Southern Utah University announced Thursday that a Latter-day Saint apostle will be the keynote speaker at its April graduation ceremony — but within hours, thousands of people had signed an online petition demanding that Jeffrey R. Holland be disinvited because he has “openly opposed LGBTQ+ individuals.”
The change.org petition criticizes Holland for his call for “‘musket fire’ toward the (LGBTQ+) community.” In an August 2021 talk at Brigham Young University, Holland advised faculty and staff that they should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “doctrine of the family and … marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” He also criticized the commencement speech by BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, who declared himself a “gay son of God.”
[Read more: ‘We must have the will to stand alone’ — Read or watch LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk at BYU]
The petition asserts that including Holland in SUU’s commencement “would fail to serve the student body, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community and students who do not [ascribe] to the religious teachings of the LDS Church.”
It was posted after SUU President Mindy Benson announced that she was “delighted” that Holland will be the commencement speaker at the Cedar City school April 28.
“His address will offer inspiration to our graduates to embrace lifelong learning and give back to their communities as they leave SUU and continue to build their lives,” she said in a news release. Others commented to support Holland beneath the university’s announcement on its social media pages.
After the announcement, SUU’s Pride Alliance, a group that supports the campus’s LGBTQIA+ community, posted to Instagram on Friday expressing their “sincere disappointment and absolute opposition” to university officials choosing Holland. “The decision to bring Elder Holland to campus will hurt many members of our campus community and reflect poorly on the university,” the post read.
Karaline Taylor, a senior studying philosophy, said she is now weighing whether or not to attend the commencement ceremony. Taylor, who identifies as queer, was “heartbroken, disappointed [and] confused” when she saw the university’s Instagram post announcing the speaker.
Taylor grew up in Utah, but wasn’t raised as a member of the LDS Church, the state’s predominant faith. She said this helped her escape the “religious trauma” some of her peers have experienced, but growing up queer in Utah was still difficult, she said, as many didn’t accept her because of the church’s teachings on homosexuality. She finally felt comfortable being open about her sexuality in college, even though a majority of SUU students identify as Latter-day Saints.
The university lists resources for LGBTQ students and staff on its website, which notes, “To our LGBTQIA+ students, please know you belong here. You are supported, you are valid, and you are not alone.”
But by booking Holland to speak, Taylor said it “feels like the university sees nothing wrong with” what he has said. She added that Holland “never retracted or clarified these statements, never discouraged violent responses to his ‘metaphor’ that he used — because he never addressed it.”
In an email she wrote to Benson on Thursday, Taylor asked that the university rescind Holland’s invitation, apologize to its LGBTQ students and find a new speaker — someone who “may have a strong ground in their faith,” but should also “strive to make life better for everyone, regardless of their religion, background, or identity.”
“Leaders like Governor Cox,” Taylor wrote. “Leaders like you.”
In a response to its initial Instagram post announcing Holland as speaker, SUU later wrote a comment saying the university has asked other “religious representatives” to speak at commencement, including Reverend France Davis and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
“We understand that there are graduates from a variety of backgrounds and identities, and expect that Holland’s address will connect and inspires attendees to be life-long learners, despite religious or other difference among the audience,” the university commented.
Late Friday afternoon, SUU released a statement that it “acknowledges the feelings of fear, anger and disappointment this announcement has caused to some of our campus community.”
“The university is listening and committed to building systems and practices that help us encompass our different identities through respect and empathy,” the statement read, adding that it is “reviewing the feedback that has been shared.”
Holland was born and raised in nearby St. George, the university’s news release noted. His “southern Utah roots and dedication to education and learning are timely as we wrap up our 125th anniversary year,” Benson said.
Before becoming an apostle in 1994, Holland served as the ninth president of BYU in Provo.
[Read more: Can a ‘unique’ BYU really be true to its two missions: faith and scholarship?]
As of Saturday afternoon, more than 12,000 people had signed the petition. Among the comments from signers:
• “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this makes me question what SUU is really about. No student should feel uncomfortable or disrespected. This is not OK, we are better than this.”
• “I deserve to graduate in peace knowing I am supported by my university. They can plug their Q Centers, diversity quotas and pride flags. But until the school itself stands up for their queer students, it means nothing.”
• “If SUU wants the students at the campus to feel safe on our campus, they need to prove they care about the LGBT+ community and the most basic step in doing that is not asking somebody who despises those people to speak at THEIR graduation.”
Not all responses to Holland’s selection have been negative. On SUU’s Instagram post about the announcement, some commenters wrote:
• “Yay!!!! Elder Holland is [a] great and motivating man and speaker. So excited I’m graduating this year!”
• “I’m not proud of how my fellow students and southern Utahns are responding to this speaker. I will gladly listen to anyone with this experience despite their religion, gender or race.”
• ”This situation is complex, but I know Mindy Benson, along with SUU entirely, has the best interest at heart for students. Saints from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded SUU. It’s a part of SUU’s history. Having an apostle of the Lord come to Cedar [City] is an honor, and I understand not everyone agrees with that statement.”
A petition to retain Holland as the commencement speaker topped 300 signers Saturday afternoon.
In addition to Holland, Benson and a representative from the class of 2023 are scheduled to speak at the commencement. The ceremony will also include student addresses and tassel switching. Students graduating with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees will receive their diplomas at their respective college’s convocations ceremonies later that day.
In May 2021, controversy erupted at Utah Valley University when Wendy Watson Nelson — the wife of LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson — was invited to be the commencement speaker. Opponents of the move cited published works from her in which she suggested “homosexual activities” hurt the institution of marriage and labeled gay relationships as “distortion and perversion.”
When Wendy Nelson spoke at the graduation, UVU president Astrid Tuminez repeatedly thanked her for doing so.