It’s tradition. One night every other week, they gather in this brightly lit classroom. Skype is set up on laptops and placed in the front of the room. The table is piled high with drinks chilling under Ziploc bags of ice, next to slices of cheese, crackers and cookies. Then they file in, students, faculty and staff alike. They laugh, greet each other warmly, sit down and talk about homosexuality.
Not too long ago, a scenario like this – people sitting down to discuss homosexuality without waving fists or signs – might have seemed almost impossible. In many places it still is. As it becomes more commonplace, it has been a source of both immense comfort and rippling controversy, both on PUC’s campus and within the Seventh-day Adventist church as a whole.
“When Christian communities consider the complex topic of homosexuality today, we must admit that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have an even-handed and cordial discussion,” says Dr. Leo Ranzolin, professor and religion department chair at PUC.
The problem, Dr. Ranzolin points out, is the way people tend to approach the issue.
“On the one hand, there are Christians who condemn homosexuals with a mean-spirited and un-Christ like attitude, giving the impression that such persons fall outside the scope of God’s grace,” Dr. Ranzolin explains. “On the other hand, there are gay activists within the church who are insistent that the church embrace homosexual practice, even going so far as to characterize the articulation of the church’s historic stance on homosexuality as homophobic or ‘hate speech.’ These strident ideological voices create an environment which is not conducive for respectful dialogue.”
Making a place to talk about it
In the brightly lit classroom, one group is testing out the possibility of respectful dialogue within an Adventist setting. GASP (Gay And Straight People) is the unofficial gay-straight alliance (GSA) on campus. While various misconceptions have floated around as to the group’s activities, with some believing it to be a dating service or an activist club, GASP seeks to stay true to the original purposes that PUC alum Jonathan Heldt had in mind when he founded the group as a student in 2008 – safety and support.
“I knew that there were other people at PUC who were in the same situation that I was, but I didn't know any of them because nobody was out,” Heldt, who now studies at Loma Linda University, writes in a Facebook message. “PUC just wasn't a place where people felt comfortable sharing that part of themselves.”
As a senior at PUC, Heldt, spurred on by his own personal struggles of coming out, sought to create a more comfortable place for himself and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students. He presented his first proposal for a club to PUC’s Ad Council and was turned down, as the Council felt that “the sensitive topic and issues surrounding homosexuality needed to be dealt with on a personal, individual level in a private and confidential setting,” says Lisa Bissell Paulson, vice president of student services, in an email to the Campus Chronicle.
“Furthermore,” she continues, “these professional, safe, and confidential areas for individual students to discuss very sensitive topics were already in place. PUC has always assisted students not only in the Counseling Center but in health services, in our residence halls with deans, our chaplains, and other staff.”
Heldt kept searching and thinking, and with the help of PUC psychology professor Dr. Aubyn Fulton, he managed to pull together eight people for the first unofficial GASP meeting October 1, 2008. He also started another branch of GASP known as SafePlace, a network of people in whom students could confide and find guidance. Though Heldt regrets that they spent much of the time figuring out how to get the club going and not as much time on support, he realizes it was a necessary measure to establish the group’s foundation.
“I just hoped that the presence of the club on campus would send a positive signal to any PUC students who were themselves struggling,” Heldt says, “even if they were not yet at a place where they could come to the meetings.”
Through word of mouth and an active Facebook group, GASP flourished throughout the years, garnering closeted and out LGBTQs as well as straight allies. SafePlace grew in visibility with the creation of signature stickers (a green circle set behind black and pink triangles), while OurPlace, a branch for only LGBTQ students, was added this school year. While some things have changed – attendance consistently hits the forties and the group now has newly elected officers – the group’s emphasis on community and confidentiality hasn’t. On its Facebook page, GASP states that it is entirely student-run and nonpartisan, and as outgoing leader Amador “AJ” Jaojoco, a graduating senior, says, the group “is about building bridges, not reinforcing walls.” Dr. Fulton believes that GASP has the ability to provide common ground while housing a variety of attitudes and beliefs.
“I know that there are people who come to GASP pretty regularly who would say, ‘I still think that homosexuality is a sin,’ or ‘I don’t think homosexuality is God’s plan for human beings,’” Dr. Fulton remarks. “But [they also say], ‘I know for a fact that God wants us to treat everybody with love and respect, and I think that’s more important than the other. And so I want to come to GASP to try to find ways to make that clear.’”
In meetings members discuss LGBTQ-related topics. They’ve talked about everything from hate crimes to thought-provoking movies to what language does or doesn’t offend LGBTQs. Occasionally guest speakers come, ranging from former students to Adventist filmmakers. Despite the charged topic, meetings are relaxed. Members venture challenging questions without hesitation, and are quick to roar with laughter at the slightest hint of a joke. Students can identify as LGBTQ, but there is no pressure to do so. Members, both gay and straight, have offered positive feedback.
“GASP…made me feel less alone,” says Natalie Robles, a fifth-year senior majoring in Spanish. “No longer did I feel like I was the only one questioning my sexuality or struggling with reconciling my religion with my [orientation]. This group became a family.”
“Just watching some of the people in GASP come out, I kind of see a little relief in their eyes,” adds sophomore Nithi Narasappa, a who is pre-med with double majors in business and biology. “Most of the people there, they don’t have any reason to trust us. They barely even know us. We just walked into a little, little part of their lives…. Just the very fact that they’re willing to talk about it means so much to me.”
Dr. Fulton, having seen the growth from the beginning, is amazed at the impact GASP has had.
“For me, it’s the single best, closest approximation to a Christian community that I’ve ever been a part of anywhere,” says Dr. Fulton. “When you see people really trying to live out the core values of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there’s a certain magnetism to that that attracts people. And I’ve never seen that more clearly anywhere than in these GASP meetings.”
A not-so-simple solution
The positive stories flowing out of GASP make unofficial support groups on Adventist campuses appear a simple and effective solution for helping students in need without defying church doctrine. Similar groups have been forming at various other Adventist colleges, and Jaojoco recently established the Intercollegiate Adventist GSA Coalition (IAGC) on Facebook. GASP itself is not the first of its kind, as Dr. Fulton and Jaojoco both reference a few other groups at PUC that have formed only to wane since the 1970s. Though not an advocacy group, the simple fact that GASP addresses homosexuality has many hesitant.
According to Adventist.org, “Seventh-day Adventists believe that sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman. This was the design established by God at creation.” The statement was agreed upon in 1999 by the General Conference Executive Committee, and went on to say that, “every human being is valuable in the sight of God, and we seek to minister to all men and women in the spirit of Jesus.” Several biblical passages are used to support the church’s belief that homosexuality is a sin, including the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis, laws in Leviticus regulating sexual behavior and verses from Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians.
However, some dispute the interpretation of these passages, and thefact that Ellen G. White, the prophetess whom Adventists so often turn to for scriptural clarification, never explicitly mentions homosexuality, leaves even more questions unaddressed.
All of this confusion can make starting new discussions difficult and dangerous, which is why most Adventist college groups remain unofficial and under the radar.
“I really don't know why it is so hard for humans to talk about difficult issues,” muses Leticia Russell, an assistant professor and coordinator of the freshman Academic Success Program. “I do know what we like to talk about: ourselves…. In my experience the benefits of sharing our stories, and really listening to one another (even when not everyone agrees) leads to positive exchanges and creates the opportunity for us to understand each other better.”
The case of SafePlace: An expanding conversation
On May 14, a Monday evening, three members of SA and two student senators met in the office of PUC President Heather Knight. They were there to explore a proper response following a chain of events that amplified the discussion about GASP and LGBTQ students.
In the Student Senate meeting held May 9, senators Vivian Taina (Graf Hall) and Jonathan Cook (Village) presented the “SafePlace Policy Implementation Bill.” The bill focused on the welfare of LGBTQ students, seeking to implement a policy that would promote safety and prevent bullying against such students. (Though similar to the current SafePlace network, the bill was unaffiliated with SafePlace and GASP.)
Senators, faculty and students raised many questions. As Knight explained later, the bill “represented a change in existing PUC policy, which only the PUC Board of Trustees has the authority to change.” Some senators wanted the bill to more clearly outline the steps Senate would take to implement the policy. Others brought upthe concern that placing stickers on faculty members’ doors, as SafePlace does, would imply that doors without the sticker were not safe spaces in which to discuss homosexuality.
Though Knight was out of town and could not attend the May 9 meeting, Vice President Paulson read a letter from the president to the Senate regarding the administration’s position.
“PUC policies related to homosexuality are important and sensitive matters because they must be coordinated with, and consideration must be given to, the doctrines, fundamental beliefs and position statements of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Knight wrote. “While Adventists are opposed to homosexual practices, Adventists should love and reach out to homosexuals while differentiating between orientation and practice…. It is, and has been, the goal of PUC to make every place on its campus a ‘safe place.’”
The lengthy discussion prompted Senate to table the bill for a later vote, and Cook agreed to revise it along with Taina.
After the Senate meeting, many students got a glimpse of the bill and the letter penned by President Knight. As people reacted for or against the bill on GASP’s Facebook page, some administrators felt attacked, while other members scrambled to express the fact that they were neither trying to increase divisions nor advocating homosexuality, nor seeking official status for GASP. As Jaojoco has said in the past, “GASP is not a ‘club’ per se, nor do I want it to be. [It] is part of a support network and educational resource that has been built up over the past three years,” a thought that current GASP president and sophomore English major Nathan Shuey has echoed.
As Russell realized, a door of discussion had been opened to a much wider audience.
“When each person comes into GASP, we start with a name, a story,” said Russell. “Now we’re bringing new people into this [conversation], so the question is, ‘How are we going to talk about it with these new people? How can we move together in relationship?’”
The meeting between the SA officers, senators and President Knight answered part of Russell’s questions.
“The President was very…willing to help us find common ground on these goals,” said Cook, who was part of the private May 14 meeting. He described some safety-promoting strategies discussed in the meeting, such as “the possibility of having formal training for faculty, staff and RA's…so that they will be better informed about various challenges that LGBTQ individuals face.” He explained that the bill is “undergoing an entire transformation.”
President Knight added that other steps could include “a Christ-centered strengthening of our existing harassment, hazing, injuring or degrading others policies, as well as a listing of resources regarding where one could find support in times of crisis.”
Throughout all the uncertainties, President Knight values the relationships that have formed and that continue to be the central focus of the matter.
“We [have] developed a good level of rapport and a mutual understanding of the group’s role as an unofficial support group here at PUC,” explained Knight. “The leaders of GASP have been extremely respectful of the Church’s and PUC’s position and really value working with the PUC administration to create a supportive environment that does not go against Adventist beliefs and expectations, which can be a tricky balance.”
Where do we go from here?
Now, more than ever, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to simply sweep this issue under the rug. Groups like GASP are growing in size and visibility. Walla Walla University recently deemed their own GSA a semi-official entity under their student association. Organizations are operating at higher levels to address the needs of LGBTQs within the church, such as Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, a non-church affiliated non-profit formed in 1976. A recent film documentary, “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” is premiering around the world, showing the stories and journeys of several people at the crossroads of religion and orientation. And, as more Adventists come out of the closet in an incredibly tight-knit community, the issue is hitting closer to home.
The whirlwind surrounding the SafePlace Bill illustrates the fact that telling stories and hearing different viewpoints is one thing; figuring out how to respond to them is another. Shuey doesn't mind dialogue as long as it is conducted with respect.
“I think it’s good to be challenged on both sides, to not ignore each other,” says Shuey. “I don’t really care what anyone believes about homosexuality so long as they treat me like a person.”
Interestingly enough, two people who hold different viewpoints on homosexuality both envision a future without GASP and its counterparts. Ranzolin believes that “groups such as GASP would be unnecessary if the Church truly lived out its beliefs and practices,” while Jaojoco, when asked about GASP’s future, says, “I don't want a 10-year plan. In 10 years I can sense an attitude [change] within the church. With enough change we won't ever need a GSA on this campus again after GASP.” Both realize that groups like GASP exist because of the sore rift between the church and the LGBTQ community.
Paradigm shifts historically take a lot of pain and time, so PUC, and the Adventist church as a whole, may be in it for the long haul. For now Senate will keep buying pizzas for its meetings, fueling meaningful discussions between students, faculty and the administration. And GASP members will stock up on snacks and drinks for the Wednesday night meetings where, for at least a couple of hours, the bridge between Christianity and homosexuality can be crossed in peace.
—Colleen Uechi is studying Intercultural Communication at PUC. She will be the editor of The Campus Chronicle during the 2012-2013 school year which is where this article originally appeared.