Friday, February 12 , 2016, 7:10 am | Fair 45º

Gay Students, Alumni Sending Westmont College a Message

Signature campaign aims to prompt campus dialogue about LGBT orientation, Christian faith

Westmont College, a private interdenominational Christian liberal arts school in Montecito, has a Community Life Statement and expects its 1,200 students to honor its guidelines. The statement also applies to trustees, administrators, faculty and staff.
Westmont College, a private interdenominational Christian liberal arts school in Montecito, has a Community Life Statement and expects its 1,200 students to honor its guidelines. The statement also applies to trustees, administrators, faculty and staff.  (Brad Elliott photo / Westmont College)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

A quiet campaign to support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students at Westmont College has gained momentum as alumni of the private Christian liberal arts school have added their names to the letter.

As of Friday, 131 alumni have signed an open letter in support of LGBT students at Westmont, located at 955 La Paz Road in the Montecito foothills. The letter, which began circulating on Facebook in December, calls for dialogue between students and the administration in an effort to prevent “current students from feeling the same isolation that many (alumni) experienced as Westmont students.”

The alumni drive was prompted by a letter to the editor published in November in the Westmont Horizon, the student newspaper, from Artie Van Why, a 1976 graduate of Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. In his letter, Van Why outlined his own struggle to reconcile his homosexuality with his religious faith while attending Asbury, a 1,600-student, nondenominational Christian liberal arts college.

After the Asbury student newspaper declined to publish Van Why’s letter, it was sent to Christian colleges across the country, including 1,200-student Westmont. Although Westmont students and alumni quickly began to sign on, some students say the school has refused to address homosexuality in an open forum.

According to Westmont’s Community Life Statement, the school does not condone practices that the Bible forbids.

“Such activities include occult practices, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexual practice, drunkenness, theft, profanity and dishonesty,” the nearly 1,000-word statement reads.

That expectation outlined in the Community Life Statement applies to trustees, administrators, faculty, staff and students of the Westmont community.

“The institutional climate forecloses open discussion and reinforces the college’s official stance through teachings in mandatory chapel services and in college courses classifying ‘homosexuality’ as a deviant behavior,” the alumni letter says. “The letter represents an unprecedented, unified effort of alumni dating back to the class of ‘81, and will hopefully inspire the college to begin a more open, intellectually rigorous dialogue on the subject.”

Jennifer Lorden, a 2007 Westmont graduate and one of the three authors of the letter, shared with Noozhawk on Friday about the decision to circulate the letter. Lorden said she realized she was gay during her senior year at Westmont.

“I was out to one other student and felt silenced and scared,” she said. “We knew there had to be more of us out there, but we didn’t know who they were because no one could come out until they left the college.”

Every few years, one or two students will write a letter to the school newspaper on the issue, and the college will have responses written by faculty to refute or frame their position, according to Lorden, who added that she didn’t consider such a response to be an open dialogue.

“A gay student still cannot say ‘I’m gay,’” she said. “As LGBT alums, we’re coming together to break that silence.”

Lorden said one of Westmont’s greatest strengths is the community it fosters.

“The Westmont alums who have signed this letter have come together in that community spirit,” she said. “Westmont’s Community Life Statement itself upholds the ideals of ‘justice and mercy’ and ‘discriminating openness to ideas.’ They are great ideals and we think the college’s approach to LGBT students should be consistent with them.”

Noozhawk also checked in with Jane Higa, Westmont’s vice president for Student Life and dean of students, for her thoughts on the petition campaign.

“I’d be surprised if they said anything different,” she said of the emotions of isolation expressed in the alumni letter. “There is a lot of loneliness. In all kinds of settings, it’s very difficult to be LGBT.

“I would love for us to be a safer place to talk about those questions than we are,” said Higa, adding that the school is very concerned about ignorance and intolerance toward its gay students. She pointed out the school’s diversity statement, an excerpt of which reads “Westmont does not tolerate racial, ethnic, religious or gender slurs, or other forms of verbal abuse; threatening behavior or threatening messages; the creation of a hostile environment; or any form of harassment.”

College is a time when students are forming their own identities, which include aspects of gender, sexuality and faith, according to Higa.

“We see that all as a part of the process of growing up,” she said. “There are some who would come to understand those things earlier and some who are coming to terms with that in college.

“I would say, as with all students, we want to care and love them along the way,” she said.

But Westmont has a longstanding Christian heritage, and the expectation is that students will follow the school’s guidelines. If violations come to the attention of staff, Higa said they would talk to the student. But she also said that she understands staff aren’t able to know everything that’s going on off-campus, and said she doesn’t view herself as a chief enforcer.

When asked what she would tell current LGBT students at Westmont, Higa offered a message of understanding.

“We would understand that this is a a lonely journey that they’re on,” she said. “While respecting what the college does stand for, we would love the opportunity to hear from these students.”

Senior Sara Reynolds said that being gay at Westmont doesn’t necessarily make the experience bad, or isolating, “but those things can happen.”

“The isolation comes from feeling as if you are less of a person because you identify as gay, which is not something that is exclusively happening in the Westmont community, but around the world,” she said.

Reynolds said she chose Westmont because she felt it was the place for her to get an education and feels the Community Life Statement functions to enhance that. There are things in the statement she doesn’t agree with, but she said that signing it means she’ll do her best to uphold the ideals that the school believes make a good community.

“I don’t think this statement is meant to be a malicious contract for a gay student to sign,” she said. “But it also has some repercussions that I think has hindered dialogue about people who would identify as gay and Christian.”

The issue has been simmering for a while, she said, and the conversation about homosexuality is ongoing globally. For the school to not have a conversation about it while it continues elsewhere, it “is causing the issue to become explosive and potentially hurtful,” she said.

Addressing the issue will take work, but Reynolds said she is hopeful.

“I firmly believe that we are on the journey, maybe not the fast track, but we have begun,” she said. “I think the biggest thing that could happen to make students feel more accepted is just recognition that gay students exist at Westmont and serve the community with just as much love and respect as any other student.”

Lorden said she hopes that when the school chooses to talk about the issue of homosexuality, administrators will remember that an LGBT student could be standing right next to them. The tone of the conversation should change, she said, and she hopes that students eventually will be able to live openly as LGBT students in Westmont’s community.

“I want LGBT students to know for a fact that there are more of us out there,” she said. “We have always been there.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

» on 02.07.11 @ 01:06 PM

I applaud these students for their mature approach and focus on their own student community and experience.  Nice to see that Westmont turns out students filled with passion, civility, and a good set of critical thinking skills.  This step cannot have been an easy one to take.

» on 02.07.11 @ 01:36 PM

Thank you to Noozhawk for its constructive approach to a real world challenge at Westmont.

I am a heteosexual man who has evolved over the years and come to accept, value equally and appreciate those who have a different sexual orientation then myself.

I hope everyone will read the letter that created this discussion - , the letter that the Westomont Alumni and supporters wrote and the comments above from Jane Higa, Westmont’s vice president for Student Life and dean of students.  All these inputs are loving, work to be understanding and provide a basis to discuss further and set aside ones ideology and move toward loving kindness of one another.  I am hopeful that Westmont will be able to transcend the challenges that do so much damage among people.

I am rooting for you Westmont.  Become the example to the world of what can be done and what being Christian (not just claiming to be Christian) is all about.

» on 02.07.11 @ 02:50 PM

Gays—its wrong and bad for our family values—

The 2% screaming about their rights..98% of us dont like your life choices..go back in the closet please..

» on 02.07.11 @ 03:30 PM

I think it’s great they’re offering support, but isn’t an anti-homosexuality message implied at any Christian School? If not, wouldn’t that make the school hypocritical ie:

“the Bible is 100% correct by denouncing adultery because that’s what the Bible says, but it’s wrong in denouncing homosexuality even though its in the Bible?”

» on 02.07.11 @ 03:42 PM

Great article. A couple great comments too.

» on 02.07.11 @ 05:24 PM

Ya, ya, blah blah blah. If I were attracted sexually to a knot hole in a fence, would I want to be known for that attraction? Would I want to have my life defined by that attraction? This is where the gay community goes off the rails and is destroying the lives of many naive and impressionable youth. They define their existence by a sexual attraction and one that is biologically incorrect.

It makes no difference to me what the hell lights your fire, that’s your business and not anyone else. But to actually define who you are by what your are attracted to is as shallow, selfish and unimportant as you can get and indicates that the majority of those who call themselves gay are the biggest narcissist in the human race. It might even indicate that the wrong sexual attraction is driven by severe repressed narcissism rather than anything else. But I speculate.

As far as the bible goes it isn’t the fact that humans are engaging in the wrong kind of sex (that which produces no offspring and done out of lust) but what it does to the person. Homosexuality is not just biologically incorrect but damaging to the person by promoting an attitude toward sex that is more akin to drug addiction than an intimate relationship with someone you love (which doesn’t require sex at all by the way).

So for all you yahoos out there supporting this, wait until the gay mafia gets to one of your kids and turns them into a zombie. Wait until you see what sociopathic garbage they infuse young kids with in the pursuit of more members. Remember it’s one thing to be accepting and open to difference, to deal with ignorance and hatred. It’s quite another to throw logic, rationality and common sense out the window just to prove your cool.

» on 02.07.11 @ 05:33 PM

Wow…so much vitriol.

» on 02.07.11 @ 06:46 PM

Westmont has always been very clear on where they stand on these issues.  I am surprised that Jane Higa is trying to make *nice* about it. 
Maybe they will change?  But then would they still be a Bible College?

» on 02.07.11 @ 07:11 PM

@Jimbo - I think part of the problem is that gay students at Westmont don’t always realize their sexual orientation until after they have students. The fact that they realize a different sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily change their faith structure or their opinion of their school. It is still a high quality academic institution with a strong sense of community. 

To your other point regarding the Bible, I think an honest reflection of what it says is right or wrong has to also admit that there are a multitude of inconsistencies within it. For instance one of the Ten Commandments is “Do not Kill” thus one could easily say that “the Bible condemns killing.” However, readers will also find that God actually orders believers to kill. So which message is the “right” message? Well, probably both and neither at the same time because any interpretation of moral ideals coming from the Bible has to be a nuanced one.  One of the many mistakes that Christian theology has made of the years (in my opinion) has been to oversimplify the “rules.” I think the Church’s current perspective on homosexuality is probably a result of that oversimplification.

» on 02.07.11 @ 07:50 PM

I believe that there are two Great Commandments:  Love God and love your neighbor.  Jesus seemed to think that success at those two would pretty much take you home.  Making people who are different from you feel badly about themselves as human beings (I’m not talking about taking responsibility for bad deeds here)doesn’t seem to follow those two commandments very well.

These students and alumni seem to be after what all of us seek:  respect and grace.  That just doesn’t seem like much to ask as Christians from a Christian community.

» on 02.07.11 @ 09:46 PM

This story and the previous News Press story illustrates Westmont College at it’s very best. 

I cannot imagine running a college in today’s world, especially with all the political rules about what you can say or not say and what is correct and is not correct.

What is best about this whole issue is that Westmont has proven to be concerned and loving, they actually seem to live by their Community Life Statement (  It says:

“When Jesus Christ summed up the way His followers were to treat each other, He said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” On a college campus, this kind of love must take into consideration the relationship between learning and community.” 

In the News Press Jane Higa (either the Vice President or Dean) won me over when she said the Community Life Statement rules are not about orientation, but the practice.  And that is true at Westmont for heterosexuals, as well as, LGBT.  The statement says the college will not “condone practices,” and does not condone orientation.

The most telling statement in this story is that entire issue was started by a former student at another college who was unable to get a letter published at his college about being LGBT at a Christian college, however when he sent the letter to Westmont they published his letter.  Says a lot.

Last – Westmont as a faith-based college represents maybe one out of 100 colleges in America today, therefore anyone who does not want to attend a College that is Christian or does not agree with Westmont’s Community Life Statement have 99 other colleges they can choose from.  However for those seeking a Christian education, they only have one.  As a society where we respect and are tolerant of others for what they believe or don’t believe, it seems fair to allow one out of 100 colleges to be faith-based.

I think it is okay for Westmont to put forth their faith and their beliefs and it is also okay for students to choose not to attend because they do not share that faith or feel that they cannot uphold the statement.

» on 02.07.11 @ 10:15 PM

SB Native, Jesus had no qualms about denouncing bad behavior. You, like most of the gay mafia, believe that telling someone their behavior is wrong and can hurt them is the same as hating them. Sorry, but parenting 101 says you scold your child when they do wrong so they won’t get hurt or hurt others. There is nothing wrong with reminding a homosexual about the purpose of their sex organs.

Why do you think homosexuals want to be defined by their sexual attraction, do you? Who gives a crap what anyone is attracted too? Too much of the gay movement is not about eliminating the hatred and bigotry directed at them but instead more about forcing society to accept their BEHAVIOR as normal. Those are two completely different things and if you cannot see that I hope to God you are not raising children.

» on 02.08.11 @ 01:49 AM

@AN50 - The error in your logic is that we are not talking about children here. I know it was an analogy, but the comparison begs the question: How are gay people like children that need to be taught a lesson? And even if you can make that connection then how is it anyone’s responsibility other than their parents to teach them that lesson?

» on 02.08.11 @ 03:33 AM

This is an interesting and difficult topic with obviously lots of emotions and people thatfe el the know the TRUTH.
Westmont previous leadership has been very ant-gay, just ask Gary Wayne (gay actor) that lived next to Westmont 1980-1990 time period.  The level of outright hatred he endured was the reason he decided to move.
Tolerance comes in many forms, there is the “don’t ask don’t tell” (DADT) version and then there is the total acceptance and understanding.  If Westmont was to embrace DADT it would be a big move to the left from their past.
A school is very much defined around their leadership.  They have new leadership, President Beebe, maybe he is different. 
Personally I find Westmont’s history toward gays and their Community Life Statement very scary.  I hope that Jane Higa represent the leadership at Westmont. 
It wasn’t long ago that Christian schools did not allow interracial dating (or marriage), so there is hope.
I would very much like to hear a statement from their President Beebe.

» on 02.09.11 @ 04:46 AM

As a former Westmont student, all I can say is that the clarity, compassion, and willingness to dwell in the gray spaces exemplified in this discussion are typical of the Westmont administration and community as a whole. Thank you to my dear friend Jane Higa for her courage and gentleness, as always they are refreshing.

Especially at a time when science reveals the complexities of these issues, the college should continue to expand their faith and community. Being born a hermaphrodite (with mixed or ambiguous) sexual organs is more common than one might think and this is only the tip of the iceberg of people who identify themselves as LGBT due to atypical hormonal development (most likely when they themselves were in utero.)Please create spaces for these people to practice their faith while dialoguing what healthy inclusive relationships will look like for them.

» on 02.11.11 @ 03:08 AM

My only problem with gay sex is that I find it boring, as is this whole argument. In Romans, Paul makes a negative remark about gay sexual activity when it is in a certain context, but then he goes on to say that we are all guilty of this kind of context and sin and that we as mortals can’t be expected to not act out of lust and selfishness. It is only God’s grace that can sanctify us. I suppose some people think that they are pure and without sin and thus they condemn gays. But the Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

To suggest that people can be pure without the action of the Holy Spirit, and to say that we are pure and without sin and those people, the gay people, they are the ones who are the sinners, that is probably bordering on some kind of heresy. The Bible is very clear that we are all sinners and only God only Jesus is perfect. Even Saint Paul made it very clear in his writings that he himself struggled with sin.

So even if one believes that gay or homosexual inclinations or actions are sins, no one is without sin and it is heretical to state otherwise. So since when are people who are uncomfortable with gay folks, or people who have possibly legitimate reservations about some aspects of some gay cultural history which some gay people are involved in, maybe rave dances or drinking, since when are they so perfect themselves?

As Jesus Christ stated, let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. And no one did - they went away and pondered their own sins.

In twelve step, its called keeping one’s own side of the street clean. Maybe gay sex is not as fulfilling in some way, or maybe for some people view it the other way around, but only GOd searches the heart. And one can only wonder why it is that people who probably in all sincerity seek to follow the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God, allow themselves to get worked up into very annoyed state of mind over this issue.

I am not so concerned with what would Jesus do - probably very little - or what would Jesus think - he probably is Supremely good at minding His own business in a way, about certain things - it’s called forgiving.

What I would be more concerned with is what would Jesus take as His emotional state. Obviously, tolerance and love, lovingness. But part of that is understanding, and that includes understanding that some people are uncomfortable when they allow their minds to wander onto the subject of gay or homosexual activities, and that is not such an entirely unreasonable thing. What I mean is not that it is wrong to find people who are uncomfortable with thinking about gay anything, what I mean is that there are, after all, reaons that people feel that way. And those reasons deserve to be respected as much as people’s assertion of a right to be gay, in peace and respect. But it is a two way street and it is equally to important to respect the fact that some people have problems with all that, and it is more polite and respect and some would appreciate and consider it more decent to respect that too and necessarily be too much of an “in your face attitude”. Americans are free to be who they are and dress as they wish, but some people don’t want to be bothered or interupted with dealing with it and to some degree people should expect to keep to themselves to a degree until and unless there is more social consensus on these issues. Like, we can mind our own business more better - which is why I very seldom comment on this topic.

» on 02.11.11 @ 06:51 PM

@CitizenSB, I was a student at Westmont in the ‘80s, and we were aware of the issues Mr. Wayne had with Westmont but had no idea why he had those issues.  Could you elaborate?  I personally know of no one in the Westmont community that had ever had any contact with him - good or bad - so it’s a complete mystery to me and others.  We (at the time) just assumed that it was because Westmont stuck to a traditional interpretation of the Bible on this issue, and that Mr. Wayne took it personally.

» on 02.11.11 @ 07:07 PM


Very well written and I can’t find much to disagree with here, but in one aspect you’ve hit a pet peeve of mine.

“As Jesus Christ stated, let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. And no one did - they went away and pondered their own sins.”

No, they didn’t.  It would be wonderful if they did, but - yes - they went away, “pondered their own sins” not so much.  It doesn’t say that, that’s your interpretation.  More importantly, you leave out the ending which is just as important as Jesus’ challenge to cast the first stone:

“At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

‘No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

Wait. “leave your life of sin”?!?!  How come no one ever includes that??  Could it be that it ruins the point the person quoting the passage is trying to make.  Maybe Jesus isn’t so “mind his own business”.

And here, in a nutshell, you have the entire gospel: God is both just AND forgiving.  “Neither do I comdemn you” tied to “leave your life of sin”.  One without the other is a misrepresentation of the gospel.

» on 02.12.11 @ 01:40 AM

To SB Member:

I have to say that your description does not fit my experience. I attended Westmont 25 years ago, and I have to say, the campus environment was a refuge for me at the time. It was a place for learning and development as a whole person. It was a much more conducive environment for learning than was my experience of UCSB, which, when visiting a friend, I left the dorms with ears ringing from hearing Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” being played loud enough for the sea creatures to hear. I felt able to ask any questions I wanted, expecting honest, thoughtful answers. This was true from professors to administration and student life staff as well. I also have to say that while I was there, I know for certain they did not receive federal aid, simply because they were a private, Christian, liberal arts college. By law, they were not allowed to. That is, in part, why the tuition is so high. They may not be as “liberal” minded as you would like, but being a smaller school, they cannot offer the breadth of classes one might find at a larger university. Finally, in ending my response, I wish to say that I have also moved to the left politically from where I was back then, and so I find this letter from the students to be a great avenue, which the college seems to be welcoming, for more awareness & future acceptance for all who attend. Change takes time. This is a good start.

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