Kristilyn Wiseman: Understand the pain caused by Holland’s words

The danger in Holland’s message reaches even deeper than a violent metaphor.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland speaks at General Conference on April 2, 2022.

Students at Southern Utah University have pushed back on a recent announcement for Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the keynote speaker for their upcoming commencement ceremony, with many requesting that the invite be withdrawn.

This is a stark difference in comparison to the reaction the same announcement would have received just years prior, which then begs the question: What happened to cause such an unwelcoming response?

A central argument revolves around a controversial 2021 address given by Holland at Brigham Young University, urging faculty to defend the church’s beliefs regarding traditional marriage with metaphorical musket fire. While many have expressed the harmful risks – socially, emotionally, mentally and physically – of such language directed towards an already vulnerable population, those in support of Holland’s call to defend the faith have asked the thousands hurt by the poor choice of words to take a step back and see the overall message and intent behind the address.

In that spirit of seeking intent and keeping remarks in context, I invite any who may not yet fully understand some of the pain revolving around Elder Holland’s words, to take a look into the roots behind it. Perhaps the heart of the issue isn’t about the unwillingness of more progressive individuals to hear from someone with differing beliefs. Perhaps it’s not about a church leader having the right to call its members to defend core beliefs. Perhaps it’s not just an agenda. Perhaps there’s more.

The danger in Holland’s message reaches even deeper than a violent metaphor. In his talk to faculty, Holland personally criticized a BYU valedictorian, Matt Easton, for coming out in a graduation speech two years prior, specifically stating that Easton pushed his own “individual license,” “commandeered the graduation podium,” and caused “divisiveness” for not representing all who were graduating.

As an apostle and witness for Jesus Christ, Holland missed an opportunity to seek understanding and model compassion. I invite those who have asked for a greater understanding of Holland’s discourse to also see and consider the greater context of the valedictorian’s address, which sparked the call to arms.

Easton shared publicly that, as a student at BYU, he felt incredibly alone and hopeless, struggling internally with the knowledge that he was gay. As a faithful and loyal member of the church his entire life, he spent years begging God to remove his “same-sex attraction.”

In heartfelt interviews, Matt has shared that in his early college years he knew of only one other gay student, who tragically took his own life. As a student, Matt feared that he might have a similar fate. He did not know if it would be possible to even make it – to live – to graduation. He has expressed that the purpose for coming out publicly was to give hope to anyone who might be in a similar place emotionally; he wanted them to see that they could not only survive, but thrive.

Out of his respect for BYU and the church’s standards, Easton sought approval for his speech ahead of time by the school, which was granted. He simply stated in his speech that he is a gay son of God. No opinions, no details, no politics. Merely that he was finally able to come to a point where he felt valued and loved by God, and that each graduate – no matter what – also had value and deserved to be celebrated.

We never know who is hurting. Perhaps there were some in that audience who needed to know they mattered. Perhaps this population still needs to be seen. Perhaps there are real consequences to using such harmful language, even if just metaphors.

Matt Easton’s remarks may have saved lives. It’s time to model compassion and inclusion. For some, this could be the difference between life and death. Enough judgment has already taken place. Let’s put down the metaphorical weapons of war and listen to those in need of greater love and acceptance.

Kristilyn Wiseman

Kristilyn Wiseman was born in Utah and received her graduate degree from the University of Utah. She is the author of “Earlier than Planned: Trusting in the Divinity of Your Mission Call and Release,” a resource to help others who return early from their LDS missions. She and her family currently live in Texas.