Aside from a minor confrontation with a street preacher, a protest of LDS Church President Thomas Monson’s commencement speech at Southern Utah University was free of conflict and confrontation.
In fact, many protesters were surprised by how much support they received from passers-by — in the forms of honking and waving from cars or thumbs-up from graduates and their families.
“Everything went really well. I was quite amazed,” said Claudia Bradshaw, the president of the Southern Utah chapter of Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG, SUU’s Queer Student Alliance, various SUU alumni and other concerned community members organized the peaceful protest on May 2 as a demonstration of what Bradshaw called “love and support for all of the gay students at SUU.” The protesters were dissatisfied with Monson as a choice for commencement speaker because of the LDS Church’s statements against gay and transgender people and its outspoken support of Proposition 8, a controversial ballot measure which re-banned gay marriage in California last November.
At 8:30 a.m. students, PFLAG members, alumni and other protesters from as far away as Northern Utah assembled at the school’s Dixie Leavitt Business building in a designated “free speech zone.” Holding signs with such slogans as “Proud of Our Gay Kids,” “No H8” and “Congrats to Our Gay and Lesbian Grads!” the protesters waved, smiled at and congratulated graduates as they passed—particularly those wearing pink sashes or ribbons as a symbol of their support for the school’s gay and transgender population.
Among the protesters, Bradshaw counted Northern Utah PFLAG President Kathy Godwin, PFLAG Mountain West regional director Gene Hodges and national PFLAG Policy Coordinator for Utah Cesar Hernandez. Hernandez and Hodges were in the area on unrelated business, she noted.
“It was marvelous having them here to be a support,” she said. “I even had a woman come to the demonstration early that morning because she had a sister who is lesbian. She saw online that we were going to do this and made up a sign and came with us. Is that cool?!”
In total, The Spectrum estimated that 16 protesters were present. Police were also on hand, apparently to ensure that the demonstration did not become violent.
“It kind of sucks that they are putting us behind lines and watching us like that but its OK because we know we’re sending a message of love and we’re not here to disrupt or cause a problem,” PFLAG member Brandon Jarvis told the paper.
As the protesters congratulated the passing students, many passers-by applauded them.
“It was amazing how many people gave us the thumbs-up,” said Bradshaw. “We had a lot more positive reactions than we did negative, which amazed me in a small town like Cedar City.”
The only negative reaction, aside from a few obscene gestures by some not-so-supportive motorists, came from a street preacher the Spectrum identified as Rashid Solo, age 30. Solo and five counter-protesters stood nearby proclaiming Jesus as the Christ and calling passers-by to repentance. While things remained peaceful between the two groups, Bradshaw said that Solo approached her group at one point to engage in “a Bible-bashing discussion.”
“He came into our circle even without asking, and I said, ‘You know, if I want to find a church I know where to find a church. This area has been designated for us to use and you can leave.’ And he left,” she said. “He preached, but we just ignored him and went on and did our business. We decided to do this like Martin Luther King did: dignity without confrontation.”
When the graduates were assembled for Monson’s speech, Bradshaw said the group took a break so as “not to disrupt their [the graduates’] special day.” She and a number of other demonstrators packed up their signs and headed to the nearby Cedar City Heritage Center to prepare for the afternoon’s events. She was assisted here by Brad Biederman, the leader of a local group for ex-Mormons, and Nadine Hansen, the owner of a Web site that tracked Mormon donations to Proposition 8. At 3:15 p.m., a number of speakers addressed the protesters and gathered graduates at the heritage center. These included Gary and Milly Watts who lead Family Fellowship, a support organization for Mormon families with gay and lesbian members; and SUU Vice President of Student Services Donna M. Eddleman.
“Donna was so fantastic,” said Bradshaw. “It gave me hope for SUU that they’re going to be more diverse in some areas.”
Author and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson spoke last. Pearson, a Mormon who lives in California, has written extensively about Mormon families with gay members. Her work includes the critically acclaimed play Facing East, which focuses on a heterosexual Mormon couple coming to terms with their gay son’s suicide. She is also the author of the books Goodbye I Love You and No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay and Lesbian Loved ones.
“[She spoke] about loving beyond what we think we can, and putting love before our anger, because sometimes we need to love our enemies as much as we love our friends,” said Bradshaw.
Elaine Ball, the co-founder of service group Pride In Your Community, was one of the Northern Utahns at this afternoon “Alternative Commencement” ceremony. She estimated that “between 50-100” people attended
“The food was wonderful, fresh fruit, cakes and desserts, veggies and dip,” she said. “Everything was so well-organized and I was was delighted to meet the people who organized it all and felt inspired by the growing community presence promoting LGBTQ rights in Southern Utah!”
Bradshaw added that two local musicians — whose names she never learned — also spontaneously joined the gathering. The two played their guitars for an hour before the speakers came on stage.
“It was beautiful. I thought it was amazing to have volunteers who said we support your cause, and who were willing to take their time and talents to help us,” said Bradshaw.
She was also thankful to the donors who helped her pay to rent the facility to “make this something really nice and special.”
To see pictures from the demonstration visit tinyurl.com/p946c8.