With a swath of duct tape sealing her mouth shut, Westmont College senior Sara Reynolds made a statement earlier this month when she walked into a campus room where about 100 other students had gathered. A few others also wore the tape in solidarity with Reynolds, who is a gay student at the college. For them, the tape represented a conversation that has been largely stifled — until recently.
In two separate letters, a number of alumni and faculty called on the college earlier this year to open dialogue toward gay students. The first letter, from alumni, began circulating last December, calling for a conversation to prevent “current students from feeling the same isolation that many (alumni) experienced as Westmont students.” To date, 166 alumni have signed the letter. A subsequent letter was signed by more than 50 of the school’s faculty.
The school kicked off its series of events aimed at discussing sexuality with a chapel session from Old Testament professor Tremper Longman. Reynolds and about 100 other students gathered that evening for a follow-up discussion. Longman took a clear stance against homosexuality that morning, citing Old Testament case law.
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.
According to multiple sources, Longman had been asked to speak long before the letters from faculty and students had been sent. Students were invited to submit questions after he spoke, and staff were deluged. More than 80 questions were submitted, and Stu Cleek, associate dean of residence life, was said to have read through several that evening.
Longman went over some of the theological points he had discussed at chapel, but it was clear that some of the students wanted more than theology.
“This is the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Reynolds said, holding up the strip of tape peeled from her mouth. “To say that people are incapable of loving someone in the same way. ... I reject that.”
“I think the Bible is pretty clear on this,” Longman said. “I don’t think there’s any ambiguity.”
Chris Hoeckley, director of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts at Westmont, expressed disappointment that the starting point of the week had begun the way it had.
He recalled a student who had a gay slur keyed on the hood of her car, but was afraid to tell her dorm leaders. He said she was afraid they would ask her whether she was gay.
“Given the Scriptures, what can we do to not hurt people?” Hoeckley posed to the audience.
“We stand ready to help all of our students in any way,” Longman responded, and Cleek also condemned any actions that would harm or intimidate a student.
Another student asked about available resources, and what it looks like for a gay student to feel safe at Westmont. Longman responded that some students had felt comfortable talking about these issues with their teachers, but if feeling safe was to be equated with “warm acceptance and affirmation, that kind of safe may not develop here.”
Jane Higa, the dean of students, also spoke and said that Student Life was committed to continuing the dialogue and making the campus safe for all students.
But tears were shed after Longman’s talk, and a large group of students gathered around Reynolds and other gay students, embracing them.
“What happened after the discussion was over was more beautiful than most things that happened this week,” Reynolds said later. “I have found this student body to be phenomenal.”
Higa later told Noozhawk in an e-mail that the week’s events were held to foster dialogue, not “as the beginning point to a change in our current policies. This takes nothing away from our desire to be a community that learns how to listen well, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love as Christ would love.”
Higa said that it seemed appropriate that Westmont, a Christian college, would begin the week with a talk from Longman, a recognized biblical scholar. But others didn’t agree.
“I didn’t think the right place to start was theological,” Reynolds said. “I think it was just a way of displaying the college’s beliefs on this issue.”
Other events during the week included a panel of faculty from the college as well as psychologist Mark Yarhouse. Reynolds expressed disappointment that other viewpoints hadn’t been included in the discussion that week, calling it “troubling” that only Yarhouse was from outside Westmont. She added that multiple viewpoints on homosexuality exist in the evangelical community.
“We’re at such a pivotal moment in church history on this issue. People are dealing with it in all different ways,” she said. “I felt like some students felt like they were less of a Christian because they felt differently on the issue. That was disappointing to see.”
She also asked the panel about any resources that exist for a student who begins to question his or her sexuality at Westmont.
“I didn’t really get an answer to the question,” she said.
The week ended with students gathering in each dorm, providing a space to talk about the events of the week. The event was optional, however, and at the end of the week before spring break, attendance had waned.
As Reynolds prepares to graduate, she said it will be up to the younger class to continue the dialogue. Mak Manson, a freshman, said he hopes to be one of the younger classmates who continues that conversation.
One of the key problems, according to Manson, is that the school’s Community Life Statement is vague on the meaning of homosexuality.
“As far as I can see, this causes a lot of fear in gay students because they then question whether or not they will be punished for things like holding hands and being in an open relationship,” he said. “Even coming out becomes scary because they are not sure what the repercussions will be.”
He said carifying the statement would help, and that other fears exist among his gay friends, too.
“A lot of them are afraid of being physically picked on and bullied if they come out and are open with their sexuality,” Manson said. “I think that Westmont needs to make it clear to all of its students that that behavior will not be tolerated and that there will be serious repercussions for acting out physically and even verbally against openly gay students.”
Lisa De Boer, who teaches art at the school, spoke on Wednesday’s panel, and said many students contacted her after the forum eager to talk. Like Reynolds, De Boer realized the need for resources after a student asked the panel about resources for sexual addiction. De Boer and other faculty realized there isn’t a set of phone numbers or a centralized list of resources for students.
“Clearly there’s work to be done,” she said, adding that Student Life is working to build a more formalized set of resources. She said a group of the faculty met right after the forum to debrief, and their opinion was solicited by Student Life.
De Boer, who has been with the school for 12 years, said she hadn’t been one of the faculty members who students sought out to discuss sexuality.
“Now that I’ve been on this panel, I am,” she said, adding that she’s grateful for that. “For all of the challenges and complexities, these are the conversations that we’re supposed to have. As a member of the faculty, we don’t just hand these issues off to someone else and say, ‘Not my job.’”