Nearly a year after alumni and students asked Whitworth University to define its position on LGBTQ+ faculty and staff, the school’s board of trustees has yet to take action.
Meanwhile, students on campus are carving out their own space at the private university affiliated with the Presbyterian church. That includes Whitworth’s Pride Club, which in conjunction with the Office of Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is hosting Queer Church this weekend.
The Sunday gathering is billed as a chance for students to meet affirming clergy and learn about resources from local nonprofits.
Over the last few weeks, the organizers have dealt with pushback, leading to the gathering being temporarily canceled at the behest of administrators. The issue comes amid Whitworth’s board of trustees announcement last week that it had not decided whether to change hiring policies and add sexual orientation to a list of protected classes.
The initial grumbles about Queer Church had to do with its name.
“They thought that it was in mockery of the Christian church,” said Whit Jester, a Whitworth alum who works in the diversity, equity and inclusion office.
Then the problem was a distaste for the drag workshop portion of the program.
Last week, Jester was told the event was canceled. The students were to be told by Jester that the event “doesn’t align with the ethos of the university.”
Bryan Acevedo-Prado and other members of the Pride Club and community were upset. They sent emails to administrators and the university president, and started thinking about spaces to hold the event off campus.
Acevedo-Prado, a junior studying finance at Whitworth, is a Mexican immigrant and first-generation college student. He came to Whitworth because of a generous scholarship offer and small class sizes, he said.
He started school remotely during the pandemic in 2020. Once on campus in 2021, he immediately had concerns about being accepted among his peers as an openly bisexual man.
Pride Club quickly became his safe space, Acevedo-Prado said. He now serves as president of the club, which received little criticism during his first two years on campus.
After the intent of Queer Church was explained to university leaders, Whitworth announced the event could happen on campus, minus the drag component.
Jester was required to have the university approve of the public statement announcing that Queer Church would happen.
“There was a misunderstanding and further clarification on the program was shared,” the statement reads in part.
The university declined to make administrators available for interview regarding Queer Church. The university also did not answer written questions about the cancellation and reinstatement of the event.
Jester, who is bisexual and nonbinary, said the goal of the event was to create community for queer students.
Students often say the places they feel least safe on campus are religious spaces, Jester said, adding that creating a venue for students to engage with their faith in a way they feel comfortable aligns with Whitworth’s stated mission, Jester said.
Last summer shortly after her retirement, Kathy Lee shared her experience as the first openly gay professor at Whitworth with the New Yorker. Following the story, more than 600 alumni and students signed a petition for Whitworth to amend its hiring policies to add sexual orientation as a protected class.
The board of trustees appointed an advisory committee to examine the hiring language, which does not restrict or protect LGBTQ+ faculty or staff, Trisha Coder, a university spokesperson, wrote in an email.
“The committee’s charge is to make recommendations to the board for their consideration,” a university statement said. “The board, after thorough prayer and discussion, will determine if they will make changes to the original policy through a vote of the board.”
There’s no timeline for that decision, Coder said.
Other private Christian universities are wrestling with the issue.
Seattle Pacific University is embroiled in controversy over its lifestyle expectations for staff that include guidelines for sexual behavior. Eastern University added sexual orientation as a protected class last year and subsequently had its membership with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities put on hold.
A new round of petitions began circulating at Whitworth this spring. The first opposed adding sexual orientation as a protected class. It was signed by more than 230 people, including trustees Anne McCulloch Storm and John Kaites, according to the student-led Whitworthian newspaper.
The petition had no listed author, but the first signatory was James Edwards, a former Whitworth professor and theologian who left the Presbyterian Church in 2014 after the denomination permitted same-sex marriage. The document is no longer posted on Formstack, the website used to collect signatures.
The petition, dated March 30, asked the board of trustees to consider questions before making any decision and strongly advocated the university remain inline with the “majority of Christians around the world” who “still agree on a traditional view of sexuality.”
A counter-petition created by students under the name “Signal Safe Space WU” advocates for LGBTQ+ protections and responded to the questions raised by the original petition. More than 1,600 people signed that petition as of Thursday night.
One of the three students who created the petition, Urvashi Lalwani, said she and her roommates were inspired by Lee’s story .
“Whitworth had always been a place where it was promised that there’s a diversity of staff, there’s a diversity of opinions on campus and that they’re all valued,” Lalwani said. “It fell short when it came to being inclusive of the queer community. I believe that you can’t belong without feeling included and respected in a space.”
As the petitions circulated, students, including Acevedo-Prado, spoke out on campus through rainbow chalk art and posters, advocating for LGBTQ+ acceptance.
Professor Thomas Caraway said he has encouraged students to use their voices in this way. Caraway teaches English and book-making. He opened up his print shop to help students make posters or queer zines in his class.
“Print is an extraordinary political medium,” he said. “It’s a nonviolent means of communication.”
By facilitating the projects, Caraway hopes to help students learn how to speak out and exercise their rights responsibly.
“I’m excited for a chance for the community to kind of come together and support one another to create a positive, affirmative, loving, celebratory atmosphere,” Caraway said. “For those students to be in community with one another.”