Sitting among rainbow flags and handmade signs declaring such things as “God made me gay” outside the Seattle Pacific University president’s office last week, Jo Scanlan described a moment from a psychobiology of women course at the private Christian university.
The professor had explained that sex and gender were not the same, said Scanlan, 32, an alum.
There had been no talk of being transgender or intersex, Scanlan recalled to the group of current LGBTQ+ students. But the lecture had helped Scanlan, who described themself at the time as a closeted trans non-binary person, finally start to realize an important fact:
“There are people in my community that recognize I exist.”
It was the 14th day of a sit-in over the university’s policy prohibiting employee same-sex sexual activity. Scanlan was one of several alumni who had returned to the administration building to show solidarity with the dozens of students who had been camped out in the hallway.
The policy, students argue, is blatantly discriminatory and leaves the campus’s LGBTQ+ community without the support and mentorship they need.
“You’re going to charge me thousands of dollars every quarter to come here and to get an education, but you’re not going to provide me the education that I deserve as a queer person by having queer staff and faculty?” asked Leah Duff, 22, who has been camped out at the sit-in nearly 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 hadn’t been aware of the policy when she enrolled at the university.
In a statement last month, Cedric Davis, chair of the SPU board, described the decision to keep the rule as a “thorough and prayerful deliberation”.
He added: “The board made a decision that it believed was most in line with the university’s mission and statement of faith and chose to have SPU remain in communion with its founding denomination, the Free Methodist church USA, as a core part of its historical identity as a Christian university.”
SPU is not alone
The policy stands out in the liberal Pacific north-west city, where, according to the Pew Research Center, more than one-third of residents reported no affiliation with a religion. But the school is certainly not alone in the US.
Nearly one-third of US Christian colleges and universities have bans on such things as “homosexual acts” or “homosexual behavior”, according to a 2019 study published in Sociological Spectrum. The higher education association Council for Christian Colleges & Universities includes more than 140 schools around the world that have agreed to support such policies as “intimate sexual relations … are intended for persons in a marriage between one man and one woman”.
These policies can exist thanks to religious exemptions under Title IX, the federal education law barring discrimination based on sex, and Title VII, the law prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex, among other things, explained Evan Gerstmann, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.
Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a program working to empower LGBTQ+ students at religious schools, described the sit-in as “unprecedented” but said it seemed to fit into the broader trend playing out among college students.
“More and more of the current generation of students, more and more of them are identifying as LGBTQ+, or somewhere along the spectrum,” said Southwick. “And the attitudes of young people have shifted pretty dramatically, as has the wider culture.”
Last year, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed a class-action lawsuit against the US Department of Education, challenging the Title IX exemption. It names 46 plaintiffs, including a student who attended SPU.
The school has not filed for a religious exemption.
At SPU, students launched the sit-in after the board of trustees announced in May that it would not change its policy stating that the school’s employees are expected to refrain from “sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards, including … same-sex sexual activity”.
It adds: “Employees who engage in any of these activities may face disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment with the University.”
Before the board announced its decision, the Free Methodist church USA warned that if the university changed its policy, it would lose its affiliation with the denomination.
The church does not have any legal control over the school but has contributed $324,000 “through its various entities” over the past 40 years, according to Tracy Norlen, a spokesperson for the university.
“We recognize a diversity of opinions within our community on the topic 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 to all our members.”
The Free Methodist church USA declined to comment.
Earlier this month, the SPU faculty senate passed a resolution stating that it supported revising the school’s policy to allow same-sex sexual activity within the context of marriage.
The weeks ahead
Christopher TF Hanson, an assistant professor of music at SPU who described himself as the only out queer full-time faculty member at the school, said when he had interviewed for his current position, in 2019, he had not brought up being queer. When he questioned the policy, he said, he had been told not to worry about it because it was merely a historical document.
But after he started, he said, he began hearing of people who had left the school or dropped out of the hiring process because they are queer, as well as from current faculty members afraid to come out because of the policy.
Last year, after a nursing instructor at SPU sued the school, claiming it had discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation (the case was settled out of court), the stories only increased, Hanson said.
Hanson recently decided to publicly come out as bisexual at the school and said he received widespread support from his colleagues. He said he had not faced professional fallout, probably due to the fact that he is married to a woman, but also, he said, because the policy’s power lies primarily in fear tactics.
“How can we move forward if we’re perpetuating this culture of fearmongering – that if you’re here, and you don’t follow these lifestyle expectations … something bad will happen to you?” he said. “But no one actually knows what will happen, because nothing can happen because nothing has been institutionalized for something to happen. Just the fear. The rumors are what’s safeguarding the board of trustees and this sort of conservative rhetoric.”
As of Monday evening, the students were still camped out. It is clear they have no intention of leaving.
They have coordinated meals and sit-in shifts through Google sign-up sheets, making sure there are at least three students there at any given time. They have created a kitchen area filled with bins of donated snacks and two large coolers.
They have set up a line of cots and air mattresses, a lost and found and a bathroom converted to non-binary by way of a sign reading “It doesn’t really matter”. Taped on the wall was a list of “house rules”, including “Be clean, be safe, be kind, and be gay”. And they have even had alumni with protest experience give presentations on what to do if you’re arrested and how to coordinate jail support.
Chloe Guillot, 22, an organizer and senior at the school, said they planned to stay into the summer. They have given the school until 1 July to reverse the policy, or the students expect to file a lawsuit 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 by their deadline).
“By refusing to remove this policy, it is discriminatory and it is homophobic, but it also just really puts our university in jeopardy,” said Guillot, who is studying Christian theology and social justice and cultural studies.
But Guillot, who is Christian and non-binary, said it went beyond that.
“It’s really important to me to not let these Christian institutions continue to weaponize Christianity and use religion to hurt people.”