CEDAR CITY, Utah (ABC4) — Dozens of students, donned in pride gear and flags, joined in a walk-out at Southern Utah University Thursday, Mar. 23, in protest of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, being picked to give the university’s commencement speech this April. 

The announcement was made last Thursday, Mar. 16, instantly stemming a mix of reactions among students. Comments on the school’s Facebook post reflected that divide, with some saying they were supportive of the decision, and others voicing concerns about remarks the apostle has made in the past.

Petitions have surfaced online, one asking that Elder Holland be removed as commencement speaker and another that he stays.

Zoe Southers is a member of the Stop Queer Hate Student Association, which she said was organized shortly after last week’s announcement. The group planned the walkout to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s not that he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that has nothing to do with our concerns. We are concerned about the speech and rhetoric he has put towards LGBTQ+ people,” she said.

One example of that rhetoric she brought up was a talk he gave at Brigham Young University in 2021 when Holland used the metaphor of “musket fire” in regard to defending the church’s stance on family values, which she said felt like it targeted the LGBTQ+ community and was harmful language to use.

“I worry for people’s safety that his words will give hateful permission to act hateful,” she said. “When you use a gun metaphor, for example, that’s a really powerful message that comes across as very violent.”

Others in support of Holland said that his talk was misinterpreted, and they are looking forward to having him speak.

Southers said many in the LGBTQ+ community are now debating whether or not to attend commencement.

“That seems unfair to me that me and every other queer senior who is graduating should have to make that choice,” she said. “I just want to feel comfortable and safe at my graduation. This is a time of celebration.”

Southers said she graduated high school during the COVID-19 pandemic and did not have a graduation ceremony. She said she was looking forward to this graduation, but after the commencement speaker announcement, doesn’t feel like celebrating anymore.

The university released a statement to ABC4 which reads:

The President and the Board of Trustees Chair and Vice Chair hosted two campus listening sessions on Monday. The University is listening and committed to building systems and practices that help us encompass our different identities through respect and empathy. We encourage dialogue at every level and are reviewing the feedback that has been shared.

Southers said she’s grateful the school took the time to listen and hopes lessons will be learned going forward to ensure that everyone is heard when it comes to commencement speaker decisions.

“I think what we are doing will leave a bigger footprint than just this year,” she said. “I don’t believe this is an us versus them situation. I think there are two opposing sides, but we are working towards the same goal which is to have a speaker at commencement we all feel safe and comfortable and happy with.”