Megan Jespersen is one of the students telling about her experiences at Trinity Western University.

Gay TWU alumni say school atmosphere not welcoming

Gay alumni of Trinity Western University open up about attending a Christian university.

  • Nov. 29, 2016 5:00 a.m.

Bethany Lindsay/Special to the Langley Advance

Just before Ashlee Davison helped bring home Trinity Western’s first Canadian university championship in women’s soccer, she received an email informing her she was under investigation for having a relationship with another woman.

Davison would graduate from the evangelical Christian university in 2006 as the team’s top goal scorer, but her memories of TWU are forever tainted by that email and its aftermath. For breaking the school’s community covenant agreement, which forbids all sex outside of heterosexual marriage, she lost her scholarship, went on behavioural probation and was temporarily barred from the soccer pitch.

“I was allowed back on the team, but it was a much different experience this time around. I felt like I was being watched,” she said. “I can’t remember the early days of being there and feeling like I was just a normal, regular part of the team.”

The TWU covenant is at the centre of an ongoing dispute over the school’s plans to open a law school. The Law Society of B.C. tried to deny accreditation to the school because the covenant doesn’t recognize legal same-sex marriages, but the province’s highest court recently found that stance infringed on the school’s freedom of religion.

The uproar has prompted heated discussion among students, alumni and staff about the reality of life for LGBTQ students at Trinity Western. Davison and several other queer alumni wrote about their experiences in the school newspaper, Mars’ Hill, and some have called on the university to change the covenant, as it has on other issues like alcohol.

“I don’t think it’s an accurate portrait of how Christians on a whole feel about homosexuality,” said Alexandra Moore, who spent seven years in the closet at TWU. “I think this is an administrative attempt to have a controlling narrative and to have a fairly old school perspective on an issue that we’re starting to realize is harming people more than helping.”

Four queer alumni who shared their stories with Postmedia News described TWU as a place where homosexuality is spoken of in whispers but implicitly understood to be immoral. They remember university years filled with humiliation and depression over desires they couldn’t control.

Megan Jespersen had her first kiss with a woman on her 20th birthday, and it turned into a secret relationship that lasted three years. Someone from the school eventually outed her to her family, long before she was ready.

The hardest part, though, was the constant feelings of shame and fear that she was going to hell.

“I’m talking shame so deep that you don’t want to be here anymore – like, living. You can’t fully describe that shame to people who have not experienced it,” said Jespersen, who graduated in 2005 and now counsels LGBTQ people who have experienced trauma related to religion.

She describes the prevalent attitude towards homosexuality at TWU in grammatical terms: Gay is a verb, not a noun or an adjective. In other words, queerness is not a fixed identity, but an action that can be controlled.

After Davison was disciplined for her relationship, the understanding was not just that she would stop breaking the covenant. “The assumption was that I had figured out that the right way to be was with a guy. That made it very uncomfortable,” she remembers.

Megan Huizing, who graduated from the nursing program in 2010 after four deeply closeted years, remembers listening to a chapel speaker who spoke on the subject.

“The message was very much about repressing your feelings or living a life of celibacy,” she said.

But Huizing and her fellow alumni are adamant that this isn’t a problem specific to TWU, and they all spoke of friends and faculty there who brightened their lives.

“There’s no lack of caring and kind people at Trinity,” Huizing said. “The problem lies within the culture itself, the culture that permeates evangelical circles at large. … The culture of self-righteous superiority that causes persons to focus on the speck in another’s eye instead of the plank in their own.”

The covenant is just a reflection of that culture, alumni argue. School officials say it’s supported by the Bible, and defenders assert that anyone who doesn’t like it can simply choose a different school.

But the women interviewed for this story were all raised in conservative Christians homes, and none of them were fully conscious of their sexuality when they signed the agreement.

“I was only struggling under the surface,” said Huizing. “I knew I had feelings for girls but I had deeply internalized the messages from the Christian community, from my church, from my family, and that was that being gay was a sin.”

For her part, Davison resents the implication that someone like her doesn’t belong at Trinity Western.

“If they’re going to claim to be a diverse university, which they have several times in their postings online … then let’s work to make the campus more inclusive,” she said.

TWU spokeswoman Amy Robertson acknowledged that recent events show more needs to be done to make the school a welcoming place for everyone.

“President Bob Kuhn and TWU administration are taking recent stories from LGBTQ alumni very seriously, and are committed to listening. President Kuhn has been prioritizing meeting with students who wish to share their stories,” Robertson said in a written statement.

She added that Kuhn will be holding a Q&A session on the matter soon, and student groups are planning a “listening and reconciliation” event.

– Bethany Lindsay is a Vancouver Sun reporter.

For more from the Vancouver Sun, click HERE

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