Matt Easton responds to Elder Holland: Diversity is not divisiveness

My sexuality is not antithetical to my divine identity — in fact, it is an essential characteristic of it.

Matt Easton poses for a photograph as he sits in a park Monday, April 29, 2019, in Cottonwood Heights , Utah. Easton, A gay student who came out during a valedictorian speech at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University is earning applause and admiration from fellow students and figures like actress Kristin Chenoweth and the husband of gay Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Dear Elder Holland,

I’m writing to you today in response to your recent remarks at Brigham Young University’s 2021 University Conference. During your speech, you mentioned your disapproval over certain events at the university, including a “student commandeer[ing] a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation.”

While you didn’t name me specifically, I am the only BYU valedictorian to come out as gay during commencement, so I think it’s safe to say you were referring to me.

You mentioned your heartache at receiving discouraging letters from members who feel confused and betrayed by BYU faculty showing support for LGBTQ+ students. I understand the pain that comes from knowing people are hurting, although I am glad to hear that you “don’t get many of those letters.”

I, too, have received many letters and messages, though I am not fortunate enough to say they are few and far between.

Within days of giving my 2019 graduation speech, I received hundreds of letters and private messages from members across the globe who were feeling lost and afraid.

One came from a young gay student at BYU-Idaho. I was the first person he ever came out to; he was terrified of his roommates finding out about his sexual orientation and facing possible retaliation, ridicule, and even violence from them.

Another was penned by a faithful member in Peru, a woman struggling deeply with her sexuality and faith, who expressed hope for the first time in seeing that it might be possible to embrace both a belief in God and an acceptance of self.

This past Monday, I experienced another flood of messages. Within an hour of your remarks, three current BYU students expressed to me how unsafe and scared they felt knowing that church leaders instructed the university’s faculty to use metaphorical “musket fire” to defend the “doctrine of the family” and push back against LGBTQ+ inclusion.

I don’t personally know most of the people who have reached out to me, but I do know what it feels like to be in their shoes.

During my freshman year, the first openly gay person I met was a boy in my class named Harry Fisher. He was in his final semester when he opened up about his sexuality. Within weeks of doing so, he took his own life.

As an impressionable young student, I felt like I was witnessing the only future I would ever have. I felt so alone and fearful of how my community would react if I ever followed suit and shared that I was gay. It’s hard to reconcile feeling like the only place for you in the world is one in which you no longer exist.

Harry is just one of thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals struggling with acceptance of their sexual identity. According to a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ+ youth have contemplated suicide in the last twelve months. In Utah, approximately half of all LGBTQ+ teens experience suicidal ideation, with self-harm leading as the number one cause for death among ages 10-17. This is an issue affecting all parts of our community both in and outside of BYU.

I chose to acknowledge my sexual orientation in my graduation speech because I wanted other LGBTQ+ students to know they are not alone. That they can succeed, and can be proud of who they are while doing it.

My sexuality is not antithetical to my divine identity — in fact, it is an essential characteristic of it. Would you hold the same fear of students “push[ing] individual license over institutional dignity” if a valedictorian shared information about his or her heterosexuality? Unfortunately, I am hesitant to believe that acknowledging someone as a straight son or daughter of God would garner the same chastisement, even though it is the same principle.

Our variety of life experiences is what makes BYU so wonderful. Let me be clear — diversity is not the same as divisiveness. I imagine that is what the administrators who pre-approved my words understood as well.

While some might fear a future where more valedictorians share things like their sexual identity in their speeches, I think we should instead fear a future in which they don’t.

Celebrating our own differences not only fosters belonging but also enables us to more clearly see our similarities. If unity is what we are after, I believe it will come from offering all perspectives a seat at the table. Every voice is needed for the gospel choir.

In good faith,

Matt Easton

Matt Easton is the 2019 Brigham Young University valedictorian who came out as gay. He lives in Berkeley, California, where he is pursuing his Ph.D. in political science.