If you hang around long enough, just about everything starts to sound familiar.
A locally famous guy caught a lot of heat for something reasonably perceived as being hostile to LGBTQ people. Not long after that, he was invited to give a speech at a state university and, given his recent history, that did not go over well with LGBTQ students and allies.
That’s what is going on with one of Utah’s big wheel religious leaders, Jeffrey R. Holland, who has been invited to speak at the commencement ceremonies of Southern Utah University on April 28.
The fact that Holland is known to stand up for the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly when it comes to “traditional” marriage and same-sex relationships, has raised the ire of many in the SUU community who think the invitation is an insult to the university’s LGBTQ students. They understandably have taken the imagery of Holland’s 2021 speech, the one calling for some “musket fire” in defense of Latter-day Saint values, as just a wee bit too hostile.
It also sounds a lot like what happened in 2006, when Utah’s biggest wheel businessman, Larry H. Miller, was invited to speak at a University of Utah event. That was not long after he brought nationwide attention to himself by removing the film “Brokeback Mountain” — a critically acclaimed movie about a couple of bisexual (not gay) sheepherders (not cowboys) alone in the wilds of Wyoming — from the offerings of one of his Megaplex movie theaters.
It was not a film about sex, gay or otherwise. It was a striking film about loneliness. Miller didn’t know that when he made the call to pull the movie. I did when I wrote about it because, eager to write an editorial about how wrong Miller was to pull the film from his theater, I was chided by a colleague who said I would be making the same mistake that Larry had if I expressed an opinion on the matter without actually seeing the film and judging for myself whether it was porn or art.
It was art. It should have won the best picture Oscar that year. And the editorial that resulted was less a freedom-of-expression screed than a lament that a decision that a theater owner has every right to make was so clearly based on hearsay and so unfairly tarred the reputation of the whole state.
Then, as now, many students were upset at the idea of their university giving the podium of a state-funded institution to a person who had so publicly dissed a minority group that faces more than its share of hostility and, sometimes, violence.
Here the stories diverge.
Miller met with a group of U. students to hear them out. The meeting was not open to the public, but reports afterward suggested Miller listened at least as much as he talked and impressed those present with his apparent contrition for anything he might have done to make their lives more difficult.
The next year, Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune that he had been wrong to block the showing of “Brokeback Mountain.” That it was a knee-jerk reaction on his part that hadn’t considered all the ramifications. That meeting with U. students the previous spring hadn’t really changed anyone’s mind about the film but had been useful in helping each side to understand the other.
Holland, as far as is publicly known, is not planning to meet with any of the offended SUU students to plumb the depths of their discontent. SUU President Mindy Benson did host a “listening session” with students and heard a lot about how the Holland invitation had left some LGBTQ students feeling “helpless, confused and shocked” that a person who has expressed such hostility would be invited to speak. Others said that rescinding the invitation would be an act of disrespect to free speech and respect for religion.
Benson may well wish she hadn’t booked Holland in the first place. Her announced reasoning, that the Latter-day Saint apostle — a native of southern Utah and former president of Brigham Young University — was a local boy made good who might have words of wisdom to impart falls flat if there is reason to worry that some of that wisdom might include even the implication that some of those present be shot.
But if she cancels Holland now, she would be cracking under pressure and open to accusations of canceling someone for his religious beliefs.
Likewise, if Miller had never booked “Brokeback Mountain” to begin with, then he would never have been in the position of unbooking it. It is likely that nobody would have noticed or cared if it had never been on the menu, as the film, for all the critical praise it received, was mostly an art house offering.
A strikingly reasonable take on the Holland-SUU chapter of this story came from Equality Utah, the state’s leading advocacy group for LGBTQ folks. A statement from Equality Utah’s boss Troy Williams and policy director Marina Lowe said that, even though the group “disagreed vehemently” with Holland’s musket analogy, they hoped there would be no effort to silence the Latter-day Saint elder at SUU, or anywhere else.
Equality Utah, its leaders say, has made a great deal of progress over the years — most recently in winning a legislative ban on the pernicious anti-gay practice of “conversion therapy” — by listening rather than shouting and by standing their ground even as they seek common ground.
My two cents: SUU made a giant unforced error in inviting someone as obviously radioactive as Holland to speak to a secular audience at a state-funded institution. It would make an even larger error if they disinvited him now.
An audience full of people who are, according to the pieces of paper they are being handed, college graduates should be strong-minded enough to hear from someone they know is really, really wrong and walk away undamaged.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has absolutely no memory of who spoke at his college graduation ceremony.