What it's like to be LGBTQ at a Canadian Christian university - Macleans.ca

What it’s like to be LGBTQ at a Canadian Christian university

Why do some gay students choose to attend Trinity Western University?

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Students walking on campus at Trinity Western University. (Trinity Western)

When Nate Froehlich came out as gay this summer, he had a lot at stake as a young man of faith. 

He grew up in Peachland, B.C., a town near Kelowna with a population of about 5,000, born to parents deeply involved with a church that does not support same-sex marriage. “My faith is very important to me and something I’ve never been willing to let go of,” says Froehlich. “Growing up hearing people misinterpret the scripture, saying gays won’t go to heaven, that never sounded correct to me. I definitely wanted to search more.”

Froehlich, 20, remains deeply tied to the Christian community, choosing to attend the private evangelical school Trinity Western University in the lower mainland of B.C. Froehlich was drawn to Trinity specifically because he was trying to figure out how his sexuality fit with his faith. It’s a school that, for the better part of five years, was embroiled in a legal battle hinging on a line in its code of conduct explicitly banning sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman, effectively making same-sex relationships in contravention of school rules.

The fight was framed in court as religious freedom versus LGBTQ rights. But the issue looks very different on a campus where some LGBTQ students don’t see their sexuality as being in conflict with their faith. And despite the covenant, Froehlich and others have found real community on campus.

Multiple provincial regulation bodies denied accreditation to Trinity’s proposed law school because of the clause in its community covenant, a code of conduct that was mandatory for students and staff to sign. The case—fought by both the B.C. and Ontario law societies—went all the way to the Supreme Court, with a decision handed down this June saying the law societies could deny accreditation because of the code’s potentially discriminatory effect on LGBTQ students.

Two months later, weeks before school started up again in the fall, Trinity’s board of governors decided that signing the code would no longer be mandatory—its compulsory nature was seen as the sticking point in the Supreme Court’s rationale. President Bob Kuhn says this change was made to be more inclusive, but the text itself will remain the same. “The covenant reflects a biblical perspective that we adhere to in terms of the founding principles upon which the school has been based for over 65 years,” Kuhn said in an interview. During the court case, it was suggested that LGBTQ students would likely avoid a Christian school, but Froehlich’s experience suggests otherwise. And for many, university marks a time of self-exploration—some students enter at the age of 17, and only recognize or come to terms with their sexuality during these years. 

The reality is that the covenant reflects a particular interpretation of the Bible that not all Christians—and not all Trinity community members—adhere to. Established as Trinity Junior College in 1962, Trinity Western University now has 4,000 students across 43 undergraduate and 17 graduate programs. Its main campus is in Langley, a 45-minute drive from Vancouver, surrounded by lush fields with mountains in the distance and a farm right outside its entrance, complete with a red barn and a stable of horses. The campus itself is as idyllic as its surroundings—impossibly clean with acres of green space and well-maintained residences that are a 15-minute walk or less from most buildings on campus. In addition to being a Christian school, the average annual tuition at Trinity is more than three times the average tuition for a public university in Canada. Nobody attends Trinity by default or to save money—it’s a clear choice.

Nathan Froehlich, student of Trinity Western, on campus Sept. 21, 2018. (Photograph by Grady Mitchell).

Froehlich visited Trinity many times before enrolling last year, and he loved the sense of belonging he felt there. For him, the school’s community was a resource to help him answer the question gnawing at him: Would he live his life as a gay Christian man, or would he commit himself to celibacy?

Froehlich was searching for where he stood in what’s commonly framed in the Christian community as the side-A-side-B debate. Side A believes that same-sex relationships are acceptable, while side B believes that the only kind of religiously valid marriage is between a man and a woman. Growing up in a side-B household, Froehlich had difficult conversations with his mother about his feelings for other boys as an adolescent. She assured him it was a phase. He didn’t feel judged by her, but the messages he got from church were that gay men were broken in some way.

After taking some time off to work after high school, he decided Trinity would be the best place to try to come to terms with where he fit in this debate, a place where he would have access to faculty, theologians and speakers who studied the subject. His quest ultimately landed him in the office of Robynne Healey, a faculty adviser for One TWU, a group supporting LGBTQ students, alumni and allies. “It felt amazing to be open and talk to someone [who didn’t] look at me like I was a little bit more broken or [who was] trying to fix me,” says Froehlich.

Healey teaches history and co-directs the gender studies program at Trinity, in addition to advising One TWU. The group isn’t officially affiliated with the school, and meetings are held in secret to protect the identities of those who aren’t out. Not just a support group, One TWU aims to change the combative nature of discussion surrounding LGBTQ Christians.

For Healey, it’s important to cultivate an environment for dialogue, not debate, on campus. “We are all on a journey, and for some people, where they are on that journey when they start university is far different from where they end up when they leave university,” Healey says. To facilitate that conversation and learning, Healey organizes gender cafés along with Allyson Jule, co-director of the Gender Studies Institute and dean of the education program. The events are open for anyone on campus to attend, tackling subjects related to gender and sexuality, including a series on LGBTQ Christians. In February 2015, Healey helped bring Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network and the author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, to the school.

Healey says university administration insisted that someone from side B be represented during the event. Lee often appeared alongside Ron Belgau, who speaks about his experience as a gay celibate Christian. Lee signed Belgau on for the event, which drew 1,000 or so audience members—the largest gathering of its kind on campus at that time. Kuhn introduced the guests, encouraging respectful dialogue while making it clear the university wasn’t endorsing the message of certain speakers: “TWU’s position is and will remain clear.”

Matthew Wigmore, a student of theatre and justice studies at the time, didn’t mind that “both sides” had to be represented, but remains troubled by others invited by Trinity to speak on this subject. Wigmore, who founded One TWU in 2014 and completed his degree in 2016, took particular issue with speakers like psychologist Mark Yarhouse, who authored a study concluding that conversion therapy wasn’t necessarily harmful, funded by the now-shuttered “ex-gay” ministry EXODUS, which advocated for conversion therapy.

When Christopher Yuan—who explicitly argues that he had to make a choice between God and same-sex attraction—came to speak on campus, Wigmore avoided it. As one of the few out students on campus, and someone who endured conversion therapy as a teenager, spending time listening to someone talk about how embracing God required denying his sexuality was “literally the last thing I wanted to do,” says Wigmore. But multiple people approached him, surprised he wasn’t at the talk. The resident adviser in his dorm was one of them, urging him to listen to a recording so they could discuss it. “As someone who was trying to find out who he was at the age of 19, it was just extremely frustrating and isolating,” he says of the experience.

He thinks the university is at a crossroads now, striving to be inclusive but tied to a conservative, evangelical way of doing things. Wigmore says the administration needs to decide on a direction: “Is it going to be a Christian university—meaning it gives equal space, equal treatment, equal voice to a wide range of diversity within Christianity—or is going to become a specifically culturally evangelical university?”

Kuhn has said the mandatory requirement to sign the covenant was dropped in an effort to make the school a more inclusive place, and other efforts are under way. “I know that the faculty has been working on creating a hospitable environment, with a lot of thought put into how to create an environment for students where they not only feel safe, but they feel like they can thrive,” said Kuhn.

For Wigmore, if the school truly wants be inclusive it has to consider “the way the university has conducted itself with LGBTQ students and alumni in the past.”

Trinity Western University President Bob Kuhn speaks to media following oral arguments at the Supreme Court of Canada, in Ottawa, on Nov. 30, 2017. (Trinity Western)

While no student has been reprimanded under the community covenant for being in a same-sex relationship during Kuhn’s tenure as president, they have in the past. Ashlee Davidson, a soccer player who graduated in 2006, lost her scholarship and—temporarily—her privilege to play on the team. She was also put on behavioural probation.

Amid the law school controversy, Trinity’s student paper Mars’ Hill put a call out to alumni for submissions on their experiences as LGBTQ students and allies. They received dozens of responses, including one from Davidson: “In the end, [through] my TWU experience I became completely disconnected, removed and othered. I was made to feel like something was wrong with me. I desperately wanted to know how to fix it. The truth is, there is no fixing it. It’s other people’s perceptions that need to change.”

Isolation, depression and shame were common themes in the published submissions. It’s unsurprising, then, that most LGBTQ students Healey has known waited until graduation to come out. “This is a group that is hidden in plain sight,” says Healey. “During those five years when the law school was under discussion, this was so often framed as an ‘issue.’ But LGBTQ students aren’t an issue to me—they’re people.”

Healey was encouraged to see a campaign by LGBTQ students and alumni posting simple images across campus with their faces and the line, “We went here too.” One of the students who participated in that campaign was Kelsey Tuffin. Now 26, when she first came to TWU as a 21-year-old, she agreed with the community covenant. But that changed in third year, when she realized she was bisexual.

Now back at Trinity this September to complete her final year in the education program after taking a year off, Tuffin is leading One TWU along with Froehlich. She’s relieved she doesn’t have to sign the covenant to register for classes this fall. For her, it created a real fear of consequences—it was never clear what would happen if a student was caught in contravention of the covenant for being in a same-sex relationship. While she thinks this fear will now dissipate as the mandatory requirement to sign it has been dropped, Tuffin says it’s a “Band-Aid solution” that doesn’t get at the root of the issue. “What do you want this document to communicate to people? Are you going to do the things that are necessary to help people feel more welcome and included?” she says. “The reality is that there are some people who are going to feel unwelcome if you try to make other people feel welcome.”

For Tuffin, small things have helped her feel welcome, like text in syllabuses stating a commitment to the inclusion of diverse views and people, including LGBTQ students. “You have to make active efforts to make sure the people who don’t fit within that homogeneous community feel like they see themselves represented in something,” Tuffin says.

She feels lucky to have been in a program led by Jule, the dean of the education program. Outside Jule’s office is a small sticker with the One TWU logo—the Trinity flame in the colours of the rainbow. Jule says dropping the mandatory covenant was “overdue” and in keeping with the culture of the school. “When you change the policy, it gives a strong message about the intention of the place, and I think the decision to drop it says a lot about what kind of culture we want to have,” says Jule.

In her view, most Canadians have misunderstood the culture on campus. She says this is partly the result of unnuanced media coverage during the court battle—the community was covered as a monolithic entity with a single opinion, when in fact there are many faculty members like her working to make the school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students. “If more Canadians understood that, they might be less critical of Trinity.”  

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