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Guest op-ed: Wounds from Elder Holland’s musket fire are still being felt

By Keith Burns and John Lindsay - | Sep 30, 2021

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gives keynote speech at BYU's annual conference for faculty and staff Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Photo supplied, Intellectual Reserves)

One month after the BYU Education Week speech given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, many Latter-day Saints (especially LGBTQ+ members) have been feeling confused, frustrated and hurt. Since the speech, we have spoken with several dozen members of the Church, including LGBTQ+ individuals, and have heard a diverse array of reactions.

Some have argued that Elder Holland was boldly defending the Lord’s truths while simultaneously expressing love and empathy for LGBTQ+ people. Others felt his message was hurtful and blatantly insensitive. Still others found themselves somewhere in between. Amidst such a diversity of viewpoints, it seems many at least agree on one thing — regardless of Elder Holland’s intentions, people were left wounded, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must be willing to take that pain seriously.

We are among those wounded by Elder Holland’s words. However, in fairness, we also acknowledge that he has spent decades preaching about compassion, mercy and love, and is well-known for his eloquent, yet accessible sermons. He has also courageously spoken out on issues that have traditionally stayed in the shadows, such as his “Like a Broken Vessel” address in 2013, which tackled the subject of mental illness with a compassion and sensitivity that only Elder Holland could embody. The fact that he is a beloved favorite of so many members of the Church makes this recent speech all the more distressing.

One of his rhetorical techniques that felt especially unproductive was his construction of an “us vs. them” mentality, especially through the call for “musket fire that should be aimed at the enemy” of the Church. The unity Elder Holland sought to create was ultimately undermined by his own divisive message.

The Savior encouraged us to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Certainly there are and will continue to be people who attack the Church. But, in almost every conversation we have had, most people with concerns or disagreements do not feel hostility or antagonism toward the Church. As we strive for greater unity and understanding, we should avoid portraying people who disagree with us as “the adversary” and worthy of “musket fire.” Also disturbing was Elder Holland’s deliberate word choice around LGBTQ+ advocacy.

He said, “Musket fire? Yes, we will always need defenders of the faith, but ‘friendly fire’ is a tragedy — and from time to time the Church, its leaders and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly — wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means.”

Terms like “flag-waving” and “parade-holding” to describe LGBTQ+ activism is belittling, condescending and ignorant. In Utah alone, LGBTQ+ people have been advocating, protesting and expressing grievances for decades. In fact, if it were not for the “flag-waving” and “parade-holding” of thousands of dedicated LGBTQ+ activists, Utah would certainly not have had the advancements in LGBTQ+ legal and civil rights it has seen in recent decades.

Even top church leaders in 2015 expressed public support for legislation that protected LGBTQ housing, employment and transportation rights. For Elder Holland to mischaracterize hard-fought LGBTQ+ liberation efforts is both offensive and demeaning — not to mention that this sort of language eerily resembles decades-long conservative Christian sentiments that have sought to hinder and delegitimize lesbian, gay and transgender liberation movements.

Perhaps the most insensitive and hurtful part of the address was his criticism of former Valedictorian Matt Easton and his 2019 graduation speech.

“If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes? What might commencement come to mean — or not mean — if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long? Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have — and we already have too much everywhere,” Holland said.

After hearing such a scathing critique, we immediately went back to Matt’s 2019 address and listened to every word of it. Far from “commandeering a graduate podium,” Matt’s words (which were pre-approved by BYU itself) were faith affirming, uplifting and filled with gratitude for the wonderful experience that BYU had provided him. For Elder Holland to say that Matt “commandeered” the ceremony to push individual license over institutional dignity was a blatant mischaracterization.

In fact, there were only two lines in the entire speech about Matt’s sexual orientation. Furthermore, Elder Holland went on to imply that Matt’s behaviors could only lead to more divisiveness, when in reality, Matt’s speech was filled with nothing but loving, unifying and encouraging sentiment. For someone in Elder Holland’s position to call out a student to the entire Church, misrepresent that student’s words and put blame on that student for fostering divisiveness is blatantly inappropriate.

Matt recently responded on a Mormon Stories Podcast, saying, “It felt like I was being punched down on by someone who has infinitely more power than I do, which makes it infinitely more hurtful, more painful.”

For Elder Holland, a man of tremendous power and influence, to call out Matt in front of a public audience was an unfair exercise of power and a glaring departure from the path of increased love and acceptance that the Church has been gradually moving toward. In fact, within the past decade, Church leaders have even encouraged LGBTQ+ individuals to come out, simultaneously pleading for friends and family members to respond with nothing but compassion and acceptance.

With unsettling irony, Elder Holland was the one emitting friendly fire on that day, as he violated and undercut the very principles of love and unity he was so adamantly preaching. Indeed, in order to create a safe and embracing space for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the Church, we must make absolutely clear that such divisive and hurtful rhetoric will no longer be tolerated.

Keith Burns is a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism & Sexuality. John Lindsay is a recent BYU graduate.

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