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.”