At Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, smack in the middle of campus stands a large stone statue of the university mascot, the Bison. Centrally located and nearly impossible to miss, the Bison doubles as an advertising billboard, a free-for-all canvas for promoting campus events, birthdays, random instances of artistic expression, and the occasional political statement. A few days before graduating from Lipscomb University, I joined my friend Anissa in painting the Bison one last time.
Throughout our senior year, I witnessed Anissa and a group of LGBTQ students at Lipscomb University battle the administration to make life better for themselves and for future LGBTQ students. Frequently, I listened to stories of LGBTQ students made to feel less than human, less than equal at Lipscomb University. At Lipscomb University, LGBTQ students are frequently met with fear, skepticism, and judgment for making their identities as LGBTQ individuals publicly known on campus.
Since I’ve known Anissa, she has been fighting to establish official channels of support for LGBTQ students. At Lipscomb’s most recent annual Student Scholar’s Symposium, Anissa won a prize for her proposal to create LGBTQ “safe spaces” on campus. Her program included a way for LGBTQ supportive and affirming faculty and staff to mark their office doors with a logo letting LGBTQ students know they may speak to the faculty/staff member openly without fear of judgment. Along with her proposal, Anissa designed a detailed curriculum to help faculty/staff start engaging in less judgmental and more supportive conversations with LGBTQ students. Prior to the Symposium, this curriculum was published on the school’s library website. The next day, it was taken down without warning or explanation.
Certain administrators argued against Anissa’s suggestion that such logos be displayed on campus. The reasoning behind their disapproval included the notion that certain faculty/staff members still uncomfortable supporting LGBTQ students inevitably would be “left out,” or that not placing a logo on one’s door could make one appear uncaring. To LGBTQ students at Lipscomb University, this reasoning effectively says that how certain faculty members may be perceived matters more than the mental health of some of their most vulnerable students.
It is worth noting that, despite this reticence, many logos did go up around campus. To my knowledge, no backlash was received. This is a major victory, but it is not sufficient to solve Lipscomb University’s struggle to embrace its LGBTQ population.
LGBTQ students at Lipscomb University are often told they are loved, BUT they are wrong to identify as gay. They are loved, BUT their “lifestyles” are a sin. They are loved, BUT their “choices” unacceptable, un-Christian.
I’ve listened to Anissa describe the psychological effects of such treatment. A judgment preceded by a declaration of love, while seemingly benign to the one espousing it, is no less damaging than an outright insult to an individual seeking acceptance and affirmation of their identity. In some ways, it simply feels less honest.
In Anissa’s own words:
Do not tell me you “love the sinner but hate the sin.” I am well aware of your hatred. I prepare for it, assume it, expect it. I cringe at the thought of entering most churches. Have you been called the “spawn of Satan” when you shared an aspect of yourself with someone? Do your friends tell you that “being gay is wrong, but I think you’re a great person anyway”? Have you ever stopped to consider what this does to a person’s sense of self? I can tell you, from my experience, that it wears at your soul, picks it apart slowly but surely. It makes you doubt your worth as a child of God and makes you wonder if the world really would be better off without “people like you.” It makes you assume that the daily micro-aggressions you experience are justified, and lulls you into hopelessness as they get larger and more pointed.
When students at a university encounter feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt, it seems intuitive that they should be able to go to their campus counseling centers and speak uninhibitedly to a mental health professional, especially if the administration is uncomfortable with the creation of “safe spaces.” However, at Lipscomb University, if an LGBTQ student goes to the campus counseling center, there is no guarantee, not even an expectation, that the counselors employed there will suspend their religious judgments of what is morally “right” in order to offer an objective, understanding, listening ear. While certain members of the university’s counseling center are attempting to change this culture, I’ve been told of past and recent instances in which the exact opposite has occurred, and of particular members of the counseling staff for whom the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” gets in the way of their commitment to provide unbiased, professional therapeutic practice.
There are, of course, administrators, faculty, staff, and students who are sympathetic and willing to listen. There are those who are supportive and fight alongside LGBTQ students. My words are not intended to diminish their contribution and their love. They are intended as a plea for continued support, and for the collective community at Lipscomb University to follow their example. In the midst of the psychological and emotional turmoil experienced by Lipscomb’s LGBTQ community, there are those willing to invest their time and their hearts, and in some cases even risk their jobs, to speak out against injustice toward LGBTQ students. They keep their office doors open, shuffle their schedules as needed, and defy the norms of this institution. Despite policies that hurt and exclude LGBTQ students and limit those that wish to affirm them, there are administrators, faculty, staff, and students at Lipscomb University without whom progress would not be possible.
Nevertheless, not once have I heard an LGBTQ friend say they felt completely affirmed in their identity at Lipscomb University. Overwhelmingly, the administration, the faculty, and the student body perpetuate the notion that it is not okay to be gay at Lipscomb University. Sadly, this notion is not only sustained by the lack of understanding and acceptance experienced by LGBTQ students in their interactions with Lipscomb community members. It is immortalized by the surrounding silence.
Most of my Lipscomb friends who read this probably have no idea that this is the everyday reality of their LGBTQ peers. Some may have no idea they even have LGBTQ peers. But, of course, students cannot be expected to care about or talk about something of which they are not aware. And Lipscomb University seems to take pains to make sure that its LGBTQ students are not heard.
For over three years, Anissa and other LGBTQ students on campus have been threatened and yelled at for trying to create an official affirming support group for LGBTQ students. Yet, there is currently an operating “unwanted same sex attraction” group on campus that was eagerly welcomed by administrators, the Student Life office, and the Campus Ministry department and was up and running shortly after its proposal.
While Anissa and other LGBTQ students have had numerous private meetings with faculty and administrators about how they would like to be treated on campus, the larger student body has not been invited to participate in the conversation. I recall only one recent event in relation to LGBTQ rights on campus, called “Sex and Lies: Same Sex Attraction.” Ignoring the questionable tone of the title, when Anissa spoke to the organizers to ask about the event’s intention and to make sure LGBTQ-affirming voices would also be present on the panel, the response was less than encouraging:
“Both sides (LGBTQ and conservative) need to be willing to give up their assumptions, like that all conservatives are homophobic bigots, or that gay people are privileged to equal rights and freedoms as others.”
I couldn’t believe it when I heard this. Equal rights and freedoms are not something to which any group of people is “privileged.” Rights and privileges are not the same and should not be equivocated. If something is to be understood as a right, it should be enjoyed irrespective of sex, race, religion, or other personal identifier. Evidently, at Lipscomb University, the right to speak is not a right at all, but a special privilege granted only to students that conform to the institution’s comfortable status quo.
After Anissa and I had donned the Bison in rainbow colors and pained #lovewins on the base, I watched students, faculty members, and strangers pass by. Some smiled. Many noticed us and nodded encouragingly. Others did double takes, or gawked. Some scoffed, or rolled their eyes. After a few minutes, Anissa and I left the scene and carried on with our daily tasks.
Two hours later, I passed by that part of campus and noticed this:
Within only two hours of our painting the Bison, our message was gone, replaced by something comfortable, un-thought-provoking, generic, meaningless. Maybe the Student Activities Board had been planning to paint the Bison and Anissa and I had simply picked an inopportune time of day to disseminate our message. That is what I wanted to believe, until someone showed me this picture from a Yik-Yak post:
Apparently, our message had been covered deliberately, and not by a member of the “Student” Activities Board.
Anissa went back later that day:
Soon after the second rainbow coat:
I went back with Anissa the next time, and we were determined to make it known that we completely understood the intentions of whoever was erasing our message:
“What are you so afraid of?” A question for an institution that has effectively muzzled, silenced a specific group of its students.
When I was ready to start college four years ago, one of the things I was most excited about was the chance to stand up for social causes. I heard stories, saw pictures and videos, of students at universities across America holding demonstrations and protests, voicing their opinions, and provoking thoughtful, progressive conversations.
In this moment, I saw my institution unable and unwilling to see past its own beliefs. I saw an institution warning students to not question, not to investigate. I saw an institution hanging on with white knuckles to a (in my opinion, misguided) value, without giving students the avenues by which to challenge established thought. I saw an institution frightened that someone may expose its flaws. I saw an institution unconscious of the meaning of growth.
At Lipscomb University, it seems political and socially-charged statements are only okay some of the time, if the perspective being espoused is one that aligns, or at least doesn’t directly challenge, the institution’s established perspective. Never mind the nonviolence of LGBTQ students’ message. Never mind the simplicity, and utter obviousness, of the desire to be seen as an equal and valued member of a campus community, to at least have an equal voice on a platform that should not be reserved only for preferred classes of students.
For example, several weeks before Anissa and I painted the Bison, this happened:
This political statement stayed on the Bison for two days, until someone else who had something else to say painted over it, but not for the intention of silencing the original painters. No one deliberately tampered with this message. I believe no one should have the right to deliberately tamper with that political message, just as no one should have the right to deliberately tamper with the message Anissa and I painted. Why was there a difference in the campus response?
If students are to be given a platform to voice their opinions, ALL STUDENTS should be given the same platform, regardless of their message, as long as it is not a threatening or violent message.
Again, almost immediately after we muzzled the Bison, someone was back to cover it up:
Anissa returned later to repaint the rainbow…
This was the last time she tried. Because within minutes of this last attempt, her paint began to smear and slide off the Bison. The most recent painters had covered the Bison in Pam or Crisco or some other substance that made it impossible for anyone to paint over it.
I would be willing to bet that most of the campus community, students and faculty alike, had no idea there was a political paint war being waged on the Bison that day. Aside from Anissa’s and my personal circles of friends, and aside from those faculty, staff, and administrators that have continually supported LGBTQ students, I heard very little outrage, very little acknowledgment of what had happened and its implications.
To my knowledge, this incident hasn’t been publicly discussed at Lipscomb. But I want Lipscomb University, its leaders, and its donors–for whom I imagine this message was subverted in order to preserve their comfort and keep their money flowing–to know that there are students, faculty, administrators, and others who are outraged. I want them to know that their comfort and their money is not more important than the dignity and self worth of Lipscomb University’s students. And I want anyone who is not okay with complete equality and freedom of expression to know that their money does a disservice to a UNIVERSITY. A university is a type of institution that, since its conceptualization centuries ago, has been understood to imply radical exchanges of ideas, that has forever been understood to imply progress.
I meant to write this post weeks ago. I contemplated writing this as the events unfolded, to express my disappointment, my disgust, with the people who silence the voices of my friends, and with the administrators, the faculty, the students, and the institution as a whole for enabling this silence. The week of graduation, I made excuses for myself as I actively chose to put off writing this piece. But mostly I was just scared. I was scared that by writing this piece I may anger someone in power, and that I may forfeit the privilege of walking across the graduation stage to collect my diploma. I was scared of denying my family the opportunity to see the culmination of my hard work for the past four years.
Nevertheless, I was a coward. Because as I made excuses and feared for the loss of these relatively trivial moments, I had friends who had already lost so much in the fight for their voices to be heard. Time. Patience. Heart. They had been stripped of it all. THEY were tired. THEY were burned out. THEIR voices were silenced, for the preservation of an image, for a continuing comfort in the Christian community that comes at the expense of students’ dignity and self worth, and at the expense of inclusivity that honestly reflects the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth.
Even after I had graduated and returned home for the summer, I still found reasons not to tell this story. For my continued silence, I can only apologize to my friends and vow to be silent no more–especially now as the United States mourns the targeting and tragic killing and wounding of over 100 innocent individuals at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
In light of this horrific occurrence, I wanted not only to relay my experience of witnessing my LGBTQ friends’ voices being diminished and marginalized at Lipscomb University, but also to issue a warning–that the incident in Orlando and the happenings at Christian colleges and universities struggling to embrace their LGBTQ students and affirm them as such are related in a fundamental way. Not far off from silencing LGBTQ voices, is the active and violent destruction of LGBTQ bodies.
To clarify, this post is not intended to distract conversation away from the victims and people affected by the Orlando shooting. Rather, it is to highlight that this tragedy should be a wakeup call to all communities and institutions involved in conversations about LGBTQ rights, as well as those not yet having those conversations. Justice for the victims in Orlando, in my opinion, means pinpointing the roots of hate and intolerance in our communities and addressing them honestly and productively, so that reconciliation, understanding, and inclusivity take their place.
Second, this is not intended to devolve into a conversation about gun rights, terrorism, religious extremism, ISIS, or any other external factors influencing the occurrence of the Orlando shooting. While these are important conversations to have, I do not wish to address them at this moment in this platform. Within mere hours of the shooting, mass media outlets, social media outlets, private citizens, political leaders, pundits and commentators, even our own President of the United States in his address to the nation Sunday afternoon, had all taken the conversation away from its most internal and essential caveat.
Whatever the Orlando shooter’s religious or political association, however he may have obtained the weapons used to commit this atrocity, whatever other speculations being currently investigated in relation to this tragedy, there is one piece of the puzzle more certain and more significant than anything else right now. The Orlando shooter targeted LGBTQ individuals. The identities of these individuals and the fact of the deliberate annihilation of their bodies, voices, and lives are being lost in the surrounding debates.
Instead of talking about how in 2016 individuals are being killed because of their sexual orientations and private preferences, we are distracted by our fears of homegrown terrorism, of having our guns taken away, or of our neighbors procuring them. Again, this is not to say these are not valid concerns or justified fears. This is merely to say that conversations about extending dignity, equality, and respect to all human beings as a fundamental value of our country and our collective humanity should NEVER be side-lined.
It doesn’t make sense to talk about gun control if we don’t also talk about the reasons any member of our society may be motivated to use a gun against another member of our society.
It doesn’t make sense to philosophize or pass judgment about the merits or inherent dangers of a particular religious belief without first realizing that human beings are the sustainers of their religious practices and traditions. If human beings learn to hate and exclude, then that hatred and exclusion can be transplanted into their religious beliefs regardless of whether such hatred and exclusion were inherent to that religion in the first place. I find it hard to imagine a human being nurtured by a truly accepting, tolerant, and peaceable society creating or adopting a violent and hateful religious belief. The question then becomes, “Do our society and institutions nurture their people in such a way?”
As I see it, the victims in Orlando were not targeted simply because the perpetrator possessed a weapon. The victims in Orlando were not targeted solely because the perpetrator practiced a form of radical and perverted Islam. The victims in Orlando were targeted because something about the shooter’s interaction with society allowed him to adopt a specific hatred of a specific group strong enough to inspire his intent to eliminate its members.
There may be countless things that contribute to such hatred. I don’t pretend to be able to account for them all. But I do see one potential connection in one particular community that has been my home for the past four years. At Lipscomb University, I have seen a community close the door repeatedly to the voices and concerns of LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students are not equal at Lipscomb University. They cannot even paint the Bison without their message, and their identities, erased.
Powers at Lipscomb University would rather ignore the struggles of LGBTQ students and preserve the comfortable “Christian” image that pleases its donors, its investors, its patriarchs.
I am not interested in what is morally “right” by the Christian religion. Philosophers and theologians can continue that debate. I am interested in how Lipscomb University’s refusal to affirm its LGBTQ students ultimately affects them. I am interested in the potential ramifications of that refusal, regardless of the reasons behind it.
Comfort in silence allows anti-LGBTQ sentiment to survive in America, just as it allows anti-LGBTQ sentiment to survive at Lipscomb University. Comfort in silence will continue to isolate and threaten the safety of LGBTQ persons in America, as well as LGBTQ students at Lipscomb University. Comfort in silence reigns at Lipscomb University. It must end. We can neither understand, love, accept, nor affirm that which we refuse to acknowledge, that which we deliberately ignore, that which we continually silence.
Lipscomb University, its faculty, staff, administrators, students, investors, board members, donors, and anyone else otherwise affiliated with the school MUST STOP silencing the voices of its LGBTQ students. Not giving LGBTQ students the opportunity to speak, to express their voices on a public platform, to find acceptance in their identities, or even to confide in an affirming professor or mental health professional opens the door for violence. A group for “unwanted same sex attraction” normalizes shame and pretends that it is possible to “fix” someone’s identity. Perpetuating an atmosphere that forces LGBTQ students to walk the campus in isolation opens the door for violence.
Lipscomb University, you are telling your other students that they are above their LGBTQ peers, that their voices matter more, and that the opinions we are not comfortable with are not valuable enough to be shared. This opens the door for violence.
Stop saying, “We love you, but…” Stop making someone else’s identity about YOUR comfort and about YOUR preferences. Lipscomb University, stop opening the door for violence. Stop silencing LGBTQ students. Stop silencing my friends.
Thank you, Anissa Plattner and the LGBTQ community at Lipscomb University, for lending me your voices and inspiring this post.
If you are a student or faculty/staff member of Lipscomb University, a friend or family member of an LGBTQ loved one, or a citizen concerned about the systematic silencing of minority groups, please share this post.