By Arty Diaz
When Dr. Wendy Watson-Nelson was announced to be the 2021 commencement speaker, my disappointment quickly turned to pain and frustration. This news came only after seeing my own endorsement of Utah Valley University as a safe and inclusive space for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students appear in the 2021 State of the University Address. This piece is my attempt to hold a light to my identity and reality; to (re)claim my likeness by revealing my full story, not solely the account that can be pivoted for UVU’s benefit, like my wolverine story.
I speak as a queer Xicano who is only one of many students, faculty, and staff in a history of confrontation with UVU. As a presidential intern, my efforts over the span of the last month within the system have been met with callousness and institutional gaslighting. Attempts to address concerns surrounding commencement have been left by the wayside. I now write within my capacity as a student outside the bounds of the settler-colonial institution. My hope is that we can (re)align our actions with our mission and values. My story is one of many.
I left BYU. This was after I felt as though I was on trial for my own assault at a time when amnesty for victims was not written into institutional practice. As a queer and Xicano student, the intersectional tensions I faced compounded my struggle to succeed in the academy after this life-changing event. The pervasive culture of a religion that punished students for their abuse was harmful enough to force me out. After sharing my story anonymously with the Salt Lake Tribune as part of a series that won a Pulitzer prize and led to institutional reform, I transferred to UVU.
I came to UVU without knowing that historically, like BYU, our university is also situated in opposition to LGBTQ+ people like myself. Had I known that President Tuminez’s predecessor, President Holland, signed an amici curiae brief in opposition to marriage equality in 2015, I may have thought twice about coming to UVU. However, the use of his title on a list of 100 signatories against same-sex marriage which he defines as a right to free speech, also enables me to use my positionality as an employee in the Office of Inclusion and Diversity to exercise free speech. From this perspective, the recent commencement decision is not a decision that reflects UVU’s commitment to inclusive excellence.
As I stated in my open letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, in the last six years UVU has invited four high-profile members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as commencement speakers: Mitt Romney, Henry B. Eyering, Gail Miller, and now Wendy Watson-Nelson. For students like me, their continued presence is a reminder of the pain I have been trying to escape. Wendy Watson’s proximity to church hierarchy only intensifies this reminder.
In her book Purity and Passion, Wendy states, “homosexual activities break the eternal laws upon which the blessings of marital intimacy are predicated.” Watson’s research and rhetoric on marriage and purity are harmful and yet, this decision has yet to be questioned in order to appease “the 70%.” I find it disheartening our institution is more concerned with making Wendy feel welcomed at commencement above those in our community who would be reduced to “distortion and perversion,” (Watson, p. 49) by her presence on campus. Wendy is different from other Latter-day Saint speakers in the past, in that her work centers on marriage and purity exclusively – which stands in complete opposition to many students, faculty, and staff.
When we align consistently with this global faith organization as an institution, we harm those like myself who leave BYU for UVU due to their experiences with marginalization and oppression by Utah’s dominant faith. In 2015, it was the students leaving in the face of the November 5th policy that targeted same-sex couples. In 2016, it was the students escaping punishment for sexual assault. In 2020 it was students leaving after honor code changes. It seems every other year institutional harm inflicted by the church or BYU inspires a mass exodus to our campus. These events impact our students, to whom we are responsible for Exceptional Care and Exceptional Accountability.
I will say that I have loved my experiences at UVU, and I still love UVU. My concerns speak to the difference between individual support (which I have felt from my entire department) and institutional support, which has been deficit. To me, (re)aligning institutional practices means considering these contexts moving forward.
What I am not recommending is that we rescind our invitation to Wendy. Rather, I ask for folks across campus to join in determining how we are best to bridge the divide between our communities. How can we be proactive in our efforts to include, rather than reactive? How can we create space to discuss these differences? How can we do the work of healing, supporting and succeeding?
I have faith we can walk forward in spite of our contradictions. I know in my heart this decision is one made in oversight, and not with intent to exacerbate the existing fault lines that run across UVU at the intersections of identity. However, it must be acknowledged that the painful work to bridge the gulf between words and action is often a labor performed by the marginalized – and we do this work alone.
To those who may feel similar to myself: I remind you that you are seen and supported by many individuals across UVU, even when the institution falls short. I designed the report and support site with help from many campus stakeholders to streamline the process for you to find help with any concern you face.
To UVU leaders I ask: Moving forward, how will you demonstrate exceptional care to LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff?
One stop for all concerns: https://www.uvu.edu/reportandsupport/
Mental Health Services: https://www.uvu.edu/studenthealth/psych/index.html