SJo Scanlan described a moment from a women’s psychobiology class at the private Christian university last week, among rainbow flags and handmade signs declaring things like “God made me made gay” in front of the office of the president of the University of the Pacific in Seattle.
The professor had explained that sex and gender were not the same, said Scanlan, 32, an alumnus.
It hadn’t been about being transgender or intersex, Scanlan reminded the group of current LGBTQ+ students. But the conference helped Scanlan, who at the time described himself as an outspoken non-binary trans person, to finally begin to realize an important fact:
“There are people in my community who recognize that I exist.”
It was the 14th day of a sit-in over the university’s policy prohibiting same-sex sexual relations. Scanlan was one of many former students who had returned to the administration building to show their solidarity with the dozens of students who had camped out in the hallway.
The policy, the students say, is grossly discriminatory and leaves the LGBTQ+ community on campus without the support and mentorship it needs.
“You’re going to charge me thousands of dollars every term to come here and get an education, but you’re not going to provide me with the education I deserve as a queer person by having queer staff and teachers?” asked Leah Duff, 22, who camped at the sit-in almost every day. “You talk about being ecumenical, being so diverse. And it’s like, where is it?
Duff, who grew up in Maryland in a church that supported the LGBTQ+ community, said she was unaware of politics when she enrolled in college.
In a statement last month, Cedric Davis, chairman of the SPU board, described the decision to uphold the rule as a “thorough and prayerful deliberation.”
He added: “The board made a decision which it believed to be most consistent with the university’s mission and statement of faith and elected that SPU remain in communion with its founding denomination, the Free Methodist Church. of the United States, as an essential part of its history. identity as a Christian university.
SPU is not alone
The politics stand out in the liberal Pacific Northwest city, where, according to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of residents reported no religious affiliation. But the school is certainly not alone in the United States.
According to a 2019 study published in Sociological Spectrum, nearly a third of Christian colleges and universities in the United States prohibit things such as “homosexual acts” or “homosexual behavior.” The higher education association Council for Christian Colleges & Universities includes more than 140 schools around the world that have agreed to support policies such as “intimate sex…is for married people between a man and a woman”.
These policies may exist through religious exemptions under Title IX, the federal education law prohibiting discrimination based on sex, and Title VII, the law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex, among others. , explained Evan Gerstmann, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount. University.
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a program aimed at empowering LGBTQ+ students in religious schools, described the sit-in as “unprecedented” but said it seemed to fit the trend more wide of students.
“As more of the current generation of students, more and more of them identify as LGBTQ+, or somewhere along the spectrum,” Southwick said. “And young people’s attitudes have changed quite dramatically, as has the culture at large.”
Last year, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed a class action lawsuit against the US Department of Education challenging the Title IX exemption. She names 46 plaintiffs, including a student who attended SPU.
The school did not apply for a religious exemption.
At SPU, students launched the sit-in after the board announced in May that it would not change its policy stating that school employees must refrain from “sexual behavior inconsistent with understanding by the University of Biblical Standards, including… same-sex sexual activity”.
It adds, “Employees who engage in any of these activities may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination from the University.”
Before the board announced its decision, the Free Methodist Church USA warned that if the university changed policy, it would lose its affiliation with the denomination.
The church has no legal control over the school but has contributed $324,000 “through its various entities” over the past 40 years, according to university spokeswoman Tracy Norlen.
“We recognize a diversity of opinions within our community on the subject of sexuality, and we continually seek to honor differences and create space for all voices on our campus,” Norlen said in an email. . “We seek to be a supportive community for all of our members.”
The Free Methodist Church USA declined to comment.
Earlier this month, the SPU faculty senate passed a resolution saying it supports revising the school’s policy to allow same-sex sexual activity within marriage.
The coming weeks
Christopher TF Hanson, an assistant professor of music at SPU who describes himself as the only full-time queer faculty member at the school, said during his interview for his current position in 2019 that he had no talked about being queer. When he questioned the policy, he said, he was told not to worry about it because it was just a historical document.
But after he started, he said, he started hearing about people who had left school or dropped out of the hiring process because they were gay, as well as current faculty members who had afraid to go out because of politics.
Last year, after an SPU nursing instructor sued the school, claiming it had discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation (the case was settled out of court), the stories have only increased, Hanson said.
Hanson recently decided to come out publicly as bisexual at school and said he received widespread support from his colleagues. He said he hasn’t faced any professional fallout, probably due to the fact that he is married to a woman, but also, he said, because the power of politics lies mainly in scare tactics.
“How can we move forward if we’re perpetuating this culture of fear – that if you’re here and you don’t follow these lifestyle expectations…something bad is going to happen to you?” he said. “But nobody really knows what’s going to happen because nothing can happen because nothing has been institutionalized for anything to happen. Just fear. Rumors are what protects the board and what kind of conservative rhetoric.
Monday evening, the students were still camping. It is clear that they have no intention of leaving.
They coordinated meals and shifts through Google sign-up sheets, making sure there were at least three students at all times. They created a kitchen area filled with bins of donated snacks and two large coolers.
They set up a line of inflatable beds and mattresses, a lost object, and a bathroom converted to non-binary through a sign that read “It doesn’t really matter.” A list of ‘house rules’ was taped to the wall, including ‘Be clean, be safe, be nice and be gay’. And they even had alumni with protest experience give presentations on what to do if you get arrested and how to coordinate support from the prison.
Chloe Guillot, 22, an organizer and senior at the school, said she plans to stay until the summer. They have given the school until July 1 to rescind the policy or students expect to take legal action arguing that the board breached its fiduciary duty. As of Monday, they had raised over $26,000 for the lawsuit (they plan to donate the money to the school if the policy is changed before the deadline).
“By refusing to remove this policy, it’s discriminatory and it’s homophobic, but it also really puts our university at risk,” said Guillot, who studies Christian theology and social justice and cultural studies.
But Guillot, who is Christian and non-binary, said it goes beyond that.
“It’s really important to me that we don’t let these Christian institutions continue to weaponize Christianity and use religion to hurt people.”