The Gay in Congregation

Christianity’s queer embrace pits open-minded students versus a traditionalist administration at SPU.

On a recent Sunday, about 30 students gathered in a Seattle Pacific University auditorium to view the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. Near the end, an Episcopalian couple reflecting on the ordination of the first gay bishop in New Hampshire observes: "We don't judge who's a sinner—we'll leave that up to God.""Amen," one student murmurs.Hearing such an affirmation during a screening of a documentary calling for a more tolerant view of sexual orientation is unexpected on this traditionally conservative campus. But one group of SPU students is trying to change that.In 2007, a gay-straight alliance began meeting, and quickly sought recognition from the school as an official club. They were initially denied, but continued in their quest: Over the next school year, they picked up support from faculty and student government and returned to the administration with what they thought was a club that walked the fine line of honoring SPU's Methodist roots while creating a space for students to talk openly about faith and sexuality. But last month, despite working with administrators on everything from their constitution to their name (Haven), their application for club status was again rejected.Junior Joey Beckwith, a Haven officer, says the decision was disappointing. In addition to qualifying for student funds, getting official club status would have been a big step toward making open discussion about sexual orientation a legitimate part of life on the SPU campus, he says.Vice President of Academic Affairs Les Steele says the administration's sticking point was whether the group advocated a position that directly conflicted with the University's statement on human sexuality, which begins by emphasizing the importance of respecting all people regardless of sexual orientation, but then unambiguously declares: "Within the teaching of our religious tradition, we affirm that sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman."Beckwith says Haven was careful to avoid any positioning in their constitution regarding homosexuality. But Steele says the group's actions, which included observing the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's Day of Silence on April 25, suggest otherwise. "The context of their activities really showed that, in the heart of hearts of their leadership, they were really advocating [in opposition to the University's statement on sexuality]," Steele says. He added that despite denying the group official status, the school will continue to make space available to meet.Depending on whom you talk to, homosexuality is either a mortal sin punishable by death or a loving relationship blessed by God. The latter view has gained increased acceptance among evangelical Christianity's rank and file. To wit, Haven was born in the spring of 2007 following a trip to the campus by the Soulforce Equality Ride, a bus tour of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students who visit Christian campuses.In some cases, Soulforce participants are told by administrators that if they show up, they'll be arrested, says rider Haven Herrin. A 2007 letter from the Mormon Church notes arrests of riders at Brigham Young University, and threatens to do the same if the group goes onto church properties in Salt Lake City. At other schools, including Kirkland's Northwest University, Soulforce was allowed on campus, but closely monitored and given very little time with actual students.When they get the chance to speak, the riders take on Scripture verses that specifically address the issue of homosexuality. For example, in Leviticus, the Israelites are admonished not to "lie with a man as one lies with a woman." But the same book also forbids eating sea life without fins and scales, and wearing clothing made of blended fabrics, Herrin points out.Upon arriving at SPU's campus, Soulforce was greeted with open arms, even by students who challenged its theology, Herrin says. She adds that while not all students seemed convinced by Soulforce's presentation, most were respectful in questioning the group and afterward continued their dialogue in the Student Union Building. At the end of one forum, the group received a standing ovation—a surprising sight to Beth Van Dam.Van Dam, now a senior majoring in English literature, identifies herself as both a lesbian and a Christian. The riders' reception encouraged her to be more public about her orientation. And she wasn't the only one: "[Soulforce] made a lot of people come out on the campus," she says.With more students' open identification of their sexual orientation coupled with support from straight students, Van Dam and a group of peers formed what would become Haven.Of course, more traditionally conservative views are still very much espoused by some students. Amid concerns about how the Soulforce riders would be received, the administration held a student forum before their arrival. Chris Durr, at the time editor of the SPU student newspaper, The Falcon, reported watching a student literally thump a Bible while expressing the opinion that the riders shouldn't be allowed to come. "There are some students and faculty that feel this is really the next civil rights movement," Durr says. "And there are other members of the SPU community that have been raised in less tolerant households."As the group's effort to gain official recognition played out, a sign popped up in a dorm-room window saying: "No Haven Club." But the club proved popular, with as many as 50 students started showing up at meetings every week.Jeffrey Tsunekawa started at SPU in the fall of 1999. He was gay, but he also wanted to attend a Christian university. He figured that for the next four years his priority would be academics anyway, so attending SPU would work, even if it meant staying closeted for the duration. But as he began developing close friendships, he stopped wanting to hide, finally coming out to his roommate, who told Tsunekawa that though prayer and devotion he could become straight.Tsunekawa left school at the end of that year, and subsequently told his story to The Falcon. "I haven't had any interactions with SPU [since then]," he says. "And to tell you the truth, I didn't really care to."The Falcon's story on Tsunekawa was as public as the discussion of sexual orientation ever got at SPU then, remembers a fellow gay student, Rick Szeto. "Everyone was cautious," Szeto says. (I was a student at SPU from 1999 to 2003, and Szeto's memory reflects my own.)But no matter how open the campus is to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, Szeto says he doesn't expect to see any official changes that might make room for a club like Haven anytime soon. Change happens slowly at SPU; since its founding more than a century ago, students have been forbidden to drink, smoke, or engage in any kind of sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage. And the university was not allowed to host dances until a 2001 policy change.Even without official recognition, Haven is getting noticed beyond SPU's Queen Anne campus. On April 4, the Lifelong AIDS Alliance recognized them as the LGBTQ Group of the Year. Alliance program supervisor Donny Gerke says his organization was impressed by the group's commitment to taking on faith and sexuality so directly. "With Haven, we have a group of LGBTQ young people that are also predominantly Christian," he says. "Many LGBTQ folks who are Christian feel the need to choose between religion and sexuality, and often end up leaving their churches or faith communities."Haven officers haven't given up on getting that official stamp from SPU's administration. After their application was rejected, they started circulating petitions, with more than 800 students (out of nearly 4,000 overall) signing in support so far, Beckwith says."When we hear stories of people who were afraid to come out," he adds, "those are the kinds of things that make us want to keep doing this."lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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