On Thursday, students and community members gathered outside of the U’s commencement ceremony to protest the presentation of an honorary degree to Lynette Nielsen Gay.
The U recognized Gay for her philanthropy in Africa and her work to establish an extended campus called Ensign College of Public Health in Ghana.
A Facebook event created by Students for a Democratic Society at the U called on students and the community to oppose the degree because of Gay’s involvement with the World Congress of Families and Family Watch International. Both organizations are designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to their stance against the LGBT community.
More than ten students assembled on the south side of the Huntsman Center chanting in unison “Hey hey, ho ho, this homophobe has got to go!” and “No honor for hate!” Demonstrators handed out fliers to inform those attending graduation of Gay’s background and ask that they join in turning their backs to the stage when her degree is presented.
Hayven Jackson, a community member that spoke at the rally, said that the message the U is sending is that “homophobic, transphobic bigots are welcome here and that queer students are not.” Jackson told the crowd that organizations like the ones Gay is involved in didn’t unify their family, but tore them apart. “I hope that people will wake up and realize that this university does not always support its most marginalized students and that that needs to change,” Jackson said.
Attendees of commencement displayed both understanding and contemptuous reactions. Some of the passersby asked for more information on the cause, while others started arguments with protesters. One graduate in cap and gown shouted, “This is our day, not hers!” to which those rallying responded, “It’s everyone’s day, including queer graduates’!” One woman lunged at demonstrators in an attempt to attack them while someone in her party held her back.
Students and community members that assembled outdoors chose not to enter the Huntsman Center and turn their backs to Gay as originally planned because they feared further backlash. Other members of the crowd, however, continued the protest. When Gay’s name was called, approximately 30 graduates stood and spun around to show their distaste for sharing their commencement with her.
World Congress of Families and Family Watch International both express in their mission statements an opposition to the marriage of non-cisgender and non-heterosexual partners, as well as those individuals’ right to be a parent.
Since the announcement in March, the U removed references of the hate groups from Gay’s bio on their website due to an overwhelming negative response. Gay has also felt pressure from those opposing her involvement with the groups, as she resigned from the board of directors for World Congress of Families on May 2.