When Southern Utah University announced on Feb. 2 that LDS Church President Thomas Monson would be this year’s commencement speaker, interest in the university’s graduation exercises increased dramatically. So much so, in fact, that the school had to issue tickets to the event to ensure that graduates and their families wouldn’t be shut out by interested locals.
“I staunchly believe that education is about exposing one’s mind to a whole spectrum of ideas and philosophies and allowing others the same right,” SUU President Michael T. Benson told the university’s newspaper, the SUU Journal.
At the time, Dean O’Driscoll, the school’s Vice President for University Relations, also told the paper that graduation organizers knew of and had discussed the “controversy” surrounding Monson—though what that controversy was, he did not say.
“A university is the perfect place to have differences of opinion,” he said at the time, while noting that the school would allow a place for protestors if there was need.
As it turns out, there will be a need. And if organizers of the May 2 protest have any say in the matter, a big need.
As graduation exercises go on, members of the school’s Queer Student Union, Southern Utah’s chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a group calling itself Common Ground South and a number of other student groups plan to peacefully demonstrate elsewhere on campus, in protest of Monson and the church’s position on gay marriage.
“People have their own goals they want to achieve for the event,” said Tom Biederman, an Atlanta, Ga. resident and SUU alum who runs Common Ground South with St. George activist Chris McArdle. “Some feel Monson doesn’t represent the values of inclusivity SUU stands for.”
Common Ground South is a loose organization founded by the two earlier this year to support statewide gay rights group Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative, which seeks to secure more legal protections for gay and transgender Utahns.
Initially, the initiative was a set of four bills and one policy change Equality Utah attempted to pass during this year’s legislative session. The initiative bore the name common ground because it was an attempt to find agreement between gay and allied Utahns and the LDS Church over such non-marriage rights for gay people as employment and housing protections and joint health benefits. In the wake of its campaign to support California’s Proposition 8, the church had said it did not object to these and other rights for same-sex couples.
The premise of the SUU demonstration, Biederman explained, is to express love and support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender graduates and to show Monson that they “have families, too.”
“Commencement should be about all graduates,” he said.
On the protest’s Web site at JoinTheImpact.wetpaint.com, which has hosted information about demonstrations across the country in the wake of Proposition 8’s passage, Beiderman wrote that the choice of Monson as a speaker sent the wrong message even to graduates who are not straight or transgender, and who may end up working in “multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic” settings with gay or transgender co-workers.
“In a difficult economy, SUU graduates must be prepared as team players to help companies maintain their competititve advantage and contribute to the ‘bottom line,’” he wrote.
The schedule for the protest is as follows. Demonstrators will meet in front of the school’s Sharwan Smith Building (which faces University Ave.) at 8:15 a.m. on May 2. Here, Claudia Bradshaw, president of Southern Utah’s PFLAG chapter, will pass out pink ribbons for demonstrators to wear. The ribbons match the pink scarves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender graduates have planned to wear during the day. The commencement march will begin at 8:30.
Organizations involved in the protest have asked demonstrators to bring peaceful, non-confrontational signs with such slogans as “proud of our gay dads.” They have also asked protestors not to respond to hecklers but to remain silent.
“We are not there to engage anyone,” said Beiderman.
At 3:15 p.m. demonstrators will meet at University and 300 W with their signs for a march to the Festival hall and Heritage Theater to listen to speakers who will address gay and transgender equality. These will be Donna Eddleman, SUU’s Vice President of Student Services, gay rights activists and straight allies Gary and Millie Watts, and Mormon playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, whose groundbreaking play about Mormonism and gay issues, Facing East, received national acclaim in years past. Demonstrators are asked to bring snacks such as veggie trays, chips and dip, soda and cookies, and may also bring alcohol if they wish.
At the conclusion of the march and speeches, demonstrators may either help Bradshaw clean up or attend other graduation ceremonies, which do not require tickets and are open to the public.
“[We] would love to see bunches of [people] with our pink ribbons on in the audiences at these graduations,” wrote Beiderman.
For more information about joining the protest email CommonGroundSouth@gmail.com.