On Sabbath, April 19, in a first-of-its-kind program, Andrews University conducted “A Conversation with LGBT Students.” This event focused on listening, understanding and caring, as LGBT students shared their stories and experiences.
The Cape Town Summit organized by our church leaders last month brought with it a call for continued conversation on the topic of LGBT Adventists. In the weeks that have followed, the future leaders of our church – students at Adventist universities across the country – have answered that call. During these past few weeks, Andrews University in particular has taken the opportunity in a variety of settings to create an atmosphere of discussion and contemplation on this issue. An official statement from the University said:
“In the context of this now global conversation, it’s important that Andrews University, as the flagship university of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and especially as a community of faith and learning, also takes the opportunity for reflection that is marked by study, prayer, and direct and honest communication.”
President Niels-Erik Andreasen reminded the campus community:
“In each of these significant conversations about these critical issues, and in those that will continue, throughout the world, our Church and this campus, it’s important that we seek to offer compassion and support for all members of our community. That process best begins with listening and understanding each other. I invite you to become a meaningful participant in this journey.”
On April 9, the student newspaper devoted its entire issue to this topic. Students, along with some faculty and staff, wrote articles, editorials and poems that sought to better understand how best to support LGBT students.
Andrews students coordinated yesterday’s “Conversation with LGBT Students” and faculty moderated. In the hour leading up to the program, the students were feeling a mix of emotions. “I have a mixture of excitement, nerves and just gratitude that this is happening,” said one. Another student said, “I’m nervous! But this is about others, not just about me.”
Before the program began, people milled about the lobby, viewing artwork, poems and stories created by LGBT students. (Several poems were also shared throughout the program.)
Over 600 people showed up for the event, which caused the program to start a few minutes late, as the 250-person capacity auditorium quickly filled to standing-room only, and three overflow rooms were swiftly set up and completely filled as well.
Provost Andrea Luxton, opened the program, and reminded the audience, “We’re here today to listen to the people here because it is their lives that shape the church conversation.” Steve Yeagley from Student Life gave the welcome and shared his thoughts: “Listening is what I hold as a sacred act, and we get to extend that to members of our community today.”
After opening prayer, a short video was shared that introduced many LGBT students and allies, across a variety of departments and disciplines. After the video came the “Share Your Story” section, an intimate face-to-face conversation with four LGBT students, with a straight student ally moderating. The students spoke from the heart about their own unique experiences growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church and their realization that they are LGBT. The stories were deeply personal and reflected the diverse nature of this community, and the varied responses they have received from family and friends.
The first student, a bisexual young woman, described her journey of self-discovery and the fears and confusion that came along with that. She said she wondered, “Is my very existence wrong? Should I remove myself from the equation to make the universe a little more right?” When she found the courage to come out to her parents, she printed off a packet from the internet on what to do when your child comes out. “Coming out to my parents was terrifying because I care about them so much.” Her parents responded with love and support, which has made it easier for her to subsequently come out to friends and to now live openly.
The second student shared what it is like to be grey asexual and to have never really had the desire to be in a romantic relationship: “I’m just kind of me. I’ve never really felt uncomfortable with myself. I know there are a lot of different ways to form meaningful relationships with others. There’s the way others see and do things, and then there’s me, and I want to bridge that disconnect.” He described how a typical response to his asexuality is others telling him he’ll “grow out of it,” or that when he “finds the right person” he’ll change his mind, but that he knows who he is and is comfortable with that realization.
Another student, who identifies as a transgender male, described what it was like to go through seven years of school pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Eventually, he came to the conclusion he couldn’t live pretending to be straight anymore, and made the decision to come out to friends and teachers. The audience shared a collective gasp of shock as the student shared that his mother’s response was, “You’re an abomination to me, I just can’t look at you anymore.” The student came to Andrews the next year, not sure of the response he’d receive, but the friends and acceptance he’s found here has, “allowed me to love myself for who I am, and to want to live – not just survive.”
The final student talked about what it was like coming out to his parents as a high school freshman. Though he was incredibly nervous and didn’t know how they would react, his parents responded with love and told him they already knew he was gay, and it was okay. The student went on to say that though he found support from his family, he never felt safe coming out to peers, and spent years feeling like he had no friends and crying himself to sleep. By fall semester of his sophomore year in college, he came to the conclusion that he could either continue to hide who he was, or he could come out and be alone forever. He decided he didn’t want either of those two options. He attempted suicide by swallowing 74 pills, and ended up needing his stomach pumped and being in the hospital for three days. Fortunately, there were no lasting physical effects to this attempt, and the student described how he has now found peace with himself and with God. He stated, “My sexuality is no longer an issue of what to do to keep the church happy; it’s an issue of staying alive.”
The student moderator then asked the students why they felt this meeting was so important. One response was, “We need to educate. This is an educational institution, and education is really important on this topic, because it’s affecting people’s lives. We can’t keep ignoring this topic.” Another student said, “I’m continually surprised by the people who are supportive. People have genuine questions, they want to understand and relate and be safer people to be around. So I’m glad we have spaces like this to talk about it and realize there is so much care and love and support from people.” This statement elicited a round of applause from the packed audience.
The next portion of the program revolved around several themes which are summarized here:
- Not a Demographic: a reminder of the unique and diverse individuals who make up the LGBT community, and the need to talk to people as individuals and human beings, not about them as a demographic or statistics on a chart.
- How to Be an Ally: a student ally shared the need to listen, and to shift the perspective from yourself. She said, “One of the worst things I can do is stand up here and try to tell you their stories…hand the mic over to someone who doesn’t have as much of a voice as you do, and let them tell their own story.” Though allies come in every form and theological understanding, she summed up the role of an ally as this: “Are you the type of person who, when you walk into a room, people start to feel fear, or do they feel calm and love?”
- Bridge Building: Eliel Cruz, founder and president of the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition, and senior international business and French studies major, shared some tools that can create common ground. Foremost, is realizing there are some phrases and words that are not communicating effectively. He asked, “What can we do to change our language so we are expressing love and compassion?” He told the audience that the term “homosexual” is outdated and the word is not a valid description for many in the LGBT community anyway, including bisexual and transgender individuals. He said that when we use terms such as “practicing homosexuality” and “the homosexual lifestyle,” what we are really talking about is same-sex sex, and not an orientation. He also reminded the audience that the often-used phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not actually in the Bible and ends up promoting hate, even though that is not the intent. He concluded with the thought-provoking question: “How much time are you spending communicating your own theological beliefs and how much are you spending taking time to love and to listen?”
The last portion of the program was dedicated to Q&A. The audience had been given the opportunity throughout the program to write down questions, which faculty members read and a panel comprised of LGBT students and allies answered. A few of the questions included:
Q: How do you feel God fits into all of this?
A: “I’m not sure what ‘all of this’ means. God lives in me and I have a relationship with him.”
A: “Of course you have to reconcile your religious beliefs with everything else in your life; I don’t think your sexual orientation is any different in that respect.”
A: One student shared a quote from author Anne Lamott, “If you begin to realize God hates all the same people and things you do, there’s a good chance you’re making God in your own image.”
Q: Can you be an ally and still think homosexuality is a sin?
A: “Yeah, absolutely. My definition of ally is really broad. An ally is someone who is willing to walk with me as I go on this journey.”
A: “The greatest ally I’ve ever encountered doesn’t believe that same-sex relationships should exist.”
Q: How do you know you’re gay?
A: “How do you know you’re straight? Think about it in terms of yourself and how you know. It’s a pretty innate feeling.”
Q: What can faculty/staff do to help make this university a safer place?
A: “I had a class this week where a professor made me feel very uncomfortable, talking about how his son hates gays, and laughing about it. Be aware of what you’re saying and who may be sitting in your classroom.”
A: “Math teachers should teach math and not become pastors in the middle of the classroom.”
A: “I’m in a class where we’re discussing the civil rights movement and women’s rights. I feel a lot of parallels with that, and I want to be able to ask questions related to my own struggle. As teachers, be open to that kind of dialogue.”
Q: How do you want a church or congregation to respond to you?
A: “Like you would anyone else. You don’t need to cater to us. Just be you and we’ll be us.”
A: “Treat LGBT people with love. They are children of God, just like you.”
A: “Even if you believe this is a sin, don’t make it a special sin. Everyone is a sinner. Welcome everyone and treat them with love first. If they’re at church, it’s because they are there seeking a relationship with God.”
A: “Sometimes people think we shouldn’t be there because they need to purify the church. But if the church was pure, there would be no one in the seats.”
Q: Do you want the church to change its position on this issue?
A: “I feel unwelcome in the church. I no longer identify as SDA, and I know if I was to choose another denomination, there are those that would make me feel more welcome and loved than the SDA church.”
A: “I think it’s more important that people are willing to have this discussion than that policies change.”
A: “We haven’t figured out how to talk to each other. It’s not about changing policy, it’s about how we treat each other and that’s a step we need to be going toward.”
A: “I couldn’t care less about the theological stance of the church. It’s about how we treat people. I’m just so tired. I feel homeless in the house of God, and I’m ready to be home.”
A: “I do want the church to change its policy and here’s why: Right now, the way the policy is, membership is based on visible sin. And that makes everyone closet their sin. And closets kill, and I want to be part of a church that brings life.”
The program ended with the song, “How He Loves,” and a prayer. Many audience members had made their way to stage during the closing song, and still more came forward afterward. The outpouring of love and support was evident, as hugs and encouraging words were given to the student participants, many of whom had struggled to hold back tears while sharing their stories and answering questions.
When asked how they felt now that this much-anticipated program was concluded, the students expressed amazement and relief. One said, “It’s like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I was so nervous about what would happen, but the response is incredible.” An audience member shared the sentiment, “This conversation has needed to happen for a long time. What took us so long?”
Andrews University will continue the dialogue on LGBT issues on April 26 with the event, “In God’s Image: Scripture. Sexuality. Society. Reflections on the Cape Town Summit.” This panel discussion will feature five faculty members who participated and/or presented at the summit in March.
During the event, a short piece by Andrews alumnus David Carbonell was read, eliciting a huge round of applause. That piece follows:
I Am Gay
It begins very early. You realize you’re different than the others. Some might say the fortunate ones are able to hide it. Hide it from their parents and siblings, friends and teachers. Those who become especially adept can even hide it from themselves. A lie grows in the very essence of a person. I’m not really sure what it’s like for those who can’t hide it. You see, I was pretty good at hiding it. I was a very good liar, even to myself.
“Wow, she’s hot!” I’d say around my buddies. Is that how they say it – with that intonation? That didn’t sound too over the top, did it? Is she hot? Are they looking at me like I’m crazy? No. No, I guess I pass.
However, no matter how good I ever was at hiding the fact that I liked guys, each heterosexual act brought the barrage of self-interrogation, which chipped away at the perfect façade I poured my heart into building every hour of every day. Mind you, I never did anything more than hug a girl. I was only acting heterosexual and I had my limits. I was, after all, a good SDA boy. The façade – the lie – it had to be perfect. The world was my audience, and the façade I had built, my stage. I would make them believe. I would make me believe. I would make God believe. I would live the lie until it was no longer a lie and then I would be saved. The height of my deception would know no bounds in an effort to find salvation. Years passed.
Then came the day I became tired of maintaining the show. I was the villain in my own story. Many will say it was for lack of faith, but I would say it was for lack of a desire to continue the lie. I came out to myself: “I am gay.”
I never felt closer to God. I had stopped lying, and He knew this. I had a different faith. A faith that said, although the pontificates of my youth would have condemned me as godless, I had just made more room for God in my gay heart – it was fabulous in there, and He would want to stay. I was now the hero to my story, honest, true and virtuous.
It was revolutionary, and not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I was no longer afraid of what others would say or think. What troubles me now is the time I wasted fashioning the props on my stage. What if I hadn’t wasted my energy flaunting my heterosexual act? What could I have accomplished if I had channeled that energy into more productive areas? What opportunities passed me by because I was too blind to see past the fear of a crumbling façade? These questions haunt me even to this day.
In many ways, Andrews University, our church, and communities small and large all over the world are going through a similar “coming out” process – hoping no one will notice there are LGBTQ people within. The conflict within, while scary and difficult to understand at times, does bring honesty and a certain new strength when an understanding atmosphere is given a chance. Absent fathers don’t have the power to make a son gay – so don’t blame yourselves fathers. Smothering mothers don’t have the power to make a son gay – so don’t blame yourselves mothers. Child abuse does not have the power to make a person gay – if it did, then approximately one out of two girls and one out of five boys would likely be gay. The gay person does not have the power to make themself gay – otherwise the years of tears and bedtime prayers would have made them straight. After years and years on this journey, I now know there is only One with the power to create a gay person. His name is the great I Am. I am a child of God. And I am gay.
Alisa Williams is a life-long resident of the Andrews University community. She graduated from Andrews in 2006 with a BS in Psychology and now works as a professional writer, as well as the Annual Giving Coordinator at Andrews. Any views or opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.
Image: Audience members viewed artwork, poems and stories created by LGBT students before the presentation began.
Look for reflections from some Andrews students who attended the event to be published on the Spectrum blog later this week.