In the early 90’s, I attended Indiana Wesleyan University in Marian Indiana. I was an older adult student, commuting to campus from my home some 50 miles away from campus. This was my first experience with a small, private evangelical school. My previous college experiences were in larger, state universities in California. I was a life long Episcopalian, a tradition very different from IWU’s evangelical bent. I had been out to myself for over 12 years, out to my family for 8 and selectively out at work. I never denied my orientation or my partner if either came up, but I did not lead with it either.
I chose IWU because they were the only school in the state offering a degree in addiction counseling. I knew it would be expensive but I felt called to addiction counseling. I also knew I had only one shot at completing the degree since the expense would be too high for more than one successful attempt.
I studied their catalog before I applied. There was no mention of homosexuality but it was obviously a very biblical, literal and heterosexist school. It would be a very challenging experience for me as a lesbian, feminist and a liberal believing Anglican but I believed I could manage it as a commuter student with minimal personal contact with a bunch of young, idealistic evangelical students.
My first rude awakening was the admission process itself. There was a form to sign declaring I was not a “homosexual” nor would I engage in “homosexual activity”. I was outraged at having to sign such a document but I knew that if I did not, I would probably not be admitted. I checked the appropriate boxes and signed it but I could not resist informing the staff in the admissions office that I found the questions offensive, invasive and I believed they should not be part of the process. I did not dare go further with my protest, since I believed it would sabotage my admission.
To my surprise, the staff seemed taken off balance by my protest and was almost apologetic. I do not know if my little outburst was responsible for the elimination of those questions the next year, but I would like to think so. I regret that I was not able to be more articulate and specific with my objection and speak to the rights of LGBT students to be welcome, included and safe on the IWU campus.
There was an instance that stood out during my four semesters. One was in my New Testament class. This professor was well versed in Wesleyan traditions, a theologian in his own right, a gifted teacher and a man of deep conviction. I was obviously the oldest student in the class and I was careful to speak only when I had something relevant to say. I was not looking to challenge other’s beliefs, only to clarify passages we were discussing. Most of my interactions were questions, not statements. This day we were studying St. Paul and probably one of those gnarly passages often interpreted as anti-homosexual. Somehow several classmates got off on tangent and started equating Homosexuals with thieves, child molesters etc. Before I knew what I was doing, I got up and declared, “You cannot equate homosexuals with criminals. This is an issue of human rights, not criminality!” There was a stunned silence in the class, after which the discussion continued without the tangent.
I remember my professor later taking me aside privately and pleading with me to exercise restraint, since he felt his students were too young and too naive to handle direct challenges. He said this without intending to intimidate, but with real concern for his students. I wish I could have told him my concern for LGBT students hearing these declarative, judgments on their character and how damaging and dangerous those kinds of statements were. I did not have the words at that time.
I value my experience at IWU. For the first time classes began and ended with prayer. It was my first experience with serious study of scripture. My major adviser was a gifted counselor, a recovering alcoholic and a devout Wesleyan. I wondered how any young LGBT adult could survive in such a closed minded environment whose bigotry was religiously based. I also know there were several professors who had enough integrity and compassion to be supportive in their own way. I did not yet know about Soulforce as an opportunity to challenge spiritual violence. IWU made me aware that such a challenge should take place to make the campus a safe place for all students. It was not so toxic because of statements made but mostly from silence and the lack of any openly supportive faculty or groups.
Fort Wayne, Indiana
“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…. and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” — Audre Lorde 1935-1992