LGBTQ Students Battle Pervasive Culture of Homophobia At Christian-Based Hope College

“Hope College blankets over its problems the way the snow blankets Michigan,” says Joshua Chun Wah Kam. “It’s just what it does.”

Kam, a recent graduate of Hope College, led a December protest in which four students distributed hundreds of leaflets to congregants gathered at Christmas Vespers, a yearly concert at the Holland, Mich. campus. The fliers, tossed over the balcony to the audience below, bore a link to the website for 95 Storiesa campaign in which undergrads speak anonymously to racism and homophobia at the Christian college.

Their hope was to start a conversation about these issues at a conservative campus that often struggles to recognize the microaggressions experienced by LGBTQ students and students of color. Kam tells INTO a fellow student was told that “God had let [him] be raped and assaulted” to make him “turn back from the sin of homosexuality.”

The four students involved in the demonstration compared their mission to Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer who called for change within the Roman Catholic Church through nonviolent action. As a nod to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the group of students taped posters to the doors at the back of the procession.

But the peaceful protest was not received with the same cordiality.

As the protesters were being escorted out of the building by campus security, a former employee of the university allegedly approached Michael Vazqueza student at neighboring Western Theological Seminaryand interrogated him about what he was doing there. The ex-staffer was quickly joined by a member of the janitorial crew, which is when Vazquez says the men attempted to “forcibly detain” him.

“I told them that neither of them had the authority to stop me: ‘You’re not police, you’re not campus security,’” he says over the phone.

Vazquez wiggled free from their custody and began to walk to his apartment, which is located just blocks away from campus. The janitor followed him home and then called police to the building. The 27-year-old filed a report with authorities citing harassment and physical assault, but students say the complaint has not been pursued by local law enforcement.

It wasn’t the staffers who would face punishment, in fact. It was the students.

Hope College immediately launched a judicial review of the Dec. 3 incident. Kam says he was accused of violating policies on student conduct on two counts: 1) “disrupting a service” and 2) “disrespecting people at Hope College.”

The 21-year-old claims he was called into a meeting where he was told attendees at the Christmas Vespers event feared he might have a firearm under the choir robe he wore that day. The offending object was actually a three-foot poster, which was ripped out of his hands by campus security as he was being led out of the building.

“A brown man in church holding a white poster looking calmly down the aisle in choir robes clearly must have had an AK-47 underneath,” muses Kam, who is of Southeast Asian descent.

While Vazquez isn’t a student at Hope College, he was messaged by a dean at Western Theological Seminary two days after the event. In a series of meetings with administrators at the Calvinist institution, the student claims staff members repeatedly compared him to a terrorist. He alleges they likened him to “terrorists in Syria who send bombs to America and take no responsibility for it.”

“When I mentioned the assault, the dean said I was ‘asking for it,’” Vazquez says. “The individuals who restrained me had every right to restrain mebecause in this era where we have people blowing up stuff, he had every right to detain me as citizen police. “

Administrators told Vazquez that he “needs to be cognizant of the fact that [he looks] Arab,” the student alleges.

Students say this turn of events isn’t a surprise considering Hope College’s extremely poor track record on LGBTQ issues.

Located a few miles from Lake Michigan, the tulip-covered campus is as redolent as it can be repressive. The school, established in the 19th century by immigrants with the Dutch Reformed Church, claimed in a 1995 Institutional Statement on Homosexuality that it “does not condone the commission of homosexual acts.”

“Neither does [Hope College] condone organizations or activities that aim to vindicate the moral acceptability of homosexual acts, or that suggest by their manner of presenting themselves that they have that aim in view,” the statement reads. “Specifically, the College will not provide recognition or financial or logistical support for organizations or groups whose purposes include the advocacy or moral legitimation of homosexual behavior.”

The proclamation would be replaced in 2011 with a marginally less militant decree affirming sexuality as a “good gift from God” and marriage as a union strictly “between a man and a woman.”

What separates Hope College from other religiously affiliated campuses is thatunlike, for instance, Brigham Young Universityit doesn’t compel students to sign an honor code. Guidelines for all students attending the Mormon college forbid “homosexual behavior,” but that prohibition includes all manner of activity: from shaking someone’s hand to giving them a hug.

But the gulf between the two isn’t all that wide: 23 years after the initial statement was released, Hope still does not allow an LGBTQ student group to meet on its grounds.

These policies were highlighted in 2009, when the university refused to allow writer and filmmaker Dustin Lance Black to screen Milkthe Oscar-winning biopic about slain civil rights pioneer Harvey Milkon its campus. In being banned from the college, Black was told its student body “wasn’t ready” to broach the topic of LGBTQ rights.

That’s not exactly true, though. The college has often played host to figures who have dedicated their lives to opposing queer and trans equality.

Ugandan Archbishop Henry Orombi was invited to the campus in 2014, one of the African country’s leading anti-gay figures. As the leader of the Church of Uganda, Orombi praised the “spirit” of Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, claiming that homosexuality “has no place in God’s design of creation.” (The archbishop, however, felt that amending the country’s existing civil codes would be a better way to address the issue, rather than passing new legislation.)

Orombi has also referred to supporters of LGBTQ rights as “dangerous” and called them “killers.”

After queer students, community members, and allies protested Orombi’s visit, Nathaniel Nelsonone of the four protesters at the Christmas Vespers eventsays undergraduates were told by administrators they needed “be able to live with dissenting opinions.”

“It was like, ‘College is a place you come to encounter world views that you don’t agree with,’” claims Nelson, who also graduated last year. “We have no shortage of those.”

“No progress was made,” he adds. “No apology was made.”

Students say this double standardof banning LGBTQ advocacy while implicitly endorsing anti-gay sentiments through inactionhas permeated the culture at Hope College.

Although Kam calls himself “one of the lucky gays” and didn’t experience a great deal of Hope’s homophobia first-hand, Nelson sat in on a lecture where a professor referred to queer people as an “aberration of nature” and “inherently disordered.” The faculty member, who remains employed at Hope, also claimed homosexuality is the product of childhood sexual abuse.

The student says he kept mum throughout the lectures.

“I didn’t really speak up in class very much,” recalls Nelson, who studied creative writing and dance. “It was not a safe place to do that. I regret now not saying anything, but I was completely taken aback and not prepared for that.”

The student describes the campus as a environment where everything happens “underneath the surface” behind a façade of studied nicety, its hereditary Dutch politeness blended with Midwestern passive aggression. Others say homophobia operates the same way: not a hate crime but a whisper, an off-handed remark in a closed room. It’s what is said when someone assumes nobody is listening.

That’s why the 95 Stories project was conceived, organizers claim. It highlights commonplace prejudices that may otherwise be ignored.

In December, a coalition of students involved with the campaign began posting stories submitted anonymously through a Google Form. The one-line anecdotes relate experiences not just of anti-LGBTQ prejudice but overt racism on campus, and their brutal simplicity cuts like a knife.

The first post, which went live two days before the Christmas Vespers protest, simply reads: “You got in because you’re black.”

Thirteen stories have been posted at the time of writing and will continue to be released throughout the coming semester. A resident of the all-male dormitory Durfee Hall claims his roommate told him that he “would never want to live with a gay person.” Another student at the same residence hall, who identifies himself as a male survivor of sexual assault, says a fellow classmate claimed “men can’t be raped.”

One respondent alleges he was advised by a Hope undergrad to “just be straight,” while another person claims to been told they “don’t belong at a Christian college as part of the LGBTQ community.”

Hope College says it’s heeding the homophobia that has long been hidden in the shadows.

In an email to INTO, Vice President of Public Affairs and Marketing Jennifer Fellinger says the 95 Stories campaign “has highlighted issues” the university takes “seriously and will continue to take seriously.”

“One of the goals in Hope’s strategic plan is to be ‘a community unified by its inspiring mission, strengthened by its diversity, and committed to the flourishing of every individual as one created and loved by God,’” Fellinger states. “We stand behind this goal, and we are striving toward this goal. All members of the Hope community are called to honor the dignity and worth of one another; the mistreatment of others is unacceptable.”

“The administration is committed to campus dialogue about issues facing any students who may feel marginalized, including our LGBTQ students,” she continues, adding that this will entail tackling “challenging questions.” “We are committed to that process.”

Kam praises Fellinger as a “fine human being,” but he says it’s doubtful anything will change as a result of this long overdue conversation.

John Knapp, the former president of Hope College, resigned at the end of the 2016-2017 academic term after four years of attempting to make the school a more inclusive environment. Kam claims Knapp was branded as an “enabler of the gay agenda” by conservative forces on campus.

“Knapp was very much a middle-ground president, but at the same time probably leaned left,” he says. “He was very much on our side. He was trying to change things and get things done.”

Under his influence, shades of progress were subtle but distinct. Nearly a decade after Dustin Lance Black was barred from Hope’s grounds, the college held a panel on trans issues in 2017. Invited guests included a former student who had transitioned since graduating from the institution nine years earlier, as well as the mother of an agender child (i.e., a child who identifies outside the male-female gender binary).

The panel’s stated purpose was to “[open] dialogue for students to talk about creating a community more equipped to welcome transgender individuals,” according to a news bulletin posted on the university website.

But Knapp recently moved onto Washington & Jefferson, a liberal arts college located a half hour’s drive outside Pittsburgh, after years of pressure from the Board of Trustees to resign. Leaders with the 33-member board were reportedly expected to force Knapp out in April 2016 but backed off after hundreds of faculty, students, and alumni protested the move in a gathering at Pine Grove, a verdant expanse located at the center of campus.

The #Students4Knapp eventwhich was a silent protestwasn’t all that unlike the recent Christmas Vespers demonstration: passionate young people banding together to make their school a better place.

But with the president’s departure, LGBTQ students are back to the drawing board.

“Now that we’ve lost Knapp, the school is on a presidential search for someone else, and the likelihood of getting anyone progressive is low,” Nelson says.

In December, Kam was found guilty on both counts of misconduct by Hope College.

He would learn in an email that the university has banned him from attending any meeting larger than 50 people on school grounds. He tells INTO he is permitted to “pass through campus and stay in public areas but any meeting of importincluding all large religious gatheringsare verboten.”

As part of his punishment, Kam has also been forced to write a 15-page paper on “what a good student protest looks like.”

That sentence, however, pales in comparison to the punishment doled out in Vazquez’s case. The student says higher-ups at Hope College immediately reported him to Western Theological Seminary, which has close ties with the university, for disciplinary action. In addition to sharing a campus, Hope’s interim president, Dennis Voskuil, was president of the institution for 14 yearsand continued to teach church history after stepping down from the position.

On Jan. 12, Vazquez was expelled. He was in his second year of a three-year Master of Divinity program.

It’s insult to injury for Vazquez, who claims he took part in the protest because he is “passionate about working with college students and helping them cultivate spiritual environments that are healthy and affirming.” He claims he was sexually assaulted by another student at Western last year and reported it to a member of the faculty.

“You need to stop letting people walk all over you,” Vazquez alleges he was told by staff, an eerie echo of the anonymous claims from Hope students.

“The faculty member did nothing to report the student,” he says. “The student went on to graduate by spring and get ordained by the end of summer. I stand with students on the margins at the college next door, throw some flyers over the balcony, and I’m compared to terrorists and expelled from the seminary.”

The other two students involved in the protest, Nelson and 2018 graduate Heidi Schaetzl, have been called in for disciplinary action. They are awaiting a final review.

Note: Western Theological Seminary declined to comment on the article. In an email to INTO, a representative of the institution claimed, “Because of FERPA regulations, Western Theological Seminary is prohibited from commenting or providing any information about past and current students.”


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.

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