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After tension over her speaking, here’s what the wife of the LDS president told graduates at Utah Valley University

Wendy Watson Nelson said everyone would be healthier if they let go of disagreements and contentions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graduates listen in their cars, as commencement speaker, Wendy Watson Nelson speaks, at Utah Valley University's graduation program in Orem, on Friday, May 7, 2021.

In the face of concern and controversy over her speaking, Wendy Watson Nelson — a former family therapist and the wife of the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — directed graduates in her address Friday night to drop their contentions, open space “for the existence of another” and, through those actions, come to find love in their lives.

“We don’t need to agree with another person’s ideas,” she said. “But when we open our ears and hearts to their ideas, love enters in.”

Nelson, who was the keynote at Utah Valley University’s commencement, said all people would be healthier if they let go of their disagreements and really listened.

Her message came, though, after several students at the campus expressed frustration that she was chosen as the speaker because of her past remarks about the LGBTQ community — and they argued that Nelson herself has failed to listen to gay, queer and transgender folks in her work in medicine and advocated against their love.

“Having her talk is an explicit endorsement by the university of that rhetoric,” one student said earlier. “And I thought this was a safe space.”

The university defended the choice and even reiterated its support from the lectern during the ceremony Friday.

As she introduced Nelson, UVU President Astrid Tuminez said several times that the school appreciated the address. “We are grateful that she has graciously accepted the invitation to be part of tonight’s celebration,” the president pointedly noted.

Her ‘surprise’ later in life

Nelson spoke for about 20 minutes about her life’s work, including as a former nurse and professor, and as the wife of LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson. Her message about dropping tensions and expectations to accept love is one, she said, she has personally experienced. And it felt like a rebuttal to the issues raised with her being on campus.

She began by talking about how when she was a student at Calgary General Hospital School of Nursing in Canada and later at Brigham Young University in Provo she had hoped to meet someone. She wanted to fall in love in her 20s, get married and have 10 kids.

That’s not what happened.

Nelson said she continued to progress through her degrees and opened her own private counseling practice. She became a professor, too. And she worked for 25 years.

“And then surprise!” she said. “I married when I was in my 50s to a man with 10 children.”

The small audience in the auditorium at Utah Valley in Orem laughed. The ceremony was supposed to be outside, due to COVID-19 precautions, where graduates could drive in, park by the stage and listen. But high winds forced some late pivoting. Many still tuned in from their cars as massive screens displayed the speeches into the parking lots and the radio carried the sound on a special station.

Russell M. Nelson was one of those who watched from inside, with Wendy Nelson pointing him out in the crowd. They married in 2006, when he was an apostle; he was named church president in 2018.

She described letting go of what she had planned — her stress over a prescribed timeline — listening to what she really needed and getting love in return. She had been angry, she said, that things didn’t go like she wanted. She tried to fight it.

“And now, after 15 years of marriage,” she said, “my husband and I still fall in love with each other more every day.”

Those moments only come, she said, when we make room for them, when we are open to other ideas, when we drop contention and expectation. That applies throughout life, Nelson noted.

She said people should let go of disagreements in politics, move forward despite tension in work and strive to eliminate it from their homes. She noted issues with cyberbullying, presidential campaigns, social media and “everything from masks to guns.”

“We hear and see so much contention today. And contention is lethal,” Nelson noted, citing her research as a family therapist. “It can ruin your physical health. Ravage your relationships. And play havoc with your productivity, creativity and stamina.”

Most of the problem, she said, is rooted in people holding close to their beliefs and expecting others to change. She said she did that when she held onto her expected life plan. But the answer, Nelson suggested, is being open, especially to other ideas and perspectives we may not agree with, to other routes we might take.

“When one person believes that he or she is more correct than another and that they must change, that leads to emotional violence,” she said. “We can have ideas that are different from each other. That’s just part of life.”

How you find peace, she said, is by engaging in conversations, listening, letting go, accepting and loving anyway. You don’t have to agree. But “love is a powerful healer,” Nelson added, noting it’s the opposite of contention.

Divisions still exist

The talk didn’t ease the contention for those who were upset that she was invited to campus, and a few were frustrated that Nelson spoke about openness to change being the solution and that she focused on love and her marriage. They called it ironic.

Some LGBTQ students and faculty did not attend the ceremony Friday in a silent protest. At least one student did go to campus but decked the graduation cap out in rainbow colors to make a point and be visible in opposition.

Since Nelson was named the commencement speaker, they had asked the university to reconsider, largely pointing to what they see as bias and discrimination in her work.

Nelson has published pieces where she labels gay relationships as “distortion and perversion.” In one of the most popular books of her career, “Purity and Passion,” she 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.)

And she has repeated those stances in speeches, too. 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.

Arty Diaz, a graduating senior at UVU who identifies as queer, has been outspoken in pushing back against Nelson speaking, saying she doesn’t believe in acceptance and love for all.

“It’s just particularly hurtful to choose her,” he has said.

More than 70 faculty and staff also signed a letter asking the university to disinvite Nelson, fearing it would harm LGBTQ students and saying the public school should stand by its central mission of inclusivity.

“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.”

Tuminez has said that inclusion should be about all voices, and she noted that 70% of the student body at Utah Valley — the largest college in the state — is LDS and would want to hear from Nelson.

She also told graduates Friday night, also seemingly in response to concerns: “You were seen here. You were educated here. You were loved here.”

During the address, some in the comments on YouTube did say they enjoyed the speech. In between notes congratulating graduates, one woman said “such a great example.” Another noted, “great lesson.” And some honked their horns from the parking lot in support while Nelson spoke.

The loudest round, though, came when she said, “Minds can expand. … Hearts can change.”

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