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Calvin hospitable to LGBT students at personal but not institutional level

SAGA (Sexuality Awareness, Gender Acceptance), is a vibrant student organization that works to educate the campus about sexuality issues.  calvin.edu
SAGA (Sexuality Awareness, Gender Acceptance), is a vibrant student organization that works to educate the campus about sexuality issues. calvin.edu

A petition referring to Calvin’s ranking in the top-20 most LGBT-unfriendly schools in the country is currently circulating and asking President Le Roy what his actions will be to remove us from this list. As a member of the SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Awareness) leadership, Calvin’s placement on the list is frustrating because I always harbor a hope that there will be an incoming class of Calvin students who, when they search Calvin on the Internet, will find a school that is a model of how LGBT people and topics combined with faith in a joyful, loving and welcoming manner. Alas, this will not happen until Calvin College breaks the silence on LGBT topics and allows real conversation and action on what it means to be an LGBT-friendly institution to abound.

Calvin’s culture is LGBT-unfriendly because of its silence. Although we do have obvious problems, like the tolerance of slurs like the word fag, the core problem is silence on LGBT topics. That silence is palpable and speaks louder than any official statement about the fact that Calvin College loves its LGBT-students. The campus silence means that LGBT students do not know whom they can be open to and whom they cannot. The silence means that anyone who is not obviously an LGBT-ally becomes unfriendly and unsafe. Occasions when individuals are inhospitable also become even more hurtful because, instead of these situations being brought to light as a problem, they are often seen as tacitly supported by the silence of this college as an institution and thus go unreported. That silence means that Calvin’s culture is LGBT-unfriendly as Princeton Review reports.

Fortunately, this is not the whole story. Moving from the institutional to the individual level shows that there is hope for Calvin reforming its LGBT-unfriendly culture. The amount of students who signed the survey is a testament to this fact. Although it describes our campus culture well, there are pockets of people within this unwelcoming culture who are both hospitable and loving towards all people, regardless of sexuality or gender. Signatures in excess of 1,000 demonstrate that there are many on our campus who mourn our rankings on that list and hope that as a campus we can change our cultural problems. Even on the institutional side, Calvin has begun to incorporate LGBT people and topics by allowing the student organization SAGA to exist and LGBT-related dorm programming to go on. The amount of individuals on campus who hope and work for an LGBT-friendly campus is neglected in the Princeton Review ranking.

The challenge now is to change the college’s intention to be LGBT friendly into a culture of LGBT-friendliness. I have too often heard members of the Calvin community lower the standards for Calvin College by saying that we are LGBT-friendly “for a Christian college.” I always find myself questioning why any Christian would say this about their own institutions, because I have yet to encounter anyone with a hermeneutical lens so radically different than my own that they would argue that Christ came to lower expectations of hospitality for Christians. I hope that we embrace our Christian identity as challenge to raise the bar of hospitality rather than excuse a lack there of. We must strive to become an institution that all colleges and Christian institutions look towards as a unique and successful model of what it means to embrace LGBT students. To begin this, the institution of Calvin College needs to move from deflecting accusations of being anti-gay to actively finding what parts of our campus culture that allow this toxic silence about members of our own community to prevail.

Aiming for recognition may seem a lofty goal, but I believe there is a complacent pessimism about Calvin’s ability to resolve our inhospitable culture. Part of this problem stems from our insistence on patience to the neglect of accountability and concrete action. I fully acknowledge the value of patience but I think some of these calls for patience lack the virtue of hope. Accountability and concrete action are sorely neglected. Accountability breaks the silence by changing weak written monologues into active, vibrant conversations. Concrete action is necessary because this is how we can create structures that continue the LGBT conversation even when a petition is not circling.

Accountability is a necessary part of the change because accountability means demonstrating a willingness to talk by holding others accountable and a willingness to listen when others provide input.  Listening and talking are both necessary to break the inhospitable silence. The foundation to create a more hospitable community for LGBT students exists within both Christian Reformed Church documents and Calvin’s Residence Life goals but these calls to love often translate into only weak pockets of action. What would this look like? Resident directors and administrators asking how LGBT students view the success or failure of a policy is one way this can occur.

This may mean other leaders of organizations that deal only occasionally with topics of gender and sexuality consulting with SAGA or LGBT friends to understand how their programming can be more hospitable and inclusive. This also means anyone in the Calvin Community speaking up whenever they witness some part of our traditions, speech habits, or assumptions that are not hospitable. This is not simply the responsibility of LGBT students but something that every member of the Calvin community can and should participate in. Holding others accountable can be frightening and isolation though, if the burden for change is only placed on well-intentioned individuals.

This is why concrete action to include hospitality for LGBT students in the structures of the school is also an integral part of the change if we are to break the institutionalized silence about LGBT people both within and outside our community. A reading in the Prelude books by a gay Christian or by a Christian community that is trying to become a more welcoming place for LGBT people is a good start. During passport, making one of the seminars a session on how to be a good ally and make Calvin a safer place for LGBT students could be another concrete way we can start changing the culture. Creating traditions and expectations in the dorms and campus wide programming that embrace LGBT students is going to be important.  Through its incorporation in the structure of the college, forums are created for discussion and acknowledgement of LGBT-related topics and this breaks the toxic silence that is present today.

By allowing a toxic silence about LGBT people and topics to fester on campus, Calvin College has a culture that is accurately classified as unwelcoming for LGBT students. This being said, there are many individuals on campus who would love to see this changed and who seek to make their pockets of campus more welcoming for LGBT students and this can be a source of hope and progress. In the meantime, we need to realize that silence is neither passive nor neutral. Silence on the part of administration, faculty, staff and students is an acceptance and affirmation of the inhospitable atmosphere on campus for LGBT students. Through accountability and concrete action, this silence can be broken, but only if we’re willing to move beyond denial of LGBT-unfriendly to active aspirations to become a role model of how faith and LGBT topics and people can be blended in a loving, thriving, hospitable way.

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