the school has hosted Latter-Saint speakers for the last few years, including the 2020 ceremony with The 5 Browns, a Utah-based piano group with siblings who grew up in the church, and Gail Miller, a prominent LDS businesswoman, before that. They did not protest those choices.
“It’s not a problem with her (Nelson’s) religion,” said Kelli Potter, an associate professor of philosophy at UVU and a trans woman. “It’s that it is exclusionary to have someone who is anti-LGBTQ speaking at a school that identifies inclusion as a central value.”
Potter paused. “This is not inclusivity,” she added. “This does not help all students feel welcome. In fact, this is very harmful to some of our students, and it does the opposite: It excludes them.”
Who is Wendy Nelson?
In selecting Nelson, Utah Valley University pointed to her accolades after more than 30 years in family research. UVU President Astrid Tuminez said in a statement then that Nelson is “a remarkable example of what can be achieved when education and learning become a life-long pursuit.”
Nelson first received her nursing certification in 1970 at the Calgary General Hospital, close to where she grew up in Canada. She went on to earn degrees in psychology, family therapy and gerontology. And she started working as a therapist, running her own private counseling practice.
She also taught as a professor for 12 years in Canada and, later, for 13 years at Brigham Young University.
In 2006, Nelson formally retired from academia when she married Russell M. Nelson, an apostle named president of the LDS Church in 2018.
The school’s announcement about commencement emphasizes that while she may be well known now for her marriage, Nelson is a scholar in her own right.
But there’s no mention, by name, of one of the most popular books of her career, “Purity and Passion,” or her most-watched talks. And that’s where some of her more controversial remarks appear — and where students and staff have concerns.
In the purity book, Nelson posits that “homosexual activities break the eternal law upon which the blessings of marital intimacy are predicated.”
That’s a position shared with LDS Church leadership, which has repeatedly confirmed its opposition to gay marriage and considers same-sex relations a sin, forcing gay and lesbian members to avoid intimate partnerships to remain full-fledged members. (The faith has, in recent years, attempted to carve out a more empathetic stance toward LGBTQ people, but those mandates remain.)
The church’s spokesman declined to comment for this story.
In the book, Nelson also suggests that LGBTQ individuals are impure, disobeying God and that they participate in “distortion and perversion.” And she has repeated those views in more recent speeches.
In an address at BYU’s Hawaii campus broadcast worldwide in January 2016, Nelson suggested that LGBTQ folks need to repent to have their “sexual feelings be in harmony with eternal laws.” That is commonly referred to as the “pray away the gay” approach, which most therapists say is harmful.
Nelson continued to say that it is worth “some moments of anguishing desperation that will propel you further along the path to becoming the man or woman you were born to be.”
A year later, in January 2017, she echoed some of that in another talk at BYU titled “Love and Marriage.”
Nelson then talks about “purity” in a relationship being only between a man and a woman. The devil, she said, rejoices over any other union. “No amount of clever marketing, campaigning or advocacy can ever change that,” she added.
LGBTQ students speak out
Those opposed to Nelson speaking on campus say that her comments about the LGBTQ community should not be ignored or overlooked as part of her body of work. And they feel by the university inviting her to speak, there’s tacit approval of all of her words.
“It just really hurt that UVU would welcome that speaker at my graduation,” said Jessie Hensley, an LGBTQ senior. “I feel like it’s completely going to ruin my graduation. Now, I don’t even want to go. I don’t want to be there when she speaks.”
Hensley, who uses they/them pronouns, was previously a member of the LDS Church and did not have support from family in coming out. Hensley’s parents, they said, even quoted the Nelsons in disavowing their child’s identity.
Hensley, a member of the LGBTQ Action Committee at the school, signed their name on a list of 78 mostly faculty and staff at the school who published a letter against the decision to have Nelson speak.
“Myself and many of my colleagues are here to say that this speaker is not OK,” said Bree Matheson, an assistant professor in English, who helped edit the piece and who has a pride flag on her office door. “LGBTQ students are wanted in our classes. We want them here.”
Matheson and others plan not to attend commencement, which faculty are expected to do, as a silent protest. Hensley and Diaz said they also would not be going.
Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen, a queer student and the former editor of the school’s literary magazine, said she refuses to attend, too, and won’t give Nelson an audience. She also has an LGBTQ son attending school at UVU.
“She hoped for and wished for grief and ‘anguished desperation’ for the LGBTQ community when she spoke at BYU,” Shiffler-Olsen said. “To me, those words mean that she wishes us suffering. If she were to speak about people of color, people of another religion in that way, I don’t think the university would have so graciously extended the invitation.”
All three of the LGBTQ students — Hensley, Diaz and Shiffler-Olsen — said it’s already tough going to school in Utah County, which is traditionally very conservative and has a large percentage of members of the church. Inviting someone who has espoused anti-LGBTQ rhetoric “just becomes a signifier to other people who have these hostile ideologies that their ideas are supported,” Diaz said.
Diaz said he’s been jeered at and called homophobic slurs on his way to campus because of how he dresses and wears his hair. And he’s been stopped from entering the men’s restroom at school.
Hensley said they reported discrimination that happened to them at UVU, but the case was dismissed after being told, “You have no proof.”
Shiffler-Olsen said that she and her partner, who is Potter, the associate professor of philosophy, feel fearful showing too much intimacy in public, afraid that someone may attack them for being LGBTQ. Potter has already had several people lash out at her through email after she wrote a separate piece asking UVU to reconsider the speaker and signed onto the larger faculty letter.
Shiffler-Olsen said: “We trusted UVU to have our backs as queer people, for queer students especially.”
The definition of inclusivity at UVU
Frey Seagrove-Nelson, an associate professor of nursing who identifies as queer, said having Nelson speak at commencement doesn’t represent what the largest university in the state has said it stands for when it promises with its motto to uphold “including, engaging and achieving.”
“One of our missions is supposed to be radical inclusion,” he said. “And choosing Dr. Nelson as a commencement speaker is not inclusive and it’s not radical.”
When he challenged UVU President Tuminez on that during one of her monthly town hall talks — which are recorded and streamed online — Tuminez said Nelson was an inclusive choice because as an LDS leader, Nelson represents 70% of the student population of 40,000 that identify as members of the faith.
“I think the 70%, I’m also very, very aware of, would probably welcome Dr. Wendy Watson Nelson because of her experiences as a scholar, as a teacher and as someone who has served for decades in her life,” Tuminez said. “Nobody is perfect. I completely understand that.”
Seagrove-Nelson told The Salt Lake Tribune that he and Tuminez disagree on the definition. He believes inclusion should not be about representing the majority.
“It’s about giving a platform, giving a voice to historically marginalized groups,” he noted. “There have been groups that have been silenced, that have had their voice taken away from them, that have been told you’re not worth listening to. Inclusivity is hearing those people.”
Someone who has attacked those groups, he said, should especially not be considered for a spot like giving a graduation address at a public university.
Rob Cousins, a professor of English who helped write the faculty letter, said, too, that the position of a commencement speaker is much different than inviting someone to speak on campus in almost any other capacity.
“It’s not that we don’t want to hear from people we disagree with,” Cousins said. “I would fully support inviting Dr. Nelson to share her research along with other scholars at an academic roundtable at UVU — let’s have a rigorous debate on the tensions between civil rights and religious freedom or some other relevant issue.”
He added: “But to ruin graduation for a portion of our students, no matter how small, is inappropriate and unnecessary.”
Trotter, the spokesman for UVU, confirmed that the school paid Nelson a $7,000 speaker’s fee, comparable to those who have spoken at commencement in the past (though The 5 Browns spoke last year for free). It’s an honorarium, and she is given the option to donate it to a charity of her choice; Nelson has not named one yet.
In Wendy Nelson’s defense
When she was announced as the commencement speaker, Nelson said in a statement that she is “honored to speak to the graduates of UVU who have already demonstrated their resiliency, courage and indefatigability.”
And while the university has said that it will “continually listen to feedback from our students, faculty, administration and the community at large” about commencement, it is not uninviting her to speak Friday night.
Trotter also said that, despite the pushback, this year’s event is more popular than in the past. He noted that 1,450 students have signed up to attend the ceremony. Last year, 700 did.
James Clarke, the vice-chair for the school’s board of trustees and a wealthy donor who has a building named after him at the school, wrote a letter in response to the faculty and in support of Nelson that published last week in The Tribune and The Daily Herald, the local paper in Utah County. In it, he calls dissenters the “vocal few.”
“A great concern arises when any faction seeks to ‘cancel’ the voice of another — based solely on one’s faith — a fundamental freedom under which this nation was founded,” Clarke said. “When this happens, higher education’s own promise of free thought and expression comes under attack as well.”
There are some students, too, who say they like Nelson as the commencement speaker. Andrew Jensen says he’s planning to attend. Jensen is a member of the LDS Church and a research assistant to Tuminez.
“I see her as a public figure, a scholar,” he said. “It’s not the church coming to speak. … I don’t expect a divisive speech that’s meant to push away any of our UVU students.”
Clarke also touted that the process for choosing a commencement speaker for next year has already been changed to reflect concerns. He credits Tuminez for that in his piece.
But it actually came from the school’s academic senate, said Lydia Kerr, an associate professor of English, after a faculty meeting with Tuminez that didn’t go well.
Faculty are happy about the change over to a more transparent procedure where staff and students can weigh in on speakers — and hopefully avoid future concerns. It’s not the first time, though, Kerr said, that they’ve pushed back against the administration and anti-LGBTQ views there.
Kerr mentioned similar frustration when former UVU President Matthew Holland signed onto a “friend of the court” brief opposing gay marriage. Holland left the school in 2018 to serve as a mission president for the LDS Church.
“We realized this wasn’t the first time we had to have this conversation,” Kerr said. “But we’ll keep fighting if and when we need to.”
Diaz said the most painful part of this has been “the response from leadership and how they’ve been defensive about it.”
“They just didn’t give any validity to our feelings,” he added. “They didn’t really acknowledge our pain.”
Seagrove-Nelson, who also graduated from UVU in 2011, said he’s worried mostly about the impact of inviting Nelson to campus on students like Diaz. He said the university has been making strides in recent years with the LGBTQ community, and this feels like a major setback.
“All of the work they’ve put in, all of the hours they’ve spent earning their degree, it’s not going to recognized in the way it has been traditionally,” he said.
UVU’s LGBT Student Services did hold a special graduation last week — known on campuses across the country as a lavender graduation — to honor gay, trans and queer students. It’s not a fair replacement, Seagrove-Nelson noted, but he feels it did recognize “the strength and effort it takes to be out in this community.”
Emily Branvold, the program director for LGBT Student Services who uses them/them pronouns, said Utah Valley University has been holding that ceremony since 2018. This year, the largest number of LGBTQ students came, with nine graduates and even more allies.
At the end of the event, too, the school lit up the UCCU Center in rainbow lights. It was a nod of solidarity to what BYU students did in March in lighting the “Y” on campus in protest of the anti-LGBTQ policies there.
Branvold said it was a little bit of an “uphill struggle” to get support from the administration for that. But, in the end, the colorful lights at UVU were visible from the freeway. Diaz said while his school still has some struggles, the ultimate approval from Utah Valley administrators does make it different from where he came from BYU.
“I think there’s a lot of complexities at this school with this community,” Branvold added. “Picking the commencement speaker caused harm. And we still really need to have tough conversations moving forward.”